Cari Lynn is an AwardsLine contributor. This article appeared in the Dec. 5 issue of AwardsLine.
If Samantha Barks is a name that’s new, that’s because Les Misérables is the first film for this Isle of Man native, who plays Éponine, the unlikely martyr who sings of unrequited love in one of the most well-known songs, “On My Own.” Barks, 22, got her start at 17 years old, on the U.K. reality show, I’d Do Anything, where singers auditioned for a revival of the musical Oliver!. Fortuitously, one of the judges was Cameron Mackintosh, the original producer of Les Mis, who’d go on to coproduce the film.
AWARDSLINE: You’re the only member of the starring cast to have also played your role on stage. How did this all come about for you?
SAMANTHA BARKS: After I’d Do Anything, I was lucky to get some fantastic (stage) jobs, the first one being Sally Bowles in Cabaret. A few years later, I got a call that Cameron would like to see me for Éponine. As a musical-theater girl, who’d sing a one-woman show of Les Mis in front of my mirror, just to get to audition was exciting! And then, on my opening night of Les Mis (in the West End), Cameron announced that he’d selected me to sing as Éponine at the 25th anniversary at The 02. After (a year in Les Mis), I ended up playing Nancy in Oliver!, which is where it all began, and it was there that Cameron announced on stage, during curtain call, that I would be playing Éponine in the film. I’d been auditioning for about 15 weeks on the buildup to that, but it was the most unique way in the world you could find out you’ve got a role.
AWARDSLINE: Fifteen weeks seems like a long audition….
BARKS: It was a very exciting process actually, to be able to work with Tom Hooper. At first, it was trying out different ways of doing the songs, because I knew the role from a theatrical sense, but it was to see if I could translate it into the film world. I learned a lot just from those auditions. Then I started going in with Eddie Redmayne (who plays Marius) and Amanda Seyfried (who plays Cosette), and that was mind-blowing, wondering what they were going to be like, because I’d never really met people like that. But they were so nervous, that’s what struck me. Amanda was nervous, and I was like, “But you’re a big movie star.” But this was a world that was new to all of us—none of us have ever sang live on film. We were all there to support each other.
AWARDSLINE: What was the most challenging part of taking this role from stage to film?
BARKS: The biggest challenge was that it’s never been done like this before, so there was no right way to do it. We sang with these earpieces in—so when the audience is hearing this orchestrated version of “On My Own,” all I heard is a little, tinny piano in one ear. The piano is on set and following you, but you’re setting the tempos, and you had to picture how to create this. It was scary—but also a great leveler. You’ve got Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, and they’ve done so many films, but no one’s ever done this. And I’ve done many a theater show, but I’ve never done this. We all had something to learn off each other. But we sang each song through with each take, which is rare in film because it’s usually 10 seconds here, 10 seconds there, but what was nice is that you were really able to build in the way that you would be able to on stage. It had such an organic feeling of theater, and that’s why I think people are reacting to it the way they’ve reacted to it on stage, because what you’re getting is a throughline that is true and real.
AWARDSLINE: Did you do any special vocal training for the film?
BARKS: I’m used to singing the material day in, day out, but the difference in bringing it on to screen is that your intimate moments can be so much more intimate. You can talk in a whisper, whereas a stage whisper still has to be so exaggerated. The quieter you go, the more vocal control it takes, but it then allows you to have those payoffs, those bigger moments, it allows you to go on that journey. On stage, even when you’re dying, you’ve got to project, everyone’s got to hear your words crystal clear. But on film, you’re watching a young girl dying in the arms of the man she loves, and you’re right there with them.
AWARDSLINE: You sing more than one song in the rain. How do you maintain your voice live?
BARKS: I think we did about 15 takes of “On My Own.” There was a rain machine with freezing cold rain over my head. When you do a musical, eight shows a week for a year, you have to maintain a stamina and be so disciplined. It’s like being an athlete. Your voice is a muscle, so you have to make sure your diet is good—you can’t have anything that will make you, well, phlegmy. So no dairy before you sing, nothing spicy. You drink so much water, you steam. You’ve really got to look after yourself. We did vocal warmups all day long. Being in a (stage) show, you have to be warm for about three hours a day, but for this, you’d have to be warm and have your vocal pickup at five in the morning, even though you were still singing at 10 the last night. All day, every day, you have to be in your most perfect vocal condition, because that take of “On My Own” might be the one that is shown in cinemas all around the world. Yes, you’re in soaking rain and you’re crying and your nose is drippy and you’ve got so much to contend with—that was the big challenge. Hugh Jackman had waves crashing over him! It’s because of that that you can watch it, and it makes you even more proud because you know what you had to put yourself through to get this. All the things we did for our characters all seem worth it now.