For many people, the chance to lead a Broadway show is the dream of a lifetime. One of those people is Samantha Barks, who is currently living out that dream playing Vivian Ward in Broadway’s Pretty Woman: The Musical. The chance to step into the iconic role created by Julia Roberts is the opportunity of a lifetime, and for Barks, it was an opportunity that came after years of hard work and dedication.
Samantha Barks is probably still best known for playing Éponine in the 2012 film adaptation of Les Misérables, earning numerous awards for her breakthrough performance. Years before that, she got her start when she was cast on a singing competition show in the UK at the age of 17. For Samantha, that opportunity changed everything. “I auditioned for fun. I didn’t think I would get through. I ended up on live TV for two months—that was a crazy jump,” she recalls. “I’m from a little island, a beautiful island called Isle of Man, and all of a sudden, everyone recognizes you because you’re on primetime, Saturday night TV.”
Despite the show leading to numerous theater gigs for Samantha, her sudden exposure wasn’t all positive. “The fame thing—even though minor fame—there were aspects of it that I really didn’t take to, and it made me very, very anxious,” she admits. “In a way, that surprised me because I always just thought about the career aspect…but I didn’t think about the stuff that came along with it, and that actually was something I found really difficult to get a hold of.”
When Samantha heard that Pretty Woman was being turned into a musical, she knew it was something special. “The minute I saw that they were doing it, I was on the phone with my agent being like, ‘Please, I have to be seen for this role,'” she recalls. As fate would have it, the timing worked out perfectly. “I was actually filming in London, I had a week off to come and do some concerts at 54 Below , and it happened to be on the same week that Pretty Woman were holding their auditions—thank you, fate! So I auditioned, and they wanted me for a callback, but I couldn’t because I had to go back on the plane, and they were talking about flying me back, and there was all this back and forth, and then I landed in London and they said, ‘It’s yours. They want you to do it.'”
Barks landed the role more quickly than she had even imagined, but that was just the start of the hard work. For one, she was faced with the challenge of creating her own version of one of the most iconic film roles ever. The first rule? No watching the movie allowed. “It’s banned. Just because, you know, it’s such a beautiful, iconic performance from Julia Roberts.”
Rather than try to top Roberts’ star-making role, Barks looked for a more personal connection to the character: “What does Vivian feel like to me?” she asked herself. “What does Vivian feel like in my skin?” She also turned to the show’s musical element to unlock new aspects of the character. “The fact that we’re now singing songs by Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance, that’s amazing, and it changes things. It gives you these little three-minute snapshots of a character.”
Once Samantha figured out her take on the character, she could really have fun with it. Vivian is “such a fun character,” she says, “because she has such a great journey… The best thing about her is from the beginning to the end, seeing the transformation that she goes on. Not the transformation that people think of—the hair and the clothes—that’s just fine. It’s actually her finding her voice and finding that self-worth.”
Of course, Vivian is a sex worker, a profession that is often considered taboo. But her journey in Pretty Woman defies the stereotypes of her background, and offers something for all of us to learn. In talking about what Vivian has unlocked inside of her, Samantha says, “It goes back to her finding her self-worth, and actually saying ‘that’s okay.’ Standing up for yourself, and having the confidence to go ‘I’m actually enough. I’m enough!'”
Even though Vivian’s choices might not always be the easy ones, she knows what’s right for her. “You have to stand up for yourself and make hard decisions, because you’ve got to believe in yourself,” Barks asserts. “We put so much pressure on ourselves to be perfect all the time, and it’s like, you’ve got to be a fan of yourself, be a supporter of yourself. That’s not easy to do, but Vivian becomes that. We can all learn from that.”
For Samantha Barks, a year of stepping into Vivian Ward’s thigh-high boots eight times a week has been full of unforgettable moments. Perhaps the biggest one of all came last summer, when Julia Roberts herself paid the Broadway company of Pretty Woman a visit. “She walked onto the stage and just looked straight for me, and she just hugged me and hugged me and hugged me, and we stayed in a hug, and she was so nice about what I had done in the show,” Barks gushes. ” so kind about my portrayal of Vivian…I was blown away. Even just to meet her and give her a hug is amazing when you’ve played this role, but for her to like what I’ve done with it—surreal. Surreal, but lovely. To get her stamp of approval was amazing.”
In addition to some special celebrity backstage visits, Pretty Woman has given Samantha Barks a long-awaited debut in the Broadway community, and they’ve welcomed her with open arms. “These are your peers, your family,” she says of her Broadway friends. After years of flying back and forth for various film projects, Broadway has offered Barks a supportive home to grow with other artists—especially women. “I love that. When women celebrate other women, I love it. I see a lot of that, and it’s been lovely.”
Samantha Barks is currently starring as Vivian Ward in Broadway’s Pretty Woman: The Musical, at the Nederlander Theatre.
Images: Shutterstock; MissAVuk, Pretty Woman: The Musical / YouTube; @samanthabarks (2) / Instagram