Samantha Barks doesn’t always have it rough. The English actress is best known for playing heartbroken Eponine in “Les Miserables,” first on stage in London and then in the 2012 movie. And in her new film, “Bitter Harvest,” she takes the role of Natalka, a young woman in Soviet Ukraine who struggles to survive through the “Holodomor,” when Stalin instituted a man-made famine that led to the deaths of 2 ½ to 7 ½ million. It’s a grim movie, though Barks, 26, has been segueing to lighter fare: She just did “The Last Five Years” in London — which is sad, too, but at least allows her to fall in love — and she’s about to do a one-off show of the “Honeymoon in Vegas” musical, also written by Jason Robert Brown.
Do you have roles you’re hoping to play now that you’re in your mid-20s and not stuck only playing younger roles?
I don’t particularly say, “I want to be in this.” When an exciting role comes along, I take it.
So you live in the moment? You’re not into having a five- or 10-year plan?
Certainly not. I used to. When I was 15, I would map out my career. But it’s nice not to have a plan and let the surprises come in. You just don’t know where life’s going to take you. It’s cool to be open about where life goes as opposed to thinking, ‘That’s not really the plan’ or ‘That’s a bit different from the plan.’
It makes the curveballs life throws at you that much more exciting. And you’ve had some good curveballs, like getting the “Les Miserables” movie gig.
Life’s thrown amazing curveballs, but also nasty curveballs. Life is just so precious; anything can happen. I’ve been lucky for the roles I’ve had come my way.
“Bitter Harvest” is a curveball, too. It’s a lot different than the roles you’ve had.
It’s something I’ve been eager to do, to play a role like this. It’s a tragic role. Natalka has all the highs, from meeting the love of her life and getting married, to all the horrible lows, including things like rape and her family being murdered. It’s heart-wrenching. To ride that wave of emotions was a brilliant challenge.
It’s important to both know about the Holodomor — which was suppressed and not widely known till the 1990s — but also to see what it’s like for people who are helpless in the face of atrocity.
They are such helpless characters. What’s fascinating is that when people feel they’re in a hopeless situation, an inner strength comes out of you that you didn’t necessarily knew you had. There’s a real collective sense of prevailing through horrendous times. Those connections you have with family and loves are hard to break. That’s the beautiful thing about us as humans.
These kinds of things are still happening today, and too often we turn our heads and ignore it.
You think things like this happens so any years ago. But your grandparents were alive then, your ancestors went through horrendous times. It’s incredibly sad because we think of things like this as a separate time, that it happened then and now we’re all fine. You have to put yourselves in their shoes and think, "Would I be so brave? Would I be able to stand up in that moment of desperation and save my family?" That’s what my character does.
You do play a lot of desperate characters. But you seem to be doing some lighter fare now as well.
“The Last Five Years” is quite comedic, really. I’ve done a lot of misery, and it’s nice to have your friends and family go, “You’re funny! You’re not crying or dying! That’s fun!” It’s great to have fun on stage as opposed to dying. The great thing about “The Last Five Years” is it travels backwards. So at the beginning they were like, “Oh, she’s heartbroken again, here we go.” Then all of a sudden I’m happy. [Laughs]