Joanna Kulig, Paparazzi Magnet in Poland, Is About to Beguile America

Cold War’s breakout star is a throwback screen goddess.

Photo: Pawel Pawlikowski
Photo: Pawel Pawlikowski

Joanna Kulig’s door is open. This isn’t a metaphor. Her front door literally hangs wide open when I approach her home in Santa Monica, the sounds of boisterous people speaking Polish flowing from inside. When I walk up the porch steps, Kulig and her husband Maciek and another Polish friend have no reaction, as though it’s quite natural for any stranger to wander in from off the street.

“Is it cold out?” she asks, with the familiarity of someone speaking to a sibling. She suggests we walk to a café, so we’re right out the door again, and as she pulls on her coat, she tells me in rapid-fire succession that she’s in her third trimester of pregnancy, she tends to run a little warm these days, she can’t sit for longer than 45 minutes, and she always wears light Merino wool, because a Polish actor never knows what kind of weather she’ll find herself in on set. “An actor must take care of her health,” she says. And we’re off.

Kulig, who stars in Pawel Pawlikowski’s new film Cold War (Poland’s entry into the Oscars), hails from a rural village outside of Kraków, where, presumably, everyone’s doors are unlocked and — judging from Kulig’s behavior — purses are left unguarded at the table. As she drops said purse on a chair and beckons me away to order a coffee and almond pastry with her, my stomach twists in anxiety: Farewell, purse. We hardly knew ye. “It’s okay!” she says. (And it is okay. The purse is still there five minutes later when we return to the table.)

If Kulig is easygoing, the character she plays in Cold War, Zula, is perhaps the very definition of open, an ambitious peasant girl in the 1950s who ingeniously scams her way into a government-run music-and-performance school — she will sing and dance until her feet ache for the promise of food and shelter. Amid the rigorous training in folk song and dance, Zula falls in love with an older man (played by Tomasz Kot) of more privilege, and the two plot to run away together, across the border. But their relationship is never quite that easy. “Universal love story,” Kulig says. “Like Casablanca.” We see them for the next ten years finding and losing one another again and again, separated by class, education, maturity, and the Iron Curtain.

Though American audiences are less familiar with Kulig’s face, she’s generally mobbed when she’s out in Warsaw; her roles in Polish TV and films including Elles, The Woman in the Fifth, and The Innocents have made her a magnet for paparazzi (a recent picture of her with Brad Pitt made every Polish news and gossip site). Cold War, however, will likely be an “aha!” moment for American viewers. Kulig is the kind of enigmatic screen goddess (not an exaggeration) who’s equally adept at acting, singing, and dancing — the kind one could find in the halcyon days of cinema. It’s no surprise, then, that her favorite films are the grand old musical productions, the best in her mind being West Side Story. (She is ecstatic when I tell her that Russ Tamblyn, one of that film’s stars, lives just down the street from her new, temporary home.)

Zula is the rare role where someone so multi-talented can shine. Pawlikowski wrote it specifically for Kulig, after they’d worked together on two other films, including her small role in Ida, which took home the 2015 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. He told her he wanted her to sing more this time, for her voice to lead an old romantic tale. It was the chance of a lifetime. But it would also dredge up her own past.

Repeatedly through our meeting, Kulig brings up the word “trauma,” something she says Poland is only beginning to understand after Auschwitz and the hard times that followed. The Cold War may have ended when Kulig was a child, but the effects have resonated through generations, with each gaining just an inch more freedom but feeling anxious from the pressure to do and experience everything their parents and grandparents before them could never do. She tells me she didn’t have to read books or do research for Zula; so much of that time period and that person were innate in her already.

“My co-star Tomasz and I, we have a lot of conversations about our grandparents,” she says. “They had nothing in the shops, couldn’t travel. I was 6 when communism was finished. My grandmother would hide bread for when maybe another war would come. You had to be ready.”

When Kulig was a young performer, she excelled at everything she tried. She won Chance for Success (Poland’s American Idol) at 15. Her mother told her she had to show the world her talent. Though her late father was a folk poet of sorts, Kulig would be the first in her family — of five siblings — to graduate from a university and follow her dreams. (Her mother was a cook for the local kindergarten but had always wanted to be a nurse.) So she went to school studying classical piano and vocals before entering a drama program.

One day, a voice teacher told her that she would sing differently when she was older and had acquired more experiences. Kulig was jealous of the teacher. She wanted to skip ahead in life from all the hard parts and get to the point where her voice could embody a life well-lived, a voice with maturity and wholeness to it — qualities that couldn’t be described in any scientific terms. “I told her, ‘I want to sing like you now.’”

So she opened herself up to every possible experience in her field, by auditioning and earning nearly every role she went out for in film, theater, and television. At one point, still at university, she was juggling a show onstage, one on TV, and still taking classes. She stretched herself so thin, she had a breakdown. Kulig describes packing up her things in Kraków and collapsing on the floor in tears, with the intent of returning home and calling it quits, when she turned on the television and saw her face on the screen. It was an episode of Teatr Telewizji, in which the late Marcin Wrona had directed her.

She wiped at her face and said, “Huh. I am not so bad. Maybe I should keep doing this.”

“When I was between 18 and 25,” she explains, “it was like I had problem finding the middle of my personality. Extreme happiness, extreme sadness, like Zula. I was so strong, but I wasn’t calm.” Pawlikowski, who’s been working with Kulig for nearly a decade, had met her at the tail end of those chaotic days, and imbued Zula with those same emotional extremes. When she read the script, she felt ready to accept that this was a part of her own past on the page. You never know what Zula will say or do from one moment to the next. In one scene, she’s lying in the grass, gazing at her lover, and the next, she’s confessing to him that she’s been ratting on him to the government. It’s a whiplash of a character and a performance.

Kulig has obviously changed over time. At 36, preparing to be a mother, she says she’s simply enjoying the fleeting limelight of the film’s Oscars campaign. “It might be my only chance,” she says, though reviews and critic adoration of her performance in Cold War suggest otherwise. She was lucky to begin her career at the same time that the Polish film industry was broadening, co-producing movies with France, Asia, and the U.K. Before that, it was a great period of what Kulig calls “emptiness.”

Kulig is bright and cheery as she revisits the heavier moments in her life, at times speaking with a mouth full of pastry because she’s too animated by the story she’s telling to stop and swallow. She is comfortable with discomfort — probably owing to what she calls a Polish tendency to skip small talk and go straight into whatever is weighing on their minds. To be Polish, it seems, is to be paradoxically hopeful about the future while contemplating the pain of the past. In Cold War, Kulig performs a collection of peasant songs that get at this enigma of Polish identity, where happiness comes with a caveat. She sings one of those songs, “Two Hearts,” multiple times, and depending on the scene, it can become unbearably melancholic, romantic, bittersweet, or stoic with a hint of pride, with Kulig’s body and timbre reflecting the mood of any specific moment. In one version, her eyes droop closed, shoulders slouched as she croons for Parisians in a crowded, swanky nightclub.

She sang it so many times, in so many ways, that the tune still haunts her. When she was younger, Kulig tells me, she would often retreat from the bustle of Kraków to her quiet village, so small that everyone knew your name, your family, your dirty laundry. There, she would wander into the forest, and she would sing at the top of her lungs, letting the sound echo into the trees and the cloudy sky, and she would, with some impatience, try to imagine what her voice could sound like when she was older and had experienced the world like her teacher had told her. It’s harder to find a quiet place these days, amid her career and the needs of her burgeoning family, but Kulig no longer requires her audience of trees to imagine the future. In Cold War, her voice has attained that elusive quality her teacher was trying to explain to her years earlier — she is whole.

Cold War’s Joanna Kulig Is About to Beguile America