Ex-EastEnders star Samantha Womack in The Girl on The Train BIG INTERVIEW: ‘This is the only part I’ve done where I can look absolutely terrible’

When you’re less than a week away from opening a new stage production of a blockbuster novel, coming down with an illness is not ideal.

Thursday, 24th January 2019, 9:26 am
Updated Thursday, 7th February 2019, 6:48 pm
The Girl on The Train in rehearsal. Samantha Womack (Rachel Watson) and Adam Jackson Smith (Tom Watson). Picture by Helen Maybanks

But in the final stretch of preparations for The Girl On The Train, Samantha Womack, who is playing the titular ‘girl’ Rachel Watson, has found herself battling a chest infection. The show was due to open in Milton Keynes on Wednesday.

Speaking to The Guide on the phone just a few days ago, Sam (best known for playing Ronnie Mitchell in EastEnders) was hugely apologetic for sounding less than healthy.

‘I’ve got the worst chest infection ever, I’m trying to breathe while speaking – it’s not the easiest,’ she says, sounding rather more husky than usual.

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The Girl on the Train - Samantha Womack playing Rachel Watson and Oliver Farnworth playing Scott Hipwell. Picture by Helen Maybanks

The book, which was also turned into a 2016 film starring Emily Blunt, is a tense psychological thriller which puts a lot on the shoulders of its lead.

‘I think it’s the rehearsals that have brought this on,’ says Sam. ‘It’s so high-octane, and stress-y. There’s more dialogue in this for me than doing Hamlet! She never leaves the stage, she’s never quiet, all her dialogue’s kind of disorientated so it’s quite hard to learn, I think the brain-power it’s taken... I haven’t been sick in ages.’

But looking on the bright side, she adds: ‘You know, the funny thing is, this is the only part I’ve ever done where I can look absolutely terrible. I don’t have to put any makeup on – she’s permanently hungover or drunk anyway, so if I do turn up sounding hoarse or whatever… I’ve never done a part where I can be that,’ she fishes for the right word, ‘relaxed. I can turn up in a pair of cargo pants and just walk on stage!’

Without wanting to give too much of the plot away, Rachel longs for a different life – her only escape is the perfect couple she watches through the train window every day, happy and in love. Or so it appears. When Rachel learns that the woman she’s been secretly watching has suddenly disappeared, she finds herself as a witness and even a suspect.

The Girl on The Train rehearsal. Samantha Womack (Rachel Watson) and Adam Jackson Smith (Tom Watson). Picture by Helen Maybanks

Sam first read the book, by Paula Hawkins, about five years ago.

‘The book’s brilliant, but I’ve not read it or watched the film again since getting the role, otherwise you start informing your performance with details from them. You have to treat it as a separate piece.’

And regarding the film, she says: ‘It’s hard to do a novel like this and do it justice in a film because you have to make it feel like “real life”, and you don’t have so much access to inside someone’s head in a film, and I think it really needed a bit more of that. I think in the play we’ve got a little bit more of that in.’

The novel was first adapted for the stage and went on a UK tour last year, starring fellow former-EastEnder Jill Halfpenny as Rachel. However, reviews were at best mixed.

Sam stresses that this is a completely new adaptation: ‘That was a different show, so this has been completely rewritten, this is its first outing. It’s very difficult thing to get what’s in the book on to the stage. I certainly felt it needed to be theatrically more exciting and delve more into Rachel’s mind. We’ve been afforded more licence to have flashbacks and apparitions, and there’s soliloquies and pieces to the audience, and I think that will work.’

But what’s it been like getting into the character of someone as damaged as Rachel?

‘She’s broken, completely broken.

‘I suppose everyone you play, you have to like, or understand at least. She’s someone who’s lost her way and been manipulated for a long time and had the misfortune to not have a baby, and so you find her at her lowest point, but what’s quite nice about her is that she’s quite firey and when she’s drunk she’s unpredictable. She’s a very good anti-hero. I liked reading about her, and when she’s drunk she’ll say out loud what other people won’t normally say and I love playing a character like that.’

Director Anthony Banks and producer Simon Friend sought Sam out for the part, but because of her commitments elsewhere it has led to a rather unorthodox rehearsal schedule.

‘It’s been quite a complicated rehearsal period where the majority of it was done last year, and we’ve only had a week this year before doing it. I’ve never rehearsed like this before, but it’s the only way my schedule has allowed me to do it.

‘It has been intense. We’ve been doing it for 10 hours a day in tech and rehearsal this week. It’s quite a tough head-space to be in for that long, and that’s probably why I’ve got this chest infection!’

The cast is rounded out by Oliver Farnworth, best known for playing Andy Carver in Coronation Street, as Scott, with John Dougall as DI Gaskill, Naeem Hayatt as Kamal Abdic, Adam Jackson-Smith as Tom Watson, Lowenna Melrose as Anna Watson, and Kirsty Oswald as Megan Hipwell.

Normally you might want to build a sense of camaraderie with your cast-mates, but it’s almost been the opposite for Sam.

‘It’s a brand new cast for me. I haven’t worked with any of them before.

‘I didn’t really need any chemistry with anyone in this. If there’s a strong love interest or someone I need to work closely with, I’d ask the director if I can be involved in the casting, but I really didn’t need to be for this – she’s a loner and everything she does is by herself.

‘Plus Anthony is a brilliant director and I trust his judgement and I know he’s cast some strong actors in the other roles.’

Sam was last on stage in the latter half of 2017 as Morticia in The Addams Family musical, but she’s been busy since. Appearing in independent films, starting production work on a film with husband Mark Womack, and was on our screens earlier this month in two episodes of the BBC’s hit drama Silent Witness. 

She admits the prospect of hitting the road again made her think twice about taking on the part of Rachel.

‘After I’d finished touring for six months with Addams I didn’t really know if I wanted to tour again, but it’s such a strong character – you don’t get to play female roles like that very often. She’s really kind of vibrant and strong and dynamic, I thought: “I can’t not do it”.

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The actress is currently signed up for six months, taking in 24 theatres – but it may be more.

‘Potentially they want it to be longer. At the moment we’re booked up to July but the ticket sales have been extraordinary – we’ve already got three or four venues sold out, it’s a very popular ticket, which is brilliant.’

She can also see a link to her famous EastEnders alter-ego, Ronnie. ‘I think she’s not that dissimilar to the character I played in EastEnders  – she’s quite damaged and broken. I think a lot of the fans who loved Ronnie will be attracted to me playing this role.

‘I think she’ll have that same sort of fanbase – she’s also someone who’s unpredictable – which is quite clever. There’s that branding between the two characters who people have really enjoyed watching and I think the two work really well together.’

Referring to Ronnie's dramatic demise in the soap on new Year’s Day two years ago, she laughs: ‘And there’s no swimming pool in sight in this!’ 

The Girl on The Train is at Mayflower Theatre, Southampton, from February 5-9, tickets £19.50 to £36.50. Go to mayflower.org.uk.