Surprise Doctor Who guest star explains how he kept his appearance a secret
Actor reveals all about his top-secret return to time travel show.
John Barrowman delighted Doctor Who fans watching Sunday night’s episode with his long-awaited return as that lusty, pansexual sci-fi swashbuckler Captain Jack Harkness (who also starred in the Who spin-off show Torchwood). But how exactly did the actor keep his appearance on the Jodie Whittaker-starring, Cardiff-shot time travel show a secret?
“When I was filming, I was staying in my own flat,” says Barrowman. “We have a couple of properties in Wales, and I was staying at one of our properties, and I was throwing everybody off by telling them that I was doing a flat renovation, and that was basically just a ploy to keep people off the scent. People were saying to me, ‘Why are you here?’ And I’m like, ‘I’m renovating one of our properties.’ They fell for it. But the irony is, I really did renovate a property. I was like, I’m going to do work on this! So, I kind of killed two birds with one stone. There was only a couple of people on my side of the family who knew, which is my husband Scott, my sister Carole — because we’re all huge massive fans of the show — and my mum and dad. I had to tell somebody, but I knew they would keep a secret.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: My mother lives about 45 minutes outside Cardiff. I know she’s got a couple of jobs around the house that need doing if you’re free over the next couple of days to help out with that.
JOHN BARROWMAN: Well, I’ll tell you, I don’t do [the renovations] myself. I have somebody come in. As Captain Jack would say, “I have a hot builder come in and he does what he has to do.” [Laughs]
How were you approached about returning to the role?
I was actually visiting Bill Pullman who was doing a play at the Old Vic Theatre in London where I performed many years ago. I was going to see him because he was in Torchwood, he played one of the bad characters in Torchwood when we went over to the States with it. I came outside, was standing on the street corner, and there was a phone call from my management, and my manager said, “Chris Chibnall (current Doctor Who showrunner) wants to speak to you.” I said, “Well put him though!” And so Chris was on the phone and his words were just, “John, how would you feel about Captain Jack coming back to the TARDIS?” I just jumped around screaming, “This is brilliant news! Amazing!” And I said “Yes” right away. I love playing him, I love what he stands for, I love who he is. Immediately I called Russell T. (Russell T. Davies, a previous Doctor Who showrunner responsible for reviving the franchise in 2005) to tell him and it was getting his blessing also. His response was “Bloody marvelous!”
I think your character kisses Bradley Walsh within three seconds of turning up, which might be a new record even for the lubricious Captain Jack.
Well, I don’t know if it’s a record, but what you’ve got to remember is that Jack thinks that Bradley’s character is the Doctor. I hope it comes across when people watch it — the joy of seeing the person that he thinks is the Doctor, not knowing that the Doctor is not Bradley’s character, nor is he a man, but is actually a woman. It was a nice premise and I liked the fact that it kind of leaves everything in limbo but [with] the message that Jack is always there. Because he’s always said, whether it was the Doctor or any of the Torchwood gang, he’ll be watching. And if they need help he will come back to help them. So, to deliver that message about the “lone Cyberman” for me was kind of cool.
Can you expand at all on that message?
I cannot! Because if I expanded on it then it would be a spoiler and I would get in serious trouble! But to be honest with you, I don’t really know that much on the lone Cyberman. Me personally, it’s one of the villains that I, as a young boy, loved along with the Daleks. I hoped that one day, when I got the role of Captain Jack, that I would be able to fight them, but I never was able to. I was never involved in any of the Cybermen episodes.
One assumes, knowing Captain Jack, that he would be as attracted to a female Doctor as he was a male Doctor.
In [Captain Jack’s] head, I’m not attracted to the physical, I’m attracted to the person, and that was the Doctor. It’s an acknowledgment that it doesn’t really matter to him.
You didn’t get the chance to act with Peter Capaldi or Matt Smith, who played the previous two iterations of the Time Lord. I know you’ve been busy with other projects, but did you have moments when you sat at home and thought, I wish Captain Jack could have appeared with those Doctors?
Well, as much as I would have loved to, I knew it wouldn’t probably have happened because it’s entirely up to the showrunner at that moment and that showrunner was…um…um…gosh, what was his name?
There you go! [Laughs] So, with Steven, it wasn’t going to happen. (Note: the relationship between Barrowman and Moffat is famously frosty, in part because of the former’s suggestion that the latter prevented Torchwood returning to TV, an allegation Moffat has denied.) But with Chris, there was always that chance because Chris was also a showrunner for Torchwood. So, he’s got a love for Captain Jack and I was glad that he called.
My sister, who is also a Who fan, loved last night’s episode and emailed me to say that she wants “more Captain Jack.” Will you be making my sister happy?
That I cannot tell you. I don’t think it’s going to happen this season. But like I’ve always said, if I’m asked, I will do it at the drop of a hat. [After last night’s episode screened] it just went nuts with people saying how glad they were that he was back. I was absolutely chuffed and at one point I was tearing up because I was reading what was going on and what people were saying. It just proves to me how much that character is loved by the Whovian fandom and the Whovian world and how important he is. It’s amazing. I’m just overwhelmed.
Doctor Who airs Sundays at 8 p.m. ET on BBC America. On Jan. 31, the network will also host a Captain Jack marathon showcasing episodes featuring Barrowman’s character.