Handsome, rich and married to his architect. No wonder the actor and singer is on top of the world
Matthew Bell meets John Barrowman
Sunday, 12 April 2009
'Will you be getting it out today?" The Independent on Sunday is normally above infantile humour, but this is John Barrowman and it's his party trick. He was in hot water some months ago for, as he puts it, "getting his fruit and nuts out". He did it on Radio 1 in November only days after the BBC promised to clean up its act following the Andrew Sachs debacle. After a slew of incensed headlines – although, tellingly, only one complaint from the public – Barrowman issued an apology. "I wasn't forced to apologise," he says now. "I chose to. It's something that happened and we move on."
Apologise for what, though? This was radio, after all, so nothing was visible to the audience. He had exposed himself to a handful of people in a studio. It's hardly up there with Sachsgate. Is it even a "-gate" category scandal?
Apparently so. Six months down the line, the BBC forbids us from discussing the incident. A diligent press officer sits in on our interview and moves the conversation briskly forward when we get on to the subject. It's easy to understand their jitters: apart from being famous for exposing himself, Barrowman is known to be a straight-talker. Without a minder in the room my guess is that he would happily talk at length about "what he went through that week". He would probably even take off his trousers.
As it is, he keeps them on and we talk instead about Tonight's the Night, the new show he is presenting, beginning next weekend – the BBC's answer to Britain's Got Talent. Each week a member of the public with a hidden talent is plucked from obscurity to perform alongside famous artists. "It's the chance to live the dream for a night," he says. Refreshingly, it doesn't promise a glittering career afterwards – you get your hour of glory and then it's back to the dental surgery in Essex.
"I know it sounds schmaltzy but it's my way of giving something back," he says. "The British public have given me some great opportunities and turned my life around. I want to give somebody the opportunity to fulfil their dreams."
Barrowman has certainly achieved what thousands dream of. He was born in Glasgow, the youngest of three, but when he was eight the family moved to Illinois, where his father was posted to manage a factory for Caterpillar. It was a huge upheaval – even his grandmother came – but the family have remained there ever since. It was a difficult time for his parents and older siblings, but it was the making of John. "I've had a great balance: my parents kept up that British ethic, that sense of humour and openness to laugh at yourself, yet the American side taught me to be confident, to go for whatever I want, to try and achieve things."
His childhood was idyllic, lounging by swimming pools in summer, skating on lakes in winter. His family are enviably close-knit: his sister Carole ghost-writes his books and his parents are his best friends. "Even now when I get a job or get excited about something they're the first people I call." He speaks with an American accent except when talking to his family: then he flips to Glaswegian, as if he were bilingual.
Although his father once made him do a summer job shovelling coal into a furnace to experience manual labour, he always wanted to be a performer. His future was sealed when he half-heartedly auditioned for a production of Anything Goes aged 16 and came away with the main part. It's been one break after another ever since. "I've never had any hardships in my career," he admits. "I never had to do waitering between jobs – I was lucky. There's no kind of angst in me, but I don't agree that that makes me a lesser performer. You don't have to be an alcoholic to act one."
Six years later it was in Anything Goes that he made his West End debut, and more musicals, theatre and television followed. He reveals his next West End project will be in La Cage aux Folles this autumn. But he is best known for playing Captain Jack Harkness, the bisexual time traveller in Doctor Who and Torchwood.
Sexuality is one subject on which Barrowman never holds back. Openly gay since his twenties – although he says he knew as early as eight – he only came out when he was very ill and feared the worst. "Every gay man in the late Eighties and early Nineties who got sick thought he was dying of Aids." He flew home to tell his family, took tests and was so relieved to be tested HIV negative that he resolved to campaign for better education in the gay community.
When I arrive at the Dance Attic studios in Fulham, he is rehearsing the dance routine for the opening number of next week's show. Strutting before the mirror, flirting with the other dancers, darting to a corner of the room to consult his sister as she writes his book – he is evidently happy to be the centre of attention. He's an exhibitionist, and knows how to pose for our photographer. It's not hard to imagine how he could be dared into taking off his trousers.
When he comes bounding off to be interviewed he's on a natural high after an energetic rehearsal, but I suspect he is like this most of the time. "There's a little boy inside me who's been given the opportunity to live his dreams as a man," he explains. Now aged 42, he speaks as if he still can't believe his luck. He lives with Scott Gill, "the perfect partner", an architect who designed their six-bedroom house overlooking the sea in Cardiff. There's the flat in London, seven or eight sports cars (he can't remember), a family who love him, plenty of work, money ... The only thing he hasn't got is children, but they're next on the list. "The first thing your mother thinks when she learns you're gay is 'I want grandchildren'. But you can still have kids. Like anyone else we choose whether or not to."
Barrowman has been getting "very broody" in the past few months: "I really want kids." Specifically, he wants to adopt one and have one of his own – he already has a female friend in mind, and has cleared his schedule for the summer months. Madonna and Brangelina take note: they will not be adopting abroad. "There are plenty of children who need adopting in this country. We will adopt from within the UK." He may be desperate to be a father, but he is determined not to let it affect his work. "It'll probably change my home life but it won't change my working life. I'll continue my workload. I'll be totally honest, we would have to have a nanny, but not the kind of nanny where I would say 'oh, come to Daddy' and then 'now take him away'."
Something about him reminds me of the character played by Tom Cruise in Magnolia, the macho motivational speaker. In fact, Barrowman is capitalising on his positive outlook by writing a kind of self-help book. "I'm not saying I'm a guru, but it's about being positive and confident in who you are and not letting people deny you in doing things you want to do." Is there anything he would like to do that he hasn't yet done? It's perhaps surprising he hasn't broken on to the big screen."I've been so happy doing what I'm doing I've never felt the need to do anything else. Now if a film comes along, of course I'll give it a go, but I'm not going to go rushing to Hollywood. Why give up something you love to go and start all over again?"
Despite the sharply rising trajectory, it seems Barrowman's feet are still just about touching the ground. "I'm the first person to say 'am I stepping out of line?'," he says, perhaps hinting at the Radio 1 incident. "I don't understand celebrities who get precious about it. I wanted to be an actor and I always knew in the back of my head there was a possibility that if I made it big, fame would come with it, and that if celebrity came with it I was going to embrace it and love it." And clearly, he does.
Born to be a star
From torch songs to 'Torchwood'
1967 Born in Mount Vernon, a Glasgow suburb, the youngest of three.
1976 Barrowman family emigrates to Illinois, where his father manages a factory for Caterpillar.
1984 Cast as Billy Crocker opposite Elaine Paige in Cole Porter's Anything Goes while still at school.
1989 West End debut in Anything Goes. Goes on to appear in shows including Miss Saigon, Beauty and the Beast, The Phantom of the Opera, Grease!, Hair and Chicago.
1992 Falls ill and fears HIV. Tests find him HIV negative. Resolves to campaign for better Aids education.
1993 Meets architect Scott Gill while acting in Rope at Chichester. Instantly knows he "wants to spend the rest of his life with him"
2000 Releases first solo CD of songs from his shows. 2005 Cast as Captain Jack Harkness (above) in the revived Doctor Who and its spin-off Torchwood.
2006 Stars in ITV's Dancing on Ice; does first stint presenting This Morning; and appears as a judge alongside his friend Andrew Lloyd Webber on How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? December 2006 Marries Scott Gill in a civil partnership ceremony in Cardiff. The photos are published in OK! magazine.
Publishes his autobiography, Anything Goes, ghost-written by his sister Carole.
Explores why people are gay in a BBC documentary, The Making of Me.
Apologises after exposing himself live on Radio 1 days after the Russell Brand affair. Despite tabloid claims, the incident was not broadcast on the studio webcam.
Launches new BBC1 prime-time talent show, Tonight's the Night, going head to head with ITV's Britain's Got Talent.
Source: The Independent