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‘Arrow’: John Barrowman on Malcolm’s Manipulation and Finding the Next Gay Action Hero

John Barrowman has made a career out of stealing scenes, from his iconic role as Captain Jack Harkness on “Doctor Who” and “Torchwood” to the villainous Malcolm Merlyn on The CW’s “Arrow.” As a newly promoted series regular for the superhero show’s third season, fans can look forward to seeing much more of Barrowman’s calculating character, who is currently training his daughter, Thea (Willa Holland) in all the tricks of the trade Malcolm learned from the League of Assassins, unbeknownst to Thea’s brother, Oliver (Stephen Amell).

Variety recently spoke to Barrowman about Malcolm’s true feelings for Thea and Oliver, whether the unflappable assassin is worried about the blood bounty placed on his head by League leader Ra’s al Ghul (Matt Nable), and why he thinks U.S. networks seem hesitant to center a show around a gay action hero even after the success of “Torchwood.”

Oliver and Malcolm had a very different kind of encounter from their usual showdowns in last week’s episode. Is Malcolm feeling fairly confident about throwing Oliver off his scent with Thea and assuaging his doubts about Sara’s murder at this point?
Malcolm is taking control of the situation because he knows that he might be in need of help, and he knows he’s got a threat that’s out there, which is Ra’s al Ghul. That’s what really worries him the most, because Ra’s is the one that’s as powerful as Malcolm, that could kill Malcolm, so he needs to get a team around him in order to help fight this. But what he’s also doing is showing that he’s also got some kind of emotional connection, not only to Thea, but also to Oliver. That’s one thing that I’ve always been interested in playing since the very beginning, since I started on the show and mentioned it to the writers — that Oliver’s the son that Malcolm always wanted over Tommy (Colin Donnell); that was clear, and he states that a few times. It’s interesting, the way he’s doing it, because he’s always used money and power to manipulate, and now he’s using emotion, and that’s what’s different for Malcolm.

Malcolm seems like the kind of man who doesn’t generally let much bother him. How concerned is he about Ra’s al Ghul blood bounty on him?
He’s very concerned; he’s exceptionally concerned — there’s stuff coming up where you will see how concerned he is by the actions that he takes. That is something that we’ve not seen from Malcolm, because we must remember that Ra’s, he’s the head of the League, so he could be as strong or stronger than Malcolm. This is what we as the fans don’t know, but also, Malcolm knows what extent the League will go to, to get rid of someone they don’t want. So yes, he’s not afraid, he’s concerned. But there is fear within that concern.

How much danger would you say Thea is in, given the League’s vendetta against Malcolm?
Well, if she’s connected in any way to Malcolm and it’s found out, she’s in grave danger. And this is hypothetical, but then the easiest way to get to Malcolm is through Thea… which we did last week because Nyssa (Katrina Law) found out, and what does she do? Boom, she captures her and hangs her upside down. [Laughs.] So that’s one of Malcolm’s fears, because the one thing he promised Thea is, “I will always protect you.” And I think that’s what scares him the most — not what can happen to him, but what can happen to Thea.

How genuine are his paternal feelings for Thea, given how many of his relationships have been based on manipulation and secrecy in the past?
That’s why he’s being completely honest with her in everything… apart from one thing, and I’ll leave it at that. [Laughs.] He’s committed, he’s a dad, and although he is a part of the League of Assassins and he is Malcolm Merlyn, “The Magician,” he is still a father. Although you may not have seen it yet, he does mourn Tommy’s loss, he does mourn his wife’s loss. He has known about Thea since the beginning; he loved Moira (Susanna Thompson) — everybody he has lost has been because he’s tried to manipulate [them] and do things by power and money. Now he’s going to try it differently because he doesn’t want to lose any more people.

Malcolm had to keep a lot of his activities hidden from Tommy. Does he see Thea as a kind of do-over, a chance to mold a child in his image?
I think that’s part [of it], but also I think there’s reasons as to why he had to leave, and there’s reasons why Tommy was not trained by Malcolm. There’s a lot of good stuff coming up…

Thea and Malcolm are playing a dangerous game, hiding the extent of their relationship from Oliver — is there anything you can tease about how that might come to a head?
[Laughs.] I can’t, so all I’m going to say is, it’s something I have wanted as a fan for a long time.

Like Malcolm, Ray Palmer (Brandon Routh) is another influential businessman with big plans for Starling City; are their paths going to cross any time soon?
I hope so, because I want to slap him. I know Brandon quite well and I think he’s a lovely man but the character, me as Malcolm, I wanna slap him. I think Malcolm would find him a bit irritating. Malcolm would be like, “you’re hiding something, buddy. This confidence is wonderful, but you’re hiding something.” It might not be that, but I think that’s the way Malcolm would approach it. Or, depending on what the scene is, Malcolm might find him totally intriguing, like, “Okay, I can work with this guy. He’s good cop, I’m bad cop.” This season, one thing is that Malcolm is open to anything.

“Torchwood” is the only mainstream show I can think of that features an openly gay or bisexual male action hero — even a decade after the character made his debut on “Doctor Who.” What do you think of the current TV landscape, and do you think we’re approaching a time when a U.S. network will actually take that step?
People aren’t dumb and people want to see themselves represented on television. You’ve got shows that are still coming out, and I love the fact that American television does have, per capita, the most gay men — and gay women — represented on television, but they’re all a stereotype, they’re all the same. And I don’t mean this in a bad way, but [the gay characters are] all kind of effeminate, and we’re not all like that. And that’s one thing about “Torchwood” that broke the mold — he was a man who liked men, he was an action hero, and that’s why Captain Jack has become so popular, because people grabbed on to it. And I think there will be a network that will take that risk and make that step and it’s gonna pay off immensely for them, and when they do, good on them. But take the risk — that’s what we did with “Torchwood” and “Doctor Who,” right in the very beginning of the series, and by god, it paid off.

Do you think it will require a cable network to take that first step before a broadcast network?
As long as there are advertisers who are concerned about one group of people rather than the whole group of people, we will be restricted in what we can put on certain shows, because I know certain shows have been boycotted because of some of the choices they’ve made. So yes, it’s going to be left up to a cable network, and that’s why the cable networks are doing so phenomenally well, and I say this as a producer because I produce most of the stuff I do now in the U.K., and so I put stuff on networks. We take risks, we do things that are different as a production company, and the one thing that the cable networks do here is they take risks, and it pays off for them. You’ve clear examples of that with things like “Breaking Bad,” “The Walking Dead,” “American Horror Story” — you’ve got stuff that really takes a risk.

I know that “The Flash” is featuring at least two gay characters this season — David Singh (Patrick Sabongui) and Hartley Rathaway, aka the Pied Piper (Andy Mientus) — and I appreciate that executive producers Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg clearly think about being inclusive.
They do. We need more producers like Andrew and Greg and Marc Guggenheim, because they’re the ones who are going to change the face of television. I don’t want to sound like “oh, I’ve done this,” but myself and others like Russell T. Davies and Julie Gardner and Phil Collinson, we took a risk when we did the stuff with “Doctor Who.” They took more of a risk in it than I did, because I was just the actor, but we need other producers… There’s another generation who don’t care who other people sleep with.

Aside from “Arrow,” what else have you got coming up?
I’m going off for Christmas to do my big theater show, my big pantomime show that I do in Glasgow, Scotland, for 6000 people a day. I’ve got a concert coming up next year, and my autobiography, “Anything Goes,” has just been released on Amazon. For a lot of Americans who don’t really know me further than “Torchwood” or “Doctor Who,” it’s a complete open book of who I am and my family and my life.

“Arrow” airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on The CW.

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