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No Comfort Zone: An Interview with ‘Cold War’ Star Joanna Kulig

With all due respect to Lady Gaga, a cinematic star was born elsewhere in 2018. The sensation of watching Joanna Kulig light up the screen in Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War recalls the experience of first bearing witness to the talents of luminaries like Jessica Chastain or Marion Cotillard. (Fittingly, Vogue reported that Kulig has been asking American casting directors how the latter actress perfected her English in a recent stateside swing.) Her commanding presence held me rapt for the film’s 88-minute duration, then quickly released me to wonder how I could have lived this long without her — and wish she could just be in everything.

This is Kulig’s first real moment in the spotlight, though she’s had bit parts in Pawlikowski’s previous films The Woman in the Fifth and Ida (as well as “Red-Haired Witch” in the 2013 Hollywood flop Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters). At 36, she’s arrived on the international scene with immediate attention for this head-turning work, the kind of performance one spends years watching performers build towards. Yet, for most, it could appear like a virtuosic turn straight out of the gate.

Not to downplay the strength of Kulig’s contributions to Cold War, but her unfamiliarity from previous roles goes a tremendous way in creating a beguiling aura around her character, the self-destructive Polish singer Zula. This places viewers in the same shoes as her star-crossed lover, Tomasz Kot’s Wiktor, as he attempts to decipher her erratic and often impulsive motivations.

A part of me wondered if there was any need to talk with Kulig as she did her big media blitz to promote the film. What more was there to say that her performance did not already come through in the work itself? It turns out, quite a bit. Kulig was so eager to speak about the nuts and bolts of putting together her character in Cold War, giving such long responses to my questions that our conversation had to spill over from the designated phone interview timeslot into an email exchange.

Like any great performer, Kulig identifies, recognizes and reconciles the contradictions of her character. She brings emotional logic to the mercurial Zula, even if the character herself seems unable to find a similar clarity through her own journey. Take, for example, the film’s centerpiece dance sequence set to Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” in a Parisian jazz joint. Not only does Kulig have to dance with several men with the undercurrent of making Wiktor jealous, she must also dance for Lukasz Zal’s camera in an unbroken shot while maintaining the impression of spontaneity.

From a technical perspective alone, it’s a marvel, so I couldn’t help but ask how she worked with Pawlikowski and Zal to pull it off. “I was dancing all night,” she told me. “I had some training with a choreographer, but after [a] few takes, Paweł just told me to forget about what I learned and go wild. So I did. We had some points where I was about to connect with the cameramen, but the rest was just spontaneous. And dancing all night long gave me something extra — the feeling like I was drunk 😊.” (Emoji emphasis all Kulig’s, not mine, I should add.)

But perhaps the more impressive feats come from the more intangible elements Kulig manages to harness with her character. For example, her portrayal of Zula feels both true to its time period and wholly contemporary. In order to play someone who is a “very destructive and beautiful and talented personalit[y],” as she put it, Kulig looked to Amy Winehouse, especially during scenes when Zula sang in the recording studio. But finding a more recent spiritual analog for the character did not absolve her from doing the research on the kind of conditions under which her character was reared.

“I saw Doctor Zhivago because there was something there which helped me,” Kulig responded when asked about how she filled in the details of Zula’s provincial roots. “I was constantly thinking about her difficult past. That she was in jail, that she had a conflict with her father. Those stains leave marks on your soul. Even if there is only one line in the movie about that, it helped me to build Zula’s character.”

This backstory foils with her romantic counterpart Wiktor, a clearly cosmopolitan artist who meets her while conducting auditions for the Polish folk group Mazurek. He presents himself as a gentleman of refinement while Zula stands out as a scrappy scammer who developed tenacity and resourcefulness in order to survive the harsh conditions of her upbringing. Yet in spite of their demographic differences, Wiktor finds himself unable to resist her undeniable talent and raw magnetism. “She’s a real femme fatale,” said Kulig of her character. “That’s also what attracts Wiktor.”

When it came time to convey the latter, Kulig leaned on a number of the legacy of a few notable figures from around the mid-century time period during which Cold War is set. During production, Pawlikowski instructed Kulig to utilize screen icon Lauren Bacall as a north star for the performance. “I started to watch her before speaking, and it helps me because sometimes when I was on the set and I was too energetic, there were too many things I wanted to play or do with the Zula character,” she explained. “It helps me how to be more elegant. Longer pause between lines. In more than out.” When her performance departed from Pawlikowski’s vision, Kulig said the director would tell her to remember Lauren Bacall.

In order to portray elements of Zula’s difficult relationship with Wiktor, Kulig divulged that she took inspiration from articles about Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe’s tumultuous marriage. But it took more than just reading about other ill-fated pairs to bring her own on-screen couple to life. She needed to shift her mindset about romance back several decades to fully understand and internalize why Zula acted the way she did. “First of all, it was a post-war trauma generation surrounded by Soviets who took over the country. No comfort zone at all. I needed to understand that.  All those historical issues were extremely important when it was about creating their relationship,” she replied when asked what she had to learn. “You could not call your beloved one, or just go visit him when he’s around. So each decision you made is almost like an internal struggle.”

Yet for all the talk of the historical building blocks for the character, so much of the person on screen is truly her own. While Zula is based on Pawlikowski’s own mother, just as Wiktor was on his father, the filmmaker worked with Kulig and Kot to develop and own the characters. She described the processing of developing Cold War as a true collaboration: “We had some structure because we had the script, but we knew that the script was only the beginning of the building. The structure was ready, but what we will paint, what we will create, which kind of colors, was a process.”

According to Kulig, Pawlikowski did not remain wedded to the dialogue on the page during shooting. As she put it, “the most important thing was what is between Zula and Wiktor, that it has to be a magic atmosphere.” The film can span an epic feature’s worth of time in under an hour and a half because Pawlikowski trusts his actors to maintain an emotional through line that carries through significant ellipses in the plot. The audience does not need to witness some of the biggest events in their relationship to understand what happens between them, for the tensions inherent in their decisions play out in the performances themselves.

Pawlikowski enlisted Kulig and Kot to devote all their energy to Cold War during the preparation process, giving their all to developing the characters with him. His primary purpose for instituting such a monopoly on their time was to grant his performers the confidence to be loose on set. “When we were ready and, on the set, we were very open,” Kulig explained. “We knew what our characters [were]. We were very free and very ready for what Pawel want[ed].”

Free is, of course, a relative term. Kulig described doing “23, 25, 30” takes for Pawlikowski on any given scene and having to maintain concentration and continuity for each. She rattled off a number of elements that she had to take into account throughout filming. “The light, all the details, costume, makeup, your pace, your emotion inside your body that you have to show only in your eyes. You have to be so minimalist in your face, but your emotion has to be very strong inside.” Standard, sure, but still overwhelming when considered altogether.

The more I learned about how Kulig brought Zula to life, the more I came to appreciate just how unique an opportunity this presented for her to shine. Many actors wait a lifetime for a part like this, and Kulig has the tremendous benefit of Zula serving as her introduction to a worldwide audience. As for what’s next, Kulig will appear on the Amazon Prime TV series Hanna (an adaptation of the 2011 Joe Wright film) and should be giving birth to her first child quite soon. Hopefully that just means those casting directors have extra time to line up parts for Kulig so she’ll have the pick of the litter when she decides to return to her craft.

Follow Marshall Shaffer on Twitter (@media_marshall).

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