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.]