The Entertainer of the Future
For John Barrowman, being out is more than a choice. It’s his job.
by Blase DiStefano
Photo by Frank Ockenfels3
Actor, singer, dancer, and writer John Barrowman was born in Glasgow, Scotland. Before he was 10 years old, his family made the voyage to the United States to settle in Illinois. He has traveled between—and worked in—the two countries ever since. • His big break came in 1989 in the U.K. when he starred with Elaine Page in Anything Goes. Two decades later, he starred as Albin/Zaza in London’s West End production of La Cage aux Folles, with numerous roles in between, including his recurring TV role as Captain Jack Harkness in Doctor Who in 2005. His character was so popular that Barrowman was given his own show, Torchwood, which aired a short time later on BBC America and gave U.S. viewers a chance to appreciate Barrowman’s charisma. The bisexual Captain Jack was not just moderately bi—he was an equal-opportunity kisser. As luck would have it, Barrowman is returning to the small screen as Captain Jack, this time in a new Starz series; Torchwood: Miracle Day premieres July 8. • Readers who don’t know Barrowman might recognize him from the 2004 American film De-Lovely, starring Kevin Kline and Ashley Judd, or from TV’s Desperate Housewives. • Barrowman met his partner, Scott Gill, in 1993, and they have been together ever since.
Blase DiStefano: Since you have a dual citizenship and you travel between the U.K. and the U.S. on a regular basis, what do you think are the major differences between the two countries and the people?
John Barrowman: To be honest with you, as someone who has spent a lot of time in both places, I have never really compared them, because I enjoy both. I enjoy my life in the U.K. and I enjoy the life I’ve had in the U.S. I love the United States, but each country has its good and bad points.
The one difference that comes to mind is that in the United Kingdom my partner is legally recognized as a civil partner. We can live our lives exactly the same as the straight couple that lives next door. I’m not allowed to do that legally in this country, and it upsets me because I grew up in this country believing we have the freedom to do what we want, and that’s one thing I, as a gay man, don’t have the freedom to do. That upsets me.
The two of you had a civil union ceremony in 2006. If gay marriage were legal in this country, would you take that step?
We’d be right there at the office signing. We’d invite our friends and families and have a great big party and a ceremony, because it’s something to celebrate. The love of another human being is something to celebrate incredibly.
You met Scott while doing the play Rope. How did your meeting come about? Wasn’t that back in 1993?
You’re probably better with the dates than I am. [Laughs] Scott says, “You don’t remember any dates,” and it’s true.
I was doing the play Rope, and a mutual friend of ours called up Scott and said, “You’ve got to come see [Rope] because there’s three hot guys and they’re all naked.” So put it this way: when Scott came to see the show, he saw exactly what he was getting.
Funnily enough, Scott said to me later on—as we started to see each other and were dating—“I thought you were out of my reach. I thought you were something I could never attain.” And I was like, “Why would you think that?” Ironically, it was a year after this friend introduced us before we actually went on our first date.
I always thought Scott was much younger than me. I kept seeing him as I was driving and he was at a bus stop or on his bike in central London, but I never stopped and talked to him. It was about a year later when I finally invited him to come see the show that I was doing at the time—Sunset Boulevard—and asked him out to dinner afterwards. Then on the night we went out on our first big date, I was supposed to have dinner with Cher. I told Cher, “Look, I’ve got this person that I’m really interested in and I’d like for him to come along. Do you mind?” And she said, “No, bring him along.”
The next day, the press tried to make out that I was Cher’s new boy-toy because they caught me giving her a kiss goodnight. They called me for a quote and I said, “There is no quote, because it’s not true, and there’s nothing happening.” Actually, I kissed her, put her in the car, went around to my car, put Scott’s bike in the back, and drove off with Scott. We went and had a really good time.
What a great story. So you really waited a year to get together with him?
It was a year almost to the day that we finally got together. I have to be honest with you, although some people might not believe it: when I was doing the play Rope, I turned around and saw him in my dressing room doorway and thought, “That’s him, that’s the man I’m going to spend the rest of my life with.” I knew when I looked at him. Scott’s not as verbal in most things as I am, but he told me the same thing. He said he looked at me and said, “That’s him.” But he thought I was out of his reach.
You said you thought he might be too young. Is he a lot younger?
Oh no, he’s older—but, son of a bitch, he looks younger than me! Scott’s 48 and I’m 44 [Barrowman was born on March 11, 1967]. Scott looks like he’s 29, 30.
While we’re on the subject of your civil union ceremony, did you really go commando under the kilt you wore?
Of course I did. I’m a true Scotsman, and any time I have a kilt on, I am commando. Let me tell you, the reason you do is because it gets too warm under there.
I read that that’s how the term “commando” originated—that commandos, in the environment doing what they’re doing, get so hot that they can actually get disease from wearing underwear, so they don’t wear anything under their clothes.
It also goes way back to the tradition with the kilt in the Scottish Highlands. The reason there’s so much fabric in the kilt is because out in the field the men used their kilts as tents and sleeping bags. They would wrap themselves up in them at night, because there’s so much material and the wool would keep them warm. So it was a very practical outfit to use.
They’re not made that way anymore obviously . . . they’re stitched and everything. But I do have three kilts—I have the tartan in which we had our civil partnership, I have one that’s a more modern kilt, and I have—actually I have four—the one I wore to my high school prom, and I have a newer one that I wear to more dress functions and occasions in the U.K. And also I have one I wear around the house when I’m doing the vacuuming. [Both laugh]
Like I vacuum. [Both laugh]
In your book Anything Goes , you talked about a producer telling you that you should pretend to be straight in order to be successful. Though it was certainly not good advice in your case, do you see any validity in that advice?
No. I don’t believe in that at all. I’m not saying you have to go out and hold up a banner and say that you’re gay or straight or whatever, but live your life with truth. Why would I want to pretend one thing in my personal life and another thing publicly? That’s lying. I’m gonna be honest with people. I listened to that person and then walked away and thought I’m not gonna do that. And I didn’t.
Was that producer trying to be kind, or was he being obnoxious?
No, no, no—he thought he was helping me. He wasn’t negative or nasty about it, but ironically, that producer was gay himself. That’s why, as a young man, I looked at that person and thought, How can you say that?
Perhaps all these little things that happen in your life can hopefully make you into a better, stronger person. When I walked away from that, it made me a stronger person, and more determined. I was seeing Scott at that time, and I told him, “I can’t believe what he just said.” Scott was like, “Well, you have to decide.” And I said, “I’ve already decided. There’s no question about it.”
The thing I always say to people—particularly to journalists who try in a polite way to say, “Do you think it’s going to be a problem that you’re openly gay?”—is, “You know, whether you’re gay or straight, we all do the same thing in our bedrooms. So what difference does it make?”
But for some reason, it makes so much difference to people…
Again, that will hopefully change. People that I know who are younger, in their 20s—and I’ve worked with them—they don’t care. Again, I say to people who ask me questions and who try to make out that who we are is wrong, I will say to them, “You know what? Whether you’re religious or not, whether it’s something you just have a negative belief about in your head, I guarantee you will meet somebody at some point who is a gay man or woman and your views will be changed.” And if they don’t change their views, then I don’t need people like that in my life.
You consider yourself a Christian, right?
I consider myself to have been brought up a Christian. And if you’re assuming that a Christian is someone who goes to church, I don’t go to church every Sunday. Christianity is about love and being kind and generous to people, and being accepting. It’s not about hatred. If that’s what Christianity is, that’s what I am.
Which denomination were you active in?
We were brought up in a Presbyterian church. My parents have been pretty liberal. My parents stopped going to church because the pastor once did a whole service [saying that being gay was] evil and wrong, and it was against God’s will and blah, blah, blah.
After the service, as they do in a lot of churches, the pastor stands at the door and greets everybody on the way out. That pastor said to my mom and dad—who gave a lot of money to the church, who supported the charities, and did all the stuff that good people should do in their community—“Did you enjoy the sermon today, Marion?” And my mom said, “No. I think it was evil, wrong, and I think you’re a bigot.” He looked at her, shocked. Then she said, “Do you realize you’re talking about my son? My son, who has come to this church at Christmas, who you have asked to sing, and who did that out of the goodness and kindness of his heart, singing Christmas songs and giving his time? And not only that, he would never say anything like that about you, so how dare you speak about my son like that, Pastor—how dare you!” And she turned and walked off.
That afternoon the pastor came to the house. He sat down and said, “I want to apologize. I had no idea.” My mom said, “Well, whether or not you have an idea about our son, you shouldn’t be spewing rhetoric like that over a pulpit.” And he said, “I have to confess something to you.” And my mom says at that point she grabbed my father’s hand thinking, Jesus, he’s going to come out of the closet. But he stated to my mother, “I’ve thought about this and realize that I spoke before I thought. But my ex-wife left me for a woman.”
So he was speaking out of hatred and out of anger. My mother leaned over to him and said, “You’re upset that happened to you, of course—anybody would be upset when their partner leaves them. But be happy for her, that she discovered who she is, and also be happy that she wasn’t letting you live a lie.” He said he would make it right at the service the next week.
My parents believe God made me the way I am. They see it as a blessing. I said to my mother one day, “If you knew I was going to be gay, would you have done anything different?” And she said, “No. Because you enriched our lives in ways we could not have even imagined.”
I want your mother!
That’s why I feel it’s important for me to be open about this and tell how my parents help other mothers and fathers who ask them questions, because I know there’s a lot of people who have been shunned. I know there’s a lot of people who never see their families anymore, because their families think they’re choosing to be gay. So I want everyone to know that my family is on board, that they believe what I believe, and hopefully some good will come from their example.
And thank you very much, because…
Listen, I should thank you—and all of the other older men before me who have done so much…you know what I mean?
I love that you’re thanking me, but I wouldn’t be the person that I am today if I hadn’t read stories about Harvey Milk, if I hadn’t heard about Stonewall, if I hadn’t had friends who were much older than I was. My two lovely friends—one of them has passed now, Alex Cannell and Ian Burford—were living together in secret, even in the ’50s and ’60s. They laid the groundwork, and it’s just my job, and the job of others like myself, to lay the groundwork for young people coming up to see that it’s okay. So thank you.
It’s still sorely needed, especially nowadays when young people are committing suicide. It’s really important that we keep getting the word out.
Of course it is. Thank goodness we’ve got shows like Glee and that we had shows like Will & Grace, and a show like Torchwood.
Which reminds me—I used to watch Torchwood all the time. I loved it. When I watched Starz’s 12-minute sneak-peek that I was sent…well, I’m already hooked. So what are you contractually allowed to tell me about it?
What I can tell you is that people who have watched the last series will be on board, hopefully, and will see a show that they recognize. They’ll see the heart of the show is the same, the characters are still with us, and their character motivation is still the same. The show will be a bigger and better production. It’s not been watered down, which is what people assume because it’s airing in the United States. It’s actually more edgy, Jack is gayer than he’s ever been, and you’ll see him naked.
As for the storyline, there’s a global event that causes the entire human race to become immortal. When this event happens, we find Jack somewhere on the planet trying to keep the Torchwood name under the radar to protect his best friend and dear companion, Gwen Cooper, played by Eve Myles. Things snowball out of control and Jack has to come out of hiding, and they have to bring Torchwood back and they have to fight for mankind.
A question that is raised in episode one will be answered in episode ten, so people who’ve never seen Torchwood will be able to watch this as a big one-off that hopefully will continue into more episodes. But there’s no fear of not knowing what’s going on. Within the story there’s all of these other branches and characters who enrich the story and make it even bigger and greater. Actually, to be honest with you—you can put the asterisks in—it’s more of a mindf**k than it’s ever been before.
It’s really thrilling to watch because there’s a character played by Bill Pullman who you are going to be angry with yourself for liking. You’ll see a lot of similarities between Jack and him, but Bill’s character, Oswald, is very selfish in his decisions, while Jack is doing it for the greater good.
Captain Jack is bisexual, right?
I was born gay and I’ve read that you said you were born gay. Do you think that there’s any reason some people cannot be born bisexual?
I’m not bisexual, so I don’t know. I’ve learned from my research [for the documentary The Making of Me], and from one of my best friends here in Los Angeles who is a genealogist, that there are a lot of unknowns we’re trying to understand about sexuality. Who are we to say that no one can be bisexual or transgender, or that it’s not right for someone to have a sex change? That’s like someone telling us it’s not right to be gay.
So surely if I can be born gay, others can be born bisexual.
Of course they can. I know some men and women from my past who are bisexual. They enjoy sex with both men and women. And however that works in their relationships, that’s their business. You can’t determine who you’re going to fall in love with. But again, I’m talking about something I don’t understand, ’cause I’m not bisexual.
Last question. You’ve done film, TV, theater, and concerts. Which one is your favorite?
That’s an unfair question. I’m an entertainer. I was put on this planet to entertain. Whether that’s writing books, being on television, playing Captain Jack, doing concert tours, making albums, or doing my entertainment show Tonight’s the Night in the U.K., I’m on this planet to entertain. If I were to choose, I would be pigeonholed. I have a fantastic life, a fantastic career, and I enjoy every aspect of it. So at the moment, you can say I’m an entertainer and I love it all.
Torchwood: Miracle Day premieres July 8 on Starz (starz.com).