A love story is nothing without its lovers, and at the center of Pawel Pawlikowski’s sweeping new film Cold War is Joanna Kulig, who traverses Europe alongside Tomasz Kot in stunning black-and-white and heartbreaking song. But though Kulig has worked steadily in her native Poland for years, this role was something of a first for her, as it asked her to sing, dance, and act simultaneously. She opened up about the experience to Lynn Hirschberg in W‘s annual Best Performances issue, and dove in deep on why she experienced a love-hate relationship with her character, Zula. She also opened up about why she was nervous about playing a role based on the director’s mother, the difference between Polish and English, and how it felt to reunite with Ethan Hawke eight years after working on Woman in the Fifth together.
How did Cold War come to you?
The director, Pawel Pawlikowski, wrote this part for me. It was our third collaboration. I am a very lucky person.
Did he send it to you or did you know he was going to write it for you?
I knew a year before I get the script, but when Pawel sent it to me and I read, it was something. I had never had a part with dancing, singing, and acting, and I was so happy.
Were you at all scared?
Just a little bit because I knew that I would play Pawel Pawlikowski’s mother, Zula. But at the same time it was special for me because she was such a sensitive person. When you play a person who exists in real life, it is different than when you play fiction.
What was your preparation like?
The most challenging thing for me was dancing because I am not a professional dancer and I have a problem with coordination, like you know, how to be on the stage, which is right, left. I am a very neurotic person all the time. I spent five six months in a Polish folk ensemble.
You spent it literally in an ensemble?
Yeah. It was 60 dancers, we had parties together, drinking together sometimes. [Laughs.] They are very strong and very powerful, they dance six hours a day, [perform] a lot of concerts, and they are together all the time. They travel all of Poland, and in different countries, and they are like family. That’s why I was very happy there. I started to build the first part of Zula because I knew that she was happy in Mazurek, not in France.
And when you started the movie, you felt very prepared.
I felt very prepared because I knew that I had to connect with things beyond the stage, dance, use my voice, sing, act very difficult scenes, a very difficult relationship between man and woman… I knew that what was the weak [link] was dancing. I had a musical education, that’s why I knew how to use emotions with music. I was so happy that I was prepared, because in my head I had Zula’s thoughts, and her personality, not mine.
Has the film been released in Poland?
Yeah, it did wonderfully at the box office. Better than Han Solo.
Better than Han Solo! [Laughs]
It was such a huge success, especially for art house. That’s why we were very happy and very proud about this.
Your character in the movie is both very seductive…
Seductive, what does that mean?
Attractive, and charming, and yet a little bit devious. She doesn’t always tell the truth.
Exactly. Did you like her?
Sometimes I liked her, but sometimes I didn’t like her. But at the same time I knew that she’s wounded badly, very wise and sensitive. The audience felt the same: “OK, we love her but sometimes we hate her.” Sometimes it’s very difficult to understand why she was like that. She had everything. Wiktor was so great for her, but she was, I think, just a little bit childish. But generally I think it was great material to play because it wasn’t balanced and simple. She was sensitive, greatly talented but at the same time a very destructive person.
Did you enjoy Cannes? Was it fun?
I was so happy because I remember when I was maybe, 17 or 14, something like that, my first visit in Cannes was by school bus. It was with the teacher, and we were in Costa Brava and Cannes. And the second [time] was with Cold War. That’s why for me it was a very interesting situation, [full] circle because I never thought that I would be at Cannes with Julianne Moore. I remember the moment with the standing ovation, I was like “Oh my God, it’s so great here, people are very kind.” But it’s not like that.
But I thought, “They are so nice for us!” People are crying, and they feel something … they feel real emotions. They feel deep emotions about this couple, about this music. It was strong.
Is this the first time you’ve come to America, with this film? Have you been here before?
One year ago, it was a holiday trip to California. My husband and I were in San Francisco, Death Valley Park, Joshua Park Tree, Mammoth Mountain, Las Vegas, L.A.. Now, this is my second time here. This is more about promo and the film, and this is something which is very new for me. American tempo is so fast.
Poland is slower. But maybe because I’m pregnant, I feel like everything is more… People are very hard, quick, but at the same time they are great. They love art.
Do you ever dream in another language? Do you ever dream in English?
I don’t think so, but I started to think [in English] sometimes. In Berlitz, they taught me, “You have to stop thinking in Polish, think in English.” But it’s very difficult because one sentence in English is very short, but Polish is very long. We use more words to explain ourselves. That’s why sometimes you have very short English sentence but when you have Polish, this is like that.
What was the first thing you ever auditioned for? What role did you first audition for that you got?
It was my first film. I remember the audition was in our school, my first year. And generally it was like you can’t go, because first years have to be only in the school and don’t do anything, but I started to think “Uh, maybe I will go” because in Poland, sometimes you audition and three years after is the film, because they have to wait for budget. So I thought, “maybe I will go and the film will be at the end of my education.” I won the casting, and I started to shoot in the third year of my acting education. I used my soul, my energy and everything, and it was my first film, and I got awards for the best debut in Poland-
You were primarily a singer, at this point.
Yes, I started piano and classical singing, I wanted to study jazz, but I tried to go to the Polish University of Jazz, but they didn’t want me. In Krakow, I wanted to conduct, they didn’t want me. And I start to think, “I have to do something.” In Krakow there was drama and music. I started to study. The music was simple for me, but I didn’t know anything about acting. And it was such a difficult ambience because people were crazy, like all the time they are crying, laughing, up and down. I wasn’t sure that this is my world. But later, step by step, I started to understand that acting and music, you can use both. That’s why I love Charlotte Gainsbourg, because she’ll be on the set but at the same time she likes to record some songs.
What was the first American movie you saw?
I grew up in a small village outside of Krakow, and when I was small we had only a small television, and we had only one and two programs. I remember it was black and white. And I loved to watch Charlie Chaplin. I was so small, but I remember his movement.
You were recently at the Governors Awards. Did you see any people you admire there?
Quincy Jones. And I took a photo with him and he wrote me back today on Instagram. I love him really. I met Ethan Hawke, once again. And it was great meeting because he told me, “Joanna, we were together in France, eight years ago, and I knew that you were great, but when I saw Cold War, now I know that I had good intuition and good taste.” [Laughs.]
Best Performances: Featuring Nicole Kidman, Claire Foy, Rami Malek, and 29 of Hollywood’s Biggest Stars
Claire Foy wears a Burberry top, corset dress, socks, and shoes; Charvet scarf. Emily Blunt wears a Burberry dress, shirt, socks, and shoes; stylist’s own top.
Kiki Layne wears a Prada top and headband; Tiffany & Co. earrings. Jonah Hill wears The Row jacket, shirt, and tie.
Margot Robbie wears a Chanel cardigan and skirt; stylist’s own top. Michael B. Jordan wears a Calvin Klein 205W39NYC cardigan and vest; Brioni trousers.
Nicole Kidman wears an Armani Privé dress; Cartier earrings; Cornelia James gloves; stylist’s own veil.
Mahershala Ali wears a Prada suit; his own top and bracelet. Amy Adams wears a Givenchy dress and belt.
Eddie Redmayne wears a Givenchy shirt and pants. Rami Malek wears a Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello shirt.
Saoirse Ronan wears a Celine by Hedi Slimane dress.
Nicole Kidman in Boy Erased and Destroyer
“In Destroyer, I play a cop who’s been through a lot—she’s very American, very angry, distressed, and disturbed. I wasn’t the first choice for that role—it went to somebody else and she didn’t want to do it. I read the script and put my hand up and said, ‘What about me?’ ” Did the wardrobe contribute to the character? We took so long to find the leather jacket that I wear in pretty much every frame of the film. I became so obsessed with that jacket, I would wear it at home. I put it on first thing in the morning. My kids visited the set and were shocked at the way I looked. You know, I’ve been working as an actor since I was 14 years old. It’s a choice, but it’s also a calling. Sometimes, I kind of try to move away, but it always pulls me back.
Comme des Garçons coat, T-shirt, skirt, tights, and boots; headpiece by hairstylist Malcolm Edwards. Inflatable latex costumes by artist Sasha Frolova (throughout).
Amy Adams in Vice
“My role in Vice is Lynne Cheney, Dick Cheney’s wife. It’s a huge responsibility to play a living person. I didn’t meet Lynne, and that’s interesting too—playing somebody who’s alive but whom you’ve never met. Plus, I age from 20 to 70 in the film, so that was another challenge.” Did her conservative politics affect your performance? I really just absorbed her point of view. Whether I agree with it or not doesn’t really matter. To get into character, I would have long debates about policy and politics as Lynne Cheney with our director, Adam McKay. I called him many names. I teased him about wearing shorts on set and how that was disrespectful. But I didn’t swear, because Lynne wouldn’t swear.
Valentino gown; Valentino Garavani earrings; Marc Jacobs boots.
Saoirse Ronan in Mary Queen of Scots and On Chesil Beach
“This is the first time I’ve played any queen or monarch. Mary had to hold herself in a certain way when she was presenting herself at court, but when she was on her own, in her intimate quarters, she was quite different. I began to feel like a bit of a boss. A boss queen!” Did you learn any royal skills? Yes, I learned to ride. My horse in the film was also Wonder Woman’s horse—his name is Prince, and he is the biggest diva I’ve ever met. Prince doesn’t do anything for anyone, especially me, and had a nervous cough that you’d hear right before we’d do a take. Everything I did was for that horse, just to get his approval.
Balenciaga dress and shoes.
Lakeith Stanfield in Sorry to Bother You
“The director of the film, Boots Riley, had been following me for quite a while before I finally met him. He handed me the script for Sorry to Bother You literally put it in my hands. I was like, Who is this strange person? When I read the script, I realized I had no idea how deeply strange he is. But his strangeness revealed itself to be another form of beauty.” Growing up, who was your cinematic crush? Jennifer Love Hewitt. I loved her. I couldn’t comprehend anything, except that she was beautiful. What’s your favorite Halloween costume? I’m always the Joker. Every year. Soon there will be a black Joker movie, and it will be me.
Maison Margiela Artisanal Men’s Designed by John Galliano suit; Tiffany & Co. earrings; John Hardy cross necklace; Chrome Hearts thick chain; Hoorsenbuhs long chain; Stanfield’s own rings.
Margot Robbie in Mary Queen of Scots
What was your first red-carpet outfit? I was 18. The Australian equivalent of the Emmys is called the Logies, and I was nominated. It was my big moment, the biggest thing that had happened to me. So I went all out on the dress: It was very short at the front, long at the back, lots of layers, bright colors, and shiny fabric. It was, like, orange, black, orange, black—with a big bow at the back. I had stipple-looking hair, and I was very tan. It was…a look. I don’t regret it, because I was 18 and having fun. I can dress boring for the rest of my life.
Staud coat; Giu Giu turtleneck; Vex Clothing tights; Urstadt Swan gloves; Manolo Blahnik shoes; stylist’s own veil.
Timothée Chalamet in Beautiful Boy
“Beautiful Boy [which is about a father and his son, who is addicted to drugs] was a script they’d been trying to get made for 10 years. Every guy actor my age had gone up for it. I’ve been lucky, but a lot of the bigger Hollywood movies like Spider-Man, things like that, I didn’t get. So, for Beautiful Boy, I did a lot of research and read about drugs, and I brought the books to my first meeting with the director. I could see in his eyes that he was thinking, This kid is nuts. But I felt this movie—the subject of drug addiction—was so important. I wanted to make an anti-glorification-of-drugs movie. And I think we did.” Did you meet Nic Sheff, whom you play in the film? Yes. I met him a week before we started shooting. And there was nothing about Nic that fit my stereotype of an addict. That was the learning grace of this movie: Nic is alive and well, but the reality is, it’s a day at a time. You never really beat it. You lost so much weight. Was your mom worried about you? My mom was worried! I lost 18 pounds. First, I’m in a movie where I was having sex with a peach, and then it was like, “I got another movie!” She said, “Great!” And then I had to tell her what it was about.
Claire Foy in First Man
Growing up, what was your favorite toy? I had a disgusting pillow until I was about 21. Shamefully, I took it to university. Do you get nervous before filming? Oh, yes, I get nervous. It’s a gradual process of trying to work yourself up to being brave enough to be on set. You always worry that everyone’s going to say, “Ooh, we’ve made a terrible, terrible mistake.” What was the name of your first pet? Thumper. And the first street that you lived on? I don’t know. So you’re a one-name sensation: Thumper is your porno name. Thumper it is.
Burberry cape; Falconiere bonnet.
Eddie Redmayne in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald
What was the first record you bought? Bon Jovi. “Livin’ on a Prayer” is such a good song. I love a good emotional ballad. The greatest YouTube hole to go down is Leona Lewis when she was on The X Factor. Every week, she just came and delivered. Occasionally she’d take her shoes off. Do you watch other reality shows? I’m quite excited because The Hills, which is my original reality-TV guilty pleasure, is coming back. I had a bit of a love-hate relationship with Heidi Montag. Do you have a secret skill? Yes. I’m incredibly good at being early. I’m always the person who gets to the airport four hours early. I drive everyone crazy.
Dior Men jacket and pants; Urstadt Swan gloves; Givenchy boots.
Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther
Do you have a favorite movie villain? For me, it’s a tie between Heath Ledger as the Joker and Michael Fassbender as Magneto. Villains, like Erik Killmonger in Black Panther, are the most interesting characters. They are the ones you can empathize with—they want you to not like them, but you can still understand their motivation.Even though you’re the villain in Black Panther, do people on the street still say “Wakanda forever” to you? They don’t immediately realize that my character is not exactly pro-Wakanda. Midway through saying something, it registers: Oh, he wasn’t really with Wakanda. But by then they’ve already committed.
Is it difficult to act when you’re basically naked? I’m always naked. So, no.
Joanna Kulig in Cold War
“The director, Pawel Pawlikowski, wrote the part of Zula for me. I knew that the inspiration for the character came from his mother. Zula is her real name, and, like me, she was blonde. I saw her photo.” Was that the hardest part about portraying the character? No. The hardest part was the dancing. In general, I have a problem with coordination. I spent six months in a Polish folk ensemble learning how to dance. We partied together, we drank together, and we’d dance for six hours during a concert. It was like a family, and I started to build the character of Zula. Soon, I had her thoughts and personality. And I finally learned how to dance!
Chloé dress; Louis Vuitton hat.
Elizabeth Debicki in Widows
“I was a dancer for many, many years, and I thought I was going to be a ballerina. When I was about 12, I went to a summer school for the Australian ballet and I was already taller than my teacher. So I remember saying to myself, I’m going to have to rethink this plan.” Did you audition for Widows? Yes, I put myself on tape in my friend’s garage. How glamorous! I remember wearing a lot of eyeliner. I picked out some hoop earrings. And, funnily enough, in the finished film, she ended up looking a lot like she did in my test.
Marc Jacobs coat; Noel Stewart headpiece; Cornelia James gloves; Falke tights; Vivienne Westwood shoes.
Regina King in If Beale Street Could Talk
“I took a break from making films. My son, Ian, was getting to the age, around sixth grade, when kids are starting to spread their wings, and everything that was being offered to me was outside of Los Angeles, except for TV. I didn’t want to travel to make films. So I like to say I was one of the first movie actors who made the leap into television.” Do they call Beale Street your comeback film? I like to use the LL Cool J song: “Don’t call it comeback. I been here for years.”
Givenchy dress; Graham Tyler hat; Linda Farrow sunglasses.
Willem Dafoe in At Eternity’s Gate
“I painted in a movie called To Live and Die in L.A., but it wasn’t about painting—it was more about counterfeiting and killing people. In playing Vincent van Gogh, painting was the key to the character. I had to know what I was doing. The director, Julian Schnabel, would say, ‘Hold the brush like a sword’ and ‘There’s no such thing as a bad mark.’ I began to think that painting is about making an accumulation of marks. Acting is the same: You create a character scene by scene. It’s a series of marks that start a rhythm, and that rhythm sends you where you need to go.” Who is your cinematic crush? Warren Oates. When I saw him perform, I thought, That’s not an actor, that’s a man. It kind of broke my heart to find out he was actually a trained actor.
Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie in Leave No Trace
“I play a girl who is with her father in the wild, far away from civilization. Since I live in New Zealand and couldn’t fly to America, I auditioned on tape. We had a lot of props: a bucket, a toothbrush, a sleeping bag, and a rabbit named Coco. I also ran through the New Zealand bush with a GoPro in my mouth and sent that off as well. I didn’t meet the director in person. Six months later, on Christmas, I found out that I had gotten the part.”
Moschino Couture dress; Capezio tights; Sergio Rossi shoes.
Steven Yeun in Burning
“I like filming death scenes. When I was on The Walking Dead, I had known for some time about my character’s death. I was really excited for that day—I was looking forward to getting my skull bashed in. In Burning, my death scene was really fun. That was the only time it snowed, which was unexpected, and it added some magic to the moment. Everybody fantasizes about what it would be like to die. If I could make a career out of being killed, it would be okay.” Do you have a secret skill? Yes. I’m really good at getting parking spots. I’m so confident that the spot is going to be there, that it’s always there. Right in front.
Gucci jacket, shirt, pants, hat, and shoes; Charvet tie.
Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade
“I have been acting since I was 5. My first job was doing the voice of Agnes, the youngest daughter, with the big ponytail on top of her head, in Despicable Me. I was in the sequel, but I was too old for Despicable Me 3, because I can’t do my 5-year-old voice anymore.” In Eighth Grade, there is a pool-party scene that is nerve-wracking. You wear a very awkward green bathing suit. Yes, it is anxiety inducing. I did not pick the bathing suit. They wanted a lime green one so my character would stick out. I still have it. I mean, I don’t go to the pool that much, but that’s my bathing suit now. I love it.
Gucci dress; Eugenia Kim hat; Sophie Buhai necklace.
Jonah Hill in Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot
In the film, your character, Donny, has a fantastic fashion sense. One of the things that inspired me was a photograph of Yves Saint Laurent in Morocco in the ’70s. I looked at it and was like, Oh, level-10 Marrakech! So Donny wears a lot of caftans and Moroccan stuff in the movie—kind of our Tom Petty and Yves Saint Laurent level-10 Marrakech. He also has a very calm, Zen outlook on life. Donny had conquered a lot of the things that were dark and demonic about himself, and he was able to be peaceful and calm. That was a joy to play. I miss being Donny— even his long blond hair. What was your most memorable birthday? My mom once sent a mariachi band to play my favorite song, “Feliz Navidad.” It was winter in New York and eight mariachis played my song. I was like, “Am I hallucinating right now?”
Raf Simons coat; the Row T-shirt and jeans; Paul Smith boots.
Kiki Layne in If Beale Street Could Talk
How did you find out you had the part in Beale Street? It was nine in the morning and Barry Jenkins, the director, called and woke me up. He just got to talking and didn’t introduce himself. Finally, he said, “Girl, do you even know who you’re talking to?” He went on to tell me that they were giving me the role! I was trying to rush him off the phone so I could really go crazy and cry and call my mama. What is your go-to karaoke song? “Drunk in Love,” by Beyoncé. Especially if you’ve got somebody that’ll hold down Jay Z’s part. That’s definitely the move. I feel like you have mood hair: Sometimes it’s long, sometimes it’s short—up, down. Oh, yeah, we gotta switch it up. You never really know how it’s gonna be: Will it be curly? Straight? And watch out when those colors start coming in!
Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello dress and boots; Prada headband; Tiffany & Co. earrings.
Carey Mulligan in Wildlife
“Paul Dano, who cowrote and directed Wildlife, called me and said he was going to send me the script. I was kind of flattered that he thought I could play Jeanette.” She’s a tormented character. Did you have trouble shaking her off at the end of the day? No. When you’ve got kids, they expect you to come home and be Mom, not some weird drunk woman. At the end of the day, I take off that hat, leave that person at work, and come home and watch the Food Network. I love Chopped. They make disgusting things, but I do like Bobby Flay. Chopped and Bobby Flay are the perfect antidote to films like Wildlife.
Michael Kors Collection dress; vintage hat from New York Vintage, New York; Tiffany & Co. earrings; Carolina Amato gloves; Capezio tights; Jimmy Choo shoes.
Yalitza Aparicio (far left) in Roma
“The shoot for Roma lasted six months. We shot in chronological order. It was a very long process for me. I had not seen any of Alfonso Cuarón’s films. I actually didn’t know who he was. Alfonso asked me not to watch any of his films until we were done with the filming. He didn’t want me poisoning my mind with any images or ideas.”
Marina de Tavira in Roma
“I was the only actor in Roma with any previous experience. It was really challenging. First-time actors—and many of them were children—have a completely different way of working. Alfonso Cuarón would play tricks on us—make things happen that we were not expecting. That way, he made real life appear on set.”
From left: Valentino gown. The Row gown; Tiffany & Co. earrings.
Emily Blunt in Mary Poppins Returns
“The hardest thing about playing Mary Poppins was learning how to dance. One day, you’re handed a hat and a cane, and I was like, Oh, my God. And, also, the initial idea of taking on a character that iconic was daunting. But once I got over my fears, it was deliciously fun.” What was your first red-carpet outfit? It was for My Summer of Love, and I was far too tanned. I was wearing a very bright yellow dress. I always laugh at how sweaty I looked. Horrible. Who is your girl crush? Rihanna. I mean, come on. She’s smoking.
Louis Vuitton coat; Eugenia Kim hat; Manokhi gloves.
Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody
“The first thing I auditioned for I almost wasn’t allowed to audition for. I got a call from a casting director, and she asked to speak to the agent representing Rami Malek. I said, ‘Uh, speaking.’ She kind of laughed and said, ‘Call me when you have an agent.’ I go, ‘You’re already laughing—give me a shot.’ It was three lines in Gilmore Girls. I convinced her to let me read, and I got the part.” Besides in the film, have you ever sung any Queen songs in public? In Japan, with our version of the band, we dressed up in animal onesies and did “Bohemian Rhapsody,” like the original video. It was filmed, and I’m sure someone will get drunk and throw it out there into the ether.
Officine Générale pants; Atsuko Kudo Couture Latex Design gloves.