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This article was published 5/8/2009 (2853 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
While cast members of Disney's Beauty and the Beast posed for photographs recently in Kildonan Park, a veteran actor looked on at the focus of everyone's attention.
"Sam Hill, she's one to watch," says the performer matter-of-factly, referring to the female lead of Rainbow Stage's latest musical, which opens tonight.
Hill, 22, has been catching a lot of people's eyes.
A year ago, Hill auditioned in Winnipeg for prominent Toronto casting director Stephanie Gorin with 61 other hopefuls, all vying to win a slot on the CBC-TV reality series How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria! After inviting her to Toronto to compete in the next round, Gorin told the Free Press, "To me, she was special."
Contacted yesterday, Gorin said, "Samantha was fantastic and I do remember her out of the thousand-plus girls across the country. She had a lovely voice and, for me, it was about the acting and spirit as well. That's what we were looking for in Maria.
"I think she will have a terrific career, judging from the brief time we had together."
Not long after, Hill was one of only 12 students to be accepted into the University of Alberta's intensive BFA acting program. Last summer she played her first lead role at Rainbow, as Wendy Darling in Peter Pan, but Belle in Beauty is a substantial step up.
"She's a beautiful singer and very bright," says director Robb Paterson, who cast Hill in both Peter Pan and Beauty. "She's a pretty girl with a frail, porcelain vulnerability and yet has this terrific spine. She has a massive talent and she's a smart actor but understands that one has to keep working on their instrument by developing it with classes."
Hill, having doffed her raven-haired wig, is sitting in a sea of empty yellow seats under the dome in Kildonan Park in Belle's signature blue and white peasant dress as she chats about her fledgling career, alternately displaying the girlishness of her age and an impressive maturity beyond her years.
She bubbles as she explains the significance of portraying a childhood hero.
"When I was a kid, Belle was my favourite princess," says Hill, who grew up in River Heights. "I had a yellow dress and I had the magic mirror. I was eight when the movie came out and I watched it a lot. This is a great role."
More people in Winnipeg and Canada would know of Hill if she had gone to Toronto and competed in How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria! But the then-University of Winnipeg theatre student had a conflict with a student production of Pericles and opted to pass on what could have been her big break.
"It was disappointing but it was the right choice for me," says the Grant Park High School graduate, who appeared in student productions of Les Misérables and Aida. "I was totally flattered but I was committed to something else. If I bowed out of Pericles I would have thrown everyone for a loop. I stayed true to my commitments. Hopefully, I'll have another chance."
In our current want-it-all-now world, Hill favours a long view of her development and career. A lot of young triple-threats would have lunged at the shiny penny that is a national TV reality show and a lengthy Toronto run as the star of The Sound of Music. She doesn't deny possessing that instinct, too.
"I used to be a young woman in a hurry," she says. "I wanted to work at all the stages in Winnipeg. I'm eager to get to MTC (Manitoba Theatre Centre). It was one of the reasons I debated about going to school. I was worried people would forget who I was."
Despite never being out of school, she has managed to sufficiently wow directors to cast her in shoulder-season shows. Hill had a lot of theatre folk asking, "Who is that?" after her debut portrayal as the sultry Henry VIII seductress Jane Seymour in the 2006 Shakespeare in the Ruins production of Head.
As the same time as she was turning heads, she was thinking of turning her back on the stage. She confided to mentor Nancy Drake that she was contemplating enrolling in Creative Communications at Red River College.
"Nancy told me, 'That's not creative enough for you; you are going to be an actor,'" she recalls. "I went, 'I guess I can do it.'"
After that school year, the then-19-year-old member of the Grace Bible Church choir played a sexpot mistress in Nine for Dry Cold Productions. In the locally lensed film Bad Meat, she was cast as a cannibal snack before the production was halted last year owing to lack of financing.
Hill has since turned down the temperature on her steamy casting choices, opting for the more wholesome Wendy and Belle.
"I can be an ingenue but I enjoy playing the sex kitten," says Hill, who counts movie stars Meryl Streep and Natalie Portman as role models. "I hope it shows that I can play more than one kind of character. All the characters I've played have been strong women.
"I've had a lot of opportunities in Winnipeg for someone my age. I'm just starting. I don't think of myself as someone to watch. If I think about it too much it would become overwhelming. This may be my last role -- you never know."
Disney's Beauty and the Beast
Opens tonight, to Aug. 28 in Kildonan Park