Award-Winning British Actor Samuel Barnett Is Inspired After Learning the History of His Father And of Those Who Perished in the Epidemic
by Dann Dulin
Photography by Faye Thomas
COVID imploded the world. It affects each of us differently. For Samuel Barnett, his father died from it.
Sam’s dad was sixty-six years old and died on the first of April. He would have turned sixty-seven on the twenty-fifth of April, also Sam’s fortieth birthday.
“It’s been a huge life lesson both on a micro and macro level,” laments Sam from lockdown in his Nottingham flat that he shares with his partner of nearly nine years, Adam. COVID hit while Sam was in London having first day of rehearsals of a new play, The Southbury Child, by Stephen Beresford, who wrote the stirring and gripping film, Pride. Though Samuel maintains a place in London, he frightfully boarded a train and traveled north so he could spend lockdown days with Adam.
“Grief comes in waves…” contends Sam, speaking on Zoom with headphones from the spare room that he calls “my magical duvet fort,” due to its contents of five duvets and two clothes rails. The area also includes audio and recording equipment that he uses for voiceover work. Recently, he voiced a character for The Prince, an animation sitcom for HBO, created by Gary Janetti (Will & Grace, Family Guy, Vicious).
“My father and I had difficult times but we eventually became friends, as well as father and son. It was great because I was already friends with my mum,” explains Sam. “The divorce at age nine interrupted my relationship with my dad.” He pauses and takes a breath. “He’s a role model, and in the past few weeks, already, I’ve absolutely, cliché cliché, found myself saying, ‘What would Dad do? Would Dad be proud of me in this moment?’”
Since his father died early in COVID, Sam was only focused on him. He was in the hospital but Sam couldn’t see him. Two weeks after he died, his family had a small service of six people, social distancing. “The day after that I joined everybody else in lockdown,” says Sam. “I then fully became aware of it. I said, ‘What the fuck?? Are we in lockdown??!!’ It was like Day One for me.” Sam didn’t know how to react and he paced like a caged animal.
Lockdown was two-sided for him. It was good to have the space to grieve where he didn’t have to engage in every day life. On the other hand, he couldn’t see his father in the hospital. There was no proper funeral. There was no hugging. “With COVID, there’s no touching. It’s horrible,” winces Sam, adjusting his large clear-framed Burberry glasses. He says, though, that by being with Adam he feels supported through “being heard and being held.”
An avid supporter of Broadway Cares and TheatreMAD (Make A Difference Trust), Sam first connected with the organizations when he originated the role of Posner in The History Boys in the West End (2004), and subsequently on Broadway (2006). The actor was nominated for several awards for his performance, the Laurence Olivier and the Tony, and won a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play. Sam went on to star in the critically acclaimed film, as well.
From there, Sam chalked up credits in more stage productions, television, and film. One of his recent projects was starring as the chatty eccentric eponymous spiffy-clad lad in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Elijah Wood costars with an ensemble cast in Netflix’s wildly popular series. It ran for two seasons and was supposed to run a third but there were internal conflicts. Fans pitched a petition that garnered over 100,000 signatures. Unfortunately, Season Three never materialized.
Sam sank his acting chops into other performances such as portraying Renfield in Penny Dreadful, John Everett Millais in Desperate Romantics, the second U.S. President’s son in John Adams, and in Jane Campion’s nineteenth-century period piece, Bright Star. In July 2012 through February 2014, he donned an outrageous ruffled collar and extravagant bejeweled-beaded gown to play Queen Elizabeth in Richard III, an all-male production, both in the West End and on Broadway, alongside Mark Rylance and Stephen Fry. (It was double-billed with Twelfth Night.) The cast raised over $116,000 that year for Broadway Cares, and the three actors were a part of their annual Red Bucket Follies (formerly, Gypsy of the Year).
The versatile actor was raised in a North Yorkshire town called Whitby, a wee fishing village in Northeast England, where during the eighties, there was no AIDS awareness.
It was tough to be gay in a small burg, so much so that he was burdened with shame for many years. When it came to HIV, he was filled with fear. There was no education about this disease in the town’s school system.
“Growing up then, AIDS was [considered] a death sentence,” he voices flatly. “The campaigns back then bolstered an illustration of a gravestone.” Sam makes a cringe-y face. At the time, the teen didn’t know if he was gay, but he knew he “wasn’t like the others.” His mum told him he was gay when Sam was thirteen, so there was no negativity in his household, though he still suffered from feeling “othered” at school.
“I carried so much shame,” recounts Sam in a leaden tone. “At that time, gay wasn’t even a ‘slur’ yet. It just was never talked about. I was lucky that I never got bullied.” Being the beaming actor in the school musicals seemed to protect him from that. “Singing and dancing is one of the things that saved my soul as a kid,” he says.
Sam offers that the shame extended to masturbation, as well. “I hated myself every time I did it, because I associated it with something being dangerous. Nature-Nurture. And since my fantasies were around guys, that was terribly shameful for me. It caused me so much emotional upheaval.” He cocks his head, gently lays a few fingers on his forehead, then sweeps them through his brown thick tuft of hair.
For Sam, “gay” didn’t exist in Whitby. He was only exposed to gay-themed television dramas where the gay character was always the evil one or was doomed and died of AIDS. “I’m so boringly traditional in a way, too,” he states pursing his lips, “that even watching [the groundbreaking series], Queer As Folk, absolutely terrified me!”
At seventeen, Sam acquired his first boyfriend. At eighteen, they moved to London together. One afternoon, they eagerly stood in a queue to purchase matinee tickets for ten pounds to see the musical Rent. “It changed my life!” he proclaims jubilantly. “I was completely stunned.” Sam saw Rent four times, sitting in the front row each time.
“Rent massively touched me, Dann!” He breaks. Sam’s bright face faintly alters. “It slightly scared me,” he notes. “Here were these people living with AIDS, dying from it, learning to love themselves through it. It did all that in a musical.” He looks off, displaying his profile, behind him exposing two framed nondescript black-and-white photographs hanging on the wall.
“It took Rent to fully impact me and touch me about this epidemic.” Sam appends that when he discovered the playwright, Jonathan Larsen, died the night before the premiere of his musical, Sam went berserk-o.
“That playwright made me see that HIV was something you could live with…. There was so much hope in that musical. For me, growing up in the eighties, AIDS was inextricably linked with being gay and death. That musical made me see that not only could one live being gay or HIV-positive, but you could…thrive!” Sam vocalizes the last word as if rehearsing a note from the stage at Prince Albert Hall.” Sam brushes lint off his plain light blue T-shirt then puts his chin in the palm of his hand, concluding, “Yes, yes. Rent had quite a profound affect on me….” For a few moments, his soft azure eyes glaze over and jettison back to that time.
First meeting a person living with HIV had another profund effect on Sam. Jonny was twenty-two, and a friend of his partner’s. “All the negative stuff that built up in my head over my teen years, just crumpled instantly. It all became just…matter-of-fact.” Sam’s built-up fright was instantly shattered, and he realized, “It’s just an illness. It’s not all this stigma,” he balks, countering, “The virus is not even active in Jonny’s body right now. HIV is a manageable condition.” Then Sam straight away reassures, “And I don’t mean to belittle it in any way.” He tenderly teethes on his thumb, annoyingly questioning at that time, “So, what was all that shit I was brought up with in the media?! It has nothing to do with the reality of what I am seeing here with Jonny.”
After meeting Jonny, Sam began to educate himself more about the disease and the epidemic. He chose to learn through art, rather than reading and researching. Rent had started his eye-opening journey and he followed that up by seeing Angels in America, The Normal Heart, and others. He even performed scenes from The Normal Heart in acting class.
“Meeting Jonny, I experienced the human side and the humanity of HIV. I also realized that I had not always been careful,” confesses Sam. “I had no sense of [safety] even though it was drummed into me. We were only taught not to get a girl pregnant. I remember even saying, ‘Well, I don’t need to wear condoms, because no one is going to get pregnant!’ I never took seriously the need for protection. I certainly remember using condoms, but in the back of my mind it wasn’t at all about STDs.” He ponders then adds, “I wasn’t careful. It was potluck. I was totally ignorant about it.”
While attending The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) the shame that Sam acquired in his teens was still powerfully evident. Though he had some one-night stands, he divulges, “I wasn’t good at it. I wanted emotional connection.” This was a painful time for him as he was trying to meet one need by substituting it for something else; having sex with others to smooth out the shame. It didn’t work.
“It was the wrong pathway for me, though it took years to learn this,” he clarifies, giving a hardy shout-out for psychotherapy, which has healed and advanced his life.
During college, even getting HIV tested for the first time was motivated by shame. Every time he’d have sex with a guy, Sam felt he’d be punished in some way. “I was sure there would be something wrong,” he says. “I don’t know where that message came from.” Sam’s brows crunch and his inquisitive eyes avert on his boyish face as he wonders.
Sam was not brought up religious and he reasons that the shame is due to small-town mentality. “When you’re a child, you are herded into these holding pens called schools, and you desperately want to fit in. It’s a natural tribal element to feel that. It’s a human condition to want to be accepted. I felt like I did not look like any of those other boys, and it created such a split in myself——a sense of shame. I could have thought, ‘Well, we’re all different.’ But for me there was no concept like that.
“I just didn’t fit in,” Sam harrumphs. “This was all hardwired into me, setting me up for feeling wrong. It’s taken years of therapy to undo it.” Thankfully, during his high school years, Sam found his tribe through the school’s drama department—and was good at the performing arts. His mum was supportive, and he found joy in his theater friendships.
“Every proper relationship I’ve had, HIV has come up really quickly,” Sam confides, scratching his head. Indeed, soon after his initial HIV test, Sam fell in love and partnered up for eight years with Martin, eight years his senior. He learned more about HIV prevention through him, since he had been on the gay scene longer. “Martin had really lived. I felt sheltered. He was quite educated and taught me to be [sexually] personally responsible. From that point on I never took any more risks, got tested frequently, so I always knew my status.”
When Sam and Adam met through mutual theater friends, they quickly broached the HIV topic. Sam had recently been tested, but Adam decided to do so too. “Testing is a really loving thing to do together,” he tenderly insists, shoehorning, “if you want a relationship to have legs, you both should get tested. That way you know exactly where you both stand.”
All of a sudden, Sam chuckles. “I’m going to sound like a wanker now.” He takes a beat and I hear rustling. “I have Adam under my table.” I giggle then Sam explains that Adam is retrieving his laptop.
When Sam has a jolly good laugh, two forehead veins become visibly pronounced. All during our time together, Sam is forthright, authentic, smart, spirited, gracious, and yes, gentle.
During this grieving gestation, Sam is learning a lot about himself through his dad’s death. “I see comparisons between him and me more, especially when it comes to giving to others.” Sam’s dad was a teacher and also ran a food bank. “He spent his entire life helping individuals,” declares Sam, who had no idea how much until he and his family put his obit on Facebook. Almost immediately tributes flooded in, nearly 500 of them. Some comments, “Your dad helped me with…” “He did such and such for me…” Sam was aghast. “I had no idea about any of this!” He shifts, extending his full hand around throat, elbow propped on table, keeping that position as he continues.
“My dad gave us such a sense of fairness. He never understood why some people have it all and others have nothing. He always tried to balance the scales,” expresses Sam. “That food bank, I know, he transformed it because it was struggling. Today it’s prospering.”
Sam stops and recalls. “I remember being with him sometimes. He’d get a text from the food bank and say [to me], ‘Right. Get in the car. We’re delivering food to a family who needs it…now.’ We’d go! I’m driven by his willingness just to be there and to help someone. If a charity comes knocking, I’m there. I say, ‘What can I do, what can I do?’”
Indeed, Sam radiates his father’s spirit. In the first mid-decade of the new century, when he was appearing on The Great White Way, Sam become involved with Broadway Cares, as many actors do. It’s almost a rite of passage and a secret society all at once.
“I loved the feeling of being a part of that,” boosts Sam, with fervent compassion. “I got a history lesson about the beginning of AIDS, the developing years, and some of the talented artists we lost. It was the first experience I had of such a wide theatrical community coming together,” elates Sam, his first time to the Big Apple. “It was fantastic to honor that history and to honor their memory.” He shouts in bewilderment, slowly underscoring each word: The… AIDS… crisis… decimated… communities… there!”
Sam’s also involved with Just Like Us, a UK countrywide organization that invites LGBTQ+ mentors to talk about and share their experiences with students. Sam wholeheartedly wishes they had had this program when he was growing up! “These mentors represent our community as normal and fuck any of you who don’t think it is, and fuck the bullies too,” he harkens with a vengeance. Just Like Us mentors these kids until they graduate and continue to support them in the workforce, because many people go back into the closet once they are out of school.
Just Like Us celebrates School Diversity Week, which is now government-backed, that celebrates LGBTQ+ students all over the country. According to Sam, last year 1,200 schools joined in, which brings the total to about 1.5 million students.
“But where I am from…” Sam states, “North Yorkshire—which is a big county—there was one school.” His register lowers disappointedly. What did he do about that? He approached his old school, telling them he represents this organization and all they would have to do is have one assembly or put up a banner. He received no response. “This is where we’re still at!” grimaces Sam, his serious eyes being a rollercoaster. The man is revved. “Here are some schools…” he abruptly halts, “…no not schools…grown-ups who are running these schools who still think gays are not acceptable. This is the box we’re dealing with! It’s so sad.”
Just Like Us also includes the epidemic in their mentorship. Dominic Arnall, CEO of Just Like Us echoes the fright Sam encountered in his formative years. “When talking to teachers it’s important to dispel myths about HIV, as certainly in the U.K. in the eighties, fear over HIV was used as a weapon against LGBTQ+ people by the press. Our mentorship program provides open conversation about HIV, and our young role models are frequently answering questions about the disease.”
Sam insists, “I help others because I was helped. This may sound arrogant but I know how to give back. I know how this shit works.” Indeed, he praises his therapist for assisting him to evolve from the shame, and for coping with his addictive personality. He’s been clean for eighteen years.
“I don’t want to see others go through the pain I went through as a kid.” He means it. “I want them to come out the other side being aware and being themselves, especially when it comes to HIV,” beseeches Sam, acknowledging his recent milestone birthday turning forty. “I have a stronger voice now. I give less of a shit. My instinct is stronger,” he boasts proudly, without reservation.
Sam continues on about HIV prevention. “I think I know about the teenage brain…,” he mocks himself, laughing in waves of hiccups. “Actually, I know very little here but I saw a show on it once, so like, I’m an expert!” Sam learned that the pleasure center of a teen’s brain is colossal compared to the consequence center. “When you know that, it explains so much of their behavior and why they seem so irrational.”
Since this is a scientific fact, it’s Sam’s idea that it’s best to educate the people around kids about the disease and for them to support the teen’s developmental process. “It’s no good just preaching to the people who need the help,” explains Sam, feverishly, on a roll. “You have to teach the people near them.” He goes on. “If you can’t understand the consequences of what you are doing, you need an intervention from someone around you. They will reeducate you, change your brain, and help you grow in that way. The brain is still very plastic when you’re young and it can be changed really easily and quite quickly. This is what I learned.”
Sam pulls his shoulders back. “I’ve had struggles and have come out the other side. I now realize, Wow, everything [happens] for a reason.” He takes a beat. “Don’t know what the reason is, but…I don’t have to know.”
With this proverb he sums up his life’s modus operandi. “If you shake the apple tree here, oranges will fall over there.” He leans in. “Nothing is linear. Everything is connected. You put the work in here and something happens over there, whether it’s personal or professional.”
“I do find that especially now in lockdown, and in grieving. It’s a strange sort of comfort. Nothing is lost. This myth that we all are separate is what has caused so much stigma, racism, war, and so on.” He allows what he’s said to sink in. “Not needing to know why things happen can bring so much peace—can’t it?”
Now the sides of Sam’s mouth begin to lift—and there it is. There’s that characteristic cute grin, with a suave knowing perk. Sam sums up what he learned from his character, “It’s all about the Dirk Gently ethos of interconnectedness.”
“Ten days before my Dad went into the hospital, he came to Nottingham to see our new flat and he met Adam’s parents for the first time. He and I then went to lunch together and we had such an honest and frank open conversation. It was really kind and gentle and we had so many laughs. We talked for hours, saying things we never said before. After I put him on the train [to return to his home], I said to myself, ‘That was the best day I ever had with my Dad!’ We had no unfinished business that night. It was beautiful. We had this day together, these special moments! If that was the last time I was going to see him, I am so grateful that it was this day.
“At the 2014 Tony Awards, I was sitting with Adam. As a nominee, they announced my name. The camera panned in on us. I was looking at the stage and Adam was looking at me. It’s like a rocket launched in my brain. Eight years earlier I had been nominated for The History Boys, but I wasn’t a very happy person then. In…that…moment I was thinking, ‘Gosh, how much things have changed—within me.’ It was a special moment.
“A beautiful moment in my life was my first kiss. We were both fifteen and his name was Richard. I remember it to this day. [Sam coos.] When Richard kissed me there was a cascade from head to toe. It was the most tender thing, ever, and it lasted a couple of seconds. He was straight. We never did it again. But it was such a gift.”—Sam Barnett
How do you handle opening night jitters, or just everyday anxiety?
I mediate every damn day and I make myself do it whether I want to or not! It has massively helped my anxiety. I have had stage fright and it’s terrifying. I have to get out of my own way so I switch my thinking my mind off in order to step out onto that stage and not totally freak-out the first few performances of a show. Essentially, my rational self confronts my irrational mind.
Who have you been starstuck over?
Julia Roberts. What a kind, kind woman.
Who do you look up to?
During The History Boys I looked up to Frances de la Tour—and I still do. She taught me so much about stagecraft, timing, delivery, pathos, and working with an audience. It was a master class every night working with her and Richard Griffiths, who is not with us anymore. They were extraordinary.
Name your favorite food, favorite actor, film, and color.
Olives, Judi Dench, Stand By Me, and blue.
Who are you dying to meet?
[Director] Peter Brook. I would just sit and listen to everything he has to say.
What is your dream?
To do a musical one day.
Samuel provides one word describing his friends, work buddies, and acquaintances.
Russell Tovey: Love.
Olivia Colman: ARRRRRGG [he flutters] Awestruck. [Sam was.]
The Wachowski sisters, Lilly and Lana: Trust.
Laura Linney: Connection.
Dominic Cooper: Lust!
James Cordon: Laughter.
Ian McKellan: Youth….Energy.
Patti LuPone: FAB-U-LOUS!
Paul Giamatti: Fully embodied.
Andrew Scott: Mercurial.
Mark Rylance: Channeling.
Elijah Wood: Two words please…those eyes!
Samuel Barnett:[Almost immediately Sam flippantly tosses] Confused?! [Then changes his mind to] Content.
Laura Romero, my constant support and unyielding mentor, I thank you. With you, sparks fly!
Dann Dulin is a Senior Editor of A&U.