“The Only Reason I Did This Was to Become an Action Figure!”

Graham Kibble-White interviews John Barrowman

First published January 2008

On Monday, 3 December 2007, OTT was at The Rex Cinema in London for the press launch of Torchwood series two. Following the screening of episode one (“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” – which debuts on BBC2 on Wednesday 16 January), we sat down with Captain Jack Harkness himself, John Barrowman.

OTT: So, series two? What are the differences?

JOHN BARROWMAN: If I were to say it in terms of, like, basic things, series one we were learning how to walk and we were walking. This year we’re running. We kind of know that the audience wants stuff that deals with issues of character and emotions. We still have the science fiction element in it. We still have, as you see, creatures. We have CGI. We still have all that stuff going on. But, our driving force is character. That’s what the public seem to want. That’s what they’ve written in about. We’re trying to please them.

OTT: It’s very Torchwood this opening episode, isn’t it? I know some fans were sniffy about the show, this isn’t going to mollify them, is it?

JOHN BARROWMAN: Well, yeah. It doesn’t shy from anything. I don’t understand … It’s usually the fan sites that have the problem. The public don’t have the problem. You think it would be the other way around. I don’t know what the fan sites want. In answering that question, we try to give them science fiction, we try to give them stories that are bizarre, we try to give them characters who do outrageous things that are off-the-wall. What we have to really establish is, we are not Doctor Who. And if you’re looking for Doctor Who, you’re looking at the wrong show. The character came from Doctor Who – he’s a little different in this, because obviously he’s the leader in this show. But, for the fans you’re not going to get Doctor Who if you watch Torchwood.

OTT: I think perhaps it’s the sexual stuff that bothers a lot of people – whether it’s homosexual or heterosexual. As a show, Doctor Who was always very asexual.

JOHN BARROWMAN: See, I disagree with you because all the fans I talk to are so glad. The letters I get, and the emails that I get through my website are people saying, “Thank goodness for finally representing the omni-sexuality of somebody, because it reflects how I really am!”. So I just think, to be honest, the problem comes from the people from the old school. The new school of the Whovians and the Woodies – I call them – are the ones who are more savvy. The old school are from the classic series. You know what? The classic series is long gone. It is long one! It’s a piece of history. It stands on its own. I’m a fan, I love it, I still love watching them. But you know what? The new Who, Torchwood – we’re different. You can’t compare us to the other one. And I think that’s where the problem is. It’s the classic fans, if that makes any sense when I say that, who are the ones raising all those issues. Get over it!

OTT: In this first episode, James Marsters is kind of playing a version of Jack, isn’t he?

JOHN BARROWMAN: He’s Jack when Jack came into Doctor Who. I’m not going to give too much away, but he comes back later in the run – as you saw from the trailers.

OTT: Did his involvement make you think, “I’m going to have to be a little bit more Jack”? To push it?

JOHN BARROWMAN: No. No. A lot of the stuff was done through looks, a roll of the eyes between us, because Jack recognises himself in Captain John [Marsters]. And he sees what he was, and still what he can be, or could become. He actually just plays on that. He’s not going to be judgemental on him, because things are yet to happen.

OTT: So what’s next for you after this?

JOHN BARROWMAN: Well, tomorrow I start rehearsing for panto, which takes me into a whole other realm.

OTT: Where?

JOHN BARROWMAN: Birmingham, at the Hippodrome. And then I have another series that I filmed last week. I filmed eight episodes of The Kids Are Alright – a primetime Saturday night, BBC1 quiz show. What else? I’ve got Captain Jack, there’s a possibility he’ll come back into Who – you’ll have to watch this space. My autobiography, comes out in January. Which gives a lot of insight into Captain Jack and Doctor Who and a lot of my personal view on things.

OTT: You’re turning into a Saturday night face – is the entertainment side important to you?

JOHN BARROWMAN: It’s not important to me, it’s something that they’ve asked me to do. And like anybody, when I’m offered work … I do turn things down! Loads of stuff I’ve turned down! I’ve turned down about 10 West End shows last year, and a couple on Broadway. I’ve turned down about four TV projects. I really have to want to do the thing. I have to be really passionate about it. When I read it, it has to grab me, I have to like it, I have to want to do it, otherwise I’m not going to do it. In fact, yesterday I was offered something and I turned it down because I didn’t like it.

OTT: Do you feel you’ve been plugging away for years?

JOHN BARROWMAN: No I don’t. I don’t look at it that way. I didn’t come into this busiess to become famous – I really didn’t. I came into it to become a working actor. To me, to be a working actor, performer or artiste is someone who’s employed. Now, if I was still doing musicals only? Completely content and happy. Absolutely love them. But my entertainment world has become a little bit bigger because of Doctor Who first, then Dancing on Ice. Fame then came with it. Celebrity has come with it, and I embrace it. I absolutely love it. I love watching myself on television, cos I get a thrill, because I’m doing stuff that I love and playing characters that I love. It’s not an egotistical thing – it puts a smile on my face. I’m living my dream. So, to be asked to do all of this other stuff, to be put in these positions. You know, it hasn’t been a drive for me. It’s happened. Work creates work, in that sense. So, I don’t know if I answered the question.

OTT: So you weren’t ever driving for this kind of recognition?

JOHN BARROWMAN: No, not at all.

OTT: Because you’ve been in the business a while …

JOHN BARROWMAN: I know. But I haven’t been slogging. I’ve been working wonderfully in other aspects. So the fame that’s come with it has been brilliant, but I had no clue Doctor Who was going to happen. Doctor Who was a … It was a spark that came and they said, “We need an American leading man type”. What I’d been doing for 16 years in the West End. I may as well go try. The difficulty was getting to be seen.

OTT: Really?

JOHN BARROWMAN: Well, yes. Because everyone thinks people in musicals can’t act. Fuck ‘em, they can! Of course they can! They can act a song, do dialogue and dance – three different mediums they’re doing. So I’m very much against people pigeon-holing people. Everyone should have a chance and an opportunity. And Russell [T Davies] and Julie [Gardner] and Phil Collinson and all the rest of them, took that chance.

OTT: In terms of drama productions, there’s not really another leading man role like Captain Jack.

JOHN BARROWMAN: No. Once Jack has to be put to bed, Jack will be put to bed and I’ll do something completely different. You just have to. There’s already other projects that I’ve been approached about and I’d like to consider. But they will be completely different. It’ll go to the other extreme.

OTT: Will you stick with Jack?

JOHN BARROWMAN: I don’t know. Erm … I don’t know. I don’t know if I’ll get tired, but it depends how things work around me.

OTT: Do you mean in terms of your availability?

JOHN BARROWMAN: No. No, in terms of other things.

OTT: What do you mean?

JOHN BARROWMAN: Well, I’ll just see how things work out. I haven’t made any decisions. I haven’t made any decisions yes or no. We don’t know if a third series will happen or not. You know, we’re waiting to hear. If we do get the go-ahead, I really have to sit down and think about it.

OTT: I suppose it’s a huge commitment.

JOHN BARROWMAN: It’s not that. It’s not the commitment, because I love Cardiff. I bought a house there, for goodness sake! But, honestly, this last series was a bit of a nightmare at times.

OTT: Why?

JOHN BARROWMAN: Because of bad scheduling. Because of production things going wrong, and people not being organised. It was hard on all of us – us as a team. Myself and other artistes. The production crew and everyone had to give free time back. Can you imagine going into a grocery store, paying for half of your groceries and coming out and asking for the rest free? Only in this business would that happen. That’s what I mean – we love the show so much, the crew love it, we’re all passionate about it. We’re willing to do that.

OTT: You’ll accommodate so far …

JOHN BARROWMAN: You’ll accommodate so much, then you have to get it sorted out. It was really tough towards the last few months. You know, we just dug our heels in and got it done. But things like that would have to be worked out. And that’s being totally honest and professional.

OTT: It’s a lot of pragmatic reasons.

JOHN BARROWMAN: Of course it is. We all love it. I’d play Jack for the next 10 years if you asked me to.

OTT: You’re always going to be identified with him, aren’t you?

JOHN BARROWMAN: Of course I am. And that’s not a bad thing. You know, to be driving my car and to have my window down on a nice day and kids at a bus stop go, “Look, it’s Capt Jack!”

OTT: How proprietorial do you feel about him? Do you suggest what he would and wouldn’t do?

JOHN BARROWMAN: I can suggest things. I tend not to, because that’s the writer’s job, to write. The only thing I’ll suggest is if something is written on a page which is just something Jack wouldn’t say. Eve [Myles] and I have found that a lot when we’re doing scenes. I’ll do something, she’ll do something and we’ll both look at each other and go, “They wouldn’t do this”. So those kind of things we can do, but I would never push storylines – that’s not my thing. Do I feel territorial over him? Of course I do. The writing is on the page, but I’ve helped put personality behind him, so of course I feel territorial, as does David with the Doctor. You have to. That’s what makes me passionate about the character and passionate about the job. That’s why, when we say, “I can’t do that, because Jack would never be seen doing that … ” David and I have been on set with Who and it’s been the same thing. “That’s not right, is it?” “No, no”. And it’s things like Jack would tout a gun, the Doctor would never. One director will come in and go, “Maybe the Doctor will take the gun and you take the screwdriver?”. No, Jack would never touch the sonic screwdriver. Jack has a gun. The Doctor would never touch a gun. So, those are the kind of things.

OTT: Is there a pressure being the leading man?

JOHN BARROWMAN: Performance-wise?

OTT: Yeah, and you must dictate the tone on set too.

JOHN BARROWMAN: I would assume so. But when I roll in on set, you’ll always find I have a smile on my face and I’m happy, because I enjoy my work, I enjoy being there. It’s like us joking about, you know, groping each other and stuff. We have a happy company, and a happy company is a productive company and that’s the way I work, and the way I believe. We work hard, we play hard and we’re very protective of each other, and if someone is having a bad day or a bad mood, we all know about it. And we let them have it.

OTT: So you don’t worry, thinking, “What if I don’t nail this scene?”


OTT: Is that unusual for an actor?

JOHN BARROWMAN: I don’t know, it’s just me. I don’t feel any pressure at all, because I have her support [Eve Myles], I have Naoko [Mori]‘s support, I have Gareth [David-Lloyd]‘s support and if something isn’t working, we’ll do it again. That’s it. We do get one-take wonders – all of us hit it sometimes. Sometimes it takes two scenes. Sometimes you have to repeat that one-hit five times because of technical issues. But I do not feel that kind of pressure, because that would kill me. The moment you start analysing it you’re dead. That’s why I come in everyday, I take the script, I learn every little bit like a little mini-movie. And that scene plays and they all work together.

OTT: What’s it like to see yourself on merchandise?

JOHN BARROWMAN: The only reason I did this was because I wanted to be an action figure!

OTT: It must be bizarre!


OTT: Do you look at that and think, “That’s me” or, “That’s Jack”?

JOHN BARROWMAN: I actually sometimes go into the shops and just stand and look at them. I really do! As a kid, what would be the ultimate thing you’d want to be? I assume you’re younger than me.

OTT: I’m 34.

JOHN BARROWMAN: I’m 40. But you know Star Wars figures. We’re a generation who played with figures and male dolls, right? So to become one? Unbelievable!

OTT: Where do you keep yours?

JOHN BARROWMAN: I keep my eight-inches where I keep my eight-inches! I have a storage unit actually, and in that I not only have my own personal things – because of moving back and forth from different houses – but I have a bunch of trunks and I have most all of the figures and all my stuff. Everything Jack has been on I have one or two of, and put them away. And I’ve signed them so they’re ready to go. They’re boxed and in mint condition! I even have The Face of Boe playset, which I’ve also signed! All the books. Everything. It’s a thrill. I collect it. I have my original Star Wars figures.

OTT: You’re a proper fanboy.

JOHN BARROWMAN: Oh yeah, I am. I have an original James Bond doll boxed in mint condition from Thunderball. I have all of the Jaws dolls set – you know, Jaws himself, James Bond, the works. I have The Six Million Dollar Man, all of the dolls. All of Charlie’s Angels. I’m a true … David’s a little bit more than I am. I’d say I’m hard, he’s hardcore.

OTT: Hardcore Doctor Who?

JOHN BARROWMAN: He’s hard core Doctor Who. I’m a hard Doctor Who fan … That didn’t come out right! But I’m like a hardcore memorabilia science fiction … Any dolls that relate to TV shows and stuff. I have all the bullets that I shot at the Dalek that shot me. And I’ve had the Dalek made, because obviously they have them in stock. But I had one replicated. I had the production team make me one of the ones that shot me. So I have a full-size one. And, I have my original prop gun. I have another original that was hand-made for me by the guy who makes all the props, and it’s on a plinth.

OTT: Do you wish you could go back and tell the 10-year-old you this was going to happen?

JOHN BARROWMAN: No. You know why? Cos I’d know what was coming, and then I wouldn’t have the excitement that I have now for it. Part of the wonderful thing that’s happened to me is I’m a part of something I absolutely loved as a kid. I stayed up on Sunday nights in America to watch the omnibus of Doctor Who, and failed every fucking spelling test in school every Monday – consequently why I can’t spell. I am a shit speller because of Doctor Who! But, that’s why I wouldn’t want to go back and tell the 10-year-old.

OTT: Do you sense there’s a lot of people on the periphery – writing about the show, working on it – who are fans?

JOHN BARROWMAN: Yeah. And that’s why I can say, like earlier on, “Get over it” because I’m a fan too. You’ve gotta move on from it. I’m still a fan, but there’s a whole new thrust of it that’s going to come upon us. How great to be our age and have kids and sit and watch it with them and share that? You know what I mean? It’s an amazing thing. And now fathers and stuff can share it. I just can’t reiterate enough. People don’t understand – you can only say so many times, but some people think, “Oh, they’re just saying it”. I’m actually not “just saying it”. David and I are thrilled to be doing what we do. You know? Although we have – as he does I know – we have complaints about certain things, it doesn’t mean we don’t like it.