Samuel Barnett’s impression of Oxford is understandably rose-tinted. Some of his History Boys incarnation’s idealising enthusiasm has undoubtedly rubbed off: “It was quite magical for me. Actually going there, seeing where my character would end up, was really special for me. I remember walking around the colleges thinking that it was more like itself than I imagined it would be. I’d seen pictures and films, but there was a kind of hush. I don’t really have the words.
“I went to school in Whitby in North Yorkshire; there was one girl trying for Oxbridge from the school. I remember thinking that I would have loved to go. If I hadn’t gone to drama school I would have wanted to try. One of my favourite pictures is of me, Jamie Parker and Dominic Cooper on the steps of one of the colleges. It’s almost like the life I didn’t quite have.”
It hasn’t turned out too badly, though, for Barnett or any of his History Boys contemporaries. In fact it’s really quite disarming just how well the cast have done since those first roles, with James Corden’s litany of plaudits for Gavin and Stacey and One Man, Two Guvnors; Matt Smith’s success in Doctor Who; Jamie Parker’s run as Henry V at the Globe; and Dominic Cooper in, well, Mamma Mia amongst other things. I question whether Barnett thinks that this astonishingly consistent success is due to some savvy casting from the History Boys directors, or whether it was the production and film itself that gave them all a platform for success.
“That’s a very interesting question. They say part of being a good director is casting. They did cast it well. We were all very much at the beginning of our careers. It can’t have been that they thought ‘this person’s going somewhere.’ I think it’s the play itself that set us up. It just put us in the public eye.”
Barnett’s most recent roles have been in two acclaimed Globe productions: “queening it up”, as he puts it, as Elizabeth in Richard III and playing Sebastian in Twelfth Night. I ask him about how he approached playing a woman. “It was very difficult to start with. I think one of the main things I worried about was other women coming to see the show, given that I’m supposed to be a monarch, a queen who has four children, and then three of her children get killed. Even now when I do that, there is a little bit of me going, ‘I bet people don’t believe this. Women especially. Parents don’t believe this.’ I also didn’t want to try to be a woman. It’s so obviously men in women’s clothing. So I played it for status, rather than gender.”
With Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female production of Julius Caesar on at the Donmar, the practice of putting on an all-male play has come under some attack. “A lot of people have had an issue with this all-male cast. A lot of people who haven’t seen the show. For the most part – especially any women who have talked to me afterwards – people have said, ‘I forgot you were a guy. It’s devastating when you lose your children.’ I’m not really bothered with it myself. I see it as a concept piece of theatre. We play the people, not the gender.”
Playing at the Globe alongside Mark Rylance has been a new experience for Barnett. “It’s like learning a different language. It takes more energy. You have to be muscular. You can be incredibly subtle, but your level of energy has to be such that it carries to the 1500 people sitting around you. Richard becomes much darker in the Apollo. It feels more claustrophobic, it’s a smaller stage. I felt at the Globe it was more of a comedy than a tragedy sometimes, because in a way that’s what the Globe audience are responding to. It’s such a live atmosphere; there are so many things you can’t account for. I love that Mark Rylance has found so much comedy in Richard. When the darkness comes now, it’s like a real kick in the guts.
“I’ve never worked with anyone like Mark. It’s like a competition on stage, and you either enter into it and get the rewards or you can be back-footed and you won’t take off at all. He never has off days. He can take whatever is going on with him and put it into the play. It’s made me more confident. It’s brought me up as an actor to trust my instincts, to do things differently.”
Despite Barnett’s ostensible success, things haven’t always been without concern. Actors are often anxious that audiences will only remember them for one particular role, but it was the other way around for Barnett. “I was worried I couldn’t do anything else, that everything sounded like Posner, like I had always sounded. When I finished I was nearly 27 – I’m not your method actor, I’m really not, but I did feel like there was something about me as a person that had been stunted. And I suddenly grew up more, and found that I wasn’t capable of or interested in playing that kind of young role anymore.”
It’s not common for people to go straight to drama school after sixth form. Barnett is very frank when he admits that it wasn’t the right decision for him. “I was not ready. I had a very sheltered upbringing, and to move to London at the age of 18, I was beyond green. I had no idea about anything. It was a real shock, and I really didn’t get what I was doing there. I hated it; I really did want to leave. I do think that had I gone away to university for three years I would have got more out of it, I would have been more mature, I would have known how to study: I would have been hungrier for what they had on offer. Some people are ready, but I wasn’t.
“You have to really want it. It has to be the only thing you want to do. If not, don’t bother.”