Samantha Barks and Max Irons play the star-crossed lovers in Bitter Harvest, a timely historical drama set in 1930s Ukraine which deals with the Holodomor, a horrifying famine-genocide initiated by the Kremlin, which saw millions of people die. George Mendeluk’s romance is the first major film to deal with these events, which it uses as the backdrop for the love story between idealistic painter Yuri (Irons) and Natalka (Barks) who must endure constant indignities and torture at the hands of a murderous regime. As the film opens in New York City, we sat down with the charming leads to talk about the film’s relevance, working with legends, and why making art is more important than ever.
It must be so strange to see the film be released at a moment in time when it seems so relevant. Is the current situation in Ukraine part of why you wanted to do the film to begin with?
Max Irons: No, when we first were approached to make the film, the revolution in Ukraine hadn’t begun, it took off two weeks after we wrapped.
Were you inspired by other romances like Doctor Zhivago?
Samantha Barks: I think the research and homework for me came from a historical point of view because I didn’t know anything about the Holodomor, which I felt horrendous about. I wanted to be as sensitive and correct as possible, so the research wasn’t really about the romance.
Max Irons: We’ve seen films like Doctor Zhivago which are great, but we didn’t think it would be good to emulate them
I really appreciated to see that Yuri uses art to survive. Can you talk about the importance of art in telling people about things maybe they don’t know about?
Samantha Barks: It’s an interesting point, because in today’s culture art is a vehicle not necessarily for educating, but sharing stories. Film, television...art is more than just a hobby, the film show how important art can be.
Max Irons: You can communicate feelings indirectly through art, things like a painting, poetry. During the time the film takes place in, there was a limited amount of news coming or leaving the Ukraine, therefore now we’re three people sitting together years later discussing those events.
Was there any singular piece of information that you relied on the most while shooting the film?
Samantha Barks: I think the most shocking is that between 2.5 to 7.5 million people died. They don’t even know how many, for us to know so little about it and for it to be of such scale is horrible. Obviously it was done on purpose which is even worse.
Max Irons: The numbers and that it was hidden for so long is terrible. Even now, only 24 countries in the world recognize that for what it was.
Do you think that after making the film you’ll be more drawn to social projects?
Samantha Barks: If you’re lucky enough you get that, you don’t always get these kinds of roles, but of course I would want to be in films that make a difference.
Max Irons: Films can spread awareness, so yeah definitely.
Moving on to a much more light topic through musicals and sci-fi you both have dealt with different kinds of fandoms. How was it to get started in your careers and realizing you would have such strong fanbases?
Max Irons: It’s always lovely to be appreciated, it shouldn’t be the driving factor, but it’s always lovely.
I have to ask you a bunch of musical questions, Samantha…
Samantha Barks: Absolutely!
But wait, Max, do you know how to sing?
Max Irons: No! I can sing in the shower though.
If you knew how to sing what musical would you like to do with Samantha?
Max Irons: Samantha and I have no business in the same stage.
Samantha Barks: We can do a Lego movie.
I saw you’re going to do the concert of Honeymoon in Vegas in London. Obviously this isn’t the first Jason Robert Brown musical you’ve done...and this might be the dumbest question ever…
Samantha Barks: No it’s not, I love it already.
...great, so what keeps you coming back to Jason’s work?
Samantha Barks: I have been obsessed with him since I was 12 or 13, I first started listening to his work around the time I realized I wanted to make musical theatre, it’s the kind of music that fits my voice and also the kind of music I’d want to listen to on my iPod. I’ve always been such a huge fan of his work, his lyrics are clever, funny and heart wrenching and his melodies are gorgeous. So when I had the chance to do The Last Five Years I already knew the show inside out, I know Jamie and Cathy’s parts. Last time I was in New York I saw Honeymoon in Vegas, so it’s going to be great to do this after The Last Five Years, which was also cool because he directed it so I got to ask him all the questions I’d had through the years. Since the show is about himself it came with the kind of intimate attachment you don’t always have with a musical.
Every note means something.
Samantha Barks: Yes, every note was part of his heartbreak.
In Bitter Harvest you got a chance to work with Terence Stamp, did you have a chance to ask him fan-like questions about his legendary career?
Samantha Barks: I try and let people be when they’re filming.
Max Irons: I didn’t! He’s extraordinary, did you know he lived as a monk after Superman?
Samantha Barks: I didn’t!
Max Irons: He lived with monks for seven years, and he also had all these stories about Marlon Brando, his collection of shoes…
Samantha Barks: I didn’t get to shoot much with him, so I would get nervous and wouldn’t just come up to him during breaks. I did get to hang with him on a plane though, and he was so fascinating, he wrote a recipe book! He’s lived thousands of lives. I said something about loving healthy baking and he had written the book on that, which was so cool.
Even though the film is about something horrible it’s also a great romance and given it’s Valentine’s month what are your fave movie romances?
Samantha Barks: The Notebook
Max Irons: I’ve never seen it.
Samantha Barks: Oh my god! We’re watching it tonight.
Max Irons: I love Love Actually, is that very bad?
Samantha Barks: No, when Colin Firth comes to the cafe in Portugal I’m a wreck.
So, if you could turn movies you love into musicals, what would they be?
Samantha Barks: I really like the idea of One Day as a musical cause I loved the book.
Anne Hathaway was in the movie version too!
Samantha Barks: Yeah! I’m also a romantic so I like the idea of The Notebook.
Bitter Harvest is now in theaters.