Of all the names in Tom Hooper’s upcoming adaptation of the beloved stage musical Les Misérables, the one casual fans might not recognize right away is that of Samantha Barks who plays Eponine. Though the 22-year-old has plenty of experience on stage in England, she’s not yet a household name in the United States. That’s probably all going to change when the film opens on Christmas Day.
Growing up on the tiny Isle of Man, Barks followed her musical theater dreams to London when she was just 16. There she appeared on the BBC talent show I’d Do Anything in the hope of winning a part as Nancy in the West End revival of the stage musical Oliver!. Coming in third, Ms. Barks left quite an impression on producer Cameron Mackintosh and on Andrew Lloyd Weber. From there, she won the lead role of Sally Bowles lead in a touring production Cabaret. After that, she spent a year playing Eponine on stage and then appeared in the Les Misérables 25th Anniversary Concert in 2010. In 2011 she finally got her chance to play Nancy in Oliver! and it was then that she found out from producer Mackintosh that she’d won the part of Eponine in Hooper’s film, a part she’d dreamt of playing since she was a little girl.
I spoke to Samantha a few weeks back when she was in Los Angeles promoting the film. The nice thing about talking to her is that she’s still relatively new to the whole press tour game. She’s still excited and fresh and unguarded. Unlike many stars who’ve been at this a long time, she doesn’t come across as jaded or overly coached. A fast talker, she’s open and honest and she’s got an infectious enthusiasm.
Craig Kennedy: There’s a YouTube video of you (http://youtu.be/blzqRut0g0A) where you’re doing a curtain call for Oliver! on stage and your producer Cameron Mackintosh gets up and announces to the audience that you’ve just gotten the part of Eponine in Tom Hooper’s film version of Les Misérables. It’s a neat moment because you look absolutely stunned. Tell me what you remember about that night.
Samantha Barks: That was literally the first moment I’d heard I got the part. I’ve never wanted anything more. It just consumed my mind getting that part in this film and I’d been in and out for months and being put through my paces, as we all were, and when Cameron comes on stage, I just thought he was going to do his speech about Charles Dickens. I had no idea he was going to announce that I’d gotten the part of Eponine in the film. Sometimes I actually have to watch that back to remind myself that it wasn’t a dream. I think that’s the most unique way you could find out that you got a job in the world! That was the moment there that my life changed and I’m so happy that I’ve got it as something I can go back and watch to remember that feeling. It was mad!
Craig: For someone who grew up doing music and musical theater, this must be a really exciting time for you.
Samantha: It is. It’s such a new world for me and to be discovering it and experiencing it in this capacity… it really is. It’s very new. To be doing this for my first film, I think, is the most incredible experience because it’s being done in such a unique way that no one else has ever really done before, you know, this kind of live singing really combining, in a true sense, theater and film. It was a risk. I think it’s definitely worked, but I’m a bit biased (laughs). But I feel so proud to be a part of it, a part of something so new and unique.
Craig: Help me make this clear for people who maybe haven’t been reading about the production until now. The singing the cast did in this film version of Les Misérables was not pre-recorded and then lip-synced later the way it’s typically done in a film musical. The singing was all recorded live as you were performing the song for the cameras.
Samantha: Yeah, completely live vocals. What you’re seeing is 100% what we did on the day of shooting. I didn’t go back and do any ADR, any added vocals. That’s scary because you’re singing for hours and hours on end in the freezing cold rain. By the end of it my teeth were chattering while I was singing and I’m wondering how it’s going to sound because it’s so raw and so real. That was the worry. You hope it sounds nice. You want it to be raw and to carry all the raw emotions in it, but it’s also a musical. You want to honor the actual beautiful music that’s been written. It was a risk, but I think that kind of raw way of filming has added to the musicality of it.
Craig: You’ve performed Eponine live in front of an audience, so that must’ve helped doing it live in front of cameras.
Samantha: That’s the thing. I’m used to doing it live so it’s very exciting to do it that way on film. That’s the true way of theater and to be able to combine the two, to capture that live experience that you have going to the theater is exciting. Musicals on film can often seem quite false and it’s hard to have that connection to the music. And that was the aim, to get rid of that false sort of feeling. The difference is, in a musical on stage you sing for 3 hours a day, 8 shows a week where you’ve got to be completely at your vocal peak. In the film, you’re up from 5 in the morning until 9 at night singing over and over again in freezing cold rain or running barefoot through muddy streets and things like that. The conditions and being at your vocal peak for a long time and having to contend with all these crazy things, it really puts you through your paces. You really have to take care of yourself and get your vocal stamina as strong as it can be.
Craig: When you’re performing on stage, there’s a distance between you and the audience. How did it feel with the camera right up in your face?
Samantha: It was nerve-wracking, and also obviously in theater you put out your performance and you’re used to getting an instant reaction. Whether people are crying or laughing or applauding or yelling, you get that instant buzz of live theater and that adrenalin kick that you get is like no other. In this film, you didn’t have that instant audience reaction so you just have to trust that what you’re doing is truthful. That’s the thing with these songs. They’ve got so much heart and soul written into them, these tragic tales, these tragic monologues through song, and you’ve got to trust that these little tiny emotions that you’re putting out there are being read. Because this is my first film, the gamble for me is that it’s hard to know whether you’re being too big or too small or that you’re being clear enough. There are so many things to think about, but I think as long as you’re being truthful and you know your character so well, you just hope they come across clearly.
Craig: How long was the filming?
Samantha: The filming took place over about 4 months and my involvement was about 2 1/2 months of that.
Craig: So you had to be primed and ready to go and in peak form for 2 1/2 months.
Samantha: Yeah, and we also had like 9 weeks of rehearsing. I was doing a show at the beginning of that so I was going back and forth on tour performing as Nancy in Oliver! and also rehearsing. I remember sitting on trains and I’d have my head in Victor Hugo’s novel for like 3 weeks nonstop. It’s a big one to get through. But that’s another exciting thing about doing this film for me. Eponine was a character that I knew so well, but this film allowed for more details from the novel to be reintroduced because they come across when the camera is in this close. It was marrying the two characters because they are slightly different. The Eponine in the musical is so lovable, she’s this tragic heroine and she captures people’s hearts. It’s the role I wanted to play when I was a little girl. “I want to be Eponine!” you know? But, in the novel she’s a real girl who’s a lot more twisted. She’s a criminal. She spends weeks in prison before she sees Marius for the second time and you really get to see the true extent of her parents’ criminal lifestyle and how much more of an involvement Eponine has in that lifestyle. She’s essentially a criminal and she comes from a more awkward place. Her morality is a lot more twisted. I think involving those kinds of details makes her character more miraculous when she’s actually redeemed by her love for Marius. Although she dies, she dies as a good person, which I think is where she fits into the theme of redemption in the film.
Craig: You said you’ve dreamed of playing Eponine since you were a little girl and now here you are in the filmed record of the character. Your performance will be the way millions of other little girls are introduced to the character for the first time for years and years to come. How does that feel?
Samantha: It’s exciting! It’s a pressure as well because Eponine is such an iconic role and I just hope I do it justice and that other people can feel for this character the way that I felt when I was 7 or 8. It’s scary putting your mark on such an iconic piece of theater, one of the most iconic pieces of theater that has ever existed. So there is pressure!
Craig: It must be a little intimidating…
Samantha: A little intimidating, definitely! And also to be surrounded by such an amazing cast. The whole thing is a high pressure situation, but a nice pressure, a wonderful pressure. It’s pressure with a potential to leave your mark. As a performer that’s what you really strive to do, to do something memorable and to leave your mark with something that you’re proud of.
Craig: How do you approach a character like Eponine who has been performed so many times and so many people have preconceived ideas and expectations about her?
Samantha: You try and make it your own. The nice thing with Eponine is, when I did it on the West End, I couldn’t have been more different from the girl who played it before me or the girl who played it after me. Every time I go and see the show – and I always go and see them because my friends are always in the new cast change – it’s like a brand new show and you can’t help but be excited to see how someone else is going to portray it. Someone once asked me if it was weird seeing someone else play my part, but I don’t feel like it’s my part. I just feel like I’m a part of her, you know? I feel so proud to be involved with this character. And you’ve got to, I think. People think of the iconic songs and they think of Frances Ruffelle and Leah Salonga, the greats who played Eponine, and you’ve got to look at yourself and put yourself into this role. I think every individual person who plays it is going to have a different effect. You have feisty Eponines, you have very small delicate Eponines, you have all these different types. Like I said before, you’ve just got to be truthful with these characters, I think, and that’s what connects people to these stories, the truth in a girl who’s tragically fallen in love with a man who’s never going to love her back. You’ve got to be as truthful as you can and then you kind of slot into the character. Everyone plays it very differently because you have to. You’ve got to put your own mark on it; do something different.
Craig: When I spoke to Eddie Redmayne about playing Marius earlier, he talked about his experience performing Richard II in front of people like Ian McKellen, people whose portrayals of that character are famous. Have you had any experiences like that playing Eponine?
Samantha: Yeah I did actually. Before I started on the West End, I actually did a duet ironically of “On My Own” with Frances Ruffelle who is the original Eponine. That was the first crazy experience of me going “What? That’s who I grew up listening to! Frances Ruffelle!” And then I did the Les Misérables 25th Anniversary Concert with Leah Salonga. She played Fantine in it, but she’s another very famous Eponine. She played her at the 10th Anniversary. So it’s kind of like a family of Eponines and what’s been lovely is that I’ve just been met with constant support. I remember when I got the role in the film and it was announced and Leah was announcing all over the internet how proud she was. I think having that support from the classic famous Eponines just makes you so proud to be a part of this character, this iconic theatrical role. Having that support is just incredible. It takes off the pressure. You’re flying the flag for Eponine the heart-broken heroine, you know?
Craig: Having achieved one of you life’s goals, what would you say to another 7-year-old girl who might be out there dreaming of one day playing Eponine?
Samantha: I’d say it’s possible. Like, it’s actually possible! And I’d tell her never to forget that little girl sitting there crying away to “On My Own” singing her heart out because you have to be fearless. I grew up on a tiny little island where there wasn’t a lot of opportunity, but I just went for everything I could. When I was 17, I went and sang in front of Andrew Lloyd Weber because why not? You have to attack every situation with gusto and don’t overthink and overstress. A lot of people scare themselves out of stuff because they think, “What if this happens or what if that happens?” I just think you have to launch yourself at it and work your ass off. Those opportunities are out there, but you have to go out and make them happen. They don’t just fly to you. If life isn’t going the way you want it to, change it! Go and do something that scares you. That’s what I like doing, things that make me go “Agh!” That’s what makes me feel alive, chasing after fear in my career, pushing myself into things that scare me.
Craig: So, what scares you now? What do you think you might want to try next?
Samantha: This is all quite scary right now actually, doing interviews and things! It’s a brand new world for me. But I think I want to play a really exciting, meaty role in a film, something very different from Eponine. That scares me because it’s different than anything I’ve done before.