Samantha Barks is a vivacious bundle of energy chattering away ten to the dozen – and why shouldn’t she be? Curled up on an armchair in her Claridges hotel room, the 22-year-old actress has the world at her feet. “Life keeps getting more incredible than I ever expected it to be,” she exclaims when I ask her about her whirlwind year.
Just twelve short months ago Sam was a relative unknown. After finishing third in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh’s search for a girl to play Nancy in the new production of Oliver! she launched a successful stage career, scoring a lead role in Cabaret before appearing as Éponine in Les Misérables on the West End stage. She certainly made an impression and soon found herself performing alongside Nick Jonas at the show’s 25th anniversary concert in front of 20,000 fans at the O2.
But nothing would top the moment in January last year when Mackintosh surprised her on stage during the curtain call of Oliver! to tell her she would be playing Éponine in the movie, beating out competition from top Hollywood actresses rumoured to include Scarlett Johansson, Taylor Swift and Lea Michele.
“From the ages of 18 to 22, the most consistent thing in my life has been Éponine. This one character has travelled along through everything with me and it’s been wonderful,” she explains.
So it must have been strange to walk on set and finally picture the scenes she’d been imagining for years on stage? “Every night singing On My Own you look out into this dark space and you picture a Parisian street and then you walk on set and it’s there. It was just magical for me – actually living that moment, living in this imaginary world that I’d made for myself.”
But not everyone is greeted on their first film set by the likes of Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen, although as a bonafide star of the musical, Sam had a few tips of her own to offer the A-list cast. “I’d be almost like a fact check. They’d ask, ‘where does that come in the musical?’ I was just happy to offer anything because I could learn something from them just by watching.”
“Watching how Hugh Jackman approaches a role like Jean Valjean is phenomenal. This incredible, fierce ex-convict emerges from him.
“There’s the opening scene where he’s in freezing cold water and everyone always said, ‘No matter how hard the challenges that we face in this musical, you’ll never be as cold as Hugh Jackman standing in that freezing pool!’ That’s what I would say to myself when I was standing under a rain machine singing On My Own.'”
Their efforts have not gone unrewarded, as Les Misérables has emerged victorious – both critically and commercially – in the US where it was released on Christmas Day. But for the scores of British fans desperate not to be disappointed by the musical’s long-awaited silver screen adaptation (due to hit British screens on 11 January), what can Barks say to reassure them?
“Amanda [Seyfried] says, ‘it’s just so good we don’t want to ruin it and it was scary, especially for me. But I’ve seen a lot of different outlooks on Les Mis and I’ve had a lot of experience. I think what this musical does is create something that’s interesting and new but still keeps the heart and soul from that piece they’ve grown to love.
“They did that by having the incredible, unique vision from Tom Hooper combined with the original team – Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boubill – who wrote a new song.”
Before I leave Sam to her whirlwind press tour of premieres, interviews, praise and acoolades, there’s one more question I want to ask her: what does she plan on doing next? “I would love to do some film – that would be fantastic as I’ve been so lucky to have experienced it now – but still keep my love of theatre.” Watch this space…
Les Misérables is released in cinemas nationwide on Friday 11 January.