updated 12/05/2011 AT 8:00 AM ET
•originally published 12/05/2011 AT 8:25 AM ET
Her flower petals in It’s a Wonderful Life were the ultimate symbol of the healing power of love in an otherwise cruel world. But Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu in the iconic 1946 Christmas movie, needed more faith than most in a real life that was a long way from wonderful.
“My mother died when I was 12, and right after, my dad died in a car crash. I was 15 and had no family,” Grimes, now 71, says in a new interview in the Washington Post.
She was sent to live with an aunt and uncle, but felt little connection to them.
“They were kind of nutso religious fanatics who didn’t believe in movies, dancing, singing,” she says. “I don’t think they believed in laughing, either.”
As an adult, her heartbreak continued. Married young, she soon divorced, and her ex-husband died in a hunting accident. Her second husband died of cancer. Her son committed suicide at 18, and two of her daughters became single parents.
“My life has never been wonderful,” Grimes says. “Maybe when I was a child, but not after age 15.”
And yet Grimes – who has made a living since 1994 from appearance fees and other projects related to the film – says her tough life makes the movie’s message that much more resonant.
She adds: “Everybody has some sorrow, worry, and everybody asks God for help. One way or the other, we all do, and it can be in Martini’s [bar], not a church on Christmas.”
Grimes says the film’s spirit is as strong as ever, particularly with the country gripped by recession and so many people facing financial hardship.
“”Think of all the people out of work, losing their homes, hungry kids worried about their parents,” she says. “What’s so different about today and 60 years ago?”