With the monumental success of Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War at Cannes, Polish actress Joanna Kulig, 36, has been thrust into the international spotlight. Performing opposite Thomasz Kot, she plays Zula, a spunky mountain girl who auditions to take part in a traditional Polish folk group. Set against the backdrop of the repressive communist regime, their relationship spans over 15 years and three different countries, emerging as an epic story of love and loss. With her dynamic central role requiring multiple modes of musical performance, it’s a true acting masterclass. The film hits German screens on November 22.
What attracted you to the role?
When I read the screenplay, I thought: “Wow. This is the part for me.” There’s a lot of power here; it’s emotional and dark at the same time. There’s singing, there’s dancing, she’s a lot of different things at once, which is why I was so happy. There’s not a lot of parts for women like this. And it gave me the opportunity to draw on my own musical background.
How did you prepare for the role?
I spent six months with the Mazowsze (Polish folk song and dance group) learning the mazurka (traditional folk dance in triple meter) twice a week. I’m so happy with the success of the movie because I’m not a professional dancer. We had a choreographer and I worked very hard. For an adult, learning ballet for the first time is like learning to swim. But I spent half a year with Mazowsze and when in France a real ballet dancer in the audience said I danced well, it was such a huge compliment.
Your character adopts so many different personas throughout the film. How did you keep a sense of who she was throughout?
We shot chronologically. That made things much easier, because it helped me understand how she was evolving as a person. When I was dancing and singing with the Mazowsze, I started to realise that Zula could convey her happiness as a young woman through dance and movement. And when it came to conveying her isolation in France, that happy time seemed like a distant memory; the contrast was huge between the two stages of her life.
What is your background in singing?
I was born in the countryside where the folk tradition still existed, so I grew up using music to communicate. Pawel knew about this, it’s part of the reason he hired me. Also, when I was 15 I won Szansa na sukces (“Chance for Success”), a TV talent show. This experience was useful for the audition scene in the film.
This is your third role with Pawlikowski, what do you like about working with him?
I like that you can be open when on set. When we met for the first time, Pawel said that he likes actors that have musicality. When we were working on The Woman in the Fifth he told me not to think too much about acting, and to approach it like a musical performance. It works well, we have the same kind of rhythm – very often I can improvise and Pawel likes it. It’s very rare, but I’m happy I found a director I can connect with like that.
Did Pawel show you any films from that era as inspiration?
He screened a lot of films with Lauren Bacall because Pawel wanted Joanna to be like her. And I saw Dr. Zhivago, which was a small inspiration for this relationship. I also learned a lot about Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe, because they had something similar between them to Zula and Wiktor (played by Kot).
What was it like working with Tomasz Kot?
Tomasz Kot is a wonderful actor, he’s had a lot of big roles in Poland. His experience was huge, and he taught me a lot. There’s a great contrast between Wiktor’s calmness and Zula’s fiery personality. Tomasz is wonderful in this part and helped me with Zula’s part too because he was so strong and knew how to do it.
The film’s quite short, given its epic scope. Did you wish it was longer so you could spend more time with the character?
Yes! We learned six different types of dancing and we only used three. A lot of scenes were cut. I think with the material we have, we could have made two or three movies.
One of my favourite scenes of the year is the “Rock Around the Clock” sequence, where Zula really lets herself go to this music that she’s obviously never heard before. How much rehearsal time did you need for that?
Oh my god, I danced this scene 20 times! We did some rehearsals beforehand but afterward Pawel said: “Leave it, be free and improvise.” So I did this, and then I got on the bar and I lost my balance! I couldn’t believe they wanted to use it but they said it was the most natural take.
You were born in 1982, do you have any personal memories of the Cold War era?
I was too small, so I don’t remember a lot. Only that when people talked about Wałęsa (the head of Solidarność, the trade union that helped bring down the communist government), I knew that this was something important. And because where I was born was so small, only 200 people or so, there wasn’t a lot of stuff. I wanted to buy ice cream but they always said no!
Zula is trapped in this time, making her a tragic character. How historically accurate do you think her story is?
It was a difficult time. I thought a lot about modern issues when we started out, but Tomasz said: “Joanna, you have to think more about the past.” After the war, under communism, people had to emigrate and they were lonely. The problems often arose when they returned home, and they didn’t have any psychologists to help them. But on the other hand Pawel said that it’s a good era for drama because nobody has a phone, and if you go somewhere, you can’t easily come back! It’s a great period for this Casablanca-style love story.
Cold War opens in Berlin cinemas on November 22. Check our OV search engine for showtimes.