John Barrowman is the definition of an entertainer. He is an accomplished and talented actor, singer and dancer. While in the industry someone who merely may dabble in all of these areas can be labeled a “triple threat,” with Barrowman he epitomizes this distinction, excelling in each area and leading a vastly successful career on both the stage and screen. He has starred as Captain Jack Harkness in the wildly popular BBC shows Doctor Who and Torchwood, and has a worldwide cult following. He has served as a judge on shows such as Any Dream Will Do and How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? alongside Andrew Lloyd Webber. He has appeared on the soundtracks for the films De-Lovely and The Producers. He has written a best-selling autobiography Anything Goes and its recently released follow-up I Am What I Am. With Barrowman, the list of credits is endless, but at the heart of it all is simply a man who is extremely passionate about what he does.
I recently sat down with John to discuss his career, what inspires him, how he reacts to his fame and about his latest starring role as Albin/ZaZa in La Cage Aux Folles at the Playhouse Theatre in London.
Will Given: I pretty much wanted to focus not necessarily on Torchwood, but rather your musical career. What got you interested in singing originally?
John Barrowman: Nothing really kind of sparked and got me interested, I just have always known that I love singing, and any opportunity to stand up and get up in front of people, if I was coaxed to do it, to sing, I would do it. I never really had a qualm about it. It’s just always something I’ve been able to do. I mean, my mother worked at a record store in Glasgow and I used to go and stand on the counter and sing the top ten songs for the people who would come in after I was finished with school. And then every Friday night my parents would have parties, well not every Friday night, but when they would have parties, which was very often actually. I would sing to the guests, so it’s just always been there.
WG: Did you always know that is what you wanted to do for a living?
JB: You see, that’s not the only sole thing I wanted to do. I wanted to be an entertainer. I wanted to be someone who could do musicals, who could do television, who could do film, who could do books, but when I started out, people didn’t let musical theatre people do anything but musical theatre because for some reason they think that we can’t act or do anything else but sing and dance, and the fact is, that musical theatre people are probably the most talented people on the planet.
JB: Because they can sing, dance and act, and can express themselves through two other types of performance. So I was very much trying to break that mold, and to basically, if I could say this bluntly, say “fuck you” to all those people who were saying “no you can’t do this.” I think it’s ridiculous because loads of really good actors, and I say that meaning to encompass all the different kinds of facets of it, but a lot of film people who look down on musicals, actually started out in musicals, so why are you denying it?
WG: And that’s what it is. You see people saying “well that was in my past, but this is what I’m doing now.”
JB: So what? Yes, it was in your past but it’s nothing demeaning.
WG: Exactly. And you’ve been involved in so many different mediums, is that something you want to continue? Is that something where you feel more creatively whole being involved in the varying projects?
JB: It’s not about being creatively whole, I’m not one of those kind of performers. I don’t look at it like making me whole or feeding something that’s inside of me. I do it because I love it and because I want to work.
WG: That’s awesome.
JB: You know what I mean? I’m not what I call an “angsty actor.” If you want me to get up and sing the song and do a dance, to play that character and to do that scene, I’ll get up and do it. I’ll figure out how to do it, and I’ll do it. I’ll have a really good time doing it, but I’m not going to go home and slit my wrists over it, or when I’m done go “oh my god, that was so traumatizing, I’ve got to go have a drink.” That’s not me.
WG: That’s great. Now is there any role that you haven’t played yet that you’ve been dying to play on the stage?
JB: Well, playing ZaZa in La Cage aux Folles. That’s a role that Jerry Herman had always said to me that I should play and apparently Harvey Fierstein was ecstatic that I played it. Everyone said “oh you’re a bit too young,” but actually I’m not because Jerry was the one who said, and same with Harvey, that they wrote it for someone actually my age, but according to what I’ve been told, I don’t know if it’s true or not, but guys in the 70s when this was written who were my age didn’t want to play it because they would’ve been seen as being a gay man. You know, dressing in drag. So it was given to straight guys who were much older, or gay men who were much older.
WG: Now going over from having such a strong background in theatre and on the stage, coming into a sci-fi show, how did you adjust to that and how did you prepare for that?
JB: There was no adjustment.
JB: No, because sci-fi is heightened reality. And musical theatre is heightened reality. It’s all the same. The only thing is, I mean, look at a musical like Wicked, it’s a bit sci-fi in its approach because it’s different, there’s unique characters in it, it’s a little bit above reality, but you’ve got to play that as truth and reality. And it’s about relationships. So for me there’s no difference. What’s great is that I’ve brought a musical theatre audience over to sci-fi and vice-versa. When I go do my shows and sing or do my concerts, a sci-fi audience comes with me. And they come to another realm. They look at musicals and they actually go, “you know, this is really like science fiction.” So it’s about heightened reality and I think that’s what makes it so similar. That’s what I love about it.
WG: That’s wonderful. As an actor, what did you learn the most from playing Captain Jack?
JB: I have to say this. It’s probably not the answer you want, but I don’t look at it like that. What I learned as a person from Captain Jack, more so than as an actor because the acting bit is my job, what I learned as a person was that personally becoming a hero to hundreds of millions of people has just been incredible. And you know, for me as an individual, to be a gay man who is looked at as a hero by men, women and children is incredible. It shows you that times have changed and that we’re moving way past all of that bullshit.
JB: You know, as an actor, I wish I had an answer to that for you, because again I don’t look at my jobs like that. I look at my jobs as an actor as this is what I was put on this planet to do, to entertain people. And if it is doing something like Captain Jack, I enjoy it. I should know what I’m doing when I’m given a script. I’ve been trained. I’ve done all the work. So I shouldn’t be learning something while I’m doing Captain Jack. If that makes any sense.
JB: And it’s like friends of mine who come to me and say, “oh, I’m still going to voice lessons,” you know, if you don’t know how to do it yet, give it up.
WG: Move on. Absolutely.
JB: Move on, because if you don’t know it by now, it ain’t going to, nothing’s going to change.
WG: It’s like you said, it has to be truthful, it has to be real.
WG: It can’t be forced or contrived.
JB: Absolutely. So as an actor, I think I went in to play Captain Jack ready for it, if that makes any sense.
WG: Completely. Now what if tomorrow you couldn’t sing, you couldn’t entertain, what would you do?
JB: I’d probably go nuts.
WG: Because that’s your passion.
JB: I wouldn’t do anything. I’ve never had any other passion. Maybe when I was about eight or nine years old I wanted to be an airline pilot, but that’s when I knew I was gay because I just liked the outfit and I liked the guys in it. But no, there’s nothing else I would want to do. I mean, I have hobbies, but I wouldn’t do those professionally. If anything I’ve just started rally racing.
WG: Very cool.
JB: Yeah, so if I would say anything, that might be what I would do. But I’d probably lock myself in a room and just go crazy. Rally racing is a hobby, this is what I love to do.
WG: Exactly, and being able to live your passion in life.
JB: I mean it’s one of the best things to be able to wake up in the morning and I say to Scott, my partner, all the time, you know like we’re driving to sign autographs at a comic convention and I said, “can you believe that we’re doing this? I’m going to sit amongst the people that love watching me on television,” and he said that most people wouldn’t love doing that. And I said that I love doing that because at the end of the day, I’m the same as them. I’m a fan of all these shows, but I’m just getting to live another aspect of it, and they’re allowing me to do this, so it’s just incredible.
WG: See and that’s wonderful to hear. I mean so many people I’ve interviewed and talked to, they despise that aspect of it.
JB: Oh, you know my answer to that? Shut up and get off your high, fucking pedestal, because these people put you there.
JB: And when you got involved in this industry, you knew in the back of your head, there was the slight possibility, because it only happens to a few of us, that you could become famous and be recognized. Now when it happens, and you know that it might happen, why do you turn your back on it and reject it?
JB: Because isn’t that really, come on, let’s be honest, isn’t that really what you’re in that for? That recognition? And the craft, although you love doing it, if it happens, embrace it. I hate angsty actors.
JB: I just can’t stand them. See, when I work with them, they get into all this kind of stuff and they start going, “oh, I really got to feel this.” You know, just do it.
JB: If you do it, you’ll feel it. I get angry when I see other actors and people in TV shows and things treating the fans rudely or badly. You know, there has to be an element of respect. Of course if someone tries to lunge at you, do something.
JB: That’s wrong. But if someone comes up to you in the middle of someplace and says “could I have a picture and an autograph?” Of course.
WG: That’s what I always ask them, why aren’t you doing that?
JB: It’s a millisecond out of your day.
WG: Right, and if you don’t like to do that, you’re in the wrong profession.
John’s newest book, I AM WHAT I AM can be purchased from Amazon by CLICKING HERE.