'It helped to think about Amy Winehouse': Cold War star Joanna Kulig

In her third film for Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski, who calls her his muse, her role as a lovelorn singer has sparked talk of an Oscar

Joanna Kulig won the glitzy Polish TV talent contest Chance for Success at the age of 15 and hasn’t really stopped singing since. Now 36, each of the three films she has made with the great Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski has required her to burst into song. In the existential mystery The Woman in the Fifth, Ethan Hawke is able to resist her until the moment she starts warbling; in the Oscar-winning Ida, she has a dynamic cameo as a nightclub chanteuse. And now, in the exceptional Cold War, Pawlikowski has finally given her a leading role: she plays Zula, who joins a touring company performing folk songs in postwar Poland. Politics inevitably intrudes – the musicians are pressured to include compositions praising Stalin to the skies – but so, too, does love. Zula and the show’s conductor, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), begin an affair that spans 15 years and zigzags back and forth across Europe and the eastern bloc.

Three films with Pawlikowski must qualify her as his muse. “I hope so,” says Kulig when we meet in a London hotel. She is so fizzy and fidgety she can barely sit still, chopping the air with her hands for emphasis or screwing up her face when the right word eludes her. “On the poster he gave me, he wrote: ‘To my muse Joanna.’” I tell her that seems pretty conclusive, and she giggles. “We have such a wonderful way of communicating. I know what he wants without talking, sometimes when he doesn’t even know it himself. Very often when we finish a take I see his face and straight away I think: ‘I’ll try it another way.’”

They met 10 years ago, during the director’s first abortive attempts to make Ida, the story of a young Polish novitiate who discovers she is Jewish. “Joanna was clearly wrong because she looks so Slav, totally not Ida,” he tells me when we speak on the phone. “But I was so charmed that I decided to put her in Woman in the Fifth; I invented a role that wasn’t even there. She exuded such honesty and generosity that I used her as a counterpoint to Kristin Scott Thomas’s character, who is mysterious, dark and destructive.”

It was on that film that the pair began using musical terminology to discuss acting. “Sometimes Paweł would ask me to have a song in my head so that I moved in time to it,” she says. He recalls: “When I directed her in The Woman in the Fifth, the shorthand we had was all musical, even for the non-singing parts: ‘Here you do a mazurka, say the lines, then a little pirouette and you exit.’ It wasn’t a complicated role but she had a musical rhythm in everything she did.”

Watch the trailer for Cold War

In Cold War, the narrative is fragmented, the actors more than unusually responsible for the film’s emotional continuity as the action leaps forward several years at a time. “With each instalment she is different: sometimes she’s a street urchin and bad girl, sometimes she’s melancholy and then she can be sarcastic with dry wit,” Pawlikowski says. “Joanna has wit but she’s not sarcastic, she’s got a very kind disposition. It was a huge challenge and it didn’t come easily, but I knew she had all these different colours in her.”

Indeed, Cold War requires a dizzying range of emotions to play across that mutable face, which can switch from blunt and defiant one moment to pinched and wounded the next. Kulig is a fine-grained actor, never more so than in those instances when she is conveying layers of contradictory feelings from beneath a showbiz veneer. One scene in particular, in which she must register from the stage her recognition of a familiar face in the audience, and then, after the interval, react to the shock of the now-vacated seat, all while persevering cheerfully with her musical number, is an unbeatable example of the performer as plate-spinner or high-wire walker.

What is she thinking of when she sings? “It depends,” she says. “Sometimes I thought about Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller, how theirs was maybe a similar relationship. Or it helped to think about Amy Winehouse and her personality. I feel Zula has something of that: she is so nice and talented but at the same time she wants to destroy something.” Whatever the situation, Kulig feels at her most charged when she is singing. “The emotions are closer to the surface. It is all there. Agata Trzebuchowska, who played Ida, told me: ‘Joanna, I love your acting, but you act the most wonderfully when you are singing.’”

Pawlikowski says: “What Joanna really loves is performing on stage with music, entertaining, that honesty she has with the audience. She doesn’t want to give her soul away lightly. She steers clear of directors who try to steal her soul; she had experiences like that in theatre with some mad ultra-Stanislavskian or Theatre of Cruelty approach that she didn’t like at all, or film-makers who tried to vampirise her character and personal experiences. She didn’t want that and it wasn’t what I wanted, either. I wanted a generous collaborator.”

Kulig is a familiar face now in popular Polish cinema and TV. She played a cop in the violent blockbuster Pitbull: Tough Women, though when she went out on the beat for research she was reduced to tears by one encounter with a young shoplifter. “He was so small and poor,” she says. “The officers were calling me away to the next job but I said: ‘I can’t, I’m still crying.’” And in 2015, she acted alongside Kot, her future Cold War paramour, in Disco Polo – a comically garish Europop musical directed by her husband, Maciej Bochniak. She is almost unrecognisable as a brassy Margi Clarke type in an array of headgear that makes Isabella Blow look like Albert Tatlock.

Joanna Kulig in Disco Polo, 2015.
Joanna Kulig in Disco Polo, 2015. Photograph: Alvernia Studios/Next Film

Such ubiquity is all very well, but it was one of the factors that made Pawlikowski pause when he was thinking of casting her as Zula. “As far as I was concerned, she’d maybe become a little too familiar, especially from the kinds of films I wasn’t particularly keen on, cop shows and romantic comedies. Having said that, while I was writing Cold War, I was constantly thinking, ‘Oh, she’d be great doing this’ and ‘She’d be perfect at that.’”

For a time, it even seemed Kulig might end up on the slush-pile of Hollywood hopefuls, after taking a small part in the witless fantasy Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. I’m glad I mention that film in her company because it prompts in her the sort of embarrassed laughter usually associated with the revelation of old school photographs. “I wore a prosthetic mask and strange teeth. I had red hair and only one eye and I spent all my time fighting Gemma Arterton and Jeremy Renner.” Still, she had just finished shooting the intense drama Elles, where she played a student-turned-sex worker; in one scene she is urinated on by a client, who then compounds the indignity by serenading her on his acoustic guitar, so you have to believe Kulig when she claims to have found all those Witch Hunter fisticuffs “relaxing”.

Cold War is likely to consume another six months of her life: if rumours of a possible Oscar nomination for her performance are to be converted into a reality, there will be a lot of flesh to be pressed. But none of that seems to matter to her as much as her husband’s reaction to the film when he saw it earlier this year at Cannes, where it took the best director prize. “He was crying at the end because he and I get to be together, and things are not hard for us like they are for Zula and Wiktor. He said: ‘Look how difficult it is when you love someone and you can’t be with them!’”

A few hours after our conversation, Kulig takes to the stage at the Curzon Mayfair cinema, wearing a black dress glinting with silver sequins, for a soulful performance of songs from the soundtrack. The last time I see her, she is thronged in the foyer by well-wishers and admirers, three or four deep, making it impossible for her to do anything but turn her face this way and that like a satellite dish, beaming and soaking up the acclaim from all sides. She will need to get used to that.


Ryan Gilbey

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Cold War review – wounded love and state-sponsored fear in 1940s Poland
Ida director Paweł Pawlikowski’s exquisitely chilling Soviet-era drama maps the dark heart of Poland itself

Peter Bradshaw

11, May, 2018 @7:54 AM

Article image
The 50 best films of 2018 in the US: No 9 – Cold War
A couple’s passionate relationship mirrors postwar Poland’s political turmoil in Paweł Pawlikowski’s romantic epic

Andrew Pulver

11, Dec, 2018 @12:00 PM

Article image
The 50 best films of 2018 in the UK: No 7 – Cold War
A couple’s passionate relationship mirrors postwar Poland’s political turmoil in Paweł Pawlikowski’s romantic epic

Andrew Pulver

13, Dec, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
Oscar-nominated romance Cold War to have major London stage adaptation
Elvis Costello songs to feature in play by Girl from the North Country’s Conor McPherson, directed by Rupert Goold at Almeida theatre

Ben Beaumont-Thomas

20, Sep, 2023 @6:00 AM

Article image
Poland's world-beating new film-makers: 'We have a common enemy'
From Kieślowski to Munk, Polish film has a mighty past. Yet can today’s auteurs survive the interference of a government hostile to ‘whingeing, arty stuff’ that shows the world as ambiguous’?

Peter Bradshaw in Warsaw

02, Mar, 2020 @10:00 AM

Article image
On my radar: Paweł Pawlikowski’s cultural highlights
The Polish film-maker, who won best director at Cannes 2018 for Cold War, on a cult rapper, a Khazakh documentary-maker – and watching every World Cup match

Kathryn Bromwich

26, Aug, 2018 @9:00 AM

Article image
MS Slavic 7 review – passionless portrait of a poetic affair
Sofia Bohdanowicz’s account of her great-grandmother’s correspondence with another Polish writer is bafflingly dull

Peter Bradshaw

03, Jun, 2020 @11:00 AM

Article image
Baftas 2019: what should win – and what will win | Peter Bradshaw
Controversy surrounds Bohemian Rhapsody and the dearth of female directors but Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War and the likely coronation of The Favourite’s Olivia Colman offer plenty to be excited about

Peter Bradshaw

08, Feb, 2019 @1:42 PM

Article image
The full list of nominations for the Baftas 2019
From The Favourite to Bohemian Rhapsody, the full list of films up for a gong at this year’s leading British film awards

Guardian film

09, Jan, 2019 @8:00 AM

Article image
The 50 top films of 2017: No 1 Call Me By Your Name
Peter Bradshaw celebrates a peach of a film about ecstatic submission to love –the united No 1 choice of our British and American critics

Peter Bradshaw

22, Dec, 2017 @6:00 AM