Third place made Samantha Barks a winner.
Barks, who plays the lovelorn Éponine in the new film version of “Les Misérables,” got her break on the British reality contest show “I’d Do Anything.”
She finished third in a competition to play Nancy in a West End revival of “Oliver!” — but was launched into a musical theater career that led to her featured role in the Golden Globe-nominated film and potential Oscar contender.
In a movie that touts Anne Hathaway and Amanda Seyfried (as Fantine and Cosette), Hugh Jackman (as Jean Valjean) and Russell Crowe (as Inspector Javert), it’s the unknown Barks who turns out to be the revelation of the French Revolution poperatic drama.
Even though she played Eponine for a year in London’s West End — and for a 25th anniversary concert at London’s O2 Arena — Barks had to go through four months of auditions before she landed the role in Oscar-winner Tom Hooper’s (“The King’s Speech”) film, reportedly beating out Taylor Swift and a handful of other Hollywood starlets.
“It was a grueling audition process,” Barks tells The News. “But then, I’d never done a film.”
She learned she had won the role in “Les Miz” during a curtain call with a different stage production of “Oliver!” in Manchester. Cameras caught the young actress’ look of shock, relief and amazement.
Having played Éponine in front of live audiences for a year, Barks had no problem with Hooper’s decision to have the actors sing live for the camera, rather than prerecording vocals and lip-synching for the camera.
“It’s not like I was going into an unknown role,” she says. “The main difference in doing it for the camera is that, while you still need the same emotional scale and climax, you don’t have to heighten it to hit 2,000 seats. You can rely on the beauty of the text. You can be more real, more subtle, more intimate.”
Barks, 22, started dancing at 3. At 10, she discovered singing and acting as well, always performing in something within the comfortable confines of the Isle of Man — population 84,000 — off the British coast. “I did plays and straight acting in school during the week and sang with rock groups at the weekend,” Barks told The News.
At 16, her parents sent her to London to study professionally. “In hindsight, it was probably scary,” Barks says. “I couldn’t believe how lucky I was that my parents supported me doing it.”
When Barks was 18, she landed on “I’d Do Anything,” whose judges included composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and “Les Miz” producer Cameron Mackintosh. After coming in third on the reality show, Barks almost immediately went into a U.K. touring production of “Cabaret” for a year, before playing Nancy in an “Oliver!” tour and then Eponine.
“I wasn’t disappointed that I didn’t win,” she says. “I came third and I couldn’t believe how lucky I was to be third. I thought the whole thing was a fantastic opportunity. And I ended up playing the role, eventually, anyway. But it came around at the right time, when I was ready to play it.”
The competition, she says, helped her focus on a direction for her quickly budding career.
“I’ve found that musical theater is my passion,” she says. “I would love to have a varied career, like Hugh Jackman. He started in musical theater, then established himself in film, but he still does a lot of stage work. And he does it all beautifully.”
Jackman, a potential Oscar nominee, proved to be both mentor and role model. His work ethic in the demanding role, Barks says, was stimulating. “He’s such a hardworking person and he does it with such grace,” Barks says. “To have him as our leader was very inspiring for the whole cast.”
Barks’ turn in “Les Miz” has earned her big buzz as the film won the Christmas box office — the biggest-ever opening day for a musical.
But she says she wants to pick her next projects carefully.
“It’s a new world for me,” she says. “I want to make smart choices.”
Her dream role?
“I’d love to be a Bond girl.”