Samantha Barks is no stranger to adventure. At 16 years old, she packed up her bags and moved from her small hometown on the Isle of Man to pursue her acting dreams at drama school in London. A year later she was competing on the BBC's reality show competition "I'd Do Anything," where Barks auditioned on live TV for a chance to play the role of Nancy in Oliver! on the West End.
"I was at drama school, and I was in a phase where I was just like, 'Go for it! You've moved all this way to live in London on your own at 16. You might as well go for any opportunity. This is the time to do it!'" Barks says of her journey on the show. She may have come in third place, but she caught the eye of mega-producer Cameron Mackintosh and was cast in her breakout role as the ill-fated Eponine in Tom Hooper's film adaptation of "Les Miserables." Barks eventually went on to play the role of Nancy on the UK National Tour of Oliver!, after a year-long stint as Eponine in the West End's production of Les Miserables.
After conquering the West End and Hollywood, it's only a matter of time before Barks takes Broadway by storm; and that time could be soon. She is currently enjoying life on the West Coast playing the title role in the world-premiere musical Amélie, the musical adaptation of the Academy Award-nominated film of the same name, now in previews at Berkeley Repertory Theatre. In anticipation of the opening of the show, Barks chats with Playbill.com about some of her major career milestones, her knack for do-gooder deeds, and of course, all things Amélie.
You're out at Berkeley Repertory Theatre right now in previews for Amélie. How have the first few performances been?
SB: They've been really exciting! We have had such lovely responses from the audiences. It's always exciting when you get something in front of an audience for the first time… It's such a new feeling doing something that's brand new and that no one has seen before. You have no idea what people are going to react to, but the reactions have been so lovely! Nearly every night by curtain call my eyes are just filled up with tears. It's just been the loveliest audiences. We've been very lucky and very grateful for them. It's such a nice feeling when you go out there with something new and their responding so well to it. In the days, we're doing some fine-tuning and tweaking a little bit, and it's really exciting to go out every night and try your new stuff, which has been going down so well. It's been a really fun preview process for us all!
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That's so exciting! "Amélie" is one of my favorite movies. I'm so curious about what the sound of the show is. So much of the movie is relies on narration and the beautiful underscoring. What is the overall sound of the show?
SB: It's got sort of this folky sound to it, and it's so beautifully orchestrated; there's harps in it. I feel like you're watching Amélie grow up from a kid into being an adult, which she becomes and you follow throughout the story, and I think that the music reflects that. I think you almost have that [makes a "whomp whomp" sound] sound effect like toy piano in the beginning, and then as she starts to mature, the music starts to mature. Every number, to me, feels very different. You've got kind of whimsical melodies that peak throughout it, and then you have these big fantasy numbers where her fantasies are coming to life. Those numbers can take very different musical form based on the crazy fantasy that she's having at that moment; it's so varied. It's got a very romantic Parisian feel to it. Genuinely, I fell in love with this music the first time I heard one song. I'm like, "I'm in love with this show," and I had only heard one song.
What about the character drew you in? Were you a fan of the movie before you heard about it turning into a musical?
SB: Yeah, I was a big fan of the movie. I remember seeing it with my sister. She was studying French and had been away to France on a school trip, and because I wanted to be exactly like my sister, I was like, "I wanna be French as well!" I remember watching "Amélie" with her and just falling in love with this complete Parisian lifestyle, and seeing this character, who you can relate to as a young woman, finding her feet and finding her voice in this huge, huge world that we live in. I fell in love with her very much and I fell in love with the way her mind works, and that's so much fun to get to do every night. It's like when... you start drifting off into that sort of, "That would be fun if…" that's what Amélie does. And that's very much what, as a child, I loved about it [the movie] and as an adult I love it as well, because I found very different different things in it. [There's something] for everybody, and I think the musical definitely reflects that. And, she's so much fun to get to play!
That sounds like so much fun to play! It's quite the contrast from Les Miserables, where everybody dies.
SB: Yeah, I was like, "I don't die in this musical. That's really fun!"
And you get to have these huge, vivid, fantasy numbers, which sounds amazing, too!
SB: Oh, absolutely, because there's equal measures. There's crazy, fantasy, story lines as well as true emotional heart in the show. It's really fun to get to play both worlds. There's the girl who's afraid of genuine connection and lives out her daily life as so mundane. She sees the people she sees and doesn't really have much to do with them. It's only when she starts to say, "Well, if I'm an anonymous do-gooder, then I can help people and be involved." Of course, she's not really being involved because she's doing it anonymously. And when it comes to love, it's something she has not really explored, and she doesn't know what to do with it because she's never really experienced it before. So, I think it's a beautiful thing to get to play with that side as well, which I think is real, and something we all go through. It's that feeling of letting someone in…as well as the crazy: [Amélie] chasing around a goldfish onstage. There are all these different parts to it. It's great to have both sides.
Do you have any fun stories of meddling in someone's life for a "do-gooder" project like Amélie does?
SB: Yeah, all the time — I love it so much! I'm a bit of a meddler when it comes to relationships for other people. I love setting people up. I absolutely love it! I love every single part of it. I set my sister up with one of my best friends, and they're now engaged. And then I set my oldest friend, who I grew up with in the Isle of Man... with one of my great friends who I was doing "Les Miserables," with and they're now engaged. That's a scenario of my life that I am good at — other people's love lives. Not my own, just other people's. [Laughs]
Well Samantha,if you know any other guys who are looking to get engaged, send them my way!
SB: Honestly, I am the person to ask! Definitely. [Laughs]
"Amélie" is a French film. Is the musical adaptation completely in English? Does the show keep any of the French elements?
SB: It's all in English, but you sort of buy into the fact that you are living in Paris, and it feels very French. All the things I write on the menu board are in French, and all the TV shows, like "Friends" comes on and it's in French, and all the TV shows are in French. So you are very much in a French world, but obviously it's in English because our audiences are mainly speaking English. It's very Parisian, so you feel like you are stepping into Paris although you can understand what everyone is saying.
I think there's something so inviting about the way the story is told and the audience really feels like you are getting a glimpse into Amélie's life…So, speaking of peeking into people's lives, I read that you competed for the role of Nancy in Oliver! on the reality show "I'd Do Anything" in the UK [Wicked's next Elphaba, Rachel Tucker also competed on the show]. What was that experience like, and what made you decide to compete on the show?
SB: I was living in a small island called the Isle of Man, which is up in the North of England. I had always wanted to be an actress and decided when I was 16 to go and study down in London. I was so amazed that my parents were like, "We definitely support you in that" and they were so lovely and it was ok for me to go, which is amazing! So, I flew down to London when I was 16 — which wasn't scary at all. Looking back, I'm scared for myself at 16, but at the time I was like, "Yeah, this is an amazing adventure!"
So, this audition came up and I was like, "Well, you don't know if you don't try. If I got this thing and got to work with Andrew Lloyd Webber then that's something I could tick off my list as a massive life goal. That's amazing!" So I just went for it, and didn't expect to get through one round, and then I kept getting through and getting through and all of the sudden I was on live TV every Saturday night. I grew up on a small island to suddenly people knowing who I was on the street. It was very, very odd when I was 17; it was also really exciting. I think, when you're being criticized on live TV, and praised, you're getting everything. People are really seeing everything there is to see, and it gave me a thick skin, I think, because you go "Well, that's the worst thing that can happen, you can be criticized on live TV in front of millions of people, that's ok." And I thought, "That wasn't too painful," and it gave me a thicker skin and made me not too sensitive to that kind of thing because you go, "Well, that's a big part of this world; being criticized and taking notes," and that definitely prepared me for the industry. It was a big lesson. If I get notes now, it's not in front of millions of people, it's in front of the cast. So you just get used to it, and I got used to it at a very young age and I found it to be very helpful.
So after the competition you went on to play Eponine in Les Miserables in the West End before eventually playing Nancy in Oliver! on the National Tour. What was it like getting the news that you were cast as the role of Eponine in the "Les Miserables" film while standing on stage in front of an entire audience [after a performance of Oliver!]?
SB: I had done Les Miserables for a year in the West End and I did the 25th anniversary performance [of Les Miserables] and then I did the tour of Oliver!. As I was doing it [Oliver!], I was auditioning for the "Les Miserables" film, and then one day, I was taking a bow and Cameron Mackintosh came up on stage to make a speech. I thought it was about Charles Dickens' anniversary because that was right around that time, and then he just announced it, then and there onstage, that I was going to be playing Eponine [in the movie]. It was the most surreal experience that I had ever experienced! There was a crew videoing it, and I'm really grateful for that because now I have that to watch it back. Yeah, I watched some of the video and it looked to me like you kept your cool pretty well! Did you go offstage and freak out?
SB: Well, I was in more of a state of shock, and I was still in shock when I came offstage! I'm much more of a person that experiences emotions internally rather than externally, but I was just in complete shock. I never thought it [getting cast as Eponine in the movie] would happen to me, and I never thought it would get told to me in that way. The most amazing way! And the biggest moment of my life just happened onstage when I just thought it was a normal day in a show. So I was in no way cool or calm…I almost blacked out in my head of just going "Is this happening to me?" Yeah, it was one of the most incredible moments of my life.
Do you have any favorite moments from filming the "Les Miserables" movie?
SB: I think, for me, it was walking onto those sets. I had done the show for a year onstage, and I had always loved the show my whole life, and you picture in your head how these streets of Paris that you're walking down would be like and you imagine what the world around you is when you're on stage, and all of the sudden, you walk on set and it was there. It was everything I had ever imagined and more. It was such an emotional moment of going, "Oh my God! This is it. This is exactly how I saw it." And you're walking down the street, and it's raining and it's just everything you had ever dreamed of this moment being. And even when we're on the barricades, it was just incredible seeing the costumes, the sets, and the incredible actors that I was working with. Just seeing my absolute Les Miserables dream come true was amazing.
There's chatter of Amélie transferring to Broadway if the Berkeley Rep run goes well. You've conquered the West End, reality TV and a major motion picture. What about the possibility of transferring to Broadway excites you?
SB: I think that with anything, you have to just take it as it comes, and although one day being on Broadway is a life long dream of mine, when you're doing a project like this, you have to 100% just focus on what it is we're achieving right now. Especially with previews, certain things get changed every day and you're just focusing on the now and that's something I've always done throughout my career, is focus on RIGHT NOW and not sort of overstressing yourself out and overthinking things. Just go with the performance that's on that day. And I think that this run at Berkeley is definitely our goal right now, and to make the show as good as it can be and make all the changes that need to be made, and hopefully have a successful run here. That's definitely where my focus is.
The movie "Amélie" relies heavily on the cinematography. How is that translating to the stage?
SB: Something that I loved and was moved by in the movie was the sort of cinematic moments of big pops of color, and David Zinn [the set and costume designer] is just such a genius on this show and is using the colors in such a clever way to really set the scenes. When we're in the suburbs, its always greens and mustard colors. When you're in city it's sort of yellows and blues. He uses color in a very effective way. Definitely, when I'm on stage, even when I'm traveling through her life and bumping into all these wacky characters, there are color themes as to where I am and where the characters are set. It's very bright and colorful.
One of my favorite parts of the movie is when they highlight each character's "likes/dislikes." Amélie likes cracking crème brulee and skipping stones. I always say that bananas with the stickers on them taste better. Are there any small pleasures or quirks like that that you have?
SB: We've actually talked about this in the past, our likes and dislikes, so they're fresh in my mind actually. One of my dislikes is eating sounds, like when someone is really enjoying something and they're eating with their mouth open. That makes me crazy. And in terms of my likes, I would say, having the perfectly structured scone. A scone is a big British pastime, like "Afternoon Tea." So, a perfectly done scone [is]: I have to have an order in which everything goes on the scone, and I'm not a cream person, so it's like scone, butter, jam. That's perfect.
Here's one that's similar to yours: a Granny Smith tangy apple straight out of the fridge! That's a good one. A lot of mine are food related because we were all talking about food at the time.
Going to the cinema on my own. Or what do you call it? A movie theatre? I love that!
That's one of Amélie's, too!
SB: Oh, of course! Well, that's definitely one of mine, too.
Ok, last question: If you were a gnome that traveled around the world, what three places would you visit first?
SB: My first stop would be Japan because I really would love to go to Japan, and I haven't [gone] yet. Next, I would go to Thailand because I constantly hear how much everybody loves Thailand and I've never actually been. And then I would definitely go to Florida to go to Disneyworld because it's my favorite childhood memory and I would want everyone to put me [as the gnome] on all the different rides!
Here is another video of the production:
(Yvette Kojic is a performer, producer, director, daytime TV enthusiast and the groups director at Broadway Workshop. Follow her on Twitter at @yvettekojic.)