I had the chance to interview John Barrowman at Dragon Con 2013 this past Labor Day Weekend to discuss his role as Malcolm Merlyn on the CW hit “Arrow ,” which premieres on Wednesday October 9th at 8 pm on CW69. He gave me some insight into playing such a complex character and what it’s like to build a world around these characters.
I want to talk about “Arrow.” What’s it like playing a villain? Because you normally play the good guy and your character, Malcolm Merlyn is anything but good.
Barrowman: The funny thing about that is you see him as a villain, but I don’t. I think for me that makes him likable. It’s weird to think about because he actually, to me, is doing exactly the same thing that Stephen’s character Oliver is doing. He’s just going about it in a very different way. They are both, in a sense, vigilantes but with just different agendas. Their agendas are both to atone for something that happened in their past. It’s all about how you perceive it and look at it.
So, yes he is a villain, but I play him more as a troubled hero. There was an instance in one of the episodes where they told me I was doing a speech explaining to the audience at home about what happened to my wife. I was looking out through a window. There was a flashback sequence with Oliver’s father and the director said to me “Do a take where you don’t get emotional.” And I looked at him and said “No, you leave that up to me because I want the audience to see the emotion.”
I know as an actor and as a fan of the genre that if you can put some kind of emotion behind it, people are going to like the bad guy. So that’s what I did with that scene. I teared up just a little bit so that a single tear went down my face. That was like a turning point for a lot of people watching the show. There was a comment on line “Oh man, I hate him but I feel so sorry for him. I love him and really understand why he is doing those things.” So for me that was it. I could run with a lot more stuff because the things that he did and got away with were where viewers were then saying, he’s not just a bad guy, but he is a bad guy with a soul and a heart. And I think that really makes a difference to my performance and the viewer. I love playing Malcolm, I do! I think he is great. He is a very different character than Captain Jack. Without sounding pretentious, it’s great playing something different.
What do you think Malcolm wanted for his son? Do you think he ultimately wanted him to follow in his footsteps?
Barrowman: First off, a lot of people have commented about how Malcolm looks too young to have a son that old and all I can say is go back to the comic books about the island of Nanda Parbat that Malcolm went to. I don’t want to give away spoilers, but there just might be something about that island that gives people eternal youth. That just might be explored on the show in the future.
Malcolm didn’t know how to love his son. He loved his son and he loved his wife, but part of the reason why he was so mean to his son was because he thought he was a lazy bugger. He didn’t want to show his love for Tommy and be gushy about it because he had lost his wife. He knows now that if he gets too close to people and things, he can lose them. So, it’s easier to keep things at arm’s length, rather than up-close and personal. He did think that Tommy was kind of a waste of time being a trust fund baby. I think Malcolm got married very young, worked very hard and when he started out was very poor. That’s why he is so aggressive and in your face, because he built he his world around him for his family. He had a wife who he adored, get murdered and his son took advantage of the whole thing.
Malcolm really felt that he was just a trust fund baby and therefore, he wanted to slap him silly and get him into shape. Malcolm really tried to get Tommy to come on board with him, to be a man like him. The funny thing is, he looks at Oliver as the man he wanted Tommy to be like. That’s another dynamic that I use to play with. Anytime my character was with Oliver, I would feel that he was the son I wanted. It’s those little scenes, like when I walk into my son’s birthday party and I give that little nod to Oliver, chucking the present to him and he catches it. It’s that playfulness that he had with Oliver that he does not do with his own son. Those are the little quirky things that I do for the fans. You know, Easter Eggs that you place in the show for fans to be on the lookout for. Malcolm kind of didn’t want Tommy to be like him but in reality, he wanted him to be like him.
How surprised was Malcolm that Oliver was the vigilante?
Barrowman: Personally, I think he sort of knew. I think he had an inkling that something was up. But if you go by what the writers have written, he was surprised when he pulled the hood back. I think he was surprised because Oliver was someone that he loved as a son. And though it’s never been said, I also think Malcolm love Moira, Oliver’s mom. Also, I love the Queen family for reasons that you don’t know yet. When he pulled that hood back, it was devastating to him. They gave me two words to get all that emotion out of that scene. Welcome to the CW, emotions put into two words. It was only “Oh, no!” but I hope people got the shock and devastation in my face. It gives me goose bumps to think about it because, at that point, Malcolm’s world kind of crumbled a bit and he realizes that he is going to have to kill Olivier. He’s not going to do it right then and there, but he is going to have to kill him. That’s when he kidnapped Oliver and hung him up in the storeroom to torture him. At that point, Malcolm had to show his true colors. So there you have the hero and the villain finally face-to-face.
Thank God he was half naked in that scene. That was one of the criteria when I took the job. I was speaking to the creator of the show, Andrew Kreisberg on the phone and he was like “We know it’s a long shot but would you be interested in doing this show?” I said I am flattered that you want me to come on board. How many actors get to be in on the ground floor and help build this fictional world. I would love to take the part, but I have one demand before I will do the show. You must give me a scene with Stephen Amell where he is naked with me. Andrew just started laughing and then said “Don’t you worry we will make sure that happens.”
You talked about enjoying the world building, is that what draws you toward the genre roles?
Barrowman: Honestly, to be blunt, I like to work. I am a workaholic. If you come and see me at a con like Dragon Con, I don’t stop. If I am not on a panel or doing an interview, I am doing a photo op. I don’t take breaks when I am at a Con because I enjoy the interaction with the fans. Building a world, like on “Arrow,” is because someone offered me that opportunity. Who knew that Malcolm Merlyn would become one of the more popular characters on “Arrow.” The producers of the show knew that if I came along to the show I would bring the whole “Dr. Who”/”Torchwood” world with me, which is a huge fan base.
There are some people that say that they only watch “Arrow” because of me, but there are others who watch it because of Stephen, so we are building this world together. Yeah, it’s nice to create a new character. But while I like being the center of attention, the main man. And I like being the main man on a show like “Torchwood,” but it’s also nice to take that weight of your shoulder and enjoy other things about the work. As opposed to worrying about the rest of the cast and crew. You know worrying about what the producers are saying or doing. On “Torchwood,” people were always coming up to me about problems because you are the main character and they see you as a leader or as “The Dad” of the show. But it’s nice to see that now its Stephen’s turn. And I’m there when he needs help or advice. He can come to me to ask advice on what to do because I’ve done it before. I really like that, I love doing that. I am so thrilled to be part of a show that I can watch that young man become a really wonderful leading man. I love creating, not only that world on camera but also that world off camera, behind the scenes.
Talk about your love of theatre. I think that’s something that new fans of you from your television roles do not know about you because I know that’s a love of yours, the theatre and especially musical theatre.
Barrowman: Yeah, they don’t know that I did 16 years on the West End stages in London and on Broadway. I absolutely adore it. I love going back to the theatre. My career has gone into television and small film roles, which every theatre actor wants. We don’t all say it, but we really do. Some of the best actors in film and television are musical theatre performers. Sometimes actors look down on the musical theatre performers, but I say, “hey you can only do it one way, I can do it three ways. I can act, I can dance, I can sing and look good doing it.” I think the training and discipline that I got from being in the theatre really helps.
When I go on set, because of my theatre training, I know my lines and I am ready to perform. I would love to go back into the theatre, but it’s the time commitment. You are sometimes in a theatre part for a year or even two. I was in “Miss Saigon” for over a year and in “Anything Goes” for a year. It’s also time consuming with your personal life. You are doing eight shows a week and getting home late at night, leaving for work when your loved ones are just coming home for work. That’s why I got into television, to have a more stable home life. But I love performing live. That’s why I love coming to Dragon Con, so I can get up there in front of a live audience and perform. I thrive off that interaction. That’s why people love coming to my live shows.
Do you want to do anything behind the camera?
Barrowman: Well, I direct the pantomime that we do every year in Glasgow where we seat about 3,000 people per show twice a day. I’ve thought about directing television. I’ve worked with good directors and have watched them doing their jobs. I worked with Sam Mendes in the West End, which was before he started directing films. And I watched him work both on stage and making films. But I have thought about it. I would probably want to take a few classes before jumping in the director’s chair. I would certainly want a real good Director of Photography because many times the DP does all the stuff and the Director sits back and takes all the credit.
Thank you very much and have a great season on “Arrow.”
You can watch John Barrowman as Malcolm Merlyn on the season premiere of “Arrow,” Wednesday, October 9 at 8 pm on CW69.