Samantha Womack has been famous practically her entire adult life. She was just 18 when, under her maiden name of Samantha Janus, she represented Britain at the Eurovision Song Contest (finishing a respectable tenth). A starring part in the BBC’s cult 90s sitcom Game On followed, with the actress becoming a staple of lad mags such as FHM and Loaded.
“Looking back, I think ‘gosh, I really didn’t have any time to grow up,” she says. “Every boyfriend, every story about me, was reported extensively — I was always in the public eye. It must have been very hard. At the time I accepted it. To me, it was absolutely normal. When you are young you think that’s how it is.”
She had the bad fortune, she feels, to come of age during the high point of lad culture, when it was acceptable to boorishly objectify women. Womack, for instance, appeared semi unclad on the cover of a 1996 edition of FHM, accompanied by the headline “Supervixen”. She looked understandably glum in the picture.
“There was a lot of the ladette stuff around,” she nods. “It was a very specific time to grow up — being a young female in the ’90s brought with it a lot of intrusion.”
Womack’s pin-up days are, she is happy report, long behind her. She is currently starring in a revival of Andrew Lippa’s 2009 musical adaptation of The Addams Family and brings the production to Ireland from August 15. She took the job coming off a decade in EastEnders, in which she played nightclub proprietress Ronnie Mitchell. The character was killed off in January — a shock to viewers and a wrenching experience for Womack.
“There was an element of trauma,” Womack, 44, nods. “I’ve left jobs I’ve been in for two or three years. This was different. These people had become my family.”
When you play a character in soap they get under your skin in ways that are difficult to articulate, she says. By the end her personality was entwined with that of Ronnie.
“I don’t want to sound pretentious but it ties into the idea of method acting. I’d come home after 14 hours on the set and I found it easier to be Ronnie than being myself. Because I had been for so long. When you get rid of a character like that from your body it ’s like an exorcism. And in this specific case, she’s not just gone, she’s dead. It took me a long time to get my head around.
“Ronnie felt like a real person to me — someone who lived and breathed. It was more complicated than just doing a job. I had attached myself to a family.”
She has known some trauma in her own life too. Womack began her show business career after her parents separated and she was taken under the wing of her grandmother, a choreographer who brought her niece with her when she went on tour on the QE2.
By age 15, she’d left school, determined to break into show business. But while her dreams came true, life was still difficult.
In 2009, her father, a singer who had never quite achieved the fame he sought, hung himself. He didn’t leave a suicide note, making his death even more difficult for his family to process.
After EastEnders, Womack had intended taking a straight dramatic role. When The Addams Family was offered, her instinct was to say “no”. Her agent persuaded her to read the script and she was entranced. She’d expected a broad romp. But the book, by Woody Allen collaborator Marshall Brickman, was far deeper and more textured. It was also extremely funny.
“It is a smart piece — a lot smarter than you’d think if you know old Addams Family. It’s a family show but also with a dark and melancholy side. Singing is quite tough. I wasn’t sure it was something I wanted to do. You really have to look after yourself. When I read the script, however, I thought, ‘oh wow — this is fantastic.’ I really wanted to do it.”
“I love the fact it’s not TV,” she continues. “Following EastEnders I needed a live audience. I was tired of the studio. I love filming, doing movies and stuff. But there is something about the immediacy of the stage that is very satisfying. Going into it straight after EastEnders was also immediately helpful. Had I been left to my own devices and ended up just wafting around the house I think I would have been hit much harder. I would have had too much time to reflect on it.”
The Addams Family debuted on Broadway in 2010 with a reported $15m (€12.7m) budget. Described by the producers as an “off beat take on 19th century Gothic” it was a moderate hit with audiences but did not score big critically (and was conspicuously overlooked during awards season). It closed in December 2011 after 722 performances.
The new touring revival casts Womack as spooky matriarch Morticia Addams. With her severe hair-style and pallid complexion, the matriarch cuts an instantly recognisable figure, even for those at best vaguely familiar with the property.
“There’s definitely a transition as you dress up as Morticia,” says Womack. “The moment I put the whig on… half the performance is already there. The way you move in her outfit — it feels very elegant. You just want to glide on stage. It’s a very powerful change”
There are songs and laughs — but the play also has a message. The Addams are looked upon as freaks by the outside world. The moral is that you should accept yourself for who you are not change in order to please others. “It’s talking about the perception of normal. How do you define normal? The audience responds to it very powerfully. You can hear the difference between polite applause and real enthusiasm and there’s a real transition in people’s responses with this play as it is unfolding.”