Versatility is the key to surviving as an actor. With a CV ranging from Guys and Dolls and the Kingsman films to EastEnders and even Eurovision, Samantha Womack has barely stopped working during the past 30 years with high-profile roles in TV, film and theatre.
This Christmas she is heading to The Lowry in Salford to scare the living daylights out of us as the evil White Witch in C.S. Lewis’s classic tale, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Described by its director Michael Fentiman as “total theatre”, this new production blends dance, puppetry and actor-musicianship as Lucy, Edmund, Susan and Peter step through the wardrobe into the enchanted kingdom of Narnia. For Womack, a fascination with the story’s author was one of the things that first attracted her to the part.
“C.S. Lewis has an incredible history,” she says. “As well as being best friends with Tolkien, his books were really transformative, instigating the reader’s imagination in the deepest of ways. As a theologist, a lot of his work deals in the darkest of subject matter. What does good mean? What does bad mean? This particular book has been with a lot of people for a long, long time.”
The story may have been written more than 70 years ago, but this production is imbued with a contemporary look.
“Sometimes on stage, these stories can be sanitised with lots of primary colours and a sort of CBeebies feel,” Womack says. “That type of presentation puts me right off, but our show isn’t like that at all. The design of it is really elevated, weird and wonderful. It looks a bit like Mad Max. The Queen comes out on a mechanical crane and there are leather masks that wouldn’t be out of place on an Alexander McQueen runway.
“As well as being a good night out, this piece is also uplifting. It’s really moving, particularly coming out of lockdown when people are questioning what’s going on and what their life is. It’s definitely an event piece with flying, puppetry, actors, musicians, choral singing. It feels like your imagination has been let loose for a couple of hours.”
Actors often say that the best characters to play are the baddies, but surely it’s necessary to find some redeeming qualities to round out a portrayal?
“Definitely,” Womack agrees. “Damaged characters are always fun to play but you should always love them and treat them with respect. They’re often the ones you empathise with the most because evil always comes through vulnerability, fear of losing control or not being loved. In this piece, the witch wants to live forever and she’s terrified people are going to take away her power, so she becomes the seducer, reflecting what everyone’s damage is. It’s really cleverly done.”
She adds: “I spent a lot of my 20s playing blonde airheads. It was the 90s and every comedy character was usually the girlfriend or the wife. Now, getting more powerful roles like the White Witch is great.”
It’s clear that this is a production for all the family, not just a show for kids.
“We’re underselling it if we call it a kids show. It’s a grown-up piece for any age group and is just as important in lots of ways to adults. Kids also hate being patronised. Having two teenagers of my own who very rarely sit still and have such short attention spans, they actually sat still in this show. At the matinees you can hear a pin drop. We were initially worried the younger audiences weren’t enjoying it and then you catch a glimpse of them and see that they’re loving it.”
As audiences return to live theatre, it’s obvious that the past 18 months have had a big effect on members of the public and performers alike.
“Everyone has been confused’, says Womack. “I’ve been very lucky as a jobbing actor, and it had been a long time since I hadn’t worked. I felt alienated and weird at first but then, for a while, I really liked having time out. It’s been wonderful to be back though. The arts really pulls everyone together. After a period where so many felt isolated, being back now as part of a community, sitting and sharing a theatre piece together is almost a religious experience.”
With a career spanning more than 30 years, there’s rarely been a time Womack hasn’t been on screen or stage.
“That’s why I’m knackered!” she jokes.
“There’s this thing some people have about acting that pisses me off. They seem to think that you’ve always got a choice with acting. You sometimes hear things like ‘I can’t believe she did this job or that job’. Well, actually, I did it because I had to survive. I’m not from a rich family, I left school at 15 and some jobs I did in my early career were just things I needed to do to get by and pay the rent that month.
“We talk about supporting the working classes in the industry but then we chastise people for doing soaps or whatever they have to do to get by. We can’t all be from rich families and go to RADA. You get these people who go [adopts posh voice] ‘oh we just love somebody who’s down to earth’ but then penalise actors if they’ve done Doctors or something. It’s a double standard and there’s still an innate snobbery within our industry.”
Unlike many of her contemporaries, Womack has never gone down the reality TV route, despite the potential riches on offer.
“It’s not a conscious decision,” she says. “It’s been offered and I’m not snobby about them or mind others who do them. I just struggle with being authentic and wouldn’t know how to be the best version of myself. My instinct is that I wouldn’t represent myself very well. I can be quite quiet so might come across a bit sullen or moody. I love Strictly, but I don’t think I have a face that could smile that much of the time. I think I’d look a bit too shell-shocked in those training VTs. Viewers would see how uncomfortable I was, and they’d hate me and say I was only in it for the money. I respect those who have done the show, though. It’s a great job to do.”
However, each spring, Womack is reminded of one of her earlier jobs, representing the UK in the 1991 Eurovision Song Contest. Coming tenth with the anthem A Message to Your Heart is something she has never been allowed to forget.
“A friend and I were talking recently about our most embarrassing moments and how other people eventually tend to forget that kind of stuff. No one ever forgets that I did Eurovision. It’s on the internet,” she says with a laugh. “It’s like the worst boyfriend you ever snogged when you were 14 when people asked, ‘what were you thinking?’.
“It was that classic thing again of me wanting to pay the rent. I was booked as a session singer just to do the demo but then the producer saw me and asked me to sing the song for the show. All of a sudden, I’m in this hurricane of PR and, as I was only young, I didn’t know how to manage it all, so was just flying by the seat of my pants.
“I wore a peach basque and sang a song about starving children.” She winces. “The opening lyric went ‘Half the world is hungry just through being born. Everyday a compromise for a grain of corn’, then I did a big air grab. As well as being patronising and totally inappropriate, it’s not even factually correct because it’s a fucking kernel of corn not a grain. I got to do Top Of The Pops, though, which I’m deeply proud of. As for coming tenth, that would be like a win for the UK now. I feel sorry for anyone taking it on these days and getting nil points.’
“I’ve never done Shakespeare because I’m nervous of it.” she confesses. “I really love literature and I was a bright girl, but I left school before my GCSEs. As a result, I think I’ve suffered from inadequacy in terms of literature and veered away from the classics because of feeling intimidated.
“Watching the likes of Mark Rylance do it, though, he makes it so gritty, accessible and real and it’s made me think more about trying it. Being nervous of something is usually a good thing anyway, but what usually attracts me to a script is if I can find a way in. Sometimes you just kind of know.”
Main image: Sam Womack, White Witch by Seamus Ryan.
The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe is at The Lowry, Salford until January 15, 2022. For more information, or to book tickets, click here.