Alien Sex Fiend
By Shana Naomi Krochmal
Photography by Francois Rousseau
John Barrowman is easing into his first coffee of the day and recalling a reporter's effusive'but loaded'compliments about his colorful Etro shirt. 'I knew she wanted me to say it was flamboyant, but I thought, I'm going to make you work for it. Finally she got around to a question about my life. I said, 'Oh, my God, you said gay! I'm so proud of you. It only took you 20 minutes!' ' He leans back against the booth and laughs broadly, a hand on his stomach like he's trying to restrain himself.
'I have no problem talking about it,' he rushes to clarify, as if it's possible to miss the mischievous gleam in his eyes. 'I'm proud of what I've done. I'm proud of who I am, and I'm proud to be gay. No qualms.'
Born in Scotland and raised in Illinois, Barrowman conquered London's West End theaters before seducing television viewers as a sexually insatiable, swashbuckling traveler of space and time in the hugely successful 2005 revival of the cult BBC show Doctor Who. Now the United Kingdom's biggest triple threat has returned stateside to give us a glimpse of the future: a 21st-century matinee idol who makes it all look easy.
Officially out since an interview in England's Gay Times magazine in 2004, Barrowman was in truth hardly ever in and has seemed incapable of keeping quiet about his sexuality since. One minute he's talking with starry eyes about his partner of 15 years, and in the next he rambles about his raunchy fantasies, frequently accompanying himself with a flailing, X-rated pantomime. And he does it all with the same easy elegance he brings to the character that's made him a household name in the United Kingdom.
Barrowman's Captain Jack Harkness is a charming cad who hails from a distant tomorrow but has stolen all his moves from the scruffy con men of our cinematic past. Both the character and the actor leave a kind of time-traveling d'j' vu in their wake. To talk with Barrowman is to forget for a minute that we don't all already live in a time and place where macho leading roles are handed out to unrepentantly gay men without a single discussion as to how audiences might respond.
But that's exactly what happened when the executives in charge of reviving Britain's family-friendly drama Doctor Who set about casting Jack. 'John is a very infectious person and actor,' says Julie Gardner, who along with Queer as Folk creator Russell T. Davies serves as an executive producer for Doctor Who. 'He has huge charisma.'
Then, in an effort to expand the Who brand to a more mature, prime-time audience, Davies created Torchwood, a Jack-helmed spin-off that's more X Files than Star Trek. Jack was given his own team of attractive alien investigators and sent out to save the world'or at least modern-day Cardiff, the bustling capital city of Wales. When not busy shooting at unidentified objects, he revels in his well-advertised 'omnisexuality,' which largely involves trying to get into the pants of every man, woman, and creature who crosses his path. [See sidebar.]
Back on Planet Barrowman, it's normal to be inundated by kids in supermarkets seeking autographs on their Captain Jack action figures. The Royal Air Force even asked him to do a fly-by and pose for in-character photo ops. While such a request of an openly gay actor is unthinkable in the current climate of the U.S. military, the United Kingdom drafted a new code of conduct in 2000 allowing gay men and women to serve openly in its armed services. 'That's why I said I'd do it.' Out comes the wicked grin: 'I'd like to think my pilot was gay. How many gay boys want to go in the cockpit? I did that!'
It's also practically a given that everyone who talks about either Barrowman or Captain Jack eventually uses the word hero. 'A cheeky hero,' Gardner says, laughing, 'most definitely.'