Read an Excerpt
By John Barrowman, Carole E. Barrowman
Michael O'Mara Books Limited Copyright © 2009 John Barrowman
All rights reserved.
'I Hope I Get It'
The scene opens with a high shot of Covent Garden. Tourists are clustered around a street performer who has a sword balanced on his forehead and tea plates spinning on a tray in each hand. The weather is unseasonably warm for June, so a few of the foreign tourists wandering in the crowded, cobbled square are carrying colourful umbrellas for shade. From this lofty angle, it looks as if someone has tipped a box of Smarties on the ground below.
Enter our leading man stage left.
That would be me.
A soprano's voice rises from the cafe tucked underneath the open-air market, a cocky vendor scolds a shopper for ignoring his patter; all around, laughing children, honking taxis, boisterous students and the release of air from the brakes of a nearby double-decker tour bus blend to create a cacophony of sounds. This is summer in London's West End.
A teenage girl accompanies our leading man.
That would be my niece Clare, my sister Carole's daughter. Every year since they were quite young, she and her brother Turner have spent time with me during their school holidays; an invitation that's open to all my nieces and nephews when they're old enough to travel on their own.
The leading man and his niece are chattering away, despite the fact that she has to skip every few steps to match his stride. After a beat, it becomes clear from the way our leading man is weaving through Covent Garden's busy marketplace that he's on a mission.
Oh, I was. I was between performances of Trevor Nunn's revival of Anything Goes, which was in full swing at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. The matinee usually finished around five and that gave me an hour or so to myself before the evening performance. After nearly twenty years in theatre, doing eight shows a week, down time is personal time and personal time for me means shopping.
The camera zooms in for a close shot on our leading man and his niece, who are carrying packages while eating sandwiches from Marks and Spencer's.
Clare was devouring a chicken with lettuce on white, a bag of crisps and a Crunchie. She's short, but despite her sweet tooth, she's in good shape. I was scarfing down two avocado-and-spinach sandwiches, prawn crisps, and a bag of Percy Pigs. I'm tall and I was hungry.
The shot widens on the two as they approach Endell Street. We hear the leading man's phone ring. He fumbles his food trying to answer quickly. He stops frozen in his tracks. His niece walks up his heels. She looks at the leading man anxiously because he never stops moving ever, especially when he's shopping.
Cut to close-up of leading man looking stunned.
I was, in fact, gobsmacked. It wasn't so much the nature of the call itself that was shocking, but that it had come through so quickly. I've been to hundreds of auditions over the years and one of the basic tenets an actor can count on is the wait between the audition and the decision to give you the part or not. The time between you leaving that audition room and 'Congratulations, you've got the role,' or 'I'm sorry, but you're too young / too old / too good-looking / too tall' can drag on for days or even weeks. Hours was simply unheard of.
Camera follows Clare setting the packages down on the pavement in front of a tea stand.
'Uncle John, are you okay?'
Leading man nods.
It was more of a grunt and a mad bob of my head, but that doesn't sound nearly as suave. In fact, I have very little memory of Clare talking to me at that moment, but she remembers everything in crisp detail. She said she could hear Gavin Barker, my manager and close friend, talking excitedly on the phone. She claims I was not responding coherently. She remembers hearing bursts of applause from the crowd gathered around the street performer and working hard to block it out.
What I remember is 'blah, blah, blah, blah, blah' because my brain stopped working at Gavin's first line: 'John, they want you to be Captain Jack!'
Camera cuts quickly to our leading man jumping off the ground, punching the air with his fists and letting out a rebel yell.
Actually, what I screamed was, 'I'm going to be in the TARDIS!'
Camera zooms in on Clare, who has no clue what the hell is going on, but is used to her uncle's antics and joins him in his manic celebratory dance. They leap and laugh and holler for a few minutes, and then the angle widens on our leading man performing a stunt that would make Keanu Reeves ask for paracetamol.
Here's what I did. I let go of Clare and I took a running leap up the side of the wall, did a kind of half flip and landed on the kerb, nearly knocking over an old-age pensioner, who was watching the scene from the tea stand. I managed to catch her before she toppled off her chair, and despite my heightened emotions and frenzied behaviour, I remember thinking that I was lucky she hadn't fallen, because I'd be late for the curtain if I had to wait for an ambulance.
Camera cuts to a close-up of the leading man apologizing to the elderly woman, while Clare gathers up the old lady's messages that have fallen over. 'Messages' is Glaswegian for groceries; as I am a Glaswegian by birth, it's one of the many Scottish words and phrases that, even after all these years, remain in my vocabulary. However, of all the things I remember from this day – the time, the place, the going all Matrix on the wall – this pensioner's response to the entire scene still makes me smile the most.
She looked up at me and said, 'Must've been good news, eh, son?'
It was the best bloody news ever and it was the result of another phone call a few months earlier. I'd been lounging between scenes in my dressing room at the Theatre Royal, where I was playing Billy Crocker in Anything Goes for the third time in my career, when the call came in. The Theatre Royal Drury Lane is London's oldest theatre and, because of this, its dressing rooms are bigger than most of those in younger theatres. Mine had enough space for a couch, a few comfy chairs and a full bar, which – despite what the tabloids may sometimes have fans believe – was actually used sparingly. I was watching the end of a DVD, something I often did to pass the time, while my dresser, John Fahey, was preparing my costume for the next change, when Gavin rang.
'Andy Pryor just called me. He thinks there might be a role in the new Doctor Who you'd be perfect for,' he said.
At this point in my career, I'd been on television in the UK and in the US. I'd been a presenter on Live and Kicking and The Movie Game, and I'd played a John F. Kennedy Junior type in Darren Starr's drama Central Park West, and a similar character in Aaron Spelling's short-lived night-time soap Titans; however, I was most known for my work in musical theatre. I'd starred in a number of Broadway and West End musicals, including Stephen Sondheim's Company, Sir Cameron Mackintosh's Miss Saigon and Lord Lloyd-Webber's Sunset Boulevard, and, in 1998, I was nominated for an Olivier Award for Best Performance of an Actor in a Musical for my role in The Fix, directed by Sam Mendes. I'd recorded two solo albums and a number of cast recordings, sung 'Springtime for Hitler' in Mel Brooks's film of The Producers, and performed 'Night and Day' in the biopic about Cole Porter, De-Lovely. To many West End producers, I was considered musical theatre's quintessential leading man and I loved all that this allowed me to do, but a part in the new Doctor Who would top all of that.
My sister Carole, who is eight years my senior, and my brother Andrew, who is older by five, had been fans of the Doctor since his inception on the BBC in the sixties, but I was too young to remember those original early episodes. I became a serious Whovian when I watched the series on WTTW Channel 11, Chicago's public television affiliate, in the late seventies and early eighties. In case you're unaware of such things, Who fans are 'Whovians'; and I like to call Torchwood fans, 'Woodies'. Doctor Who ran on Sunday nights in a British package that included Dave Allen at Large and Monty Python's Flying Circus, but for me it was the Doctor I enjoyed the most ... and I loved them all. Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker and Peter Davison ruled my Sunday evenings. I'd avoid homework, imagine eating Jelly Babies and let myself be carried off to other galaxies. To this day, I'm a terrable (oops) terrible speller. I blame the Doctor.
The Brigadier and Sarah Jane, Autons, Cybermen and Daleks all flashed in front of me while Gavin gave me the details of the audition for Captain Jack.
Andy Barnicle, my acting teacher at the United States International University in San Diego, once told me that for an audition the key is to remember that producers don't always know how they want a character to be read, therefore the actor's job is to sell them his or her interpretation. So I imagined who Captain Jack might be.
I almost got it right.
The audition was in a room at the BBC in Shepherd's Bush, and the script from which I'd been asked to prepare was 'The Empty Child', written by Steve Moffat. The scene was the one where Jack first explains to Rose that he's a con man. Russell T. Davies, the executive producer and the creative force behind the new series, Phil Collinson, the show's producer, and Andy Pryor sat across the room from me at the audition.
After introductions, I began. I read the first part of the scene as an American, but when Jack reveals to Rose that he's not who he appears to be, I switched to a Scottish accent and finished the scene that way. My reasoning was that a British character might have more impact and, therefore, I'd stand a better chance of being chosen for the role; after all, as far as I knew, there'd never been an American male cast as a regular character in any of the classic series.
'Can you do it again with an English accent?' asked Andy.
I could have done the entire bloody scene in an ancient Babylonian dialect if they'd asked. That's how badly I wanted the role. In the end, I performed the scene three times using three different dialects. Top that, Hugh Laurie. Eventually, the audition ended, but instead of leaving the room, the four of us ended up in a conversation sharing stories about the original Doctor Who, our favourite assistants, our scariest villains, our pick for best episode.
From its start, I had a really good vibe about the audition and I knew my performance was strong – well, at least one of them. However, as any actor who's ever been in this situation will tell you, sometimes good isn't good enough. Plus, I was still a relative unknown in the British television market. Would they take a risk on an American? Would they see beyond the limitations that producers too often put on musical-theatre performers when it comes to working in another medium? More importantly, would they take a chance on me?
Yes, yes and yes.
At the best of times, I make a subtle first impression. On the December day in 2004 when I walked on to the Doctor Who set in Cardiff for the first time, I was wired, bursting with energy and excitement, while Christopher Eccleston (playing the Doctor), Billie Piper (in the role of the Doctor's assistant, Rose Tyler) and the crew, who had been filming for months, were exhausted and ready to break for the Christmas holiday.
Billie and I hit it off immediately. Her smile and laugh are contagious and, let's face it, I don't need any encouragement in those areas either. She and I derived a great deal of pleasure from the press at the time: they were speculating wildly that Rose and Captain Jack would do more than flirt with one another. I knew from the beginning that Russell T. Davies had grander plans for Jack's character over the course of season one, but it was a kick, nonetheless, to read stories that completely underestimated the genius of Russell's imagination.
Russell had made it clear to me that Jack's character would be unlike any other in the classic Doctor Who series. As a result, the subtle sexual chemistry among all three characters – the Doctor, Rose and Jack – was always in play. Contrary to the tabloids' fixation, though, the relationships were by no means driven by desire. When the Doctor and Jack kiss goodbye in 'The Parting of the Ways', the episode that concludes the first season, for example, the kiss is full of fondness and respect, and absolutely no tongue. In fact, when the director Joe Ahearne called 'cut' at the end of that take, the crew whistled and applauded because the moment was not only a significant one in the annals of the series, but it was also a moment full of melancholy and loss for the characters. We all felt it.
My first day on the set of Doctor Who turned out to be long and draining, a trial by barrage balloon, and when we were finally ready for the last shot on the day's schedule, the adrenalin that had been fuelling my first few hours was seriously dissipating. The final scene to be filmed followed chronologically from the one I had performed for my audition. It's the London Blitz, and Rose and Captain Jack are sipping champagne while dancing on a Chula warship that's hovering in front of Big Ben.
In other words, the final scene of my first full day had to be performed while acting in what's called 'negative space'. This meant that for part of the take I had to act to nothing: no other actors, no other props, just John standing on a green platform in front of a large green screen. After the special effects had been added, the platform would become the Chula warship and the screen would transform into Big Ben and the surrounding London skyline. Achieving these dramatic images is a prolonged process under the best circumstances, demanding twice as many takes and set-ups, and with a special-effects team involved as well as the regular crew.
At this point in the day, everyone was so ready to go home.
Billie and I stepped up on to the small platform that would magically become the warship. The sparkling ginger ale that looks like (even if it doesn't taste like) champagne was poured. The lighting, hair, make-up, wardrobe and sound were checked and double-checked. The shot with Rose and Captain Jack was good to go.
According to the script, I was expected to waltz with Billie while giving a few lines, and then finish with a spin that would bring us around to a particular spot on the platform, where I would face the camera and conclude my dialogue.
'Do you want a choreographer, John?' asked the director, James Hawes.
Silence. I mean absolute utter silence – a silence so big a Chula warship could have towed a fighter jet through it and there'd still have been room for the TARDIS. The crew was knackered. Their day was pushing twelve hours. The last cup of tea was cold and the biscuits were all gone. I was fried, and I needed to get to London within the next two hours if I was going to make my flight to Florida, where my partner of fourteen years, Scott Gill, and I were spending the holidays with my family. To ask for a choreographer would slow down the entire process, and we'd run into overtime, to say nothing of what message my response would send to the crew about me as a performer.
I looked at Billie.
She smiled and shrugged. 'It's your call, John. I'll follow your lead.'
And so, on top of a Chula warship, I danced to my own tune, to my own steps, the way I've been dancing for most of my life.CHAPTER 2
'Milly, Molly, Mandy'
The medieval artist Hieronymus Bosch's triptych depicting the Fall of Man hangs in all its decadent glory in the Prado museum in Madrid. In 1993, on one of our first vacations together, Scott and I visited Madrid and Barcelona, and the Prado was a highlight of the trip. Bosch's most famous work, The Garden of Earthly Delights, has inspired the devoted and the disturbed for centuries. At the bottom right-hand corner of his renowned depiction of tortured souls trapped in the underworld, a tiny bawling baby is swaddled in a white shawl next to a fish-like creature devouring a man's leg. That baby is me. I was the baby from hell.
From the moment I was born on 11 March 1967, I cried constantly, screaming in a pitch my family claims has permanently damaged their ability to hear certain sounds. On the plus side, my parents never hear their doorbell when a salesman rings, and now, frankly, they miss most of what they say to each other.
Excerpted from Anything Goes by John Barrowman, Carole E. Barrowman. Copyright © 2009 John Barrowman. Excerpted by permission of Michael O'Mara Books Limited.
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