Samantha Barks On 'Les Miserables,' Eponine's Dark Side, And Spitting In Ali G's Face
Twenty-two-year-old Samantha Barks may have been destined to play Eponine in Tom Hooper's ambitious Les Miserables film adaptation, given that she'd warble the iconic character's songs into the mirror at age six and, years later, would go on to earn acclaim playing the tragic innkeepers' daughter in London's West End and in Les Miz's 25th Anniversary concert. But Barks really knew she'd made it when she found herself sparring with onscreen dad Sacha Baron Cohen on the Les Miserables set: "I can’t believe I actually spat in Ali G’s face!"
Barks's Eponine is a standout among Hooper's cast of known triple-threats and familiar faces, but the production required her to undertake perhaps the most difficult transition of all - adjusting from playing Eponine onstage in front of thousands to translating the character's heartbreaking devotion to rebellious student Marius (Eddie Redmayne) for the intimacy of the screen. Her version of "On My Own," filmed in a long, rainy shot per the film's more virtuoso numbers, might be the umpteenth time Barks has sung the iconic ballad in her career to date, but as the Isle of Man native told Movieline, "every time I hear that song, or perform that song, it just sets my heart on fire."
I love Eponine — she’s one of the best roles in Les Miserables, the one I identify with most. How does it feel right now to be at this point in your journey with her, this being your first film and a character you’ve lived with for so long?
I feel ecstatic because I played this role on the West End for a year, took it to the O2 Arena for the 25th anniversary, and now to the film — it kind of feels surreal to have had three different experiences of this wonderfully iconic role. Each one has been different, but I’ve spent over four years of my life making her really the most consistent thing that’s been in my life for the last couple of years, and I feel so proud just to be a part of her.
I happened to be on Twitter the night Cameron Mackintosh made the surprise announcement, onstage after your show in front of an entire theater, that you had landed Eponine in the film. There were Tweets left and right and it sounded like quite a magical way to learn that you’d won the role. Take me back to that moment. How do you remember it?
Oh, gosh. It was the most shocking, amazing piece of news I could receive, but done in the most unique way I think you could ever find out you’ve got a role, you know? It was very unheard of to find out like that! I was in a state of shock. He walked onstage as I was taking my bow and he made a speech about Oliver Twist and Charles Dickens, and he managed to segue onto the fact that I’d won the role of Eponine in the Les Miserables film! And that reaction of mine — I was just completely speechless. It’s also exciting for me to actually be able to watch that clip; I’ve seen that clip on the internet, and it’s kind of proof that the moment actually happened.
If you had to guesstimate, how many times do you think you’ve sung “On My Own” in your life?
[Laughs] It’s hard because I’m rubbish at math, but basically… eight shows a week for a year, and then the O2 performance, and then some rehearsals on top of that, plus another definite 15 takes for the film, and rehearsals — so there’s a lot of singing that song! [Ed. note: That puts Barks' number at 400+.] And it’s funny because every time I hear that song, or perform that song, it just sets my heart on fire. It’s such a tragic tale. It’s a role I relate to so much that getting to perform that song every single time makes me feel so alive. I feel so lucky to get to sing it.
You’ve played Eponine opposite Eddie Redmayne’s Marius — not to mention Nick Jonas’s Marius — but what do you see at the core of these two characters’ relationship that makes it so compelling no matter who’s playing the role?
Girls can relate to unrequited love and that’s one thing, but what not a lot of people can relate to is exactly how dark Eponine’s life is. She has a line in a song where she says, ‘Without a home, without a friend, without a face to say hello to,’ and that’s her life — Marius is really Eponine’s everything and it’s not just about falling in love with somebody on a teenage level, it’s also about somebody being your only piece of light in a very dark life, and that’s heartbreaking about Eponine.
Was Eponine always the character you loved and identified with most?
When I was six I would sing ‘On My Own’ into a hairbrush in front of a mirror and wanted to be Eponine, which is crazy because she’s got such a tragic life! It doesn’t make any sense that I’d want that for myself but it’s one of those things where you’re a young girl, ‘I want to be Eponine! Or Cosette, or Fantine, or whatever.
This is your first film, and there’s a significant difference between how performers modulate their performances for the stage versus for the camera. Did film acting come naturally to you, or did it feel alien?
Having never done a film before it was definitely something I had to learn, how to play it. I’d done the stage version of Les Miz, but for me when you come to the screen so many details shine through on camera, so you need to be a lot more detailed with it — you can’t have loose ends like you can in a theatrical piece because it’s heightened. With this you need to be more specific, you need to be detailed, and we’re so lucky to have Victor Hugo’s fantastic novel there to add those details and depth to these characters. You know in the book, Eponine spends a couple of months in prison. That gives you more of an insight into the background she comes from, and that’s why it’s more miraculous when she does eventually do a good deed.
How helpful or challenging was it to be immersed in those environments filming musical scenes in long takes, as you did with ‘On My Own,’ literally in the rain, 15 times?I imagine it’s quite a different experience than performing it on a stage without cold water and elements being thrown at you.
It was hard. The challenges were physically very difficult. Singing under a rain machine, you’re shivering all day. Someone on set was like, ‘What’s that sound?’ ‘Oh, it’s Sam’s teeth — they’re chattering!’ I can’t help it! These long takes were really fantastic because it meant that you could really build that musical arc throughout the song organically. The hard thing was sometimes Tom would say, ‘Ok guys, build a barricade — Action!’ And you’d have to build a barricade from pianos that were flying out of the windows. The adrenaline that goes through you is intense. They actually dressed up cameramen as students and sent them out amongst us. And what [Tom] does is he captures these real moments of fear that are so fantastic to be a part of, because when he yells ‘Cut!’ the adrenaline flowing through you is just like no other. It’s incredible.
What was it like to have Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as parents?
When I first found out that I was going to be playing their daughter I thought, that’s a pretty cool claim to fame! They are the coolest onscreen parents I could ever wish for. And working with Helena — she’s so quirky and the most unique person I’ve ever met. The things she says are so fascinating and wise, it’s incredible. And Sacha is a comic genius — I grew up so obsessed with his work.
Did you watch Ali G?
Oh yeah, I used to watch Ali G in da U.S.A.! He was phenomenal. And actually, the scene we had wasn’t very comedic at all, because in the scene he slaps me and I spit in his face.
And he actually slapped you?
Yeah! We went for realism. I was like, ‘Bring it on!’ So I can blame no one but myself. I left the day with a very sore, red cheek, and he left feeling extremely gross because I’d spat at him all day. And I was like, ‘I can only apologize for that.’ I can’t believe I actually spat in Ali G’s face!
READ MORE ON LES MISERABLES:
Early Reaction: Oscar Race Heats Up As NYC Screening Of 'Les Miserables' Prompts Cheers & Tears
Follow Jen Yamato on Twitter.
Follow Movieline on Twitter.