John Barrowman: ‘I’m disgusted at the way the government is treating the theatre world’

Roisin O'Connor
·9-min read
<p>John Barrowman: ‘Why not be yourself and make it easier for other people to be themselves?’</p> (Rex Features)

John Barrowman: ‘Why not be yourself and make it easier for other people to be themselves?’

(Rex Features)

John Barrowman’s view is spectacular. The actor’s living room has a wall of floor-to-ceiling glass panels, behind which lies a pristine green lawn and, beyond that, a vast mountain range tucked beneath a Monet sky of blues and pinks and oranges. The only distraction from such an impressive vista is the life-size Dalek in the corner of the room, gunstick pointing in my direction.

We are, of course, talking over Zoom ahead of Barrowman’s anticipated return to Doctor Who for the New Year’s Day special. He’s in Riverside County, just outside of Los Angeles, at the home he shares with his husband, British architect Scott Gill. Barrowman was born in Glasgow but moved to Illinois with his family in 1975, where he was encouraged by teachers to pursue a career in the performing arts. Judging by the hysterical Twitter reaction to a recent appearance on Lorraine, many still aren’t aware that he is bidialectal, switching between a thick Scottish braw and a California twang depending on who he’s speaking to.

“It was a mechanism when I was a kid,” he says. “I already knew I was going to be bullied for being gay, so I didn’t want to be bullied [at school] over my accent.” Does his personality change, depending on which one he uses? “Scott says I act a little ‘Jack the lad’ [with my Scottish accent], I’m louder, if you can believe that,” says Barrowman, laughing. “When we’re with my family, it’s just this cacophony of sound.”

This dualism means that Barrowman has, over the years, established himself as a sort of Hollywood Swiss Army knife – a sci-fi showman who is just as capable of nuance as he is full-on razzmatazz. Whenever you see him onscreen, it’s as something completely different, whether a CIA agent in the Oscar-nominated film Zero Dark Thirty or a beglittered judge on ITV’s ice-skating competition Dancing on Ice. He says he and Gill feel lucky to be living where they are – they've been smart with property investments over the years so, despite not being in work as much, the couple are doing OK. That said, Barrowman is not preparing to drop his guard the moment 2020 is over. “We’ll still have 2021 to deal with,” he says. “Everyone’s saying 'the year will be over' like it’s a genie appearing to make everything better, but I think it’ll be at least three to four months of the same.”

Barrowman, who was in his twenties during the Aids epidemic in the US, draws a comparison between that time and current attitudes towards Covid-19 safety measures. “When we were going through the Aids crisis, there were a lot of gay men who didn’t wear condoms because they didn’t believe it was happening, because the government told them it wasn’t,” he says. “Your mask is your condom… just wear a goddamn mask!” Celebrities have been asked by politicians to encourage the public about getting the vaccine and Barrowman is thinking about posting a video when he gets it, “to show it’s OK”.

Iconic: Barrowman as Captain Jack in Doctor Who: Revolution of the DaleksBBC
Iconic: Barrowman as Captain Jack in Doctor Who: Revolution of the DaleksBBC

He’s excited to be returning as Captain Jack Harkness opposite Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor in the new BBC series, having previously starred in the role as a companion for the ninth (Christopher Eccleston) and 10th (David Tennant) Doctors. “I always said [I’d come back to Doctor Who] at the drop of a hat,” Barrowman says. The character was so successful that he got his own TV show between 2006 and 2011: Russell T Davies’s spin-off sci-fi series Torchwood. “I love that Captain Jack is iconic, that I get to have fun when I play him – he’s a little brash, off the cuff, flirtatious,” he says. It’s true that Harkness’s flair and his outrageousness seems rare in contemporary TV. “That’s what I love about Russell T Davies and [writer] Chris Chibnall,” continues Barrowman; “they write those characters who are outspoken and unapologetic. They’re themselves, but they know their boundaries.” Friends say the same about him “and I say… sometimes,” he almost winks.

Fans have already been treated to a Captain Jack appearance in an episode that aired earlier this year; Barrowman had already filmed the New Year’s Day show by this point, but had to keep schtum about it. In that episode, he doesn’t get to meet Whittaker’s Doctor, only her current companions, including Bradley Walsh’s outgoing character Graham. In a case of mistaken identity, Captain Jack – who has presented as bisexual or pansexual since his first appearance – kisses Graham thinking it’s the regenerated Doctor. For Barrowman, it was a brilliant way of demonstrating why having a woman as the Doctor is no big deal.

“When Jack does meet the Doctor, I hope people get the joy and the warmth and the love he feels for her,” Barrowman says. “Because Jack doesn’t see the shell the Doctor is in, he’s seeing what’s inside, the two hearts. It doesn’t matter to him if the Doctor is male, female, trans… as long as it’s the Doctor.”

The furore over the Doctor’s gender-swapping has just about died down, but the ongoing discussion over representation in Hollywood rumbles on. A longtime campaigner for LGBT+ rights, Barrowman is similarly measured when it comes to the debate over straight actors playing gay roles, ignited again most recently by James Corden’s critically derided portrayal of a gay character in Netflix’s new film The Prom. Barrowman himself has played pretty much everything, from a charming but dangerous ex-boyfriend in Desperate Housewives, to a corrupt politician in his Olivier Award-nominated performance in West End musical The Fix.

Barrowman in The Fix with Krysten Cummings at the Donmar Theatre, London, in 1997Rex Features
Barrowman in The Fix with Krysten Cummings at the Donmar Theatre, London, in 1997Rex Features

“I believe that people should be able to play different roles,” he says. “I’ve played gay, straight, a terrorist, drug addict, sex addict…” He’s fine with straight actors playing LGBT+ characters but simply asks that LGBT+ actors (“there are brilliant trans actors'') are considered for the same parts. “If a straight actor went up for a role 20 years ago to play gay or straight, they wouldn’t have a problem,” he says. “As an openly gay man 20 years ago, I wouldn’t be seen for either. We need to keep fighting for that opportunity.”

He gives advice to gay actors struggling to come out and says he urges them “not to make it more difficult than it really is”. Barrowman is still a rare out man in Hollywood, but there does seem to be a gradual improvement in actors being open about their sexuality. “Once you do it there’s an adjustment period – but you get criticism no matter what you do,” he says. “So why not be yourself and make it easier for other people to be themselves?”

He recalls an interview “years ago” when he referred to Gill as his boyfriend, and the reporter asked if Barrowman realised “he’d just come out”. “I told him, ‘Well let me remind you, I’m a man who lives in Kensington-Chelsea in my late twenties, I live in a townhouse with another man, we have three beautifully groomed dogs, nice physiques… and I’m in MUSICAL THEATRE! What more of a clue did you need?’”

<p>Barrowman as Zaza in the musical La Cage aux Folles at The Playhouse Theatre, London in 2009</p>Rex Features

Barrowman as Zaza in the musical La Cage aux Folles at The Playhouse Theatre, London in 2009

Rex Features

He’s cackling his head off at the memory, but grows serious again. “I do hope we get to the point where people say, ‘Why am I hiding?’” He's encouraged that there’s more of an acceptance for people saying they’re fluid. “It’s not about who you have sex with,” he says. “It’s about who you fall in love with. Sex is feelgood – I can have sex with a mug and make it feel good.” He picks up a nearby cup, as if preparing to demonstrate.

Barrowman has been with Gill for 26 years – aeons by celebrity standards – having met while he was starring in a theatre production of Rope in 1993. What’s the secret to a lasting relationship? Barrowman calls Gill over to check it has actually been 26 years. “Tolerance,” he decides, and I hear Gill murmur in agreement. “I don’t know if this is the same for two women, but two men together is having very different personalities to deal with...

“I’ve talked to psychologists about this,” Barrowman continues. “I think it’s not wanting to change the person. If you marry someone and go through life continually wanting them to be different, it might not be right.” He and Gill entered a civil partnership in 2006, and were legally married in California in 2013. When they bought their first home in London during the Nineties, insurance companies were demanding huge premiums and compulsory HIV tests in order for gay couples to get the life cover they needed to obtain a mortgage. Barrowman and Gill said that the property was an investment scheme: “When we went to the lawyers and we signed the papers, we said that was our marriage.”

<p>Barrowman with his husband, Scott Gill, after being awarded an MBE at Buckingham Palace, October 2014</p>Getty

Barrowman with his husband, Scott Gill, after being awarded an MBE at Buckingham Palace, October 2014


He was ecstatic when Donald Trump lost the presidential election. “Scott was warier,” he says. “I was prepared for [another Trump win], but I had hope as well. We have to be hopeful of our humanity that we’ll be able to make a change.” He found himself speaking with younger people who weren’t so convinced of how effective a Biden presidency would be, and told them about his experiences during the gay rights movement: “We had to vote people in who might not stand for everything we believed in, but it was about making a change.” While he’s not sure if everything his nieces and nephews want to happen will take place during his own lifetime, “I’m glad the ginger asshole is out,” he affirms. “I would love to see someone go in there and drag his ass out of the White House.”

As Barrowman has already mentioned, he’s being pragmatic when it comes to planning for 2021. He’s booked again as a judge for Dancing on Ice, and has a couple of secret projects lined up, one of which would involve a tour. And he wants to do a show to help the theatre world get back on its feet after an abysmal 10 months. “I’m absolutely disgusted at the way the [UK] government is treating the theatre world,” he says. “I know a lot of people are struggling and I want to do everything I can to help them.”

Otherwise, he’s decided not to commit to offers of work much. “I’ll just say I’m interested,” he grins, if anyone tried to persuade him into a role. “Let’s just wait for that injection.”

‘Doctor Who: Revolution of the Daleks’ airs New Year’s Day on BBC One at 6.45pm

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