John Barrowman (photo credit: Jennifer Schadel)
Heroes and villains go hand in hand. They make for the ultimate co-dependent relationship; but it also makes for riveting storytelling. Knowing better than most the power of playing a hero or a villain is actor John Barrowman, who has made a solid career out of portraying both. Beloved for his infamous role as Captain Jack in both DOCTOR WHO and TORCHWOOD, John is a fan-favorite in the superhero/sci-fi realm. Adding another feather to his cap (pun intended), John recently tackled the role of Malcolm Merlyn in the CW series ARROW. When revealed last winter that Malcolm was The Dark Archer of DC comic-lore, fans welcomed him jubilantly. No longer just the “well-dressed man” of ARROW or the heartless father of Tommy Merlyn, by donning the black attire and landing a few well-placed arrows The Dark Archer staked a claim in Starling City against the vigilante known as The Hood (aka the Green Arrow).
In a recent exclusive interview, John shared how he came to be a part of the DC verse of superheroes and villains, as well as candidly talking about the DOCTOR WHO 50th anniversary, the future of TORCHWOOD, and a few words about his cryptic role on SCANDAL.
How does it feel to portray an outright villain this time as Malcolm Merlyn on ARROW?
JOHN: It feels good. The funny thing and the irony of it is I don’t see him as a villain. I know he is, but I think people have attached themselves to him because I don’t play him like the quintessential “mwah ha ha” villain. I try to give him a bit of humanity, a little bit of caring, a little bit of heart, a bit of soul; so everything he’s doing is not just bad. There’s a reason why he’s doing everything. That way people who are watching can feel that they understand why he is doing it and hopefully they tend to kind of forgive him a little bit. What it also does is it makes him very similar to Oliver – just that both of them are going about it in very different ways. So it’s great to play a villain. It’s fantastic. I get to do things on television that I don’t get to do in my real life.
Like dressing up in a costume?
JOHN: Well, yeah. I’ve been dressing up my entire career. (Laughs) But just getting to dress up like I do in the Dark Archer stuff, and also getting to manipulate people. To do that kind of thing is just amazing.
You’ve brought a level of joyousness to Malcolm and, as you said, you’re not playing it very heavy-handed. It’s almost like he’s very happy all the time, which is unusual.
JOHN: That’s what I’m saying. He thinks he is right, and when you think you’re right there is an element of euphoria when you feel that in your personal life. It’s like me standing on the outside judging and looking in. I can only go from what I know and what I do, and the fact of the matter is that I like to bring a little bit of my personality to every thing that I play, and I think that that euphoria and joyfulness comes ‘cause I actually enjoy what I’m doing. So maybe that comes across, but everybody in their life whether they are bad or good, they do still smile. They do still laugh. They still enjoy their lives to a certain extent. So I try to give that across.
It seems like Malcolm is in a content and happy place in his life. Like he feels like he is in control. He exudes that power.
JOHN: That’s ‘cause he is. He is one of the biggest one-percenters. He feels what he is doing as a cause is right. He’s got part of his family back around him. He feels he is in control of them. He feels in control of the city that he loves, or he thinks he is. So of course he is going to be euphoric and happy.
If you could identify one quality you most admire about Malcolm, what would it be?
JOHN: His drive. His drive and his tenacity, and his kind of focus on stuff. When he is determined about something, he goes and gets it. It’s kind of what I do, but I’m not as ruthless as he is. I’ll go after it the right way, but I admire that in him.
You’ve brought up that Malcolm sees himself as the hero of his own story. He thinks he’s helping the city, but does he understand that what he’s doing is not necessary for the benefit of the city?
JOHN: To be honest, and I don’t want to give too much away, a lot of that is described in something that he says in the finale.
The Dark Archer in “Arrow”
So he’ll explain his actions?
JOHN: That question is kind of answered. He sees what he is doing is absolutely vital and correct, and you find out in a more descriptive way as to why he is doing what he is doing. I think when people hear how he describes and what he has done and what he has in his possession that he lets Tommy know about, you’ll understand why he is doing what he is doing. Then you’ll actually go, “Oh my god!” But you’ll think, “Jesus, don’t do it.”
Another thing I’ve been wondering about is why isn’t Malcolm’s name in the book that Oliver carries around. If Malcolm is as truly evil as we’re kind of suspecting he may be, wouldn’t his name be in the book?
JOHN: Well, not necessarily because the book was created by Oliver’s father as a — uh, this is getting into the area where things might develop, so I don’t want to give too much a way – but let’s say the book was written by his father and Malcolm and Moira, and maybe they were in cahoots about this, but they are not going to put their own names in there.
Good point! It was just something I’ve been wondering about, thinking, “Shouldn’t Malcolm’s name be on there?”
JOHN: They are in complete control of this.
I can’t wait to see more about that and because everyone has been ramping up the excitement over the big finale for a couple of months now, I’m dying to know more about it.
JOHN: It will be mega. The finale is going to be epic and we’re in the process of filming it at the moment and I know the scenes I’m in – I’m not in all of the scenes, a huge chunk of it, but not every day and I feel blessed to be there every day at the moment for about 14-15 hours a day, and in other weeks, I’ve gone only in every other day. So it’s a long process. So the finale is going to be epic. Everything we do on ARROW is a bit cinematic and this is going to be like a mega-movie blockbuster.
So exciting! Is the Dark Archer going to make another appearance?
JOHN: I’m not going to tell you. (Laughs) But it’s going to be awesome.
The Dark Archer in “Arrow”
Where is the relationship between Tommy and Malcolm headed right now?
JOHN: Again, you’ll have to see ‘cause that all comes into fruition and things come together or happen in the finale. As it leads up to the finale, you learn more about Tommy and his relationship with his dad. Again, there’s a lot revealed to Tommy in the finale. So you just kind of have to watch, which is interesting ‘cause I’ve always said that although Tommy is the son that Malcolm has been trying to shape into, if Malcolm could be honest and actually choose a son and if he knew who really Oliver is, he’d choose Oliver.
The secrets they keep. It’s so suspenseful.
JOHN: That’s not been written, but it kind of my sub-story and sub-text that I sometimes play when I’m doing stuff with Oliver.
Have you and Colin O’Donnell actually sat down and discussed the budding relationship between Malcolm and Tommy, and to what level you want to convey whether they are getting along or not getting along?
JOHN: Most of us don’t sit down and discuss that. I put my trust in the writers. I trust what they are writing and however they want to develop the character. That’s what makes episodic television for me as an actor great because every time I come in, it’s something brand new. It’s something different and it’s a new challenge to explore. So the relationship with Tommy, it’s great to see how it progresses. But I can’t tell you because I already know what progresses. (Laughs)
There always seems to be a level of curiosity between Tommy and his father; like they are curious who the other person really is and they really don’t know, even though they have known each other their whole lives.
JOHN: I can only speak for Malcolm. Malcolm sees Tommy as a bit of a waste of space, to begin with. That’s why he cuts him off and forces him to get a job. It’s to realize the value of work because he’s basically been a trust-fund baby his entire life. So Malcolm wants his son to toughen up and to get a thicker skin; ‘cause to be honest, Malcolm is a little bit jealous of Tommy’s life because Malcolm had to work so hard and to develop such a tough skin because of things he’s taken on board in Starling City and about his wife’s death to protect Tommy from that. Yet he wants Tommy also be as tough as he is, to work as hard and maybe to come on board and to be a part of the clean-up of Starling City. So he wants kind of both sides of the coin. But will he get it? We don’t know.
When they first introduced the Dark Archer, he seemed to want to draw out The Hood and he kind of viewed him as competition. But they haven’t fully explained Malcolm’s motivations for wanting to draw out The Hood. He wanted to engage and trap The Hood, but we weren’t sure why.
JOHN: This is again not written, but this is how I looked at it when I played those first sequences. I saw this vigilante– I’m speaking as Malcolm and the Dark Archer — I saw this vigilante getting in my way, although he was doing what I was doing. Look at it this way; this is somebody who is very troubled kind of anti-hero (talking about Malcolm). So I saw The Hood taking away my glory and my mission and my objective and getting in the way. So I wanted to get rid of him. Not knowing who he is makes it easier. (Laughs) If that makes any sense.
Fascinating. It was just like the Dark Archer came out of the blue and wanted to engage The Hood and it made me wonder what sparked his interest.
JOHN: Yeah, thinking again like Malcolm, it’s like I saw this guy coming around doing the job I wanted to be doing and wondering, “who the hell is he and why is he doing it?” Because his objectives may not be the same as mine.
You’ve thought about this a lot. Did you know when you took the role that you’d be playing the Dark Archer as well as Malcolm?
JOHN: I did. I was told right off the bat. It was kind of funny when they offered me the role. Andrew Kreisberg and I had a phone conversation before the show had started and it was almost like he was apologizing ‘cause the role wasn’t a big role and after we talked and he explained it to me, I said, “You know, from the passion in your voice, I like to be involved with programs where people are passionate about the work and the characters ‘cause to me that means that it’s going to be good – plus, I’m a DC comics fan and if you’re saying I’m going to be in a way another type of superhero, whether it be a bad or good one – having come from the world of sci-fi playing Captain Jack and being a hero in that aspect – how great to play something completely different.” So I jumped at it. I knew that he was going to be the Dark Archer and I was excited to explore how that was going to come about.
Were you anxious to jump into a role of being a father as well as a superhero?
JOHN: (Laughs) I was a bit more apprehensive about that! It’s funny ‘cause a lot of people have commented and said I’m not old enough to be Tommy’s dad, but we actually have looked at the logistics of it and Malcolm would have had him in his teens with his wife. So it would have been a teen pregnancy, which would have forced him to go out into the world to provide for his family, which is part of the work-ethic that Malcolm has. Also the Island of Nanda Parbat, which is where Malcolm went off to train after the death of his wife. You’ll find out more about that. I don’t want to give too much away. But there is a thing about Nanda Parbat, if you read it in the DC history that there’s something about – I won’t say “eternal youth” – but there’s a quality that keeps the people there youthful. The island itself gives them a youth factor, and that’s one of the explanations also. It’s never been explained, but that’s in the backstory and I’ve done the research. So Malcolm can be Tommy’s father even though some people say I look like his brother.
You do look pretty young to be a dad.
JOHN: (Laughs) Thank you very much! I love you. The check is in the mail. In real life, I couldn’t be Colin’s dad. But we play younger in the TV show.
Malcolm Merlyn in “Arrow”
So for this role, you just embraced it right away and told them, “Yes, I’m on board. I want to do this.”
JOHN: They really didn’t have to convince me and I didn’t have to go away and think about it. I said, “Absolutely yes to it.” In fact, I was so committed to it that when I was in the U.K., I had to commute a couple times back and forth and I paid my own airfare. It’s the job and it’s work, and it’s the thing I want to do so I was happy to do that.
One of the worries that fans have right now is that the show may be setting up Malcolm to be a casualty in the big finale.
JOHN: You’ll just have to watch. I’m not giving anything away.
We’re kind of invested in Malcolm’s journey at this point. We would like to see him continue beyond this season and continue into the next season.
JOHN: (Laughs) If they’re invested in his journey, then god-damnit put it down in email and pencil and paper to the writer’s room and to the producers and tell them that they’re invested in it. I’m not going to give anything away, but just watch.
Can you tease what The Undertaking is?
JOHN: Oh, I don’t think so. The Undertaking will be fully explained in the next few episodes. I don’t want to give it away. I know everyone wants a spoiler and a teaser, but The Undertaking is a massive, colossal – I’m just going to say – destructive thing. That’s all I’m going to say. That’s as safe and as much as I can give away.
On another note, Alex Kingston just guest-starred on ARROW. Were you able to compare DOCTOR WHO notes at all?
JOHN: Actually, the first time Alex and I met each other was at Cameron Mackintosh’s house in London – the theater producer – he was celebrating his 25th anniversary to his partner and we were there and bumped into each other. We didn’t even say anything, we just looked at each other and went, “Aaaaaahhh! My god!” We got a glass of champagne and started talking about how it would be great if River and Jack – actually, she said River and Jack should have their own TV show. Then as we talked more, we realized that we’re both born on the same day. We’re both March 11th babies and we have so much in common. We like a lot of the same things and our attitude towards stuff is very, very similar. It struck a chord with us because that’s why River and Jack are very similar characters, in their attitude and their fun and their aggression, we are the same in real life – which is really ironic. So we struck it off. Then she came on ARROW, again we saw each other in the makeup trailer and just screamed. We both said, “Boy, there’s going to be some fan-gasms out there in a couple of weeks!” It was brilliant.
Do you mind commenting about the DOCTOR WHO 50th Anniversary Special? We now know that you’re not going to be a part of it, which is disappointing.
JOHN: That’s not my call. The thing I will say because people won’t keep asking: I wasn’t asked. That’s the fact. But I know people are starting to say that it’s because of my schedule that I wasn’t able to do it, but I absolutely would have fitted it in. The ARROW producers had said to me when I first accepted this role, they said, “If the 50th anniversary comes up and they want you to do it, then we’ll let you go to do it.” So it was already in the cards. I just wasn’t asked and again, for myself, John Barrowman is disappointed. But I totally understand. I remember Russell T Davis saying something to a fan once because the fan was saying, “You should bring back the Brigadier and you should bring back Leela and you should bring back all these different characters,” and Russell said, “No, it’s not appropriate sometimes. It’s not always about the uber-fan [and I’m paraphrasing what he said]; it’s about the viewer and the new audience who are watching. We have to introduce new characters and new people and do different things. It can’t always be the same.” So I get it. But that doesn’t mean to say that I’m not disappointed. I have tried to avoid stuff now ‘cause every day I get – and I understand why they are asking – but I keep saying to them, “You’re saying it to the wrong person. If you have a problem with it, write to the BBC. Write to the writers. Write to whoever it is that is in charge because it has nothing to do with me.”
Have you talked to Russell recently about doing another season of TORCHWOOD?
JOHN: To be honest with you, it’s not our call again. It’s whether the BBC will commission it. After it was done with BBC and Starz, whoever has the rights, we just have to wait and see. Russell said in an interview less than six months ago, he said TORCHWOOD is not dead. It could be done in 2 years, it would be done in 5 years, it could be done in a movie. So it could still have a life, but who knows when it will be done. But the thing is, I can’t sit around and wait. I’ve got to work. (Laughs)
Speaking of new projects, it was broke last week that you’re going to be making a guest-appearance on SCANDAL. What can you share about that?
JOHN: I can’t share anything. I’m completely even more sworn to secrecy about that. A lightning bolt from ABC Television will come down from the sky and strike me. The thing that I love about what I do is that everything is diverse and different. So this is again diverse and completely different.
When I was watching “Zero Dark Thirty” and you popped up on the screen, I nearly screamed in the theater.
JOHN: (Laughs) I didn’t tell anybody about that. A lot of what I had done ended up on the cutting room floor, and I knew that was going to happen. I had a couple of speeches before James Gandolfini started talking, so I knew it was going to get cut. But I’m still proud to have been a part of it and in a movie like that.
So what else are you working on?
JOHN: There’s a couple of things I can talk about. I’ve got to go back over to the U.K. in June to deal with my men’s skin care line. I have stuff to do with that, and we’re launching the women’s division of it. And my sister and I are currently working on the third book of “Hollow Earth” series. We’ve got a new publisher. We’ve commissioned four new books. The “Hollow Earth” series is being developed as a TV show and we’re working on that. My production company and another one are putting that up and getting that going.
Will the “Hollow Earth” TV series be for British or American television?
JOHN: We haven’t decided that yet. It’s whoever wants to buy it. But the books are being released in the States and I would love to see it done on something like ABC or Fox. In fact, the CW might be a good one for it. We’ll just have to wait and see.
Finally, you’re also appearing at Phoenix Comic-Con next month. Are you making plans to attend San Diego Comic-Con as well?
JOHN: I don’t know about San Diego. I’ve said that I’d like to go, but I haven’t been invited. I would like to go under the auspices of the ARROW folk, but I haven’t been asked yet. I’m a fan-boy myself. I love doing all the shopping and stuff and I also love the panels. I just adore it.
Here’s to hoping we all get our wish and John is able to attend San Diego Comic-Con this year. Be loud, be vocal and make sure to send a few tweets to @CW_Arrow @ARROWwriters @AJkreisberg @mguggenheim and @GBerlanti letting them know how much you want them to bring John to SDCC this year. Also be sure to tune in for the last 4 epic episodes of ARROW this season starting Wednesday, April 24th at 8:00 p.m. on the CW. The Undertaking is coming!
Where to find this article:
Eve Myles and John Barrowman (photo credit: Jennifer Schadel)