First Class Thriller
Samantha Womack chats to Natalie Anglesey about her latest role as ‘The Girl on the Train’ and life before and after the streets of Walford.
The career of glamorous Samantha Womack has run the gamut from pop-princess to soap-star. Along the way, sheís been seen in leading roles in numerous television series, as well as winning praise for her performances in musical theatre. Sheís also gained accolades for her ability to play both comedy and drama - although now, she tells me, sheís facing the biggest challenge of her career!
“I’m playing the title role of The Girl on the Train, a stage adaptation of the internationally acclaimed, best-selling novel by Paula Hawkins which sold over twenty million copies,” Sam explains. “It was made into a film starring Emily Blunt- although they moved the location to America. As I’m a huge fan of thrillers and I’d loved the book, which has been adapted for the stage by Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Abel, I thought it was about time I faced a challenge.
“It’s directed by Anthony Banks, who already has a reputation for directing thrillers, and it’s been relocated back to this country. It appealed to me because when I used to get the train to and from Manchester when I worked there, I’d look out of the window and make up stories about the people I saw. I think most of us, just like the girl on a train, have wondered about the lives of the people we see - so I relate to her in that way.”
Director Banks impresses: “This thriller has even more twists and turns than I’ve ever had to juggle before. It’s a crime drama that takes place across a week, each day they get closer to finding out who the guilty party is and all the evidence is about images and identity.”
Sam adds wryly: “I must admit, when I’d accepted the role, I didn’t realise I’d be on the stage the whole time and have over 70 pages of dialogue to learn. For an actor that’s like playing Hamlet. I never shut up!”
As we chat before opening night of the tour, I wondered how rehearsals were going and Sam confesses: “Well the character I play is a broken woman who is an alcoholic. But this is such a gripping thriller because she regularly sees what appears to be a perfectly happy couple. However, when the wife Megan appears to disappear, she decides to get off the train and investigate - with terrifying consequences. Rehearsals have been quite intense for me - but children are great levellers and I’ve been so lucky to have my daughter with me, who is studying her GCSE curriculum online, so she keeps me sane!
I first met Brighton- born Sam when she was playing Morticia Addams, fresh from leaving BBC1’s EastEnders after nearly nine years, with a break in between, playing Ronnie Mitchell and winning several awards.
“I loved my time on EastEnders and although it was the right time for me to leave, I was sorry to leave all my friends there. We’d laughed together, cried together, been through weddings and funerals together so it was sad to say goodbye. But my children had never seen me on stage and they did come to the Addams Family.
“When I was young I was such a fan of the Addams Family I used to run home from school to watch the black and white television series and I jumped at the chance to play Morticia,” Sam laughs. “However, trying to glide across the stage in a tight dress with a long, black wig and remain quite still was surprisingly difficult.
“My children are my harshest critics but thankfully my daughter, Lily-Rose, who loves creative writing, enjoyed it. While my teenage son Ben shocked me by saying he was proud of me. I remember when he was little he would wind my hair around his little fat fingers and now he’s 6 feet 4 inches tall and about to leave school! I’m dreading going through the empty - nest syndrome. But I’ve tempted him, when this tour has finished, with a last holiday together in America because he loves American football.“
Although Sam’s been concentrating on her stage career, we recently saw her in a double episode of Silent Witness as a predatory police investigator. “I enjoyed being back at the BBC and my BBC pass was still functioning! I also loved playing such a double-sided character but she’s not a long-running character- that was just a one-off. However, I have the greatest admiration for Emilia Fox who is so lovely and strong in the leading female role with amazing attention to detail.”
Although home for Sam is in the south, in Bedfordshire, she knows Manchester and ex-Corrie actress Sally Lindsay particularly well as she appeared as Tanya Porter in Sally’s Sky One popular television series, Mount Pleasant.
“That was such an enjoyable thing to do over a four year period and Manchester is so full of lovely restaurants and bars. We unofficially made the Malmaison Hotel our headquarters and we would retire there at the end of each day’s filming to unwind! “
On film Sam recently reprised her role as Michelle Unwin, Taron Egerton’s mother in both Kingsman: The Secret Service and Kingsman: The Golden Circle movies. Although fans got a shock at the premiere when they saw that she’d dyed her blonde hair black! Audiences here in Manchester were also surprised to see her with short blonde hair on stage as Nellie Forbush in the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical South Pacific, which had come from The Barbican when nightly she would sing. ‘I’m gonna wash that man right out of my hair!’
“I think people forgot that, after training at the Sylvia Young Theatre School, I started my career as a pop singer using my real name of Samantha Janus,” Sam laughs. “Even I can’t believe at eighteen I sang in the 1991 Eurovision Song contest with A Message To Your Heart - to no great success - and that’s when I started thinking seriously about acting.”
Sam was thrilled when she took over from Debbie Gibson in Grease on stage in the West End. Much later she also starred in Guys & Dolls with Patrick Swayze in London shortly before he died.
“Patrick was such a lovely man and so modest about his own achievements. He and his wife were totally devoted to one another. He was charming and a pleasure to work with but unfortunately, he had to leave because of his last illness. However, another charmer took over his role and Don Johnson, whom you may remember from Miami Vice, always had a naughty twinkle in his eye!”
It was the television series Game On, in which she played Mandy Wilkins, which established Sam’s television career- although it seems that she’s been training her whole life for an acting career.
“My mother was a model turned actress and, as a child, I lived a charmed life for a while on the QE2 with my granny, Sheila Holt. She was also an actress who turned choreographer and arranged all the dancers’ routines on board. It was so glamorous then because huge Hollywood stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton would be on board and would dine with us at the captain’s table- so I’d be listening to all their wonderful stories.”
But it wasn’t until Sam appeared in Who Do You Think You Are in 2012 that she discovered her links with the theatre went even further back in time. “I discovered there were a couple of musicians in my past while my great, great-grandmother, Jessie Ryder, was an actress in New York City in the early 20th century.”
Sam’s career has been a happy mix of theatre, television and film and that’s exactly how she likes it. She appeared in the film Up ‘N’ Under with Neil Morrissey after appearing in Men Behaving Badly. She’s appeared in series like Wild At Heart, Where The Heart Is, Judge John Deed, and Pie In The Sky. She laughs: “You name it I’ve been in it! But glad to have so much work in this profession.”
In 1998 she starred in the ITV series, Liverpool 1, with her future husband Mark Womack. They married in 2009 with Sam changing her professional surname to Womack. They have two children together.
With drama and comedy in her CV, Sam starred as Cinderella in the ITV Christmas pantomime alongside a host of stars like Harry Hill, Alexander Armstrong, Frank Skinner, Paul Merton and Ronnie Corbett. In March 2013, she also starred opposite her husband, on stage in the world premiere of Hope at the Royal Court Theatre in Liverpool.
Along with Lenny Henry, Angela Rippon and Reggie Yates, Sam appeared in a BBC fund-raising documentary for Comic Relief where the four celebrities were sent to Kiberia in Kenya, Africa’s largest slum. She’s also sung, along with her EastEnders family, for Children In Need. But perhaps the most bizarre thing she’s ever done was choosing to be sawn in half on television – all for charity
In 2005 Sam also turned to directing an anti-bullying music video for Liverpool band, Just 3, entitled Stand Tall. The video starred her with Liverpool F.C. footballer Jamie Carragher and it was backed by Childline ambassador Esther Ranntzen.
It had also been reported that Sam was in the running, alongside Dannii Minogue, to become a judge on the 2012 series of Britain’s Got Talent. She has since confirmed that she was offered a place on the judging panel and had a meeting with Simon Cowell in Los Angeles to talk it through. She has said that although she was grateful, she rejected the offer as “it’s just not me”.
But now Sam’s most excited about her new role. “The character I play is a very unhappy woman called Rachel Watson who longs for a different life and wrongly thinks she’ll find release in alcohol. The problem with playing a drunk on stage is getting the balance right as it’s a thriller, not a comedy- so no stage drunks here
“Rachel’s only release from her personal problems is watching every day from the train what appears to be a perfect couple, happy and in love. When she discovers the woman has disappeared, she finds herself both as a witness and even a suspect in this thrilling mystery.”
I wondered if the people who have read the book or seen the film will already know the ending. “Well on stage it will look very different because of the setting designed by James Cotterill. I’m afraid I can’t tell you too much about that because we want you to come and see it for yourself. What’s great about theatre is that you can hear the character speaking their thoughts aloud. However, I can tell you that because it’s set in this country and the events could be happening in your street, it gives it a very different feel and additional impact.”
However, the play is not a monologue and Sam’s delighted about the casting of her fellow actors. Oliver Farnworth, who plays the male lead Scott, is perhaps best known for playing Andy Carver in Coronation Street and has also appeared in Mr Selfridge, The Royal and he’s also played Will Hacket in Hollyoaks. He reveals a bit about his character Scott: ”Throughout the play you’re drip-fed information about him so the audience gets to ask questions. Has he been left by his wife or did he do something to make her run away? I like roles like this that have a bit of meat and a bit of weight to them.”
Sam adds: “We’ve got a great cast who bonded really quickly. We’re really looking forward to this tour and coming back up north. I loved performing at The Lowry in The Addams family as it’s such a beautiful theatre. I do hope all my old friends from Manchester will come and see me in what I think is a great thriller. Like Hitchcock’s Rear Window, the audience takes a voyeur’s journey into a world which is both dangerous and full of suspense! “.
The Girl on the Train is at The Lowry from April 1-6