From reality TV contestant to film star, it has been a long and impressive journey for the 22-year-old Manx singer/actress Samantha Jane Barks. She has made her big screen debut in the long awaited adaption of the hit musical Les Misérables, and she's very good. But there are many people, particular people from outside the United Kingdom, asking who is Samantha Barks?
Born and raised on the Isle of Man, Barks quickly showed a talent for music and dancing, signing up for performing arts courses at a very young age and performed at a local level. This led to her making an album and performing as a supporting act at the Peel Bay Festival, which included acts such as The Who, Madness and Sugababes. But even the proudest Manx resident would concede that anyone who would need to make it in the entertainment industry would have to leave the island, and Barks enrolled at the Arts Educational School in London for her A-Levels.
Barks' big break came at the age of 17 when she auctioned for the BBC show I’d Do Anything, where Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh were looking for a new Oliver and Nancy for a West End revival of Oliver!. Barks became an early favorite to win the show and she was known for her fantastic singing voice and confidence stage presences. She won audience backing and the Isle of Man even temporarily renamed itself the Isle of Sam. But the competition was fierce and Barks ended up in third place.
Barks was able to bounce back when she was offered the lead role in a UK tour of Cabaretand her career built up steam. She performed national anthems at sporting events and concerts and in 2009 appeared in Aladdin in a Christmas Pantomime in Windsor, which earned her positive reviews in the local media.
Barks' big opportunity on the West End came in 2010 when Cameron Mackintosh cast her as the street urchin Éponine in the Queen’s Theatre production of Les Misérables. She made the role her own and performed in medleys during The Royal Variety Show and the Classical Brit Awards. The crowning achievement was when she was reprised the role for the 25th Anniversary Concert at the 02 Arena in London.
The 25th Anniversary Concert had top performers from the West End and Broadway, including Alfie Boe, Norm Lewis and Lea Salonga (the 10th Anniversary Concert’s Éponine) and Barks held her own spectacularly along with them. As you can see in her performance of Éponine’s signature song “On My Own,” she not only showcases her powerful voice, but also gives an emotional performance, portraying the character’s angst through her speech, body language and facial expression. This is even more impressive considering the limitations of the concert setting where she was forced to be stationary. Throughout her performance there are little looks, glances and expressions that give its more emotional depth and shows she is a talented actress as well as a singer.
In 2010, Barks filmed a leading role in the Disney Channel show Groove High, a live action/animation hybrid. Barks played Zoe, both as an adult in live-action and animation in flashbacks as a teenager, a girl who has an incredible singing voice but with stage fright to match. The show gets to showcase Barks’ singing ability and her American accent. Broadcast has recently begun on the Disney Channel in the UK and other countries like France, Australia and India.
Barks finally did earn the role of Nancy in 2011, leading a UK tour of Oliver! It was a popular show, but the biggest surprise was yet to come when Cameron Mackintosh awarded Barks the role of Éponine for the film adaptation of Les Misérables after her final performance in Manchester.
Éponine was one of the most coveted roles in Hollywood: many actresses were linked to role, such as Lea Michele (Glee), Scarlett Johansson and Evan Rachel Wood (Across the Universe). The media reported that pop singer Taylor Swift was about to become Éponine, but to everyone’s surprise, including Barks, she was offered the role instead. But one brave podcaster stated that the role of Éponine should go to an unknown and that Barks was his preferred choice: that was I (listen to episode 36 of The Plot Hole here if you do not believe me).
Éponine was not a film role for a star, it was one to make to make a star and reviews for Les Misérables have earned Barks high praise from critics for her performance. It was considered a star-making performance and set to be strong contender for best breakout performance of the year.
At the moment, the future is unwritten for Barks. She is set to return to perform as Nancy in the UK Tour but there is no further of any of upcoming roles.
Barks has been described as having that Disney Princess vocal quality. Lea Salonga supplied the singing voice of Princess Jasmine and Mulan in Aladdin and Mulan and playing Disney princesses certainly did not harm Anne Hathaway’s and Amy Adams’ careers. Barks could easily star in a Disney movie, either animated or live action.
Or she can always play Elphaba from Wicked on the stage or screen.
Here’s to a long and successful career for Samantha Barks and hopefully she’ll return to the film world very soon.