John Barrowman Talks Arrow, and Playing Merlyn as a Magnificent Bastard

Tonight's episode of Arrow will introduce Ra's al Ghul to the equation for the first time, and along the way, fans will get to see Stephen Amell's Oliver Queen learning that John Barrowman's Malcolm Merlyn, his Season One nemesis and the man responsible for the death of his best friend (Malcolm's son Tommy), is still alive.

He and Oliver "will have a lot to discuss" regarding not only Merlyn's faked death, but Oliver's decision not to kill Slade Wilson last season, after Slade killed Moira, Oliver's mother and Malcolm's former flame.

"Some s--t is going to hit the fan," Barrowman told us of his first confrontation with Oliver since the Season One finale. "[Malcolm and Oliver] are playing poker, and they both have full hands, but Malcolm is playing his cards very close to his chest."

He says he's used to that himself -- starring on a show that often demands secrecy, lest "they find me and kill me," he joked -- he uses his personal fandom as a way of knowing how much is just enough to give the fans and the press without spoiling anything he himself wouldn't want spoiled.

Of course, the level of manipulation that Merlyn has been bringing to bear on his friends and enemies since his "death" has almost escalated the character as a credible threat. We asked what it was like to go from archenemy to magnificent bastard in the span of two seasons.

"I think you described it perfectly -- he's gone from being a villain to a magnificent bastard and next, I think you'll see that he goes from magnificent bastard to a kind of misunderstood hero," Barrowman told us, and then laughed. "No, that's what I wish would happen!"

His character's relationship with Thea may not come into play right away -- at least as far as Oliver is concerned -- but it's helping to drive Merlyn forward this season. She's the daughter he always wanted -- and, unlike Oliver, the surrogate son he liked more than he ever liked Tommy, Thea has never tried to kill him.

"He loved Tommy, but I think Tommy was always a disappointment to him because he never did anything," Barrowman said of his character's relationship with his son, who died saving Laurel Lance at the end of Arrow's first season. "And then he died a hero and it still was a disappointment because that would have impressed Malcolm. He wanted him to become a hero, not to die doing it."

Of Tommy's recent return, Barrowman acknowledged that if Merlyn knew the lengths to which his son was going to search out the truth about Oliver, he might have seen him somewhat differently. "I think that would have impressed Malcolm, but I'm not sure that he ever knew it," the actor explained. "But I do love that I'm apparently banging my pilates instructor!"

The latter is a reference to a scene in which Malcolm called Tommy to summon him home, while Tommy was out looking for Oliver in Hong Kong, suggesting that he knows at least a little of what Tommy was up to during that time.

All of tonight's action takes place against the backdrop of the mystery surrounding the murder of Sara Lance, of course -- and once Sara's former lover Nyssa Raatko, the daughter of Ra's al Ghul, comes to Oliver with the revelation that Malcolm is alive, both assume that Malcom is likely responsible for the murder.

On one level, it seems unlikely Merlyn's the killer -- the most obvious answer rarely is right on Arrow -- but it's equally likely they'll want him to steer into that, keeping the audience in suspense. How does an actor play that?

"It sounds simple, but the answer is, you just play it," Barrowman said. "You have to try and do it totally without subtext."

On craft, we asked whether he's had any advice for Willa Holland, the actress who plays his daughter (and Oliver's half-sister) Thea and, so far, the cast member with whom he's shared the most screen time this year.

"I never offer advice unless it's asked for," Barrowman said. "Stephen has come to me a few times with some questions because, being the lead of a company on a show like this, and obviously I've done that before. I guess that comes with being the oldest member of the company -- which is weird for me, since when I started I was the youngest member of my company."

Merlyn, of course, is a character who has spent a lot of time playing off of just one or two of that company. Who does Barrowman hope to get some screen time with this season?

"Without telling you whether it's happening or not," Barrowman prefaced his answer, "I would like to have some scenes with Roy. I would like to have some scenes with David [Ramsey, who plays Diggle], and get involved with his story. Really, anybody. We've got a great company."