Returning to musical theatre in South Pacific at the Barbican, Samantha Womack talks to Caroline Bishop about her heady past and the joy and terror of a new challenge.
It’s not too often, in these youth-obsessed times, that you hear someone say with genuine enthusiasm: “Getting old is great!”
It is particularly refreshing that this comes from a female actress who, rather than suffering from the lack of roles which is often – justifiably – a complaint of women edging into middle age and beyond, is currently enjoying rehearsing for her imminent return to the stage following four years playing one of the most popular characters on television. “I’m 38 now,” adds Samantha Womack. “I have to say I am really enjoying what comes with that. It’s a nice time for a woman.”
“The great thing about getting older is that you really relish where you’re at at the time. I think when you’re a young person you are constantly looking to get over there as though something else is happening, and it never is!”
Womack is musing on the subject of age after coming across a YouTube video of herself rehearsing for the 1991 Eurovision Song Contest, in which she represented Britain with a prime piece of pop pap, A Message To Your Heart. “There I was in my late teens, in my stonewashed faded jeans and my blond flick,” she laughs raucously. “What really made me laugh was I’m wearing this terrible Dynasty-style jacket with shoulder pads, very ‘80s, and I’ve got the microphone and I look really confident! I remember feeling absolutely terrified. So when I looked at this person, me, [I thought] bloody hell you masked that really well. Strutting around doing my thing and no one would have ever known I was terrified.”
That was Womack – then Janus – when she was 18, already a couple of years into her career after leaving Sylvia Young performing arts school early, “impatient” to get to work. Two decades later her life is obviously hugely different – she is married with two children, for starters – but looking at that video myself I am struck by how little she has changed physically. When I meet her in North London this morning she isn’t wearing a Dynasty jacket, nor is she sporting the kind of big gold earrings that would make Pat Butcher go weak at the knees, but she is still petite and dewy-skinned, a little more angular in the face perhaps (or was that just 80s soft lighting?), but not much. What’s more, she looks significantly healthier and younger than the character we now associate her with, Ronnie Mitchell in EastEnders.
“For the first week here my guts were in turmoil!”
But she is still, it seems, terrified. After leaving steady employment on the gritty soap earlier this year and making good on her life’s motto to “put myself in the completely opposite situation”, she has returned to the stage for the first time since Guys And Dolls in 2006 by taking on the role of Nellie in the Lincoln Center transfer of Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific. “It isn’t easy; the terror of taking on something completely different. For the first week here my guts were in turmoil! But it’s what life’s about. I teach my kids the same thing.”
The actress has left her children, Lily, six and Ben, 10, with their dad, actor husband Mark Womack, at their Cambridge home while she rehearses in London. “It’s been the first time I’ve gone away from them,” she says. “It’s been good for all of us I think. I don’t think I would have been able to have gone home and done the dinners and the washing up, I’m just so exhausted at the end of the day. They are really enjoying their freedom with their dad. He is definitely the soft touch! So I go home at the weekends and tidy up and yell a lot,” she grins.
She is putting in the hours because she has a lot to live up to. Director Bartlett Sher’s production won seven Tony Awards when it premiered in New York in 2008, and the transfer to London’s Barbican Centre will feature the same leading man, Paulo Szot, who picked up Best Actor in a Musical, along with Tony-nominee Loretta Ables Sayre. Despite the pressures, Womack was desperate to take on the role of flawed heroine Nellie, an ensign nurse from the Deep South posted to a South Pacific island during WW2.
She is, says Womack “one of the most complicated characters I’ve ever had to play,” not least because the actress must tackle head on the issue of prejudice within the story which sees Nellie reject the man she has fallen for, French plantation owner Emile (Szot), after she discovers he has fathered two children with a Polynesian woman.
“I’d often, like most people, thought that South Pacific had become sanitised, it had become a really pretty musical and visually lovely and Nellie had been a bit kooky… but it had lost its balls really,” says Womack. Sher’s commitment to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s original dialogue, some of which had been lost in previous productions, appealed to Womack “because you get this fantastic combination of extreme emotion and dynamic in terms of acting, but then these fabulous lyrics and music. You very rarely get that with musicals.”
“As a character you need to commit to that prejudice,” she says of this darker aspect of Nellie. “This was the heart of it that was taken out. If you don’t commit to that there’s nowhere for the piece to go. She can’t be reformed or re-taught. You can’t watch this character’s development because of course she hasn’t committed to having any faults.”
“South Pacific had become sanitised… it had lost its balls really”
Womack has a certain musical theatre pedigree, including playing Sandy in Grease in the 1990s and Miss Adelaide in Guys And Dolls more recently, however she is aware that with South Pacific she is “putting myself at the top of my game in terms of what I’m trying to achieve”. Having not been on stage for some time, she is rediscovering her singing and dancing skills while embracing the Southern American accent that has left her with a sore throat “from the twang”, she smiles, demonstrating it for me.
But her biggest challenge has been adapting to playing someone so different to her previous character. Where abuse victim Ronnie Mitchell was guarded and still – “I wanted her to sit closed, she wore dark colours, she didn’t smile a lot” – Nellie is “almost child-like” in her demeanour. “It was really difficult to just let go, to be in a room and own it and be allowed to use my arms and not feel weird! So it’s been a really good learning curve for me.”
It is nice to see Womack smile, as she does a lot during our chat. With storylines involving abuse at the hands of her father, the death of her daughter and a controversial plot in which she swapped her dead baby for another’s living infant, Ronnie didn’t have much to smile about. Much as she stresses she loved playing Ronnie, her next job was always going to be something very different. “I couldn’t have played another damaged, traumatised [character],” she says. “I’d just done that for too long. It is draining. Lots of people say don’t be silly, it’s a job and you go in and do it, but actually it’s not, it is draining and it is exhausting because you’re crying and screaming and shouting, and also just the speed with which you are working is so quick.”
Her departure from the soap wasn’t, as reported, a reaction to the baby-swap storyline which has dominated the programme for months. “It was a personal decision which like any decision has thousands of different aspects to it and it would be too difficult to go into one reason. It felt right for me to go at that time, it’s as simple as that,” she shrugs.
There is a certain serenity to Womack this morning. Perhaps this is something else that comes with growing older and knowing what you want out of life. It strikes me that the press attention over her departure from EastEnders didn’t ruffle her one bit; she is, after all, well used to dealing with the press.
“I couldn’t have played another damaged, traumatised character”
“I grew up with the media,” she says of her early career in the 1990s, when she became a lads’ mag favourite through roles in television shows Game On and Babes In The Woods. “That whole babe culture of the ‘90s. I would say it’s a pretty difficult thing to grow up with that attention constantly on your private life because you’re not allowed to make mistakes and that’s so important as a human being to be able to do that without feeling judged or viewed.”
She is honest enough about her part in cultivating ‘babe culture’ by posing for FHM and other magazines, but admits she was too naïve to realise what came with it. “Every boyfriend that I had at one point was talking to the press or selling his story, so you’re totally violated in that way. But at that time it went with the territory. You don’t realise that with that comes the other.”
Nevertheless, it says something about her current self-assurance that she is philosophical about the mistakes and appreciative of the opportunities she had back then. “It was heady stuff. I wouldn’t change it for the world. I’ve been very lucky and privileged to have had some of the experiences that I’ve had.”
“I’m just constantly reminding myself that I really love my work,” she adds. “It’s such a nice thing to have.”
With that, the atmosphere of reflective calm is broken as Womack realises our chat has made her late for rehearsals. With a good-natured shriek, she leaves the past behind and rushes out of the room, eager to relish all that the present is currently offering her.