Few entertainers appear to be having more fun while working than John Barrowman. The proudly out Scottish-born actor, author, and singer has spun his rakish joie de vivre into a brand that serves across all media and personal appearances.
Best known for his TV roles — on Doctor Who and Torchwood as pansexual time traveler Captain Jack Harkness, and on Arrow as Malcolm Merlyn, the Dark Archer — the Broadway and West End veteran isn’t limiting himself when it comes to connecting to his diverse fanbase.
“Today I’m rehearsing for a cabaret kind of show with Seth Rudetsky,” reveals Barrowman, calling from the West Hollywood home he shares with husband Scott Gill.
“Seth and I are doing three or four shows in London, and he set me up with a rehearsal pianist. I want to get the audience involved by asking questions and making requests of what they want me to sing and the stories behind it,” he says. “Although I’ve written a couple of autobiographies, there’s a lot of stuff that I haven’t put in the autobiographies that I’ve told Seth that we can delve into, to start talking about it and see how that goes down.”
Indeed, Barrowman has exposed much about himself and his personal life in his books Anything Goes and I Am What I Am, and daily on the internet, where he maintains an impish presence on various social platforms.
“There’s an element of me wanting people to know what’s going on, because I’m doing the things I’m doing because of them, if that makes sense,” Barrowman says. “Scott and I ordered a Tesla, and when we were there I posted online, letting the fans know, ‘What color should I choose?’ And we chose Tardis Blue. I just feel it’s the thing to do. I do it for fun. I do it because I love being silly, I love having a laugh, and I feel that everybody should laugh more in their lives.”
A self-proclaimed fanboy, Barrowman readily expresses his love for the genre-driven pop culture that’s propelled his fame. And he’s extending his reach as the co-author, with his sister Carole, of the Hollow Earth series of young adult fantasy novels, in addition to a spinoff book series starting with 2016’s Conjuror.
Both Barrowman siblings will be on hand this week at the Washington Convention Center for Awesome Con, the District’s annual celebration of all things comic book, sci-fi, superhero, fantasy, and pop culture. Appearing alongside stars including Star Wars and Pacific Rim‘s John Boyega and Green Arrow himself Stephen Amell, Barrowman is well-known for bringing his no-holds-barred personality to the convention stage, and to his convention cosplay.
In every facet, Barrowman exudes a passion for entertaining, the mark of a man who also seems to take living life seriously.
“In my big stage shows, I show pictures on a screen that relate to the songs that I’m singing,” he says. “Again, it’s like people getting to know me and my life better, and my family and my friends and what I do, because I just feel that I’m where I am because of the fans, so I really want to share everything with them and let them know how I got here, and what I had to do and how they helped.”
METRO WEEKLY: A friend who loves Doctor Who told me that your character, Captain Jack Harkness, was the first person she and her teenage son realized they both had the hots for. How does it feel to be a pansexual sex symbol?
JOHN BARROWMAN: Well, it’s funny. When we started, he was a con artist, and I wanted the audience not to like him because we knew in the future that he was going to turn and become heroic. So I wanted to have that arc more than the sexuality arc. However, I also played it very flirtatious and they wrote it for me very flirtatious. We made a decision, because Russell [Davies, series executive producer and co-writer] knew me, and I flirt with everybody, so he made Jack flirt with everybody.
And when we did that first scene, that Jack looks up at Rose and says she has a nice bottom when she’s hanging from the big balloon, and then he turns to his friend from the military and says, “You’ve got a nice bottom, too,” immediately you know this is a man who just doesn’t care who he flirts with. So it was built from there. Not only was Jack the first kind of [pansexual] character that people could fall in love with, but he was also one who was unashamed about his — I’ll just say sexuality, because I don’t like to say sexual preference because it’s not a preference, it’s the way he was made, as the way we’re made. It was the first character on television that was like that — also played by an openly gay man — so it was a complete groundbreaker.
I get a lot of young people even to this day who are starting to watch Doctor Who from when we started in the series, saying that Captain Jack helped them ground themselves in their sexuality so that they knew who they were, and could be proud of who and what they are in the world. I’m really proud of it. Also I’m not embarrassed by it, I’m not freaked out by it. When I do get moms and sons coming up and talking to me about it, I just say to them, “Well, there, you’ve got something to talk about now.”
MW: Your D.C. fans will get to see you at Awesome Con, where you are part of one of the best lineups I’ve seen.
BARROWMAN: Yeah, it’s an incredible lineup.
MW: What advice would you give someone attending a convention for the first time?
BARROWMAN: I’d advise you to get your nerd on, basically. I’d advise you to bring out every childhood superhero/genre/thing that you loved as a kid. I’d advise you to be prepared to not be judged, to be laughed at, to be looked at in a strange way, because everybody in that building is of a like mind and there to have fun. You will see everything from individual single people to families doing exactly the same thing, enjoying meeting the people that they love watching on TV and also pretending, through cosplay, to be the characters that they so much adore. It’s a great day out for everybody.
MW: There’s interesting video of you cavorting around convention floors in costume. Without spoiling anything, do you have a plan for Awesome Con?
BARROWMAN: I have something planned for my panel, you betcha. I don’t tend to walk around much anymore with the cosplay and the costume on the floor. It tends to create too much of a crowd, so just watch out for my panel because I’m revealing a brand-new cosplay, and it is awesome. This show is the start of my new season of cosplay, so I’ve got a whole bunch being made because I have them made for me. I will reveal them in different places, but my first one will be revealed with you guys.
MW: Who makes these costumes?
BARROWMAN: Elhoffer Design — and they themselves are cosplayers. They did my Tardis dress — that’s one that I’ve been sporting for a little while — and they’re doing all the other ones. They’ve done a whole design of different cosplays that I’m interested in, and I went through and chose all of them related to different shows and to certain areas where things are popular. It’s really thought out, and let me tell you, they’re bloody expensive but they’re worth it. I love doing that. I’m a fan myself of shows and things, so I cosplay the characters that I like.
MW: You’re also going to be with your sister in the co-author panel representing the “Hollow Earth” book series.
BARROWMAN: Correct. And also Malcolm Merlyn, because she and I wrote the backstory for Malcolm Merlyn for DC, and a graphic novel that we [created]. We’re also working at the moment with Erika Lewis, who is also one of our co-authors, who will be there. We’re writing a whole new graphic novel and series for Webtoon and Legendary Comics, who are behind such films as Godzilla and Pacific Rim. Hopefully it’ll go on to bigger things. We’re going to be there representing the writing team.
MW: You’ve also collaborated with your sister on your memoirs. How would you describe your working relationship?
BARROWMAN: Like any brother and sister. We get along smashingly well, and then at times we argue with each other and we have to kind of step apart for a second, but that’s the way it works. The writing relationship, starting with my autobiography and building on from that, that’s where all the other books and comics — we also write the Torchwood comic book for Titan Comics in the UK — has stemmed from my autobiography, because we had such a great time doing it. Also our writing seems to have brought us closer together. We’re hosting our second writers’ workshop in Palm Springs. We’re starting to do them every year, and we have about 16, 17 people that come. We have really developed that. At the website BarrowmanBooks, you can go and see everything that we’re doing and you can be involved on that website.
MW: Do you two maintain any rules for keeping family and work separate?
BARROWMAN: No, not really. I don’t really say there’s any restrictions. My sister knows everything about me. We used to joke when we were doing the autobiography, because I would talk everything into my iPhone and send her the voice notes, and also when she came to live with my husband, Scott, and I for three months in the U.K., and went to work with me, did everything with me. She’d get to know bits and bobs that maybe she didn’t really wanna hear, but we called those the “Ewww” moments. She pretty much knows everything. I know a lot about her, so it’s not like we hide anything from each other.
MW: In the BBC documentary series The Making of Me, you were a subject for a scientific study of sexuality. What did you discover about yourself?
BARROWMAN: I discovered what I already knew. I went into it, and they told me that I had to be prepared to find out that you weren’t born this way, that it is something that you choose, that it’s nurture and all this stuff, and I kept saying to them, “I’m going in with an open mind, but I’m not. I know, ’cause I was born this way, so you’re putting me through these tests.” Partially also, I wanted to go through all these tests and these things that people went through in the ’50s and ’60s that were just ludicrous.
To find out if you were gay, they would put electrodes on your penis and on your nipples and parts of your pulse, and they can test how much blood rushes into your penis when you watch something that might arouse you. I sat in a room [and had this done]. It was just bizarre. It was like, why do we need to figure this out?
We didn’t go into the lesbian point of view or the transgender point of view, but it was very interesting to look at and understand these things. My nephew, Turner, in the program was absolutely brilliant — I went home and we met with family, and my niece and nephew, Turner and Claire, have never known anything but Uncle John and Uncle Scott and that’s it. Scott’s been a part of the family since they were born.
Turner actually said to the camera, “Look, if anyone was going to be gay and be made to be gay, it would have been me, because my Uncle John dressed me up in outfits, like dressed up as characters that he would play, and we would be silly and do music videos together.” He said, “Also, when I used to go visit them in London as a teenager, I was there in a room full of gay men, so if anyone was going to be influenced by it, it was gonna be me,” and he said, “and I’m totally straight as can be.” It was a great program for people to watch, and it actually opened up a lot of people’s eyes and caused a lot of discussion for change, which I was really proud of.
MW: What are your thoughts on the current pushback against LGBTQ rights, particularly “religious freedom” movements?
BARROWMAN: I was a very big advocate [for LGBTQ rights], and that’s why I have my MBE [Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire] partially, because I was a big promoter of equal rights and equality and human rights in the U.K. I was a big voice in the step of pushing forward gay marriage with No. 10 Downing Street — the home of the British Prime Minister — so I’ve been immersed in that before, and I’m not frightened to get immersed in it again.
I think the current political situation is disgusting in the sense that we have been led down a path. We had a presidential candidate at the time who claimed he was for everybody, for equal rights and for the LGBTQ community, and then within a period of time, he and his vice president, Mike Pence, turned on a dime and started wanting to take away those rights and equality, and give religious freedom. You already had religious freedom. Nobody’s stopping you from being religious.
People are continuing to try and stop us from being who we are, because someone like Mike Pence [believes] if people have children who think they’re gay, they can send them to shock therapy [to cure them]. It’s fucking disgusting, so I feel very strongly about it. Also when I’m in my panels, I take a moment to remind people: I don’t care who you voted for — it’s important that people vote — but if you did vote for those people, you’re actually helping them deny who we are at the moment. If you like me, and you like other people who are gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgender, you’ve done something and you’ve got to start fighting against it now, because it was a mistake. That’s my belief.
I just feel very, very strongly that we have to be very careful, because we look back in history and there were dictators and people who were so full of their own shit who started changing things. And they started with the weakest of minorities — and today that is our transgender community. They bully and push them, and then they work their way up. They start trying to get rid and push them into corners. We run the risk of being shunned and going backwards in this country rather than moving forwards. That’s my political statement.
MW: How much do these issues influence which candidates appeal to you when you’re voting?
BARROWMAN: When I’m looking to vote for a particular candidate, I look at what would be best for the community and the overall country. I don’t think of myself as getting a tax break. I don’t vote based on me getting a couple of hundred bucks back. I don’t look at it for selfish reasons. I look at it for the greater good. There are some things within that greater good that I might not like, but I have to make the decision of what is going to be better for everybody as opposed to just better for me. That’s the way I vote. I didn’t vote for Trump, so that was the way I looked at it. But I know people who did vote for Trump. In fact, I have a best friend who voted for Trump.
MW: What are your conversations like now? Have they changed?
BARROWMAN: To be honest with you, they don’t talk about it anymore. They don’t bring up the conversation, because I have to tell you — and I feel this — there’s a sense of embarrassment. And some people aren’t embarrassed — some people think he’s doing a great job, right, but there’s a sense of embarrassment from this particular person because they feel they made a mistake, because they voted for… Well, put it this way, they said something to me just after the election, reading out what they read online. I said, “You do realize that’s a bullshit story?” They were clearly guided by what was being done on the internet, and it was a bit sad to see that.
MW: Would you ever consider running for office?
BARROWMAN: You know, it’s funny — I’ve been asked. It’s a thing in the back of my mind. I’m not a naturally-born American citizen, so there are limitations. I could never be President.
MW: So you’ve thought about it?
BARROWMAN: Of course I’ve thought about it. You know what, to have a gay man or a lesbian woman, or someone who is very liberal but driven — and the word “liberal” frightens a lot of Americans. I’ve got conservative gay friends who are out. It’s a different kind of thinking. We don’t dislike people for what we don’t agree with. We don’t dislike people for what we find different about them. I tend to feel that there’s certain politicians that don’t like people or situations because it’s foreign to them, and that’s just wrong. We are a melting pot, this country. We should be going together with our differences, rather than pushing each other apart. The thing is, you’ve got politicians in Congress right now who are not speaking up and saying anything because they’re afraid they’re gonna lose their seats, and you know what? If you’re not speaking up, you should lose your seat, because you’re meant to be there to defend every person. Not just a certain sect of people, but every goddamn person.
That’s why I say to a lot of young people, “We need to get out there. If you can vote, get out there and vote. We need to change these things,” and they did. We were lucky in the U.K. that the Conservative Party changed their ways, because they saw they had to change with time because people were forcing them to change, and that was how things have to happen here.
MW: Let’s wrap things up on Arrow and the Arrowverse, where no one ever is definitively dead. Will you return as Malcolm Merlyn?
BARROWMAN: All I’ll tell you is when they told me I was dying, they said I would not be coming back, and I was very upset and very hurt about that. They told me the night before I was going to go start shooting it, and I was very angry and I basically told them where they could shove it.
Then, a couple of weeks later, Marc Guggenheim went on an interview, because I think I maybe probably upset them, I don’t know, but he went on an interview saying that the ball was in my court if I wanted to come back, and that was not what I was told. My fans know that I speak the truth when I talk about this kind of stuff. Rather than being arsey about it, I just said, “Well, write me an awesome storyline and episode and I will be happy to come back,” but I’m sitting here in my living room, not filming, so there we go.
Listen, if they asked me, I would come back. I know that Merlyn was very popular with the fans, and I think the reason they did that, you know, the blowing up and no body being found, was so they wouldn’t have a bit of a backlash from the fans, because they had a backlash when Katie Cassidy was killed. That’s partially why I was upset, because they did it that way, but they told me I wasn’t coming back. They told me I was done.
MW: Outside of superheroes and fantasy, what’s the entertainment that you gravitate towards? What do you enjoy?
BARROWMAN: I do enjoy television. I enjoy watching musicals. I love listening to music. I guess kind of a bit of everything. I do love sitting at home and watching television and movies. I like information on what’s going on in the world. I prefer watching movies at home than going to the cinema. Only if it’s like a big blockbuster like a Star Wars — I’m a massive Star Wars fan. I love Superman. In fact, I’m looking at a whole section of a cabinet that I have here in our place in West Hollywood, and I’ve got the First Order Stormtrooper robot that is still in its box. I have the R2-D2 remote control. I’ve got an older R2-D2 behind it. I’ve got the Lost in Space robots. I have Stormtroopers. I’ve got a Tardis. I’ve got my Superman lunchbox and I’ve got my original Star Wars lunchbox. I have a wooden carved Millennium Falcon. I’m a fan of the genre shows, so for me to be doing what I’m doing is an absolute dream, because I’ve created characters who have become iconic in that world, which is just, excuse my French, fucking awesome.
John Barrowman appears at Awesome Con, at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, 801 Mt. Vernon Pl. NW, on Friday, March 30, Saturday, March 31, and Sunday, April 1. He will be signing autographs and appearing for photo ops throughout the weekend at Booth 34 in the Exhibit Hall. He will also appear on the Legendary Comics panel on Saturday, March 31, at noon, and for a solo Q&A on the Main Stage at 4:15 p.m. For full details and ticket prices, visit awesome-con.com.
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