Samantha Womack: from pin-up to starring stage role in Belfast in The Girl On The Train
As the former EastEnders star prepares to take to the stage in Belfast in The Girl On The Train she tells Ed Power of her one-time ladette lifestyle and the media intrusion when she became a big soap star
Back in the 1990s, Samantha Womack was an original of the ladette species. Under her maiden name of Samantha Janus, she posed for Loaded and FHM, guested on Chris Evans's stag-weekend-as-TV-show, TFI Friday, and became a household name starring in two blokes-and-a-babe sitcom Game On.
That was very much then. There followed a ratings-slaying stint as unhinged Ronnie Mitchell on EastEnders. And now she has embarked on the third act of her career, as an esteemed stage actor. In this capacity Womack, now 46, is winning rave reviews for her lead turn in Rachel Wagstaff and Duncan Abel's adaptation of the Paula Hawkins' 2015 psychological thriller The Girl On The Train. You can see how good she is for yourself when the production comes to Belfast's Grand Opera House next month.
Womack's pin-up days are something she looks back on with a degree of bemusement. Occasionally a fan will approach her outside a stage door and ask her to sign an old photograph. She gawps at the picture, all that exposed flesh, and wonders how we ever thought young women draped all over lad mags was a blow for equality. "I look at some of the career choices and photoshoots I did at that time and think 'my God - to think that we were feeling empowered'," she reflects.
She doesn't want to entirely condemn Age of the Ladette. It marked an important transition from the expectation that women should be quiet and deferential. Obviously none of it - the FHM spreads, the innuendo-soaked sit-coms - would pass for progressive today.
But as a society we had to go there to get to here. And, by the standards of what had gone before, beer-swilling, football mad young women genuinely were mould-breaking. You probably had to be around to appreciate this. Womack was and she knows that the ladette deserves more than to be chucked on a pyre. "We weren't even being coerced," she says. "We all - women, men, the media - thought it was the coolest thing ever. It was the time of Oasis, of devil may care rebellion. And you had the Spice Girls and girl power."
Womack would probably roll her eyes if it was suggested she was from the school of hard knocks. As with many from her generation she has spent her life pulling up her sleeves and getting on with it. Still, she certainly hasn't had it easy. She was born in Brighton in November 1972 to a singer-songwriter father and an actress mother. Her father left the family when she was six.
Later, her mother married a doctor and the family moved to Edinburgh. She later lived for a time on the QE2, with her grandmother, a noted choreographer. (In 2009, her birth father took his own life. At the time father and daughter had not spoken for several months because of what she regarded as his unacceptable behaviour at her wedding.)
Her path eventually led to the Sylvia Young Stage School in London, where she was a class-mate of the future All Saints. "My education was incredibly varied," she recalls. "My natural father was a musician - it was a very eclectic, bohemian upbringing in 1970s Brighton. My stepfather was a GP. I went to a Catholic school in Edinburgh and then to a rough comprehensive in London.
"Stage school was a big surprise to me; suddenly all these kids bouncing around in leg warmers, brimming with confidence. I just didn't understand that language. It took me a while to get that under my belt."
Because of her father's music background she'd come of age listening to strong female artists such as Joni Mitchell and Stevie Nicks. She signed a record contract straight out of stage school and even represented the UK in the 1991 Eurovision song contest, finishing 10th with A Message To Your Heart. But she quickly realised that the music industry, as it existed at that time, was not for her.
"A lot of the women I loved were acoustic, guitar-playing singer-songwriters. When I had a record contract that wasn't an option. It was the land of Stock, Aiken and Waterman. I found it uncomfortable and walked out of my recording contract when I was about 21."
In the mid-1990s, she became rock star famous for playing the voracious Mandy Wilkins in Game On. Her lowest career moment was in 1998 when she was cast along with Denise van Outen in the notorious Channel 4 sitcom, Babes in the Wood.
Womack had a sense from the outset that she'd signed up to a car crash. In Game On, Mandy had been sexually adventurous but always in control. Babes in the Wood, by contrast, felt like Benny Hill was the Morning Glory generation (the title incidentally comes from its setting of St John's Wood in London).
"Mandy was a complex character who owned this need for sex with men. It was the first time a woman had owned that. Babes in the Wood was just an excuse to get girls in lascivious costumes," she says. "I left at the end of the first series. But that whole time definitely readied me for the press intrusion that comes with being in a soap. The press frenzy prepared me - and it truly was a frenzy."
One thing that stands out for her about the 1990s was the ferocity of the media. In the pre-death of Diana era tabloids pried with impunity and paparazzi seemed to lurk around every corner.
"The intrusion!" she gasps. "You have none of the protective aspects you have now. Everyone was selling stories... every boyfriend (was speaking to the press). It was very lascivious. I grew up in that culture and became pretty battle-hardened. Of course now as a young woman you are more respected and have more protection.
"A friend of mine used to date a prolific rock 'n' roll performer from the time. The things that were said to bait him. And then you'd get the famous punch-up shots. The paps were unruly. You couldn't go anywhere without being surrounded."
She began a second chapter in her professional life in 2007, taking on the role of the ferocious Ronnie Mitchell in EastEnders. Ronnie was a whirlwind, carving a destructive path through Albert Square, and an instant fan favourite. But the spotlight for a soap star can be withering and, after four years, she stepped away. She would return on and off to the part until 2017, when Ronnie was finally killed off, drowning in a swimming pool with her sister Roxy.
She loved EastEnders and felt a wrench separating from Ronnie. Still, looking back, she wonders if her bond with the character might not have become slightly unhealthy. "I felt that I knew the character better than anyone," she nods. "That caused problems. When you had new directors or new writers, you would say, 'I've known this person for 10 years'. It's very difficult to let go of that. "
Towards the end, moreover, she began to feel that Ronnie was becoming a bit of a cartoon. She killed in self-defence, married, had a child, embarked on an affair and later attempted to bump someone off with poison. It was a whirlwind - and not in a good way. "I started to become uncomfortable in what she represented," she says.
"She was depicted as a normal mother but then she had attempted murder or baby abduction. It was the way soaps were going - all trying to outdo one another. The thing is, where are the boundaries? If you have five murders a year - is anyone going to be very interested with the sixth murder?"
The Girl On The Train is very different challenge. As in the novel, her character Rachel is an unreliable narrator - a boozy commuter with a fractured mind who develops an obsession with a mysterious couple she spies every day from her rail carriage.
She had already read the book and made a point of watching the 2016 Emily Blunt movie to get a sense of what audience might expect from an adaptation. The film has its fans, though it takes liberties with the material - and arguably completely ruins the mood by relocating the story to America (removing that crucial, condensation-on-the-windows claustrophobia of the London commuter run).
The play is far more faithful and returns The Girl On The Train to its southern English setting. Getting inside Rachel's head was obviously a complicated process, says Womack. She found it draining and grew to feel emotionally cut off, even from actor husband Mark - her one-time co-star in police drama Liverpool 1 - and their two children, Ben (18) and Lili (14).
"I noticed I was becoming more anti-social," she says. "Part of that was about preserving energy levels. At the beginning of the tour I was keeping to myself, staying in my room. The only place I was living and breathing was on stage. But there was something depressing about being within the four walls of a theatre. I try to go for a walks so that it doesn't feel so claustrophobic."
- The Girl On The Train runs at Belfast's Grand Opera House from June 11-15. To book go to www.goh.co.uk