Arrow star Charlie Barnett talks finding the new Deathstroke’s heart and soul
Warning: The following contains spoilers from Tuesday night’s Arrow episode, “Welcome to Hong Kong.” Read at your own risk! i
We’re only two episodes into Arrow‘s final season, but Charlie Barnett has already left an impression as John Diggle Jr., a.k.a. J.J., Lyla (Audrey Marie Anderson) and Diggle’s (David Ramsey) villainous son.
Introduced in the season 8 premiere, J.J. is the cold-blooded leader of the Deathstroke gang in the year 2040, which puts him in direct conflict with his brother Connor (Joseph David-Jones), Mia (Katherine McNamara), and the rest of Team Arrow 2.0. In Tuesday’s night episode, J.J. had a tense sit down with Connor and Mia that showcased the Russian Doll actor’s chilling performance. As. J.J., Barnett projects a dangerous and chilling mix of menace, charisma, and control, which made the moment when J.J. flips the switch and reveals that he was only distracting them while his men invaded their bunker and kidnapped Mia’s brother William (Ben Lewis) all the more impacting.
Even though J.J. comes across as a sociopath and is cast as the villain of the future storyline, Barnett doesn’t and couldn’t view him as fitting into either one of those categories. Below, EW chats with the 31-year-old actor about finding the soul of someone everyone assumes is evil and whether there’s a method to the madness he’s causing.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When this role came up and he, what attracted you to playing J.J.?
CHARLIE BARNETT: To be frank, I didn’t know too much about the inner workings of his personal life. If I had known more, I would’ve been wholeheartedly more intrigued. I didn’t know the dynamic between his brothers prior to going into it. The script that they had given me was kind of taken out of context when I auditioned. So in my mind, I didn’t know where it was coming in from, but I did pick up that this guy had been affected by something in his life that left him on this kind of balance point of being a villain etched from a good soul. And that’s what attracted me. I could tell that this is a person struggling with what they thought they should do to support [themselves because of] the challenges that have come their way and also to try to do what he thought was best. I love playing any kind of character that’s dynamic like that.
Aside from that, I was excited to be playing a “villain.” I like being able to take characters that are, for lack of better words, pigeonholed into being bad guys or good guys, or good girls or bad girls, and kind of flipping that on its head and making an audience try to understand where they’re coming from. Also aside from that, the fights are so badass. I just wanted to fight, and Arrow’s fights the sickest on TV.
So from your perspective, J.J. isn’t a sociopath. He has an understandable reason for doing what he’s doing?
Absolutely. I went to Julliard for drama, and one of the tools that they would always offer to us is that you shouldn’t ever judge your characters, especially if you’re playing that character. That’s something that’s stuck with me beyond just being an actor, but into my own life. I have no reason to judge the people around me, especially when I don’t know the context of their entire life. And I think once you figure out more, you start to understand, and maybe not agree, but see why they may have taken the actions that they do. So from the beginning, J.J. has never been a sociopath or villain by any means.
He has been dealt, in his mind, a s–t card. He feels like he has been forgotten and left, specifically by his family, and kind of misplaced. From that, he hasn’t had a guide. More specifically, he hasn’t had his father to help lead him because his father has been preoccupied, which I think is something that a lot of people in this world, outside of the universe of like superheroes, can truly, truly relate to.
In this week’s episode, he kidnaps Mia’s brother William. What can you tease about his grand plan?
I may be wrong about this because I haven’t really [spoken] with the creators and the writers about this point specifically, but I think that J.J. is coming from a place of chaos, that he wants to throw everything up in the air so that everybody kind of sees [what he’s] been living through. You know, this like pulling family members apart. It’s almost like, “I want you to feel the pain that I’ve had to suffer and see how you result with it.” I don’t know that he has necessarily planned everything out. I think he knows that he wants to affect his brother and he knows that he can by affecting William and Mia. I know that problems will ensue.
Is filling that power vacuum his ultimate goal or is there something hidden behind that?
This is maybe my fault for making it too personal, but he sees that effect of [vigilantism]. With Green Arrow, he’s complicated as a person but also in his work. Throughout the seasons he’s come up, I can’t even count how many times, with [the idea that] these actions have a ramification. And from that ramification, you now have to deal with a person’s father having been lost. Maybe that kid wasn’t a villain, but now they’ve turned into one in order to stand up for what they thought that they had lost out of because of Green Arrow’s actions. With that, it gives an opportunity, in my mind as J.J., for the people of this community to see that maybe the heroes aren’t always doing the best thing. It gives [J.J.] an opportunity to allow the “villains,” the evils of the world, to have more of a voice. I know a lot of people, even myself included as Charlie, may not agree with that, but in order to not judge J.J., I feel like he actually has some sort of a stance.
How familiar were you with Arrow before you joined?
I’m not a huge comic book buff, but I do read a couple and I was into the world kind of nonchalantly through that. But I didn’t know as much about the show, once I booked the part, I went back and started with season 1 and watched all the way through to about midway through season 2 because time was ticking and I was about to fly up to Canada to work. I didn’t actually realize that they were 22 episodes each. So I kinda jumped forward to season 5 and then carried throughout there. But right now I’m like all up to date.
In watching the show, did Manu Bennett’s performance as Deathstroke inform your take on the character?
Yeah, just for excitement, because he was incredible at it and so much fun, and two, because we’re so different. It’s kind of built into the show that he spans larger than just one person or one entity. This character is almost given off to other people who want to take over the helm. That’s how I’m taking it. But for that, I didn’t want to pull anything necessarily from different performances. I wanted to attack on my own, from J.J.’s standpoint. I did want to keep the strength. The strength is undoubtedly there for him on both. But I feel like my character is a little more emotional just because of the relationships to many of the leads.
What’s been the most exciting part of joining the show?
It’s really been the cast. I don’t want to sound too cheesy. I got to work with a lot of these new folks that are building this other universe in the future world. I really hate to sound all juju, hippy-dippy, but getting an opportunity to see these young people, a lot of them have been working more than I have, with this innate energy of excitement and challenge and a desire to do something amazing and push the boundaries has been so priceless. It’s really nice to see people who want to work and want to make things better. Each one of these actors has made it their goal to root it in something true and to work on it as hard as they can to make it vibrant and alive. And I really, really, really appreciate that.
Arrow airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on The CW.