Christina M. Hinke


Published in the print and online version of Exit Weekly.


Samuel Barnett makes his own history

by Christina M. Hinke
Exit weekly
Nov. 22, 2006

Six Tonys, a Laurence Olivier award, and a world tour have made "The History Boys" quite a famous play. A year into it, the director, Nicholas Hytner, and the playwright, Alan Bennett, decided to make it into a film, which could mean that the players may have their chance at becoming prominent film actors in their own right. In particular, a stand-out performance by Samuel Barnett (he received a Tony nomination for his role as Posner in the play) makes him one to watch.

The story begins when six boys make top grades in history class at a grammar school (same as a high school in America) in Sheffield, England, and the headmaster has them attend an extra semester to ready them for admission tests to Oxford and Cambridge. So he hires a new teacher, Irwin, to massage history into a "performance."

It also delves into sexual curiosities. The boys' most admired teacher, Hector (Richard Griffiths), is a repressed homosexual and finds solace in groping the boy's genitals while taking one on a ride on his motorcycle. The boys all know he does this, they joke about it, and they are fine with it. One gent in particular, Posner, the youngest of the bunch and the only one who is gay, would like a go at the proverbial 'joy ride,' but he's not old enough yet to partake. In many ways he never gets what he wants. As Posner says in the beginning of the film, "I'm a Jew. I'm small. I'm homosexual. And I live in Sheffield. I'm f**ked."

Posner, played by 23-year-old Samuel Barnett, has a burning flame for his schoolmate, the bad-boy Dakin (who is not gay, but is smitten with Irwin) that is not returned.

You have been singing and dancing since you were 10, and you were accepted into ballet school, as well as drama school. Why did you choose acting?

Acting - I just do it. Acting did not scare me. Singing terrifies me. It obviously wasn't what I was meant to do because it scared me so much. But it was useful in a way when you're doing 500 shows and have something that still gives you fear and adrenaline each night.

Why does it scare you, you sang "Bye Bye Blackbird" so sweetly?

You're more naked when you're dancing and singing than when you're acting. When you're singing you're using an instrument inside you and when you're dancing you're using your physical body you are not someone else. So when you're acting, it's not that you can hide behind the character you are very much bringing yourself on stage, but you have someone's words. "Bye Bye Blackbird" was one of the most sensitive points in the show and Dominic was going (makes a farting sound).

What did you relate to in your character?

The vulnerability and the openness, though your essence changes as you grow up, so your costume changes, which is why I hope the business stays interesting. The way to the character for me was through the theme of unrequited love. I didn't get what my character was about until I started doing it. I didn't understand the script when I read it. I thought it as a bit boring, a bit wordy, I didn't get the ideas. I didn't get the emotions. So while rehearsing it and putting it in front of an audience I began to realize what informed me about the character was what the audience got from it. As people came up to me and talked to me about it afterwards I realized that everybody has been through unrequited love, everybody gets that pain.

Are you afraid that the public may focus on Hector's groping of the boys?

It is misunderstood. Constantly we get reactions, in the UK and the U.S., not vehement, but reactions of really blowing it up. It's blowing it up into something it's not. This is not pedophilia, this is not illegal. What's different between Dakin and Irwin? What's different between Hector and the kids? What's different between the headmaster and Fiona? Nothing. It's just people's perceptions and prejudices. Of course it's wrong, it's inappropriate and this film is not about that and if people choose to focus on that, then they're missing the point.

How was acting in the film different from acting in the play?

Film is a different animal. And Nick is trying to get you to do something slightly different sometimes, often we could just play the scenes, but sometimes he needed something else and I was slow on the uptake of what he meant. He would show me on the monitor what I had just done and he would explain what he wanted and I would get it. But watching myself on the monitor is quite frankly awful.

How did it feel to be nominated for a Tony?

I was shocked quite frankly. I had flown home for a family emergency on the Sunday after the show. I got back the Tuesday morning in New York for the show that night and I landed and I had all these messages telling me about this award. It was a really bittersweet moment. It was overwhelming, first of all to be on Broadway, then be up for a Tony, just beyond anything I imagined, and then I had this thing going on at home. The moment of finding out was just kind of incredible and then the run up to it was feverish.

Your co-star Sacha Dhawan came up with a nickname I hear.

He had a name, and a voice, for me. He'd say, "Hello Tony Nominee (says it briskly)." And I just became Tony Nominee, like Tony was my first name. And it stuck. And, then, when I didn't get it he still affectionately called me Tony Nominee. It's very nice to be Tony Nominee. I got a free phone for a year.

What are you going to say in your Oscar acceptance speech?

(Blows a raspberry). That. I'm doing that.


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