Samantha Barks, hailing from the Isle of Man, has shot to leading lady fame in a blaze of glory since coming third on the BBC’s search for Nancy, I’d Do Anything. At just 20 years of age, she has already played some of the most iconic rôles in musical theatre and recently starred in Cameron Mackintosh’s 25th Anniversary production of Les Misérables. The Public Reviews’ editor John Roberts caught up with Sam, to chat about her past, present and future.
You originally started training at Arts Educational School, but had to drop out due to progressing so far in the BBC’s I’d Do Anything show – how hard was it for you to come to the decision to leave the school?
It was a really hard decision as I had already made the huge leap of leaving home when I was 16 to go to drama school, but the decision was made easier by the fact throughout the programme I was having masterclasses with some of my idols, Idina Menzel, Liza Minelli and Andrew Lloyd Webber, and I was performing in front of millions of people each week, so while it was a hard decision to make I know I made the right one.
What were your original thoughts about entering the competition?
When It came up I wasn’t going to even apply for it, I thought “I’d like to watch that,” but never even thought about applying. It was only in the space of a week that so many people said, “You’d be great for that, Sam” or “Sam, you should apply for that,” that I said why not. At least I would meet some casting directors who hopefully would remember me for the future. So when I got through the first round and on to TV, I was amazed – but the whole experience was like one amazing whirlwind.
What were the main highs and lows about appearing on the show?
The highs were most definitely working with my idols, and actually being supported by such an amazing team of people; the judges were also fantastic. It was what I always dreamed of doing, the whole experience was so inspiring. The lows – there weren’t really any low moments but it was hard at 17 finding yourself so open to criticism from not only the panel but also the general public, but that makes you get a thick skin which is so important for our profession, very character building.
After finishing the show you went on to appear in Bill Kenwright’s touring production of Cabaret playing the lead rôle of Sally Bowles – how/when did you learn you got the part?
I auditioned for the part in the normal way and I got the call very early in the morning from my agent – I have to say I am so not an early morning person, so when he said they would like to offer me the rôle I was speechless, obviously I said yes straight away. The whole thing just blew my mind.
You gained critical acclaim for your portrayal of Sally Bowles – a part which is usually played a lot older, how did you approach the rôle?
So many people have so many pre-conceived ideas about how a part should be played, but I decided to go back to the roots of Sally Bowles and find out more about her, and originally she was a 19 year old character, which I found really interesting. Yes, it’s sad to see someone in their 30s at the end of their career but for me it was even sadder seeing someone at 19 making all the wrong decisions and fast becoming washed out.
The production under Rufus Norris’ direction was also controversially racy – was this of concern to you?
No – I believe when you go into a show that you have agreed to have to give it 100% and have no doubts about what you are doing. I didn’t know much about this production as I hadn’t seen it in the West End so when I met Rufus Norris for the first time I was taken aback by his passion and commitment and vision for the show. He is really captivating and inspiring and I am so glad I got to work with him at the beginning of my career as I learnt so much from him.
Moving on to the smash blockbuster Les Misérables where you are currently playing Eponine – we have heard the audition process for the show is quite lengthy and rigorous – how did you find the process?
I didn’t find it that bad at all! I had three auditions in total before I was offered the part, which must be said is a dream rôle. I still find the whole thing a little crazy, but for me the process was brilliant getting to explore the music in more depth, which is beautiful, getting to sing for Cameron Mackintosh was a privilege – so even to be considered for the part was an honour. I found the whole process really fun; obviously some auditions can be hellish but this was great.
It must be quite daunting to play such an iconic rôle?
Of course it is – there is 25 years of many people already playing the rôle not only in this country but across the world and everybody has their favourite performer in the rôle, even I do. Which I think is awesome, but you have to go into a rôle knowing how you want to play them and go with it, some people are going to like it, others aren’t but that’s what I love about the profession and seeing theatre, it is such a personal experience and that is what makes art so great.
The part has been played by so many big names in the past – did any of the previous Eponines give any words of advice?
I was so blessed to have met Frances Ruffelle and Lea Salonga who were both so supportive and encouraging and to know you have people like that behind you is a fantastic peace of mind.
There is a long tradition of Eponines becoming and staying lifelong friends with their Cossette co-stars which seems to be true with you and Lucie Jones (of X Factor fame) why do you think this is?
Awww bless – I think it is because our tracks on the show are so linked; we share a lot of scenes together, we share a dressing room together so spend a lot of time together and that really builds up a friendship, but I must also point out I have made so many close friends in the cast. We all get on really well they are fab!
You can be seen on YouTube clips galore showing the moment Sir Cameron Mackintosh asked you to play the rôle in the 25th Anniversary production at the 02 Arena – did you have any idea that it may have been on the cards?
I had no idea it was going to happen – after the show I was asked by our company manager to go downstairs for some press photos with the Jonas Brothers etc, and I felt really out of place not knowing why I was needed, and then Cameron Mackintosh came out and surprised. My mind went on over drive and asking so many questions, I still can’t believe I was asked – it was like a dream come true.
You are about to appear as the lead rôle of Zoe in a new Disney programme called Groove High – what can you tell us about the show and your part?
It s a new animated TV series which has segments of live action throughout the show, I play Zoe one of the leads who is really sweet, but also a little feisty, she tells it like it is and doesn’t take any rubbish from anybody. It’s great because I also get to do a lot of singing for the show. We are still filming it and I believe that it will be released sometime towards the end of the year.
Are there any plans for you to follow suit of other contestants from I’d Do Anything and Over the Rainbow and releasing your own album?
Not at the moment. I guess if the opportunity arises then I would certainly think about it, but there are lots of logistics like timing etc to get right first. I wouldn’t want to rush into it – I would want to make sure it was right from the start.
It seems that you like keeping busy as you are currently headlining along with other West End names in Direct from the West End; what can you tell us about the show?
It started through a group of us from Les Miserables wanting to create our own show, and now we also have cast from Wicked, Mamma Mia and Phantom in the team too.
There are many West End gala nights doing the theatre circuit – what makes Direct from the West End different? And why should people choose this production over another?
There is a real mix of styles within the show, and we cover some of the best music there is, plus we are all currently performing in the West End as well!
With literally thousands of musical theatre songs to choose from, did you have any personal say on the songs you sing in the evening?
It all came rather naturally, we knew we wanted to do a Les Mis section, then someone said that perhaps I should do something from Cabaret because of starring in it, then I was asked if I would like to do something from my favourite musical, Wicked – so it all pieced together quite easily.
The production only has 3 dates one of which was last weekend in York, you will be performing in Oxford on the 6th Feb and then onto Windsor – any plans for more productions after the three?
I am sure there will be more, there is nothing in the pipeline yet, but it would be such a shame to end it after just three shows.
You have already played some of the biggest rôles in musical theatre, but what is the part you most want to play and why?
Wicked would be a dream job , but I always find this question really hard to answer because in the end it all comes down to what is around at the time and what I am actually suited for. I love a lot of modern musical theatre and it is constantly changing which I love.
You are now just over the half way stage of your Les Misérables contract; when do you officially leave and what comes next?
My current contract with Les Mis ends on the 18th June, and people are not sure if they are going to be staying on or leaving just yet, but now is the time everyone is starting to audition for their next job and so I am at the thinking stage of what I want to do next, but I am so lucky, I have a great agent who are really supportive about what I do and what I should consider, but at this stage I am not really sure at the moment.