BWW Interview: Samantha Womack Talks THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN at Duke Of York's Theatre
Known to many as Ronnie Mitchell from EastEnders, Samantha Womack has enjoyed a successful career in television, film and theatre.
Currently starring in The Girl on the Train, an adaptation of Paul Hawkins' 2015 novel, Womack plays Rachel, a functioning alcoholic. The show has been touring the UK and is now in London's Duke of York's Theatre.
BroadwayWorld talked with Samantha about playing a character with an addiction, the arts industry today and why she enjoys acting on stage.
What excites you about working in theatre compared to TV or film?
For me, it's the immediacy. I have always loved the idea that there is a peace between the stage and audience - it's a magical relationship and it's very gratifying. You also have complete control over the performance, which is great - there's no editing by someone else.
How do you decide whether or not to take on a project, and what was special about The Girl on the Train?
I rely on my instant reaction. It's not necessarily about relating to the work, but an instinct about how the character should be played. I read Paula Hawkins's novel when it first came out and I thought it a very strong depiction of a lost woman. She is broken and fragmented but written with such clarity. I had a sense of her automatically, which excited me. When I read the adaptation - and this production uses a reworked script - I was able to have some say over the changes during the rehearsals. This creative control was great.
As I get older, the people I gravitate towards working with have a unified feeling creatively. There's no hierarchy and it's a free space. This sense exists more in theatre than in television, probably because of the amount of money dependent on the latter. I thought from this job I'd have this creative freedom, and the part itself of an alcoholic is one I'd never played before. I was nervous of playing a functioning alcoholic: if not done well, the physicality can become comedic.
Is that the biggest difficulty of playing a character with an addiction?
In the novel itself, the situations were funny occasionally. Rachel can say what she thinks and is unruly - she has no boundaries. I think we secretly fantasise about what it would be like to inhabit this state. Her unpredictability is mirrored in her way of thinking and speaking. She is fragmented because of the alcoholic fog, which meant the dialogue was difficult to learn: she's pulling at lines almost randomly in her mind.
What research did you do for the role?
I looked into how people behave as functioning alcoholics, but also read about coercive control and the mistakes women would make that led to bad relationships or the personal histories that would lead to them seeking out those relationships. Though not in the play, for me Rachel in the past needed that dependency, that controlling element, which made her feel not worthy.
I also talked with people about the voyeuristic passion that comes with looking into people's lives through social media - Rachel looks through windows, but most of us are looking through the windows of our phones into the (supposedly) semi-perfect lives of everyone else. That has the potential to be a dark path. I thought it a very relevant piece.
How have you found touring the production, and what has surprised you about audience reactions across the UK?
It's a popular novel. People can be sniffy about touring productions coming into the West End. With this piece, we've played to packed-out audiences. There's a huge demographic of people for this play. West End theatre has a bit of a reputation for being highbrow, but there is a place for popular theatre within the West End. I feel that when touring, people are far more easily pleased: they just want a good night out.
The reviewing system can be so middle-class and denigrating towards touring productions that they forget there is a huge audience. I love the idea that people are coming to the theatre: Shakespeare wrote for the masses. I do wonder if we have become too snooty; there's no point having a five-star production if the house is empty. I've done Pinter and Shakespeare, but there is something about this play that has brought generations together, and some people have come back again and again.
Do you enjoy touring?
There are parts I like and parts I don't. For the latter, I lose track of time, especially when doing weekly venues. It can become a little discombobulating. But what I like is that every place you go to changes the piece. I also home-school my daughter, and we've been touring galleries and museums together. We've played in the Mayflower in Southampton and other huge venues, but also have gone in to smaller venues. It's been a malleable piece.
If The Girl on the Train is posing a question to the audience, what is it? And do we get an answer?
For me, the overriding feeling that I get from the piece is about isolation. I don't know whether we answer it. The answer is simply that you are not alone. It's a human experience, and with modern technology, we lose this individualism more and more.
You've been acting since the early 1990s - how has the industry changed since you began, and what are the best and worst changes?
The arts in general are run by money men. Twenty years ago, it was an eclectic mix of artists who were bohemian and the creatives had a voice. Now, it feels as if wallets have voices and the talent are treated as pieces in the puzzle. That's a broader problem about capitalism attacking everything. The benchmarks people give themselves for making money per production and how things are valued has changed how courageous we can be. It feels as if the arts are being run by estate agents.
But the great thing about technology now is that with phones and cameras it's possible to make your own material. There are young artists who don't have to wait for a network, but can make films individually.
If you could see any production from history, what would it be?
I'd like to have seen Richard Harris in anything. I love his energy. And Oliver Reed in his early days. And Vanessa Redgrave doing Shakespeare. I consider the Sixties and Seventies the most exciting times creatively.
Who would you like to work with in the future and what shows would you like to perform in?
I would love to have done Camelot again - I did it when I was younger, but I'm too old now. Oslo is brilliant. There's so many. The director I wanted to work with is Sydney Pollock - I love all his movies, and he was the kind of filmmaker who could be touching and comic.
Why should audiences see The Girl on the Train?
I've never seen an audience be so silent at the end of the first half. It's a psychological drama that keeps you guessing until the end, and the audiences are loving it.
Photograph credit: Manuel Harlan