In Cold War, the new film from Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski, Joanna Kulig plays Zula, a folk singer who begins a doomed love affair with a pianist in the aftermath of World War II. In an interview for The Guardian, Joanna reveals the inspirations behind her acclaimed performance.
“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.”‘”