It's been a big year for Charlie Barnett.
The former Chicago Fire and Secrets and Lies star first starred in the critically acclaimed Netflix series Russian Doll, then the critically acclaimed Netflix reboot of Tales of the City. He's about to star in the second season of the critically acclaimed former Lifetime/current Netflix series You, and currently, he's one of the bad guys on the final season of The CW's Arrow.
J.J., or John Jr., is actually one of the bad guys in the future. In the present, he's a small child, the son of John Diggle and Lyla Michaels (a son who was once a daughter, until the Flash screwed up the timeline, but that's a whole other story).
At some point, this son of two badass crimefighters turned to a life of crime himself and is, in 2040, the leader of the Deathstroke gang that is currently terrorizing the new Team Arrow. It's a more sinister role than Barnett typically plays, but that makes it all the more fun.
While it appears that Barnett has been particularly busy this year, it's actually the culmination of a few years of work. He filmed Russian Doll two years ago, then Tales of the City six months after that. Over the past few months, he's been back and forth on You and Arrow, but right now he's hanging out in hotels, waiting to go to work and "auditioning [his] ass off."
"It's so funny to be honest, because I have been in this position of watching other actors work on so many things that I'm like, damn, how are you doing that? And like also damn, let us have a little. Like chill out," he told us in a phone interview, hoping his fellow actors know he's not trying to take all the jobs.
"I've been auditioning like freaking crazy, which is amazing because because of those shows, because of these opportunities, I've been able to get into audition rooms I never had the chance to," he continued. "And I know those are stepping stones, so I'm super thankful for that. But yes, I have, knock on wood, had a lot of time and I hope that I'm using it correctly, but I want all the other actors to know like, I'm sorry, and I'm not trying to take up your job."
None of the many characters he's played recently have even felt like similar people, which Barnett says is something he strives for.
"It's something that I struggle with a lot," he says. "I was working on JJ again today for this new stuff coming up, and I really try hard to work on each character differently and just show a different outlet, you know."
He says Meryl Streep and Gary Oldman are the two actors he looks up to the most.
"Two perfectly brilliant actors who are able to manipulate themselves into something different almost every performance they give, and I'm floored by that and I hope that I can be talented enough to accomplish that," he explains. "But it's difficult, and especially when I truly believe there's no way to avoid yourself within acting. And it actually does you a disservice if you eliminate yourself completely from it. I think each character comes to life when there is some sort of a balance between you, the living organism and the work you put in, and the information you've garnered, and the physicality that you've felt within this character."
As JJ, the current leader of the Deathstroke gang, he's got a suit and a mask and lots of stunts to do, which adds a whole new element to the acting challenge.
"You know, I'm probably going to get in a lot of trouble for saying this, but I like to say that there's a lot of situations that actors can walk into, and one of my favorite ones is a reactionary situation. I love Leonardo DiCaprio. This is not shade on Leo, OK? He's a brilliant actor, but I was really surprised to see him not win an Oscar for all of the unbelievable performances that he has delivered and to win it specifically for The Revenant. Because it was one of those situations that I'm like, it's a reactionary acting situation. You put anyone in the freezing cold in Alaska and tell them to act cold and lost, it's not gonna be that hard, right?"
"Not that it's not hard...it's just that the environment adds so much, and you can pull so much from what's around you in those situations," he continues. "This character—again, I don't see him as a villain. I see him as a twisted person reacting to difficult situations in his life. I don't like to judge them as bad people, but yeah, the suit, the physicality of it helps me so much in finding who he is."
So who is he? That's what we still have to learn, with a little help from tonight's episode, which gave the brothers a little bit of time to catch up. But Barnett is still doing a lot of learning for himself.
See below for more of our chat!
E! News: I feel like I don't see you play evil very much. Have you gotten to do that a lot?
Barnett: Not as much as I'd like to, to be honest. I like playing a little villainous. Actually funny, kind of sad story. The first part I ever was given—I was like five, six years old and this was in a theater camp in Sarasota, Florida, and we were doing Brer Rabbit. The director, Nate Jacobs, cast me as the tiger...and he is the villain. I went home that night crying to my mom 'cause all I wanted to be was the rabbit. All I wanted was to be the rabbit, and to be the lead. He's the star! And my mom laughed and she's like, oh honey, don't you know, villains do the funnest things! And in a split second, I kind of rack my brain for all the villains I've seen on TV and movies, and I'm like, yeah, you're right, they're fun!
And still, I was like, I don't want to be a bad guy, and she's like make sure you make him real, so that you're neither bad or good but human, something along those lines. But it rings so true in my heart, and I guess from that point I've always been interested in playing villains so that we could further understand them. As much as I maybe don't agree with the actions of villains—specifically villains in our daily life as people—but there is something to be said about taking the time to have the compassion to learn about them or understand why they are doing the things that they do. It may, at the very least, give us insight into how to help or stop them.
This part is especially a situation where you're hoping he can be understood, considering who his parents are.
Yeah, it's a complicated situation. I just did an interview and we were talking about the fact that it's like, how can someone like this come from such great people? I mean, if you look out in life, you can see that all over. I don't think it's that uncommon. I think any time a person feels like they have been shortchanged—and just a side note too, I don't want to put JJ into this position of him being a sociopath. That's too easy to be like, oh, he's a crazy person who's just bad. Life isn't that simple. I think that actions of his parents, or the forgotten actions of his parents have really played a big part in why he is in the position that he is, or why he's chosen to do the things he has done. The blame can't necessarily be put on them, because it's him, but it was an absolute catalyst.
So I'm guessing we're going to get into all of that, like the reasons he became this way?
Oh yeah, oh yeah. I hope more and more. The funny thing too with any kind of family dynamic and family complication, you know, there's time, there's relationships, there's this emotional well that you sometimes can't even dig through. It's so hard to kind of figure out what the problem was, to solve it, to go back that far and piece it all apart. It's almost easier sometimes to just move forward. So I'm interested to see—I don't even know, as an actor working on the project—I'm interested to see how the two brothers' dynamic plays out, if it comes to a place of like—and I don't want to create any ideas here—a place of loss, or is there a way that the two of them can work it out, or does it extend back around to his parents? I have no clue.
Did you want to know your character's history ahead of time or did you learn as you went?
I learned a lot as I went. You know, there isn't a lot of information out there from the show itself. I was a girl in a different universe, and totally for that, but it's been piece by piece, which is not uncommon for most television shows. They move so quickly and things are changing so rapidly, and specifically when you're in a world of 32 universes and aliens and five different shows that kind of relate and can spin off universes, it can become really complicated. I can't even imagine trying to be a writer on one of these many shows because I'm sure they're exploding half the time. So a lot of the information I got from my castmates when I got there.
I didn't have the opportunity, unfortunately, to work with [Stephen Amell] and [David Ramsey] and some of the core members, but I have been working more focused with this newer group, and on top of being eager to just do good work, they care. They actually care what's happening in the universe they're a part of, and I respect and appreciate that so much. So I've been lucky enough to have people that are invested working on it to help inform me.
Did you go back and watch the show to see what Diggle and Lyla are like?
Oh, yeah. Heck yeah. I started with season one and didn't realize they were like 22 episodes. My filming dates were approaching and I was like, I don't think I'm going to be able to finish this whole thing by the time I get there. I got halfway through season two, then picked back up in season four and watched everything through there. I did spin back and catch a little bit of the stuff of Diggle and his son initially, or I guess me, and then seeing where Connor came in. That was all super rich stuff that aided me. But other than that, a lot of it just came from pulling stuff from the comic books. And you know, the characters are very different, but there's things that I felt should relate or could be fun, little Easter eggs for people who are fans.
Anything you're really excited for people to see?
You know, this may be a little vain, but I'm really excited to see all the fight stuff. As much as they wouldn't let me do a lot of the stuff because you know, there's legal ramifications, the stunt team and my stunt man in particular is pretty dope and I'm excited to see how those worlds kind of meld. Chicago Fire, we had a lot of stunts. Most of the time they would let us get away with, I'm doing it. My stunt guy on Chicago Fire was a six foot six blond Norwegian man, so, you know, I would rather I fill in the parts. I love him to death, but ya know.
But here, because these stunts are way beyond anything I can do with training, I'm really interested to see how he, as a stunt man and actor and creator, and my work as the character can meld together.
Arrow airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on The CW.