Actor Samuel Barnett is best known for his role as Posner in the National Theatre production of The History Boys, which earned him two Whatsonstage.com awards and an Olivier Award nomination.

His association with The History Boys continued, and is still ongoing, as he starred in the forthcoming film version of Alan Bennett’s play, performed the role of Posner on BBC Radio 3, and is going to embark on an international tour of the production in the New Year.

Before The History Boys, Barnett appeared in the National Theatre production of His Dark Materials, adapted from the books by Phillip Pullman. In London, he has also taken on roles in Verbatum at the Young Vic Theatre, Desires of Frankenstein at the Regents Park Open Air Theatre, and Mother Clap at the National Theatre Studio and at Lamda.

In regional productions, Barnett has starred as Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro at the Manchester Royal Exchange, for which he was nominated for Best Newcomer at the Manchester Evening News Awards 2002, and Reggie in The Accrington Pals at Chichester Festival Theatre.

His television appearances include The Royal, Doctors, Strange, Inspector Lynley, Coupling and Lullaby. On the radio, he has been heard in BBC Radio 4’s drama Fighting for Words and The Night Before Christmas. He also has a role in forthcoming film, Mi.

In When You Cure Me, Barnett plays Peter, the boyfriend of a girl who becomes very ill, completely bedbound and inexplicably paralysed. The people that love her best, her mother and her boyfriend, are at a loss as to how to handle a situation so completely beyond their experience. When You Cure Me is a new play by Jack Thorne, directed by Mike Bradwell.


Date & place of birth?
I was born on the 25th of April, 1980, in Whitby in North Yorkshire.

Where do you live now?
Islington in London. I’ve lived there for about two years.

Where did you train?
Lamda. It was in that time I turned from being an amateur into being a professional. I loved it, it’s an amazing institution.

What made you decide to become an actor?
I didn’t think I was going to be an actor, I’d always done it at home and at school and I was a really keen member of my local Am Dram Society, but I didn’t take it seriously as a career option at all. In fact, someone else filled in my drama school application for me and I sort of fell into it. Although I loved acting I didn’t think it was practical, I thought I should get a proper job; but most of all I didn’t think I’d be good enough. I though proper actors went to drama school, not me.

What do you consider to have been your first big break?
Certainly The History Boys has been very good for me. But even the first job I did out of drama school meant that I got seen by more people and I think my career has built quite slowly and quite nicely over the last few years. It was fantastic to get in at the National with His Dark Materials, and if I hadn’t been in the building doing that, I might not even have been able to audition for The History Boys. Nicholas Hytner had seen me at Lamda as well, though, so he knew who I was.

Career highlights to date?
The History Boys and Mrs Henderson Presents, and The History Boys film has been absolutely brilliant to do. And I am having a brilliant time working on this play, so they are all very challenging and enjoyable in their different ways. And His Dark Materials was great.

What do awards mean to you? (particularly your two Whatsonstage.com Awards!)
I felt very honoured to receive those, they were totally unexpected. I always think other people win awards, not me, and it’s given me more faith in my work.

What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
Just to keep investing and keep taking on new ideas, to invest money and ideas in theatres as well as supporting the buildings themselves, so many are run down and without good theatres the industry can’t keep going. The government should encourage new works and keep investing in people; there are so many people with great ideas that so often go unnoticed. All the work goes to already established companies and people, and while that is the bedrock of the industry and it is a good thing, theatre is also about being brave and taking risks.

Favourite directors?
Nicholas Hytner, definitely. I’ve liked all of them that I’ve worked with, Edward Kemp, and Mike Bradwell on this one. I’ve really got something different from all of them and they have all been so helpful to me.

Favourite playwrights?
Alan Bennett, I just find his work so moving, I think he’s at his best when he’s being very dark because then it’s hilariously funny but also cringe-makingly real and you can see real life in what he writes. Alan Ayckbourn is another favourite.

Favourite after-show haunts?
When we were doing The History Boys we had free access to the Groucho Club, which was great. I also like Century a lot and I’ve also been to Soho House. But the National Theatre bar is a great place to go when you’ve got all your mates there, it’s usually about who’s there rather than where you are.

What roles would you most like to play still?
Something more classical. I did get offered a part recently which I desperately wanted but I couldn’t do it because it clashed with other commitments, but I would definitely like to do classical, Jacobean or Shakespeare. And I would like to have a go at doing a musical. I’m not a trained singer, buti always used to sing and dance and I really enjoyed it. I would want to be very careful about the kind of musical I did, but I saw Hair at the Gate recently and thought that was absolutely brilliant.

What might you have done professionally if you hadn’t become an actor?
No idea, I thought I was going to be a lawyer or a doctor or something. I would have no idea what to do if work dried up, there’s nothing else I want to do. I remember thinking I would probably be a doctor, but I was too squeamish about blood, but when I was about nine I though that’s what I’ll do when I grow up, even though I was in all the school plays, acting hadn’t occurred to me as a route to a career.

Favourite books?
The His Dark Materials trilogy, I adored that before I knew the play was going to be on, I was amazed when that all happened and I was overwhelmed to be in it. I do liked the Harry Potter books, and I’m a huge Lord of the Rings fan. I like Dickens as well actually, Oliver Twist and Great Expectations in particular. And I’m loving the new Bleak House on TV, I’m really impressed it’s absolutely brilliant. I now want to read that having seen the TV programme.

Favourite holiday destinations?
I haven’t travelled much but that will change next year when we go on The History Boys tour, then I will feel like a traveller. I’ve been to lots of places in Europe but I’d like to go further afield. If I could choose somewhere to just jet off to tomorrow, though, I’d go to Florence, I’d like to go to Italy and see Florence and Rome.

What was the last stage production you saw that had a big impact on you? And the first?
Hair at the Gate, and The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard blew me away when I saw that. I think the first show I ever saw was One over the Eight at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. It’s all about rowing and it was a kind of comedy and that made me want to be an actor. I was only a little boy, it was really grown up and there was a lot of swearing in it, I was really shocked and thrilled! I couldn’t believe how professional it all was.

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
George Bush, to see how he works and see what goes on. I’d probably try and put a stop to a lot of it. I’d be fascinated to see what goes on and I think there’s a lot we’re not told and that has a huge impact on our government here. It appals me an fascinates me to think about how much he has got away with.

What made you want to accept your role in When You Cure Me?
It’s so different to The History Boys, which I loved and did that for a year and I was looking for something in a smaller theatre where you can’t hide at all. The Bush is very intimate and I wanted a part that was completely different from Posner in The History Boys. When You Cure Me is a very moving play and just so different to what I’ve done before, in terms of the acting and emotions involved.

The play is about a girl who becomes very sick. Do you have any experiences with illness that you have drawn on for your role?
My character sets out to make her better and I have drawn on my own experience for that in terms of wanting to fix her. It’s what I relate to, this character doesn’t really listen to what she really needs, he just tries to fix her and set things right in his own way. I’ve changed a lot now, but I’ve been like that and I recognise that.

Do you have a favourite line from the play?
Yes, haha, but it’s very strange. Out of context it seems ridiculous, but I say “Can I do anything” and she says, “OK, you need to buy me some Tampons.” I mean it sounds awful out of context, but knowing the history of the characters it is a funny and touching little scene.

Has anything notable/funny/odd happened in rehearsals so far for When You Cure Me?
It’s a really challenging play and it’s really hard work and I’m learning a lot about myself as an actor and bringing up a lot of personal stuff. It’s difficult trying to find the distance between myself and the character. It’s bringing up a lot of stuff about me that I’ve left behind, and I have to think to myself after rehearsals, “that’s not my reality now and now I can just be me”. So it has been interesting for myself as an actor. In terms of stuff that has happened in rehearsals, the main thing is people wandering into the hall. We’re rehearsing in hall near Ravens Court Park and people wander in and stand there gawping. The stage manager has to tell them very nicely to go away!

Future plans? Anything else you'd like to add?
The History Boys tour again in January, I am very much looking forward to that; and then the film gets released next year, so that might take up some time as well. But beyond that, I’ve no idea. It’s quite rare to have the next year mapped out, so I’ll just see what happens.

Samuel Barnett was speaking to Caroline Ansdell


When You Cure Me opened at the Bush Theatre on Wednesday 16 November and runs to Saturday 17 December 2005.