John Barrowman is best known for his heroics across space and time as Captain Jack Harkness on Doctor Who and Torchwood. But if that’s all you know him from, you don’t know half of the story. A multi-talented performer for more than 20 years, able to thrill and inspire and even sing, he’s well on his way to the top of the acting universe, if he’s not already there.
On Arrow, you know him as Malcolm Merlyn, alias “The Dark Archer,” a high-ranking member of an enigmatic organization who also happens to be the father of Oliver Queen’s best friend Tommy. But, as John points out, to categorize Malcolm as simply a villain would be a mistake. “I don’t see him as being a bad guy,” he explains. “He’s an antihero. A very, very, very troubled hero. He’s doing the same thing that Oliver’s doing, but just going about it very differently. You will come to find out something about Malcolm later on, and it might make audiences go ‘He’s not that bad.’”
Malcolm is typical of the characters you’ll find on John’s resume. When he inhabits a person, they are not ever simple black and white, even if the role starts out that way on paper. Instead, his villains retain at least some measure of humanity, his heroes are not always heroic, and his background players still somehow pop even though he might only have a handful of lines. Whereas critics, some other actors, and even fans sometimes try to fit characters into easily definable boxes, John seems to thrive on all the ill-fitting corners and loose ends.
His body of work is so diverse that it would be enough for two actors. John may not have exploded into cult popularity until Doctor Who in 2005, but his name has carried weight in entertainment for decades. The story of his career started in 1989 in London’s West End, and his theater history is rich. He’s appeared in shows like Anything Goes, Company, Beauty and the Beast, Godspell, the stage version of Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men, and a 2009 revival of La Cage Aux Folles that vastly outshone its American counterpart. He was also nominated for an Olivier Award in 1998 for his performance in The Fix.
In the UK, he made a name for himself as both an actor and television presenter. There were the roles in both comedy (My Family) and drama (Hotel Babylon), but he also hosted everything from children’s programs to morning chat shows and primetime game shows. As memorable as the characters he played were, he was doing something most actors can’t or don’t get the opportunity to: establishing himself as an equally prominent and legitimate line on the resume.
That would be more than enough for most people, but John also had opportunities in the United States. His stateside TV career began well before Captain Jack, with leading roles on a pair of primetime soaps, CBS’s Central Park West (1995-1996) and NBC’s Titans (2000). Rather infamously, he auditioned for the role of Will Truman on NBC’s Will and Grace, but lost the part to Eric McCormack, who found fame and an Emmy Award with it. By the time American audiences caught on to Doctor Who and Torchwood, it was a full decade after John had first started in television.
There’s no shortage of John on our TV’s of recent. He’s hoping to return to Arrow when the CW drama’s second season begins filming in July. Before Arrow, it was Desperate Housewives, where he played the unhinged Patrick Logan. He recently wrapped an episode of Scandal that he’s sworn to secrecy about, having previously worked with Shonda Rhimes on a pilot that didn’t go to series. And there’s also something else in the works. “I’ve got another project I’m doing with ABC Television which we’re sorting out at the moment,” he confides. With all that happening, it might seem like John’s the next big thing on the small screen, but that would be underestimating him. He’s not a new quantity – we’ve just finally figured out where to look.
“A lot of American audiences only know me as Captain Jack. They don’t know that I did sixteen years of musical theater prior to that, that I’ve done about eight to ten shows on the BBC that’ve been the most popular the BBC have had, I’ve done entertainment shows, I’ve starred in comedy shows, all sorts of things,” he reflects, but he’s also quick to point out that he doesn’t think the lack of awareness has hindered his career, adding that “The fans are diverse enough that they go along with the diversity that I have in my career. They’re happy to go on this kind of journey with me.”
And what a journey it has been. John has had some sort of presence in almost every genre across almost every medium entertainment has to offer. He’s found success on stage, in TV, on reality TV (winning the 2010 Christmas special of Strictly Come Dancing, the BBC’s precursor to Dancing with the Stars), on film (recently appearing in Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-nominated Zero Dark Thirty), and even on the radio. Then there’s his two autobiographies, Anything Goes and I Am What I Am, plus his fiction writing, and a whole separate career as a singer. If you somehow haven’t heard John’s amazing vocals, look below for the music video for “What About Us?” from his Music Music Music album.
Not only the size of his career but also the quality of all these various ventures naturally prompts two questions: if there’s anything he can’t do – and why, with such a strong resume, he isn’t much more famous. On the first count, we wouldn’t bet against him. The second isn’t something John wastes any time thinking about.
“I didn’t get into it to become big,” he says. “I came in to work and that’s why I trained and that’s why I’m happy. The fame side and the popularity side has kind of come from the work that I’ve done – and I absolutely love it. I embrace it and I think it’s great. But if you’re going into it to become famous, then you shouldn’t really be doing it.”
This is where one gets to know John Barrowman, the man. Who he is and what he does off-screen is just as important as any role he’s ever played. He’s put a significant amount of time and effort back into the industry. Viewers who saw John as a judge on the BBC talent searches How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?, Any Dream Will Do and I’d Do Anything witnessed him lending his expertise to crops of musical-theater hopefuls, and his work there should be the standard against which all talent-show panelists are compared. He gave criticism that was constructive, was always straightforward but never unnecessarily harsh, and took his responsibilities very seriously. He didn’t just want to be right, he wanted to deliver talent that deserved the stage, and he was willing to get off his chair and help to make that a reality. Here was someone who gave a damn about his craft, not just his personal portion of it.
That commitment extends to more than just his career. If John seems confident, it’s because he has no reason not to be. “I’m very comfortable with who I am. I like me,” he says, secure in his identity without being arrogant, even though he has countless reasons for a little ego. “I say things very straightforward and matter of fact. I’m pretty upfront; I’m pretty honest. I’m not embarrassed about things.” He’ll tweet back to people from his team’s social media account when time permits, has appeared at numerous conventions to interact with fans, and the openly gay actor has been an active supporter of gay rights, even starring in a 2008 BBC documentary addressing the science of sexuality. He doesn’t just throw out empty words or make the occasional convenient public appearance; he’s a public figure making something out of the opportunity that stardom affords.
How can one man possibly have such an active career, stay involved with personal causes, and have any time for himself without ending up exhausted or burned out? “I don’t think about it,” explains John, who sticks to a firm rule of never doing two things at once. “I do not think about it. I have a team of people around me who manage the time for me. Today I got a three-page schedule of the next four days down to the hour. I do get time off, but it’s all planned out. It’s all scheduled.” Said schedule will be taking him from California to Calgary, London, Italy and Germany – and that’s just the way he likes it. “I’m better when I’m busy,” he adds. “I enjoy being busy. I love my work. I love what I do.”
That’s the proverbial cherry on top, the thing that you can always say about John Barrowman whether you’re discussing his acting career or his skin care line. The passion he has for his entire career – and the enthusiasm he has for life in general – is obvious. He appreciates everything that’s come his way, from the devoted fans to the myriad of career opportunities. The word ‘coasting’ is not in the Barrowman dictionary. Even when something doesn’t work, he still sees the value in it.
“I will never regret anything that I do. Even if I make mistakes or do things that are wrong, I learn from that and move on for it,” he continues. “Even now, I just look back at my resume and just think, ‘Have I done all that?’ I can look now and say that my career…I’m just kind of amazed at the things that I’ve done.”
And even though he’s done more than enough to be considered a success, John considers his journey – as remarkable as it is – far from complete. He’s excited for the next opportunity in front of him, not considering slowing down. The mere thought of stopping someday makes him shake his head. “I don’t think I’ll be retired and playing golf,” he says with a smile. “I think I’ll continue to work until the moment I can’t.”
As well he should. It’s more than safe to say that, with everything he has done, the quality with which he has done it, and the strength of who he is, there will never be anyone like John Barrowman.
You can keep up with John on Twitter (@Team_Barrowman). Watch for him in the final episodes of Arrow‘s first season, beginning tonight at 8 PM ET/PT on The CW. You can also see him when Scandal airs next Thursday, May 9 at 10 PM ET/PT on ABC.