John Barrowman

(photo for fab by Tony Fong)

Tall, well-built and almost ridiculously handsome, 41-year-old actor John Barrowman looks every inch the classic Hollywood movie star. He’s often compared to Tom Cruise (“except I can think for myself!” Barrowman laughs) but the Broadway and UK television star won’t be conquering Hollywood just yet—he’s too interested in talking openly about his sexuality, his opinions and, apparently, his cock. As Barrowman once told UK magazine Now, “My Torchwood co-star Eve Myles is like, ‘Oh, he’s got it out again, that tired old thing.’”

Torchwood is the sci-fi show from Queer as Folk creator Russell T. Davies about a Cardiff-based team of bisexual secret agents defending the earth against alien invaders. It broke ratings records on BBC3 and BBC America (the new season is currently airing in Canada on the Space Channel), largely due to Barrowman’s swaggering portrayal of Captain Jack Harkness, an exile from the sexually-liberated 51st century who cheerfully flirts with any man, woman or alien he meets. “There’s a lot of John in Jack and a lot of Jack in John… so to speak,” laughs actor Gareth David-Lloyd, who plays Captain Jack’s coffee butler/boy-toy Ianto Jones, “Barrowman will try and throw you by making faces or getting his bollocks out when you’re doing a close-up. It’s completely unexpected and it makes everyone laugh.”

“I do find that it lightens up the atmosphere quite a bit and loosens people up,” says Barrowman though he admits that his balls-out days may be numbered: “I was doing it as a joke but people started making an issue out of it. Some other gay magazine said, ‘Do we always have to hear about John Barrowman’s penis, waah waah waah’ so I made a decision not to talk about it anymore. Some people just don’t get the joke.”

Barrowman may crave a fun crowd but he’s also proud that Broadway diva Betty Buckley called him “the best leading man she’d ever worked with because I was generous.” He’s quick to praise his Torchwood co-stars in return: “It sounds really sickening to say but we really are like a family. We socialize together all the time.”

Captain Jack Harkness and his Torchwood team

While North American actors are expected to follow TV fame with movie stardom, Barrowman’s choices seem more haphazard. He raised eyebrows for following up his international Torchwood success with a rush of hosting gigs on UK variety shows like the Oliver musical theatre casting search I’d Do Anything, the game show The Kids are Alright and, yes, Dancing on Ice (not to mention his first CD Another Side and his new bestselling autobiography Anything Goes). The Guardian TV critic Charlie Brookner said Barrowman was “so insanely ubiquitous, he’s rapidly becoming the TV equivalent of desktop wallpaper,” but the actor laughs at this. “It doesn’t worry me. If you don’t want to watch, then don’t. I’m an entertainer — I feel that’s what I’ve been put on this planet to do — but I will say that, for every job you see me doing, I’ve turned down about five. I only do things that I really want to do.”

It’s that attitude that led Barrowman to the CBC studios in Toronto this summer to join a panel of judges on How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, the quest to find the next Sound of Music star. “The show was a cheese factory,” jokes host Gavin Crawford, who found Barrowman “funny and fun to hang around with. I took him to Goodhandy’s and Remingtons.” The two appeared on the CBC Pride day float while Crawford wore a Maria dress. “He was poking under my skirt,” laughs the 22 Minutes star. “But for me, it’s been nice to be around someone who is out and has a fine career.” Crawford is impressed at how Barrowman is “really adept at courting the media and loves the attention.”

Barrowman’s gotten quite used to the attention by now—his 2006 commitment ceremony to architect Scott Gill, his partner of 16 years, was given lavish coverage in OK, a UK tabloid akin to People Magazine. As the couple tour Canada for the summer, they’re pondering escaping the British press by buying another home here in Ontario. “We live to ski and what better place to be in? We’re discussing a… you call them cabins?” he asks. “Cottages!” he yells, corrected. “See, in the UK, cottaging means wanking off in a toilet with somebody. George Michael must love it in Canada!”

A man who likes to laugh

Looking at a copy of fab, he asks about the cock size of a cover model: “Don’t let any gay man tell you he’s not a size queen,” he says, “If there’s two in front of you and one’s small and one’s big, you’re gonna go for the big one, I guarantee it!” Potty-mouthed and cheerfully perverse, Barrowman talks sex with a sly grin and a twinkle in his eye. He seems to love getting a rise of people—whatever that rise may be. Last year, he startled more than a few people with a spontaneous admission to Out magazine: “I have a fetish for leather that I’ve never lived out. I would like to be blindfolded and guided in a room, with everyone else in chaps, in harnesses and slings, and just… I’m a control freak so I’d be taken out of my control zone.” Barrowman admits though he and Scott have bought matching chaps and jockstraps—black with red or blue stripes down the legs and crotch. “Very Hot House Entertainment,” he grins, “but we usually end up putting that stuff on and just laugh. I dress up in costumes for my job,” he says, “The last thing I want to do is dress up before sex.”

It’s gets harder and harder to imagine Barrowman toning himself down to chase Hollywood fame. Though he’s made memorable appearances in The Producers and De-Lovely, he declined a part on the TV series Brothers and Sisters and, most famously, was passed over for the part of Will on Will & Grace because he seemed “too straight.” The politics of it all annoys him: “There’s actors I won’t name that I look at and just do not believe, because I know what they’re like in private but in public, they’re something completely different. I think that’s appalling. We should be able to express ourselves…why are we so guarded? Why are we so frightened? You’re more likable, I think, when you’re yourself.”

Though he doesn’t see himself as a gay rights activist, Barrowman’s popularity and openness are doing the job. The actor recently took part in a BBC documentary series called The Making of Me—his episode trying to decide whether nature or nurture made him gay. There was no final answer, of course, but nearly four million people in the UK watched his exploration. “Why live through life pretending you don’t have any opinions?” Barrowman asks, “Sitting on the fence and letting everything pass you by? Have opinions on things and let people know exactly how you feel. I think that’s important — it’s what helps things to change.”

[originally printed in fab issue 329 – August 21, 2008]

About Scott Dagostino

An arts & culture journalist who's the bastard love child of Van Morrison and Jessica Mitford
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