NEW YORK - While Hugh Jackman's bitter ex-con turned benevolent businessman, Jean Valjean, commands much of the action in the movie version of the musical Les Misérables, the youthful love triangle formed by newcomer Samantha Barks as Éponine, Eddie Redmayne as Marius and Amanda Seyfried as Cosette serves to heighten the emotional punch of the story. USA TODAY speaks to the actors about their roles in the film, which opens Christmas Day.
A contestant in a TV talent competition blessed with a stellar set of pipes ends up an also-ran. But she doesn't let that stop her. Instead, she goes on to earn bravos for her film debut after winning a coveted role in a much-anticipated musical with a roof-rattler of a ballad that perfectly showcases her unique talent.
If you think the singing Cinderella in question might be Jennifer Hudson of American Idol fame, who would go on to collect an Oscar for 2006's Dreamgirls, you would be right.
But the fairy-tale scenario also describes Samantha Barks. The lively 22-year-old with a chasm-deep dimple on her left cheek, who hails from the Isle of Man - the scrap of land between England, Scotland and Northern Ireland that produced the Bee Gees - is about to captivate on a global scale as the lovelorn street urchin Éponine in Les Misérables.
"These are dreams I never thought I would achieve," she says. "I grew up on a tiny little island."
Half-sprawled on a bed in a pricey Manhattan high-rise hotel while wearing a snuggly robe over her pretty white frock, she seems happily stunned by the process of doing publicity for a film. "I've never done a movie, and I've never done a movie junket," Barks says. Her signature tune in Les Mis might be the unrequited-crush classic On My Own, but it is hard to imagine this vibrant ingénue not attracting a crowd.
Barks possesses more experience with Les Misérables, a story of oppression and redemption in 19th-century France, than most of her co-stars - including Jackman, Anne Hathaway and Russell Crowe - after performing as Éponine in London's West End after breaking out on the British series I'd Do Anything in 2008. She also appeared in a taped 25th anniversary TV concert of Les Mis, a surefire draw that pays off whenever PBS does its on-air fundraising.
"It is kind of a weird thing, because I'm entering a world I know nothing about," she says. "But I'm entering into it with a character I know so much about and a piece I know so much about. It was the only sort of comfort in what could be a very intimidating situation."
Not that she sounds the least bit intimidated. "I like to scare myself and throw myself off the deep end." That includes appearing on I'd Do Anything at age 17, vying against 11 other finalists for the chance to play the downtrodden yet ultimately noble Nancy in Oliver! Despite coming in third, Barks would go on to perform the role as part of a U.K. tour.
The fairy godfather behind Barks' success is Cameron Mackintosh, the British super-producer who worked on Les Mis on both stage and screen, as well as I'd Do Anything. "I found her among thousands of people on that show," he says. He surprised her during an Oliver! curtain call to give her the news that she would be making her first movie, what he calls "a real rags-to-riches tale."
However, Barks wasn't exactly a shoo-in for the role, which is often considered the most prized Les Mis female part, given her dramatic pining for student revolutionary Marius. "Everyone in the world and their wife wanted Éponine," Mackintosh says. "For some reason, the character strikes a lot of buttons."
More proven talents such as Glee's Lea Michele and Scarlett Johansson were in the running. At one point, it looked as if country sweetheart Taylor Swift had the edge, a potential move protested by many Les Mis fans.
"We did audition Taylor," says director Tom Hooper. "We auditioned her more than once, and she worked very hard. It was a difficult decision, but Samantha just had a kind of natural affinity with the role that was unshakable."
Young girls including Barks, who at age 7 used to perform On My Own on a karaoke machine in her bedroom, tend to connect big-time with Éponine as she plots to undermine Marius' attempts to woo the beautiful yet bland Cosette.
"I certainly did relate to that role," Barks says. "Many do. I see a lot of people on Twitter saying, 'I am having such an Éponine day' or 'Why does he treat me like Éponine?' She is this street-wise kid who has her breath taken away by this boy. It's that teenage thing that we all go through.
"The thing with Éponine is, she shows that no matter how hard your life is, you can have an escape. Her escape is just going into a dreamlike state and picturing her life with Marius. We all have an escape. Mine was theater."
Barks acknowledges that she does not look her best in the film, which is already collecting Oscar talk. "I was made down," she says. Besides being alarmingly thin to better achieve proper waifishness, "I looked more tired. My hair was dry. There was mud sprayed all over me. My teeth were brown. I was not at my most glamorous."
The one fetching asset that could not be disguised: "The dimple was still there. The dimple always stays."
Her dimple deepens all the more when Barks talks about her joy of having Les Misérables open on Christmas.
"I am a cheerleader for Christmas. I love all things Christmas. The fact that it is opening that day is the biggest Christmas present I could ever get."