by Steve Fritz
Until a couple of years ago, you’ve probably seen Burn Gorman, but didn’t know him. Then again, in barely a decade he appeared on sterling British TV shows and films as East Enders, Coronation Street and the film Penelope starring Christina Ricci and Reese Witherspoon (finally getting a true theatrical release in the U.S. this February). Then, two years ago, he took the role of the hot-headed Owen Harper on the Doctor Who spin-off series Torchwood. There he co-stars with fan favorite Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) and an equally talented ensemble cast protecting our planet from what’s to come in the 21st Century.
In real life, Gorman was born in the U.S., prophetically Hollywood, where his father taught linguistics at UCLA. “My father was not so much a hippie,” he explained, “but we came back (to the UK) when I was seven because my two elder sisters were about to enter high school, and he thought it was time to bring us all back. I also think he was glad to leave, particularly California.”It looks like Torchwood is going to be around a while. As Gorman explained, it replaced Heroes’ timeslot on the BBC. The show is garnering solid ratings and, apparently, the second season had just completed shooting with guest stars like James Marsters and Freema Agyeman in recurring roles. From all indications, we shouldn’t be surprised if there’s a third season, either. There’s also a comic book on the way to keep us fans wanting more. Burns currently lives in Cardiff, near the set of both Who and Torchwood with his wife Sarah (interestingly, a teacher) and his son Max. In fact, the interview had to wait until he tucked his boy into bed. How could you argue with that, eh?
This is what he had to say:
Newsarama: So how does an actor like yourself go from something as dark as Dickens’ Bleak House to playing Owen on Torchwood?
Burn Gorman: I feel very lucky. I think of myself as a character actor, compared to a straight actor. I know a character actor in England is pretty much the same as in the States, you’re actually hired to put on terrible teeth and stuff like that. Now Bleak House, was a real breakout for me. I played Mr. Guppy. He was a very ambitious, with a piranha-like glint in his eye.
NRAMA: A Uriah Heep-like character.
BG: Yes, but he actually thinks he’s a good guy. He’s proposing all the time. He rubs bear fat in his hair and is constantly poking his elbows into roast beef. In fact, he’s a bit of an idiot. He also got to represent the lower echelons of society interacting with the upper.
I also got to work with some brilliant people in that; like Gillian Anderson and Charles Dance. Also, there were parts where the director said just do what you are going to do. What you have to realize is we were working with these sets that were laboriously and intricately put together. They even included four of five different streets, so that was amazing.
One thing I think that really made a difference is at one time my father actually banned the telly from our house. He was very keen on us getting to all the classics. So I remember being brought up on Dickens. Now I’m a complete and absolute telly addict. I remember whenever I would go to other people’s houses, I would voraciously watch whatever was on. So my father’s plan backlashed. Now that I have a 1 ½ year-old son, I look at most of the crap on the telly and it’s stuff I don’t want him to see, but it’s not all bad, is it?
NRAMA: I think what’s interesting is the difference of the times. I mean, ten years ago do you think we could have seen the return of Doctor Who or Torchwood?
BG: I remember when Sylvester McCoy was doing it. My main memories were of Peter Davidson and Colin Baker. When Sylvester McCoy became involved, Doctor Who was kind of relegated to children’s TV and I know I didn’t watch it.
NRAMA: But look at you guys now, where you’re tremendously popular. It must be interesting to be John Barrowman or David Tennant right now.
BG: It’s insane! It’s kind of different for Torchwood because we share the set with Doctor Who. We do share the studio so we’re constantly tripping around Daleks as we eat our lunch. It’s a very family atmosphere. We’re very left alone. The BBC doesn’t touch us. We’re in our own world out in Cardiff in the middle of Wales.
NRAMA: Do you mean it’s like Star Trek: Next Generation and DS9. They co-existed but rarely crossed over.
BG: Yeah. I don’t think there was even talk about any characters jumping over from Doctor Who and Torchwood except for Captain Jack. Obviously with Freema coming in this season that’s changed. I also think John is going back into Who in the near future. From what I understand, in the future they will explore the relationship between the two shows even more, but that’s still some speculation. It would be a shame not to, really.
It’s only when we go out we find out how passionate people are; especially Torchwood. It was kind of an experiment. It really is a standalone. We thought that was going to how it would be accepted. We know we have links with Doctor Who, but it’s kind of Star Trek-like. In the States, we know that’s how it’s been accepted.
NRAMA: Now pardon me for saying so, but I really thought the first season of Torchwood was truly uneven. I thought there were some wonderful episodes, like “Out of Time,” but the ending for “Cyberwoman” was bad, really bad.
BG: Absolutely. I agree with you. My feeling is they didn’t know, they weren’t sure, about the world of Torchwood. They knew it was an Earth-based organization; alien hunters, and finding out about alien technology, and based in Cardiff. But they were not sure about the dynamics of the team. We went in blind with very little information on our end apart from Jack and the Doctor, and they were sort in the backstory.
I think one thing was the first season kind of dwelt too much on the team’s shortcomings as opposed to the team working together, although that was interesting in the end. This led to inconsistencies that became slightly jarring. I think we really tried to address that since then.
NRAMA: Also, the only one who seemed even the most remotely level headed was Eve.
BG: Well, Owen, let’s be honest, is an ass. He is arrogant and unable to express his emotions. But as we go on, we start to see him grow. What we learn is he’s very passionate about his profession. He is a doctor. He has taken the Hippocratic oath. He is also very passionate about being in Torchwood. As the series progresses we find he’s hard on the outside but very soft on the inside. You’re going to see a lot less angst-y stories with him going renegade. He’s will be the one more likely to take on the morally gray areas. I mean in the team dynamic of a sci-fi show, not everyone can be the hero. There has to be someone who questions the leader and his word.
NRAMA: That was put to the extreme test with the last episode of the first season. One moment he’s stopping the Black Plague like an afterthought but he also is rebelling against Jack.
BG: And the show came full stop came when Owen shot Jack. You have to remember that until then he didn’t know about Jack’s ability to regenerate. He also doesn’t really know about the Doctor. He doesn’t know about time travel. He’s just the doctor in this very Earth-based organization.
With the new season he now realizes that Jack is, for all intents and purposes, immortal. He’s also just coming down from Jack telling him, ‘OK. I forgive you. You can stay a member of the team.’ It’s giving Owen a chance to show off more of his good side, which is good for me as an actor because there is only so much you can put up with him and Jack going off all the time. Then again, that always doesn’t work that way. I mean as an actor you can’t always ask for your character to be likeable, you want some darker shades of gray.
NRAMA: I remember interviewing Sylvester McCoy when, as we found out later, it was after the last season of Doctor Who. At that time he thought he was going to be picked up for one last season. Look at things now. Doctor Who is not only huge, but has spin-offs…
BG: Well, look at Neil Gaiman. One minute he’s meeting with people in Hollywood. The next he’s flying off to London to see a stage production of his play Wolves In The Walls, which I understand is brilliant.
NRAMA: And on the third he’s working on his next novel…
BG: Yeah. Gaiman must be comfortable with all the different things he’s working with.
NRAMA: But Neil would probably have been a success in whatever he worked in. Let’s look at it from this end. Here you were doing Bleak House and guest appearances on Eastenders or Coronation Street. Now you’re doing Torchwood. How did you get the role? Was there a casting process?
BG: I’d like to say there was, but in reality I got a phone call from the producer and the casting director for something on Doctor Who. There was a script, but I couldn’t see it. It certainly didn’t have anything to do with Owen. All it said was that it was preparing for the 21st Century. I had no idea what it was. I remember it being a very quick meeting. I remember it having to do with Captain Jack. Then I forgot all about it really, at least until I got invited to another meeting. What I didn’t know was that Russell P. Davis was involved. I’m very familiar with his work. I’m a big fan of him.
So after the meeting I didn’t think much about it for a long time. Then they just called one day and asked me if I would be interested. It was a very quick turnover. It was actually within two-three weeks. In fact, I remember my wife was just about to have our son. So we were shipped out to Wales, she got set up in the hospital once there, and I started filming while she was having my baby. He was born just as we started.
NRAMA: Talk about a heck of a time to become a dad…
BG: That was something (Laughs). I now look at the first season and see that I have bags under my eyes for most of it. I really had my back in the fire.
Still, I think a lot of my getting the job had to do with Julie Gardner. She’s a real visionary producer. She’s willing to go for people who don’t necessarily have the experience, which believe me I didn’t. I think she looks for alchemy more than anything else.
NRAMA: So would you say there was pretty immediate chemistry with you and the rest of the cast?
BG: Thank God, yes! I think one of the big things about casting is knowing how to take disparate individuals and putting them together. It’s brutal when they don’t hit off, which has happened on some of the shows I’ve been on.
I think one thing that helps is that we’re all a bit naughty. We all love to have a laugh. John is crazy, basically and the rest of us aren’t too far behind. So we basically get through the hours by laughing. We play hard, too. Thank god there was no serious method actor among us.
NRAMA: So John is the main joker of the team? I kind of got that feeling from the DVDs.
BG: John comes in like a whirlwind. He’s kind of like a greyhound before a race. He’s totally relentless. Still, he’s all about doing it in a professional manner. He’s led companies on the West End all his life, at least since his 20s. He has an attitude of getting it all started, and I think he’s been like that all of his career. I think he did a lot about making us get along as fast as we can, which is kind of what it’s all about isn’t it?
NRAMA: Would you say the actors are as different as the characters they play? The characters represent a pretty wide spread.
BG: Yeah. I think in the end the writers started writing for Gareth and Naoko. Ianto (Gareth’s role) is very dry, understated. But I tell you what. Off camera he’s as crazy as John. He’s totally insane. On camera he acts like a very staid, stoic individual, but if you go to a club with him you don’t want to be near him when he gets on the dance floor. I’ve seen him standing there screaming at the top of his lungs, completely out of character.
And for the record, let’s say that I am nothing like Owen Harper. I have a very modest view of myself. I think I like to be quiet. I think Owen is a rogue and a bit perverted and dangerous. He’s a good character to play.
NRAMA: Would you say the character of Eve is our eyes and ears to what’s going on in there? BG: I think so, yeah. She’s also like John with bundles of energy. We never stop laughing. We have ridiculous names for each other. We talk in stupid voices all the time. Then when the cameras start we just switch on.
Like I remember the first day James Marsters came on the set. He didn’t come in acting like he’s Spike. He soon joined in with us in song. He was great to work with. I’ve seen him in so many things now. I loved him in Smallville, and obviously in Buffy. I can say that he’s very dedicated. I imagine he’d be killer on the stage. He’s got an amazing presence; very focused. He’s always on call; knows his lines forward and backwards. Yet off the stage he was a real gentlemen.
NRAMA: Speaking of guests, how was working with Freema Agyeman?
BG: She thankfully worked on Doctor Who so she was up to the schedule. We do a lot of night shifts on this show, which take a little bit of getting used to. Where we came in is she’s a doctor, I’m a doctor, so when we meet there’s some professional frisson about her treading on my territory, you know? It was pretty effortless to work with her though. She came in, did her parts, and then left.
NRAMA: Now how many episodes are in the second season?
BG: 13. One thing I have to say is it’s pretty good that you guys are now getting them only ten days after we do. I think that’s how it should be. Maybe it was because of the writer’s strike, I don’t know, but I did hear that the amount of time between an episode coming out here and showing up over there is quick. I think that’s great.
NRAMA: Obviously you’ve done plenty of things of a classical nature. How does it feel to be working on a sci-fi series?
BG: I think it’s really about possibilities, isn’t it? It’s great to be away from pedestrian story lines. You have a situation where anything can happen. That’s what’s so great about sci-fi; no boundaries, really. Sometimes that backfires; the stories don’t make sense or leave massive plot holes. At least it’s not of this world. But the themes you can have about eternity and salvation, yet also be incredibly ridiculous with stories about thieving aliens. I think you get to experience the whole range.
NRAMA: What about the fandom element?
BG: I’m a fan myself. For something like Doctor Who, you have this legacy of decades of TV. The fans get so passionate about it. They are also so well informed, at least the fans that I know.
With Torchwood I haven’t had a chance to really meet many fans. I don’t go to many conventions or anything like that. I think I’ll start to because I remember when I got to meet the actor who played Boba Fett. It was a nice thing, isn’t it?
I mean, I look at Patrick Stewart. He’s a hell of a guy who’s just gone back to the stage to do MacBeth. He doesn’t have to. He’s done just about everything he could have with Shakespeare and the stage. I was lucky enough to see him though and it was outstanding. Even if you didn’t know who Patrick Stewart was, it was the production of the year.
NRAMA: Did he play MacBeth?
BG: He was absolutely stunning in the role. He really cuts it. Yet he’s also one of those people who doesn’t sniff at sci-fi.
NRAMA: Would you love to have a career path like his?
BG: Well, at the moment I’m in England getting ready for the National Theater. That’s my next job. So I’m getting ready to do some classical theater. Then I’m going to do a BBC 4 thing about comedians in the 60s. Then back to doing Torchwood season three for BBC 2. I’m lucky in that I’m able to do very different parts, whether it’s film or whatever is around.
This is why I’m wary of getting identified with one particular character. The more popular Torchwood becomes, then I have to see where it goes. I do like to be as anonymous as possible. I want to be able to do very varied roles and have been lucky enough to do that. Although I do admit I would like to come to the U.S. and do some Who conventions, just to see what they are like.
NRAMA: So what are you doing for the National Theater?
BG: I’m doing The Revenger’s Tragedy, a Jacobean tragedy by Middleton. It’s basically a Taratino-esque bloodbath. Everyone dies by the end. Everyone kills each other. It’s got sex, intrigue, incest. If it was a movie it wouldn’t get made. I play a character that if he doesn’t get to f*** a certain character will want to cut her head off.
NRAMA: Gets rid of any anxieties, I’m sure.
BG: I think we’re very lucky here in England. As an actor I like to do at least one play a year and I’m able to do it, although obviously with my first child it’s good to do more telly work. It pays the bills. NRAMA: So how has Torchwood gone over there this year with the fans? Better?
BG: I think so. I’ve been pretty busy so I’m not able to keep track. I do get messages from the producers and it seems people do like it. The ratings have been really good, especially as it’s taken Heroes slot on Wednesday evenings.
I just found out they’re doing another version of Torchwood that I didn’t find out until the end (of the season--ED). I’m not sure what I think about that. It will be set earlier and won’t contain as much of the sex or the f-bombs so more kids can watch it. I mean how much is going to be left if you take all that out?
Another thing is I just wish other members of the cast are forced to get their kit off like I had to in the first season. To be honest, I’m absolutely thankful that Owen got to keep his clothes on this entire season. I mean Captain Jack is supposed to be this gorgeous god. I think more people would like to see him around without his clothes than Owen. [laughs]