We all thought ladette culture was the coolest thing ever - Samantha Womack on career spanning lads mags, Eastenders, and now theatre
The star of bawdy sit-coms and lads' mag photoshoots, in the 1990s Samantha Womack (née Janus) was rock star famous. Here, she talks empowerment and intrusion with Ed Power, and reflects on the career choices that led her to a challenging new theatre role
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 raves 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 Dublin's Bord Gáis Energy Theatre next month.
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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 lads' 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 says.
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 contrast 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 very 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. However, her lowest career moment came just a few years later - in 1998 - when she was cast along 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, wonders if her bond with the character might not have become slightly unhealthy. "I felt 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 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 a radically different challenge compared to anything she has done before. 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.
The last time Womack trod the boards in Dublin it was as Morticia Addams in a musical adaptation of The Addams Family in 2017. Morticia was a practitioner of dark magic, dressed all in black with the complexion of an alabaster tombstone. Yet she was a romp in the park compared to Rachel in The Girl On The Train. "The Addams Family is a lot lighter isn't it?" says Womack. "You wouldn't describe The Addams Family as light. Compared to this it is."
She and Rachel are nothing alike. Yet she found it straightforward to parse this paranoid, gin-soaked woman whose life has been falling apart by increments. "She is more relatable than other parts I've played. She isn't as stylised. It isn't necessarily that I identify with her. I understand how to play her. I know that person."
Womack had already read the book and made a point of watching the 2016 Emily Blunt movie to get a sense of what audiences might expect from an adaptation. The film has its fans, though it takes liberties with the material. And it 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 restores The Girl On The Train to its damp 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. 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."
Womack is on stage almost the entirety of the running time. The best way of preparing, she has found, is to carve out space for herself during the day - to steal quiet moments of contemplation. "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." Rachel in the play is trapped within a cage of insecurity, regret and slowly smouldering rage (not helped by her functioning alcoholism). As part of the process of getting under her skin, Womack feels she learned a few things about herself. "My job is to be outgoing. My son had CBT [cognitive behavioural therapy] in his early teenage years. He was dealing with anxiety of the sort teenagers often go through. And we talked about how many creatives are naturally introverts, though you wouldn't necessarily know it to look at them.
"I've been trained like a seal from a very young age - to talk when I'm supposed to talk, be funny when I'm supposed to be funny. Naturally, I'm probably the complete opposite."
'The Girl On The Train' runs from June 3-8. To book,