Arrow may be in its final season, but that hasn’t stopped the series from introducing new characters and concepts. While the present-day storyline has Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) bopping around the Multiverse on errands for The Monitor (LaMonica Garrett) in preparation for the upcoming Crisis on Infinite Earths crossover, the flash-forward storyline in 2040 follows the children of Team Arrow—Oliver and Felicity’s daughter, Mia Smoak (Katherine McNamara); Oliver’s son, William Clayton (Ben Lewis); Connor Hawke (Joseph David-Jones), the adopted son of John Diggle (David Ramsey) and Lyla Michaels (Audrey Marie Anderson); and Rene Ramirez (Rick Gonzalez)’s daughter, Zoe (Andrea Sixtos)—as they defend the newly-unified Star City and The Glades from the rising threat of the Deathstroke gang. The gang’s leader, played by Charlie Barnett, has his own link to the past: he’s John ‘J.J.’ Diggle Jr., the biological son of Diggle and Lyla, and Connor Hawke’s brother.
In a series that’s always been about familial bonds in one form or another, whether they’re the family you’re born with or the family you build for yourself, placing J.J. at the center of things in 2040, wearing the costume and leading a group styled after one of his father’s greatest enemies, is a natural, if unexpected, move. What is less immediately apparent is what drove J.J. down this path, though last week’s episode alluded to the depth of the relationship between J.J. and Connor, and to J.J.’s feeling of abandonment by his parents. I had the opportunity to chat with Charlie Barnett prior to the beginning of Arrow‘s final season, and he talked about what drives J.J., his experience joining the series, and who from his perspective is the real villain of the story.
Joe Grunenwald: First off, congratulations on joining Arrow, that’s very cool.
Charlie Barnett: Thank you!
Grunenwald: Were you a fan of the series before you joined?
Barnett: You know, I’m a fan of the comic book explosion that’s been going on, and that’s continuing to go on, but I had not ever watched Arrow. I knew of it, I knew it was incredibly successful, but I hadn’t tuned in until I got the part, and now I’m up to right around season 7 at the very end. I’ve finally caught all the way up, ’cause it’s a lot.
Grunenwald: It is a lot to catch up on.
Barnett: And it spins off into different worlds, there’s a point where I was like, ‘Oh shoot, now I gotta start watching Supergirl, then I gotta start watching Batwoman, oh God, I’m gonna miss all the plot!’
Grunenwald: Are you watching all of them now?
Barnett: I’m tuned in, yes, I’ve gotten through a couple of them now. The only one that I haven’t gotten to yet, or it hasn’t brought me over to yet, is Legends of Tomorrow.
Grunenwald: That one’s a little more off-beat than the other ones.
Barnett: And they all film right next to each other, so it seems right that those kind of correlate.
Grunenwald: How far into production on the current season are you?
Barnett: We’re getting up to I believe episode 9 coming up. We’re getting around to the end of it.
Grunenwald: Episode 9, is that the first post-Crisis on Infinite Earths episode?
Barnett: Yeeees? (laughs) I’m trying to think of the title of it, too, and where we are, and you know, I don’t want to give anything away. The one problem that I’m having with it is the ‘infinite earth’ part, because I’m not sure if we’re there again, but I don’t want to tell you where we are because it might give it all away.
Grunenwald: Gotcha, gotcha. Before we get to Crisis, more generally, how’s your experience been? The cast has been together for a little while already.
Barnett: There’s many parts of it that were new for me. It’s the first time I’ve gotten a chance to film in Vancouver, and I know there’s so much going on there, so it was incredibly exciting for me to get up there, and I had my family come and visit which is awesome. So I had that kind of personal side of it that was such a great part of the equation. The cast and the crew—the crew is incredible, no question about that as well, and the cast is just some of the most caring and hard-working young actors that I’ve had the opportunity to be with. They’re all so engaged, and desire to be better and work, and I can’t ask for more from scene partners or from compatriots. I’m really, really honored to have a chance to meet them and work with them. They really kind of revamped my spirit and enjoyment in a certain way.
Grunenwald: That’s great. Your scenes are set in 2040, as the future version of John Jr., but are you interacting at all with the ‘present-set’ cast members, or Stephen or anything?
Barnett: I have to say, we’re not done, so I don’t know where it’s going. But as of now I have not had the opportunity to. We see each other, of course, walking by on set and everything, and I think there’s a hockey game coming up in another two weeks that unfortunately I’m not going to be able to get to, but I was hoping that I would get to play against them. (laughs) But no, our worlds have not crossed. I haven’t met with Papa yet, and I haven’t met with Stephen yet. You know, in a dream world, too, because I fell in love with Felicity, so I wish-wish-wish that I could have something with her.
Grunenwald: She’s a great character.
Barnett: She’s a great character, and she’s an incredible actress, just stellar work, so, so brilliant. Really, really loved her work.
Grunenwald: On John Jr. specifically, we don’t know a ton about him before the season starts. It was alluded to last season that he’s the leader of this ‘Deathstroke gang,’ but we haven’t spent a lot of time with them and we haven’t met John Jr. yet as the season starts. What can you tell us about him?
Barnett: It’s another one of those ones that I’m like, I don’t want to give too much. I can tell you John Jr. is a twisted soul. He’s a good man at his heart. I don’t like to judge my characters, and I try not to judge the villains specifically, because then you fall into a world of not understanding them. He comes from a place of hurt, and he comes from a place of feeling forgotten, and that’s a lot of where his anger extends from. And from that he has lived in this world of encouragement of chaos. He wants to see everything thrown to shit, for lack of a better word. Honestly the reason I was so excited to play him was kind of, living in that risky world. I think, though, at his core he has a heart. He has a soul. He still loves and he still wants to be loved like any of us do. We’re all just little babies just wanting to be held. (laughs) But he is caught in between honoring the pain that he’s had to suffer and the experiences that he’s lost out on, specifically deriving from one person in his mind.
Grunenwald: Sort of related to that, the experiences that he’s missed out on, and this may be that person you’re talking about, but what is his relationship like with Connor Hawke?
Barnett: You know, that is an interesting one. I’m sure you’ll get to see it develop, and I’m even seeing it develop more and more. They had an incredible relationship. They have always had an incredible relationship. And then there was a giant fissure in it, I think early on in their life, is what we as actors discussed with the creators. From that, their relationship changed drastically and it became combative. I hope that doesn’t give too much away, but I guess from the trailers you can see that it’s pretty combative. They aren’t blood related and we all know that, but like any relationship that is family, despite blood origins or despite any of your history, that connection is almost sometimes stronger than you can control or maybe even stronger than you can push away from. There is this connection or chain link between the two of them that is inevitable, and will always be connected no matter how much J.J. tries to sever it.
Grunenwald: It’s interesting because last season there was a lot about Oliver and his half-sister, and then stuff with Oliver and Felicity’s son and Mia, so a lot of stuff with siblings last year, and then to see that relationship between J.J. and Connor coming forward in this season should be interesting.
Barnett: And especially jumping back and forth, and getting the opportunity to see all of them kind of—I’m sure all of the knots are not going to be untied, but getting a chance to kind of address them is going to be really interesting. That’s all the stuff that I got to read but I didn’t get to see, so I’m going to be able to, like a viewer, get to enjoy it as much.
Grunenwald: Is the role a very physical one for you? Have you done any fight training for it?
Barnett: It is an incredibly physical one. I set this in a couple of interviews, and I hope that I’m not dogging on my other stunt coordinators, because, all the different stuff that I’ve done, I’ve never done anything like this. This is way more physical, it’s way more individual. Most of the stuff that I worked on was from Chicago Fire, and it was fires burning and escaping rooms and saving people, jumping off ladders and junk like that. It’s a different kind of physical activity, and in Fire, a lot of the time we would push and push and push and push. I know Taylor Kinney always wanted to do his stunts, I always wanted to do my stunts, Jesse (Spencer) always wanted to do his, Monica (Raymund) always wanted to do hers, so we kind of had these windows when they would allow us to.
It ain’t the same (laughs), when you’re trying to do a double-back-flip and a karate kick to the face. As much as I keep saying, ‘please, please, please, train me, put me in it,’ I think that I have to back down and let it go to the people who are trained, who are unbelievable. My stuntman is just sick, and I know that he’s gonna make it look unbelievable. It’s definitely the first opportunity for me to kind of have this world where you have to give up part of your character. You have to give up that physical nature and somehow meet in the middle with your stunt person, because they have to live together, they have to show it’s the same existence and that can be challenging. If I’m walking with a limp, and then all of a sudden my stunt team is doing ten flips, shit don’t match. So it’s really intriguing and fun for me to map that out.
Grunenwald: And I feel like the fight scenes on Arrow, of all of the Arrowverse shows, the fight scenes have always been stand-outs.
Barnett: I don’t want to hate on anybody else—sorry, Supergirl—but our fight scenes are dope. Unbelievably good.
Grunenwald: Something you mentioned earlier, do you see John as the villain in the 2040 sequences? I’m sure he doesn’t see himself that way, but how do you view his role?
Barnett: It’s interesting that you say ‘John,’ because John Diggle I do, in a lot of ways.
Grunenwald: I specifically meant John Jr., but I see where you’re coming from.
Barnett: I hear you, but yeah, my father, I have a lot of issues with. (laughs) Myself, no. I think that I see what they’re doing as just as much a disservice or complication. They don’t know the ramifications of their actions. And it’s a conversation that I think is really…’useful’ maybe isn’t the right word, but ‘useful’ fits, though. It’s something that we need to have today, especially, just to get frank with you, with everything, the violence and trauma and fear that’s emanating in our country. These people are coming from a place of hurt, and it’s too difficult to try and sit down and understand them, and I don’t know if a lot of people have the patience or care to, honestly. But in order to make a stop, we have to start listening. We have to start challenging it in the right ways and eliminating it. And I know that’s such a big scope to relate it back to something like this in a television show. I don’t want to diminish those things that are going on because they’re horrendous and terrifying.
But it’s interesting to have this character, to be playing this ‘villain’ stereotype and understand, from my standpoint, this person is seeing these heroes go into these cities or towns, save people, and while they save people they’re also killing other villains, and with that you kill a family member. You kill my father, you kill my brother, and that creates another ripple effect. And I’m not saying that the heroes aren’t right, and I’m not saying that they shouldn’t be stopping these people from doing evil things, and that the person on the other side, the brother or the son or the daughter, should have somehow come to a realization that those actions were wrong, but there is an effect, and that effect causes something else. I’m getting on a little bit of a soapbox now, aren’t I?
Grunenwald: No, no, and I feel like a recurring theme on Arrow from the beginning has been either atoning for the mistakes of the past, or the sins of the past being revisited on future generations. So I think it’s perfectly applicable.
Barnett: And it’s so inlaid into the comics originally, the character himself – is he good, is he bad, he does bad things, he does good things, he does what he feels he needs to do in the moment. And that could be in question. For any of us as human beings, you’re a hypocrite if you’re saying you haven’t been put in that position. You’re not living if you haven’t been put in that position. So it’s something we all can relate to, it’s just, we all have to get better at doing the right things, and also understanding that every action has an effect, and weighing what’s the best for the whole. As an audience member it’s been the most fascinating part about Arrow and the one thing that makes it so different, and I really appreciate that.
Grunenwald: I do want to ask you about Crisis. I know you probably can’t say a ton, but what role will J.J. and the rest of the 2040 crew play in that crossover?
Barnett: To be frank, I don’t know that much, and what I do know, I can’t say. (laughs)
Grunenwald: My next few questions are going to be real boring then.
Barnett: I plead the fifth. I will say that you’re left off at a point in the middle of the season where things definitely need to be tied up. There’s a lot of unanswered questions, and I’m hoping that a lot of those will be addressed in this upcoming universe, no pun intended. But I…I guess that’s it. (laughs)
Grunenwald: Okay! Last season there were a couple references made to John Diggle being John Stewart on an alternate Earth, which would make him a Green Lantern. That technically means that you could also be a John Stewart on an alternate Earth. Any chance you show up as a Green Lantern before the series ends?
Barnett: I will tell you upfront, that was not a conversation that we did have, but it’s a conversation I would freakin’ love to have. As much as you can put 100 percent of your thoughts into ‘this is what’s going to happen,’ in these kind of comic book worlds, not only because the world is so open ended, you can go anywhere, but also because literally the structure part of it, the comics that have come before it or the comics that are still coming out, allow so many possibilities to follow, and as we’ve all seen, it’s almost too many possibilities for everybody, and especially these shows, to tap on each single one. So I think it’s kind of up in the air.
You know, on a side note, we’re in this beautiful age of seeing women have much more ability and much more possibilities in this kind of stifling industry, to be frank. I would be open and really excited to see a female Green Lantern.
Grunenwald: Yeah, and Jessica Cruz is a canonical Green Lantern from the comics—
Barnett: Of course, of course.
Grunenwald: —it’d be cool if she showed up.
Barnett: You never know. (laughs) You never know.
Grunenwald: If you could make one thing with a power ring, what would you make?
Barnett: Oh, frick. I would probably try and help end hunger or, even beyond that, I would do something with global warming. I don’t think setting the map back would be a helpful situation for us humans because we’d probably just do the exact same thing and fuck it all up over again, but if there was a way that I could set the time back to clear out a lot of the pollution, and also impart some moral responsibility on people, or a little more moral responsibility…
Grunenwald: You have big plans for your power ring.
Barnett: I’ve got big, big plans. (laughs)
Grunenwald: It’s been reported that one of the episodes in the final season will be a backdoor pilot for a spinoff set in 2040. Do you know if there’s a role for J.J. planned in that story?
Barnett: That I would also be excited to hear about, too, but I have no clue. We had talked about it kind of nonchalantly as a group of actors when I was on there, and I haven’t been back for the last episode, so I haven’t seen them in a bit of time, and we had a little bit of a break, but maybe things have developed in the last couple days that I don’t know about. I would hope to see it build, because, first and foremost, these actors and the crew, I would love to see them just have opportunities because they’re all really, really incredible and they deserve it. But, you know, TV world, we’ll see.
Grunenwald: I think the world of Star City 2040 that has been built over the last season, and I’m sure will continue to be built in this final stretch of episodes, is a really interesting world with a lot of a lot of potential for the characters in it.
Barnett: That’s great to hear. It’s good to know that people are interested in it.
Grunenwald: As a final question, what are what are you most excited for people to see during during this final stretch of episodes?
Barnett: I’m excited in a bigger scope than just myself. I’m excited to see how people relate to the family dynamics within the story, and how those are kind of tested and pushed and pulled and every kind of effect is pulled upon them. I’m excited to see how people who aren’t superheroes, maybe, but are superheroes in a sense of being an incredible father, mother, leader, brother, sister, I’m excited to see how that kind of translates and relates. On a personal level, I’m really excited to be playing something…villainous (laughs) as much as I don’t judge him, but it’s something that people will see as the bad guy, and hopefully make them question that.
The final season of Arrow airs on Tuesday nights at 9PM Eastern on The CW.