Samantha Womack has swapped one dysfunctional clan for another, as she bids farewell to the Mitchells of EastEnders, and joins a touring production of The Addams Family as Morticia, she tells Janet Christie
It’s all about faaam-ley” as Peggy Mitchell, EastEnders’ cockney matriarch loved to say and for almost a decade that family included Samantha Womack as Ronnie Mitchell. As a member of one of TV soapland’s most notorious clans she experienced and engineered affairs, abductions and murders, until she was finally killed off on her wedding day at New Year, along with sister Roxy. Well it was a soap wedding, and it’s a much loved trope that those never go well, so sure enough Ronnie was drowned in a swimming pool, dragged down by the weight of her dress while failing to save her sister.
Now Womack is part of another of our favourite families. They’re creepy and they’re kooky, mysterious and spooky, yes it’s The Addams Family. This time Womack plays the matriarch, Morticia, in the musical that comes to Edinburgh next month. Along with Womack there’s Cameron Blakely as Gomez, Les Dennis as Uncle Fester and Carrie Hope Fletcher as Wednesday in this musical comedy from the writers of the hit Jersey Boys.
“Morticia is fiercely protective of her family, loyal, passionate… To her, family is everything,” says Womack. “It’s a religion, all she believes in and cares about. Most mothers have the same tendencies, but Morticia’s are exaggerated.”
When we talk Womack is still in rehearsals, in the process of bringing Morticia to life, but is she mourning Ronnie at all after playing her for so long? Does she ever find herself thinking, ‘what would Ronnie do?’
“No! She’d be murdering people left, right and centre, just for parking in the wrong spot!” she says. “The Mitchell sisters started off bright and vivacious, a burst of life and a bit rowdy, but Ronnie was darker and as her character emerged, got darker and darker. She’d gone to a very strange place, and it’s hard to sustain a character like that really, you have to kind of put them to bed. She was at the end of her journey.”
Ronnie may have had more baggage than Stansted but Morticia is idiosyncratic too – there’s the cultivation of man eating plants, the cyanide powder in her necklace and lighting flames with her fingers.
“Morticia is a very different creature to Ronnie, although quite reserved too. Morticia has a strange accent, that old-fashioned American when they were trying to mimic British. And she’s quite husky so I’m going to have to find a way of finding her speaking voice. The singing is very staccato and there’s a lot of enunciation, so that’s hard.
“And there’s comedy too, but different to anything I’ve done before. It’s almost an American delivery, quite curt and dry and deadpan. Morticia’s comedy should come from being completely one tone; she’s regal and quite old-fashioned. The body language is interesting: she’s still, she should glide really. I’m not sure how I’m going to do that!”
Womack is inspired by Carolyn Jones in the original 1964 series based on the characters in Charles Addams’ New Yorker cartoons, dressed in black with her hem of tentacles.
“That’s what I’d like to stay loyal to, more than the film which was 1990s. I like the old-fashioned Hollywood glamour that she had, less arch and knowing, less vampy. It’s old school. I always like the originals of shows and get very old and grumpy when everything’s watered down.”
Womack will also be on the big screen this year in Kingsman: The Golden Circle, follow up to the 2015 spy comedy which also stars Colin Firth, Samuel L Jackson and Michael Caine.
“I don’t know how much of my character, Michelle Unwin, will be left in the second film – Matthew [Vaughn] always shoots loads of material so we never know what’s going to end up on screen – but it’s really cool to do because it has lots of special effects and uses really specific cameras. It’s a mechanical approach to filming that’s really interesting.”
As well as Kingsman, Womack has just completed filming a special episode of Mount Pleasant, the Sky1 sitcom, in which she plays Tanya Dawson, opposite another former EastEnder, Nigel Harman. “She’s a kind of nutty, impulsive, incredibly up and incredibly down person. It’s with a really eclectic cast – Paula Wilcox and Sally Lindsay – and I enjoyed that. There’s a lot more laughter in Mount Pleasant than EastEnders, that’s for sure.”
The Addams Family will be a big commitment, touring from April to November, and 44-year-old Womack will be bringing her children and husband Mark along in the school holidays.
“They’re used to it. My daughter Lili-Rose is 12 and just loves the theatre, so she sees it as a privilege which is lucky for me.”
And her son Ben?
“He hates it. He’s 16, so you just like what you like, and that’s it.”
And if there’s wi-fi, he’ll be OK.
“Yeah,” she laughs. “Every time I take a job I’ve got to look at it in terms of holidays, can I get home at weekends? It’s important it works with family life.”
The reference to theatrical DNA, is apposite, because Womack has theatre blood running through her veins, as she discovered in 2012 when she did Who Do You Think You Are?
“Performing goes right back in my family. My father was a singer-songwriter and my grandmother a choreographer. Then I discovered my great-great grandfather was a military bandsman and my great-great grandmother a performer in Barnum’s Circus. It’s weird because I loved that musical as a kid when I was taken to The Palladium to see it. I never imagined she was there, touring with Tom Thumb and Jenny Lind.”
It was no surprise then that Womack opted for a performing career after leaving school at 15, with a period with a record company and representing the UK in Eurovision in 1991. Then she concentrated on acting in Pie in the Sky with Richard Griffiths and Maggie Steed – “Richard Griffiths was a paternal figure for me, very nurturing and kind, he helped me a lot” – and in Game On, where she was twentysomething underachiever Mandy Wilkins who spent her time getting into bed and debt. Theatre outings included Harold Pinter’s Betrayal in 2004, where she developed a passion for the power of punctuation: “Every pause, comma and full stop means something,” and the themes of threat and menace in relationships foreshadowed her role in EastEnders. It was during a break from the soap that she had the envy inducing pleasure of dancing opposite Patrick Swayze every night for months in Guys and Dolls.
“He was such an extraordinary man and it’s lovely when you’ve fallen in love with someone’s character on screen and they turn out to be just as lovely in person. His whole discipline had come from being a dancer – his mum was a dancer, his wife is a dancer too – so he was really professional and loved what he did. He was in the show for four months and it was a special time.”
Womack is no slouch on the dance floor, having studied at the Sylvia Young Theatre School in London but you’d have to be made of stone not to be swayed by Swayze.
“I kept treading on his toes! It was really embarrassing. I think I was just too nervous, with the whole Dirty Dancing thing, just trying to be really en pointe and ended up being really clumsy and awkward. But he didn’t mind – he was lovely. My daughter was just a toddler and we used to make him pick her up and say ‘Nobody puts Lili in the corner’. She was oblivious, but now she takes great delight in that.”
Womack is looking forward to returning to Edinburgh as it’s where she spent many of her formative years, and as she discovered on Who Do You Think You Are?, her great-grandfather hailed from Maryhill in Glasgow. An only child, she was born in Brighton and moved to Edinburgh with her actress mother Diana O’Hanlon and step-father doctor when she was six, before leaving again as a teenager.
“We lived in Cramond and I have lots of memories from there, like when I was about nine getting stranded on Cramond Island and having to wait for the tide to go out again, which was quite hairy. And I remember salt and sauce on my chips, and swimming at the Commie Pool.”
After The Addams Family Womack would like to do more theatre, as she’s enjoying the contrast to TV after several years in a studio.
“I’d love to do some Tennessee Williams, and there was a role recently I really wanted but we didn’t get funding for, playing a transgender pop singer. It sounds crazy but it was actually really, really cool. It’s always nice to do things that are a bit zany. You get to be free and try things. There’s always the potential that you’ll look like an idiot, but you have to be prepared to do that – look like an idiot. I do that really well.” She laughs.
So is there anything that she wishes she hasn’t done in her career?
“I try really hard not to regret anything, although I’m pretty sure Eurovision is as close as I can get to challenging that part of my personality. Sometimes you find yourself on stage doing things and you think, ‘Oh God, how did I get here?’ But you’ve got to accept every aspect of what you’ve done, because it leads to where you are now. So, no regrets. As you get older you become more forgiving of yourself and your decisions.”
Womack doesn’t have time for looking back as she needs to crack on with rehearsals and make like Morticia, organising her brood to come along with parts of the tour.
“Yeah, we’ll just be travelling like the Von Trapp Family Singers. We’re the Von Trapps, being The Addams,” she says. Well, it’s all about faaam-ley, innit.
The Addams Family, 20-29 April, Festival Theatre, Edinburgh (0131-529 6000, www.edtheatres.com) and 10-14 October, Glasgow King’s Theatre, (0844 871 7648, www.atgtickets.com/venues/kings-theatre)