Skip to comments.A high-flying conversation with John Barrowman, star of BBC America's "Torchwood."
Posted on 07/16/2007 8:03:42 AM PDT by Kuksool
A high-flying conversation with John Barrowman, star of BBC America's "Torchwood."
Barrowman as Jack, in full action figure pose.For as long as he can remember, John Barrowman, star of the upcoming "Doctor Who" spinoff "Torchwood," has been gazing skyward. Barrowman has always been a sci-fi nut and still clings to fond memories of "Star Wars," "Star Trek" ("The Next Generation" and "Deep Space 9," especially) and, yes, classic "Who."
His other major interest is firmly within our orbit -- airplanes. The actor loves them so much that his fondest memory of visiting Seattle last year was his tour of the Boeing plant to watch a 787 being built.
"They still fascinate me with the fact that they can get something that big off the ground," the British-American actor said, crediting his father with sparking that appreciation. "When he started out, [he] worked for Rolls-Royce and designed airplane engines," Barrowman explained. "My father was also an apprentice for the first team that designed the first jet engine, which is in the Smithsonian in Washington. So I have an engineering family background."
As "Torchwood's" Captain Jack Harkness, an immortal, intergalactic hero from the 51st century whose legend placed him as a British fighter pilot in World War II, Barrowman's career is circling back to the dream of a boy who loves planes. But that's a happy coincidence.
Born in Glasgow, his family moved to Joliet, Ill., when he was 9. In high school he discovered his love for musicals, and since returning to Britain in 1990 Barrowman steadily built a career in West End theater musicals and dramas. He also has four recordings under his belt, a fan favorite being 2004's "John Barrowman Swings Cole Porter."
His background, however, is bolted firmly in the realm of stage and screen -- and primarily in Britain. Americans might recognize him the film version of "The Producers," or prime-time soaps "Central Park West" and "Titans." And if fate were different, he might have been Lee "Apollo" Adama on "Battlestar Galactica." (The role ultimately went to Jamie Bamber.)
But Barrowman has only a limited track record in the U.S. because of a disappointing barrier that remains in force in Hollywood. It doesn't matter than Barrowman looks like a cross between Chris Noth and a sane Tom Cruise. He happens to be gay -- a fact that has no bearing on his acting ability or personality, but in terms of his American career, means everything.
Barrowman came close to being Will to Debra Messing's Grace, but lost the role because producers said he acted too straight. They then gave the role to Eric McCormack -- a straight man.
"I can't walk into a network and go, 'I want you to put me in a show where I'm a leading man,' you know, as a gay man," Barrowman said. "One of the things I remember they said to me when I did 'Central Park West' for CBS; they told me not to talk about my personal life. I found that insulting, particularly since the man who created the program was gay himself."
But from the first time Barrowman strode into a certain Time Lord's adventures, Whovians fell in love with his character, Captain Jack Harkness -- a bold, masculine, egotistical and humorous figure.
"I've kind of made Jack a hero that I would like to have looked up to as a little boy," Barrowman said, "because as a little boy, I knew I was gay but I didn't know what it was. Didn't know who to talk to about it."
"I wanted kids to like him, and I wanted women, men, I wanted everyone to like him," he added. "But first I wanted people to hate him. I wanted them to think he was arrogant and pushy and too sure of himself. And I wanted them to follow the arc of the change he went through in the final episodes of 'Doctor Who.'"
It worked. The character took on a life of his own, and Russell T. Davies, the man who resurrected "Doctor Who" in 2005, gave him a spin-off that grew into a phenomenon. The man even has his own action figure, something he says was a longtime dream.
While "Doctor Who" is considered family viewing across the pond, "Torchwood" -- which places the openly omnisexual Jack in charge of a team hunting aliens and alien technology on present-day Earth -- is firmly for adults. Darker content abounds.
"Who's" faithful are anticipating "Torchwood's" Sept. 8 premiere on BBC America. Until then, enjoy a transcript of a recent conversation at a BBC America evening event.
P-I: Which "Doctor Who" was your favorite?
John Barrowman: It's not really who my favorite was, it's who I remember growing up. My first memory was of Jon Pertwee, and I started watching Pertwee just as the transition happened between him and Tom Baker. Then, obviously, Tom Baker.
And I did enjoy Peter Davison a bit; but after him, things started getting a little too quirky and silly for me. ... I think the term for what happened at that point was, we grew up a little bit. So I lost interest at that point.
But quintessentially, apart from the ones that I've worked with already, it would have to be Tom Baker -- my classic Doctor.
I find that a lot of people who would have never watched "Doctor Who" before are watching now. What do you think it is about this particular incarnation of "Who" and "Torchwood," that is drawing in new viewers?
Time has moved on, and technology has moved on where we can create a "Doctor Who" that is more special effects-heavy, if that makes any sense. The classic "Doctor Who" was all cardboard walls and men with funny masks on. We have prosthetics and animatronics.
And also, I think the stories deal with social issues, although everybody might not get that. Those who want to watch it for the fun and the science fiction and the aliens will get that, and those who want to watch for the social messages will get that too. The political stuff. So that's why I think it has a greater appeal for everybody.
And the writing itself -- we treat our audience a little more intelligently. The sci-fi world treats its audience more intelligently. On a lot of the shows I've done (producers) have said, "You must remember the audience has a mind of a 10-year-old."
No. That's wrong. That's why you don't get viewers. You're insulting your audience.
We don't do that in "Doctor Who" or in "Torchwood." We give the viewers the benefit of the doubt and we treat them like they are individual, thinking human beings. That's why it works.
What I've loved about Captain Jack, and I've loved since the first time I saw the character, is that here you have a very classic swashbuckling man -- almost a pirate -- coming into his own. But there are so many layers about your character that are hard to categorize.
That's the whole point, though. We don't want to categorize. That's the comment we're making with Jack. We as human beings and individuals categorize people. Classic example: In the press they always call me a gay actor. And I'm not a gay actor, I'm an actor who happens to be gay. You wouldn't call Brad Pitt a heterosexual actor.
With Jack, we don't try to make him ambiguous. We try to make him so diverse that you can't say he's bisexual, he's homosexual, he's straight, whatever. We just leave it all wide open.
The first think you see about him is, he's strong. After that you see he's brave, and he has a great sense of humor --
He's a hero.
Right. Well, given what you know about Hollywood versus British television, do you think a character like Captain Jack would ever fly here?
No, because they would never allow a gay man to play a hero. I firmly believe that. Because no actor who is playing a leading man would come out as saying he's gay. It's OK to be a secondary character in a show and be openly gay and play a character, but most gay, flouncy characters are played by gay men. One of the great things that (executive producers) Russell T. Davies and Julie Gardner and the BBC and everyone involved with "Doctor Who" and "Torchwood," they have given a heroic leading man character to a gay man.
Who, I might add, is appealing not just to a gay audience, but to children, to women, to straight men -- they have proved that the audience doesn't care. Maybe it's the people who are the heads of networks here -- who, most of them are gay or lesbian themselves -- maybe, again, they're underestimating the intelligence of the audience.
So at this moment in time, I don't think it would happen in this country on one of the mainstream networks. Perhaps on an HBO, or a Showtime, one of those networks, because they can push that audience a little bit. Because that's a specific audience that'll watch it and pay to watch it, you know what I mean?
BBC America is at this point where many more people are watching it, and it's very likely that "Torchwood" will be a hit. And the sci-fi genre is increasingly popular, even on mainstream networks. Don't you think there's an opportunity to say, 'Look, lots of people are watching me on this show -- men, women, kids, everybody. Don't you think this might be an opportunity to make that transition and break that barrier?'"
Absolutely. I think I'm breaking a barrier already by doing that. But I can't walk into a network and go, "I want you to put me in a show where I'm a leading man," you know, as a gay man. One of the things I remember they said to me when I did "Central Park West" for CBS, they told me not to talk about my personal life.
I found that insulting, particularly since the man who created the program was gay himself.
... That's where people like yourselves who are doing these articles and writing about it, you have to get across to the public that it's no big deal. That it's not an issue. Let them know that it's OK to like characters like that.
And don't make it an issue when somebody does come out! It's a good thing, but it doesn't have to be like, "Oh my God! They're gay!" It's just another part of (his) life.
Or when someone, if they are openly gay and people know they're up for a role and someone says, "Well they can't play it, they're gay." We need the help from the media to help open those doors with the audience. Because the audience is ready for it. Come on.
When you were creating Captain Jack, did you pattern him after anyone?
No Russell did mention Han Solo. They mentioned all these different things but I tried not to pay attention to it. I've kind of made Jack a hero that I would like to have looked up to as a little boy. Because as a little boy, I knew I was gay but I didn't know what it was. Didn't know who to talk to about it.
And to see this man who loves women and men -- because even though I am gay, I still love women! I think women are sexy, there's no denying that. As I joke around with my mates and stuff, boobs are great! Boobs are fantastic! In England we say, nothing beats a good titty wank. Come on! Whether you're straight, gay, lesbian or whatever, nothing beats a titty wank! Anyway, you can't print that.
Oh, I might.
Please do. Anyway, I tried to make him ... I wanted kids to like him, and I wanted women, men, I wanted everyone to like him. But first I wanted people to hate him. I wanted them to think he was arrogant and pushy and too sure of himself. And I wanted them to follow the arc of the change he went through in the final episodes of "Doctor Who."
By the way, I went to Seattle last year.
You did? What did you do there?
You're going to laugh at me now. I'm a huge airplane fan. I went to Boeing and watched them make the new aircraft. They were making 777s, but the 787, the luxury liner, that was very secretive at the moment. But I was there. I loved it. I went to Boeing Field, and also ... this going to sound really sad ...
No it won't.
I went to the original Starbucks.
OK, that is sad.
What disappointed me about it was not that it was small, but I wanted to go in there and be like proper baristas. But they had an automatic machine! I was gutted! Because I was like, I really want you to make that coffee for me. And they programmed it in and spat it out. I thought that, of all places, would have properly made coffee.
Why do you love airplanes?
My father, when he started out, worked for Rolls-Royce and designed airplane engines. My father was also an apprentice for the first team that designed the first jet engine, which is in the Smithsonian in Washington. So I have an engineering family background.
The irony is I love them, but I hate takeoffs. I'm not a white-knuckle flyer, just take-offs. I love landings. The only reason is because of my father, I know the most dangerous part flying is the take-off. The first 15 seconds.
I thought I had overcome that fear, I flew in a Hawker fighter jet a couple of weeks back in the U.K, doing the loop-de-loop, the works. Then I got on the flight to come over here ... and again, still. And it's not a fear of flying, it's a fear of being out of control. I'm a control freak. But planes, I just love them. They still fascinate me with the fact that they can get something that big off the ground.
Was it a coincidence, then, that Captain Jack is a pilot?
That was a total coincidence, the RAF. The irony is that the Hawker fighter jet that I was in, I was representing the RAF on that day ... Captain Jack is omnisexual, and the RAF is the only division in the military in Britain that allow openly gay men and women into the organization. They don't care. Which is the way it should be.
Maybe Russell did have some reason that they have in the RAF. I'll have to ask him.
You must have a lot of kids coming up to you?
Oh, yeah. I had a kid the other day coming up to me with your action figure, and he said, "Oh, no, Captain Jack doesn't do that." And he started doing all the things Captain Jack does, the way he stands ... I love it. I love kids coming up and asking me for autographs ... I love what I do."
Torchwood is coming to BBC America in Sept 07.
Many of Torchwood’s episodes will remain you of Angel. But be warned that there are plenty of profanity and explicit sex scenes, especially in episode 2 (Day One). I’m not sure how much BBC America will cut out though.
The Pink Mafia decides who works and who does not. Being a good actor is (I suppose) nice, but being homosexual, or at least very sympathetic to homosexuals -- that makes your career take off.
Excellent show and the tie in’s with Dr. Who are great. The Face of Bo lives on.
Now, now. Lets not give away any spoilers for those who have not seen “Last of the Timelords” - Doctor Who Episode 13.
I was really disappointed with Torchwood. I love Doctor Who and had high hopes for a spinoff, but Torchwood soon turned into a “who’s sleeping with who this week?” type of show. After 13 episodes of Torchwood, I am convinced that I am a prude.
(Series three of the revived Doctor Who rocked though)
If you wish to discuss Who on FR, there is the weekly Sci-Fi thread.
I notice that this thread is ancient, now, from July.
I was, until recently, an enthusiastic fan of Torchwood; no more. The episode Captain Jack Harness, did it for me. I've watched my last episode of Torchwood. Too bad.
When the ego and militancy of gay producers and particiants in entertainment drift recklessly into propaganda and advocacy, I bail.
If they can ambush me once into viewing disgusting gay practices, they are likely to do it again. I won't be there.
It was such a good series otherwise!
I know people who attended high school (Joliet West) with John Barrowman. They told me that he was into singing and theater in high school. They never guessed he was gay.
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