When it comes to charmed experiences on Broadway, no one can top Samuel Barnett’s one-two-three punch of The History Boys in 2006 and the current SRO run of Twelfth Night and Richard III. Barnett received a Tony nomination for his Broadway debut as gay student Posner in Alan Bennett’s smash hit play, and he’s a shoo-in for another Tony nod for juggling the roles of feisty heroine Viola (Twelfth Night) and stately Queen Elizabeth (Richard III). Amazingly enough, this is the first time Barnett has acted Shakespeare, though you’d never guess that from his ability to hold the stage opposite two-time Tony winner Mark Rylance. In a recent chat with Broadway.com, friendly 33-year-old actor chatted about the challenge of playing women, his love of New York and why he won’t discuss his romantic life.
Can you believe you’re performing Shakespeare for sellout crowds on Broadway?
It’s extraordinary! They’re now selling standing tickets, and there are sometimes two rows of people standing at the back of the orchestra. It’s incredible.
We were shocked to hear that you had never done Shakespeare before. But you grew up watching the plays, right?
I did and I didn’t. Obviously we had to study Shakespeare at school, but to be honest, I was not a fan. I found the language very difficult, and I didn’t enjoy watching it or studying it. I auditioned five times for the Royal Shakespeare Company early on in my career, and I didn’t even get past the first rounds. It was working with [director] Tim Carroll on these two productions that really unlocked the language for me.
What was it about his direction that changed things?
It’s really twofold, because he’s both a director and a brilliant teacher. When it comes to language, it’s actually not the poetry that I go for; it’s sticking to the iambic pentameter, the meter of the lines, and finding that when I do that, the poetry quite magically springs out. As a company, I think we’ve managed to make [the dialogue] sound very accessible and very human.
What was your biggest concern in playing women on stage?
My biggest concern was women watching me! [Laughs.] In Shakespeare’s time, female roles were played by boys with unbroken voices who may have looked and sounded female. But everybody knows I am a man wearing a woman’s costume, so I concentrated on the emotional storyline of the character. Queen Elizabeth is easier because I can play her status as a monarch rather than her femininity. Viola is trickier because I am a boy playing a girl dressed up as a boy. I have to keep it in the back of my mind that I am supposed to be a girl, softening my body language and raising the pitch of my voice. But I want the audience’s imagination to do the work.
So, you didn’t channel your mom or female friends?
No, but every now and then certain actresses pop into my mind. I think of Annette Bening when I’m playing Queen Elizabeth, or Judi Dench or Laura Linney—strong women who are really grounded but also very feminine. Thinking of them helps me take a leap of imagination myself.
How intimidating is it to act on stage with Mark Rylance?
He makes it not intimidating, which is great. I think he’s aware that younger actors get starry-eyed around him, and he’s very humble and kind. He’s an educator himself, so he loves it if we’ve got questions. What’s intimidating is how brilliant he is, but when you work with him, you realize that he is an actor who just wants to play. He treats you as an equal.
Both of your Broadway experiences have been in male casts. What’s the atmosphere like backstage?
Well, we miss women, basically [laughs]. It was different in The History Boys because we were a very young cast. This cast is slightly older, and everyone’s missing their families. We love the women in our wardrobe department, we love our hair and makeup ladies. It’s a very fun, very loving company of men, but we do crave that female attention.
Are you enjoying being back in New York?
I absolutely adore it. It’s the only place apart from London where I know I could have a life. I love the 24-hour feeling of this place. It feels safer than London. And the people are very welcoming. When I did History Boys, we were here during awards season, so there wasn’t time to do anything, but this time, I’ve been visiting museums and art galleries and have managed to see a few shows. And the nightlife here is fantastic. Stephen Fry very kindly arranged membership for all of us at Soho House, so it’s nice to have a place downtown to pop into. I went down to Avenue A and Avenue B—it’s fantastic! It feels European, with little tea and coffee shops. I love just walking around New York. It’s like a whole world in one place.
You haven’t spoken in interviews about your personal life. Is that intentional?
Oddly enough, people don’t tend to ask me. Also, I suppose I have stayed away from talking about it because a certain amount of public attention comes with the job I have, and I accept that and I choose that. Whereas if I talk about anyone else in my life, they might not want to be put into the public eye. I tend to stay away from it because I think it’s not fair to take that choice away from them.
Your Twitter comments have a certain tone, as when you talked about Olympic diver Tom Daley coming out. But your choice not to talk about yourself is in deference to whoever you are dating?
Exactly. My family or my partner—and I am dating someone, by the way—might not want to be put out there. It’s never been an intentional choice not to talk about it in interviews. Journalists have sometimes looked to my Twitter account and quoted me from there, and that’s fine because that’s public domain. I know exactly what I’m doing when I post something on Twitter; in a way, it’s saying, “This is who I am, and I don’t have anything to hide.” I’m not bothered what other people think about me or print about me; it’s more about protecting those people in my life who don’t choose to be public. I’ve never felt the need to make any kind of statement about myself, and I still don’t.
So many Brits have found success on American TV. Is that something you’d like to pursue?
Definitely. I am indeed pursuing TV and film and more theater over here. My life, my family and my friends are back in the UK, so ideally I would love the kind of career that is split between London and New York. We’ll see what happens!
See Samuel Barnett in Twelfth Night and Richard III at the Belasco Theatre.