Samantha Womack interview: It's a relief not being glamorous
Former Eastenders star Samantha Womack is revelling in the chance to turn up to work in no make up and sporting a pair of baggy trousers.
More used to playing characters like Ronnie Mitchell in the BBC One soap and glamorous stage roles in South Pacific or as Morticia in the Adams Family, she’s currently starring as alcoholic loner Rachel Watson in a new adaptation of the bestselling psychological thriller The Girl on the Train.
The stage show is coming to Cambridge later this month and Samantha reckons the lack of glamour in the role has been refreshing.
“Oh God, it’s such a relief!” she says. “And if I’ve had a terrible night out I can come in looking knackered and I can embrace it. That’s really liberating.”
Instead of feeling exposed appearing on stage make-up free every night, Samantha says: “No, I feel much more comfortable. I have felt much more exposed when I was in South Pacific and Guys and Dolls where there were quite revealing costumes.
“There’s something really gorgeous about putting on a baggy pair of trousers and an old shirt and a bruise - I have a comfort level that I have never had before, where its just me, no affectation, no wig.
“It removes a barrier I have felt before when I have felt a little bit manhandled with costume and make up.”
And unlike other shows where women drink and (some may say) behave badly - such as Bridget Jones or Fleabag - The Girl on the Train is much starker.
“Those characters are all fabulous but Rachel seems much grimier than them. She is allowed to be ugly. She's not a heroine who is dishevelled but cute with it, she really is unlikeable.
“I read a couple of reviews, which I try not to do, and one said she is petulant and whiny and I though thats what im trying to do! You shouldn't like her - she is broken and vile and hurtful and unruly.
“I'm not sure I have seen many female characters like that; there's often a kind of sanitisation of females where even if they are a bit of a mess they tend to be quite sweet with it. But Rachel isn't like that - she is quite ugly. I think some people wanted her to be palatably dislikeable.
“I have put in a few moments where there is a crack of vulnerability. I thought I dont want to make her likeable but if I show pain, if I show something underneath, I might keep the audience with her for longer. It made a huge difference.”
The play, based on the 2015 novel by Paula Hawkins, revolves around Rachel Watson, an unhappy alcoholic who thinks the couple she sees from her commuter train every day are perfectly in love. Then the wife Megan disappears and, as Rachel inveigles her way into the life of Megan’s husband Scott, she finds herself both a witness and potential suspect.
Horrifyingly, Rachel can’t be sure what happened because she keeps having memory blackouts.
The idea of becoming obsessed with a stranger’s perfect life struck a chord with Samantha - especially as the mum of two teenagers who spend lots of time on social media.
She says: “I like the idea that even though she is not looking at a screen she is looking through a window and there is a voyeurism in the piece that feels very relevant to now.
“I was struck about how timely a piece like that feels about losing yourself and trying to fixate on or obsess about other people's lives. Thinking about social media, it felt very relevant to me as I've got two teenagers.
“The idea there's kind of a fiction of the perfect life and how alienated it can make you feel i felt was timely.
“My daughter is 14 and she gives herself 2 or 3 days break from it per week. She has done it of her own volition because she because she actually noticed she was feeling a bit more self conscious and paranoid when she was on it.”
Even though Samantha doesn’t enjoy social media much herself, she reveals she feels compelled to keep up a presence as it’s now part of the job of an actor.
“What's slightly irritating is my job now demands ou be Twitter inclusive and some actors actually get jobs because of the number of Twitter followers they have,” she says.
“ So I feel this pressure to do that in order to stay employed but at the same time I find it really difficult.
“I like to hear about political things and animal welfare on social media but (when I tried) self promotion on it and constant selfies on Instagram I just felt really self conscious. There's a pressure now on all of us because the arts have been taken over by capitalism like everything else. So even the most artistic people are having to be businessmen and women which is a bit depressing.”
Even more depressing, she says, is when “the ones where you look attractive get loads of likes and the ones about the rainforest dying get 14 or 15 likes and you start to see people's preoccupations.”
Since leaving Eastenders in 2017 when her dramatic exit saw Ronnie and her sister Roxy drown in a swimming pool, Samanth has been enjoying a return to the stage and a chance to have more inout into the characters she plays.
She says of her time on the soap: “ I would end up feeling quite depressed and quite hurt because I would want to have a say in the character I had helped to create over the years and we would get into slightly creative battles.
I found that difficult so towards the end where the storylines were becoming more and more sensational with less and less character continuity I found myself in quite negative territory at having to stand up and fight for what I believed in.
That was quite exhausting at the end and so I loved it and I felt I did some really great work at the beginning but it was definitely time for me to go.”
She did understand the pressure to have more and more dramatic storylines on Eastenders, but says viewers often appreciated the quieter character driven plots.
“The are on a difficult mission because they have to keep up with the ratings and all of a sudden the BBC are a competitive channel and are judged by how many viewers they get and so I think they were frightened and having to keep bigger and bigger story lines every week - a fire, a rape and a murder.
I was I think sometimes the biggest story lines were just about debt but when they were told properly and on a slow burn with characters telling that story they can be far more gratifying than 12 people murdered before lunchtime. After a while you become numb to it. So towards the end I was thinking ‘who are we depicting here?’
“Is she a psychopath is she unbalanced? I can't play someone who murders and then steals a baby but then goes back to having a love affair and is a normal parent. We have to decide who this person is. Because otherwise I don't know how to approach her.
Since leaving Eastenders, which has coincided with her children becoming more independent, Samantha explains she has appreciated being able to choose different roles - and not having to work around the clock.
She says: “Now my kids are older I haven’t got the pressure of having to make as much money as I had in the last 15 years. My career has been a mix of jobs I wanted to do and jobs i … im a jobbing actress but the pleasure now with the kids being a bit older, hopefully there will be some more choices for me now and I don't know what I will do with that. It will be interesting to not have to panic about working 49 or 50 weeks of the year!”