It all began the Polish Bieszczady Mountains, where the temperature would drop to –27°C, and ended under the palm trees of California, in the company of A-list names constituting a large part of the Hollywood food chain. “It was a challenging experience, but I don’t regret it, because I met a lot of interesting people, filled with freedom, imagination, remarkable ways of thinking,” Joanna Kulig tells me as she recalls the Oscar promotion campaign of Cold War in Los Angeles.
Following the success of Paweł Pawlikowski’s picture, the actor’s career swiftly gained momentum. Across the Atlantic, she became a critics’ favourite overnight, joined an American agency that brings together the most coveted names in the industry, and was subsequently cast in The Eddy, a miniseries partly directed by Damien Chazelle, known for his La La Land and Whiplash. Everything was unfolding with meteoric speed, while her life was once again turned upside down by the arrival of her baby boy, Jan. Shortly before the premiere of the miniseries at the International Berlin Film Festival, Mateusz Demski asked Joanna Kulig about finding balance amid an intense professional life, as well as about jazz, which sits deep inside the Polish actor.
Mateusz Demski: There is no other way around it, I just have to ask you about jazz first. How did you come about such a passion?
Joanna Kulig: Music has always been present in my family. My grandma sang beautifully, knew a lot of folk songs, and at the same time at home we would listen to the radio a lot, including jazz programmes broadcast by Dwójka [channel two of the Polish Radio broadcaster, dedicated to classical music, culture and the arts – ed. note]. In my childhood, I often visited Krynica-Zdrój, where an establishment by the name of Węgierska Korona operated. I would perform there with a jazz orchestra and my siblings. We played standards – my brother at the piano, while my sister and I sang. I also graduated from Krynica’s Primary Music School in the piano class and Secondary Music School in the class of solo vocal performance. Then I tried to strike the iron while it was hot and applied twice for the Karol Szymanowski Academy of Music in Katowice, hoping to major in jazz and pop music vocals – but I never got in. Music, however, has remained in my life. While I was studying at the National Academy of Theatre Arts in Kraków, I sang in the local clubs. And as to the sources of my fascination and inspiration, these are, invariably, Quincy Jones, Billie Holiday and Krzysztof Komeda.
What seemed unattainable in Katowice suddenly became reality – you have reached the world of great music, years later, via a different path. I’m curious as to what has led you under the wings of Damien Chazelle and distinguished contemporary jazz artists.
Cold War and working with Paweł Pawlikowski clearly paved the way and opened many doors for me. After his award for Best Director at Cannes, we were invited to various places – we took the film to Berlin, Paris, London, and by the end of the summer came the invitation to a prestigious festival in New York. I was heavily pregnant by then, but my doctor approved the trip. It was at that time that it was suggested I stay in the US for longer and take part in promoting the picture overseas. While we were waiting for the nominations to be announced, a lot went on – interviews, photo shoots, screenings, meeting Academy members in LA. At a private lunch I got to meet a lot of great people, like Quincy Jones, Steven Spielberg, Spike Lee... And, of course, I asked them all to vote for our movie [laughter]. It was a unique but at the same time challenging experience, comparable to fighting for votes in a fierce election campaign. However, not in my wildest dreams did I imagine that by the very end of the Oscar promotion campaign I would get an invitation to meet Damien Chazelle and discuss The Eddy.
Can you share any more details on how that meeting went?
It so happened that Damien flew to LA from Paris a few days before the Oscar Gala and my due date, which was scheduled for early February. We met in Santa Monica and talked mainly about music and the possibility of working together. Among other things, I learned from him that the role would require me to act and sing in foreign languages – English and French. Soon after, it was suggested that I record two songs as a demo and send the files to several people. The world has shrunk a great deal lately, auditions are increasingly often taking place online, but since I was there in person, I didn’t want to settle it that way. “If in the next few days I don’t suddenly go into labour, I will perform for you, live,” I said. After a couple of days, to tell you the truth, in the last days of pregnancy, I went to the audition.
An extremely spontaneous decision that must have entailed a certain amount of stress. Especially during such advanced pregnancy.
Definitely. All the more stressful for the fact that the people waiting to hear me are consummate jazz connoisseurs. Among them was Glen Ballard, one of Quincy Jones’s closest associates and friends, a brilliant composer and songwriter who wrote for such stars as Michael Jackson. I sang with a live band for a good three hours, but despite the difficult task of articulating words in foreign languages, we were able to quickly find a common one. In any case, after the rehearsal Glen assured me that only I could play this role. A few days later, I got a call from the Netflix producers confirming his words. And so it began – life at high speed. Jan arrived in the world, and a week later I was pumping milk for him at the Oscar Gala [laughter]. After all this, I returned to Warsaw for two weeks – only to move, along with my child, to Paris for six months, where shooting for The Eddy began. In short, my world turned upside down.
I can’t even imagine how difficult this task must have been for you. A foreign city, being surrounded by people speaking a foreign language, and on top of all that the hardest task of them all – reconciling work on the set with taking care of a child.
You know, there were times when all of that would overwhelm me and I thought I wouldn’t make it. First of all, I didn’t know what I was signing up for when Glen Ballard asked me at the end of our audition in California whether I would be able to learn 14 songs in English and two in French by heart at such short notice. I agreed without hesitation, because memorizing big parts and acting under time pressure had never been a major challenge for me. Things were different, however, when I became a new mother, with a child waiting for me at home. In fact, most of my thoughts and commitment began revolving around that little man who had changed my life. I had childcare, and even my mother flew over from Poland for six weeks, which did not change the fact that I was breast-feeding. I stayed up at night repeating the lyrics over and over again, and it naturally affected my condition. I felt increasingly distracted, I had trouble remembering words, as if something was blocking them within my mind. At that point Magda Jaracz, my secret acting coach who flew to Paris for me, came to my rescue. She had tremendous patience and helped me get myself together again, cool down. She said it was a case of panic triggered by processing a lot of new emotions in everyday life. And in such a way, she gave me strength for the following months.
Does this mean that you managed in the end to reconcile the series with motherhood, and find a way to tackle fatigue, confused thoughts and the strain of being overworked?
I was more than once troubled by a guilty conscience about the distribution of proportions in my work-life balance. I think what helped me through it was meeting a camera operator and two directors of the series, all of them mothers who would bring their children to the set. I also started taking Jaś [an affectionate form of Kulig’s son’s name – ed. note] to work with me, you could say that he was growing up with the show and knows every song I sang. Especially since he was present at most rehearsals. They mainly took place in our Paris apartment, or during walks with the pram [laughter].
Let’s go back to the preparation phase for a moment. You mentioned that you had to learn 16 songs in two languages; lines of Polish dialogue were also involved. The world depicted in The Eddy, after all, functions at the intersection of different cultures, and the eponymous club brings together people of various races, religious denominations, languages and artistic expressions. In this multicultural crucible, not only diverse jazz compositions are born, but also intense, feverish and disturbingly flickering relationships between the characters.
That also took me time. I must admit that it was difficult to internalize all these issues and different ways of expressing emotions. Remember that I was acting and singing in two languages, eight episodes of the series were made by four directors from different countries, while our crew usually spoke French to each other, so cultural differences abounded on the set every day. I know my capabilities and weaknesses, which is why I often felt frustrated, especially by how my words sounded in a foreign language. Then the crew allowed me to use Polish when my character was furious. It helped to a degree, as did the scenes in which I acted alongside Agnieszka Pilaszewska. The entire fifth episode is dedicated to my character and her relationship with her mother, portrayed by Agnieszka. This plotline is crucial. After all, Maja is a sensitive, somewhat explosive artist in crisis who, hoping to cut the umbilical cord and become independent of her loved ones, leaves Poland for New York and then Paris. She’s also in a complicated, emotional relationship with Elliot, the character played by André Holland.
But what connects the two is also jazz, which plays a special role in the series. Music is an inalienable value for them, a life function as integral as breathing, and sometimes, it seems, an almost mystical experience.
Yes, it is a show about members of a jazz band, each episode unfolds the fate of a different character, and music is yet another protagonist here. Or, in other words: it is a platform for communication between people from around the world, it is a patch for their private ills. In the eponymous club, extraordinary musicians from Cuba, Croatia, the United States, and those with Arabic roots find a place that feels like home, where they can escape their everyday life. I can see it also in myself. Music has always given me a sense of similar strength, unleashed my imagination and allowed me to spread my wings in surprising ways. I remember, for example, how I prepared for my debut in Grzegorz Pacek’s Środa, czwartek rano [Wednesday, Thursday Morning] – at that time, an album with Bach pieces performed by Kathleen Battle and Wynton Marsalis helped me a great deal. On the set – as per usual – chaos reigned, so between the takes I would often plug in my earphones. Music helped me focus, get into my role, capture the right mood.
In that case, after six months spent on the set of The Eddy, to what degree do you consider yourself an actress, and to what degree a vocalist?
I remember an interview in which Charlotte Gainsbourg was asked the same. And she says that when she enters the set, she forgets what she records in the studio, and vice versa. In a word: she reaches for various means of expression. I liked it very much and I stick to it, pursuing a two-path career. I have more acting challenges ahead of me – there are several scripts waiting for me that are far removed from what I show in The Eddy, but at the same time I’m thinking about a project, perhaps even an album with Marcin Masecki. I don’t believe that one precludes the other, I don’t intend to give anything up, but at the same time I’m aware that I must leave some time for myself and for others. I think now is a good time to cleanse one’s head, and I’m switching to a lower gear. Particularly in order to cultivate friendships, spending time together with my husband, with Jasio [another affectionate form of Kulig’s son’s name – ed. note], and being in touch with myself.
And what does a mother who has finally got off the set sing to her baby to help him sleep?
Well, the funny thing is, I initially got to singing Polish Christmas carols to Jaś, because a lot of them remind me of lullabies [laughter]. Now I go for Grzegorz Turnau and Magda Umer’s Kołysanki-utulanki lullabies. I often sing: “There was a king, there was a page, and there was once a princess…”.
“The Eddy” premieres on Netflix on 8th May.
Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
Film and theatre actor, as well as vocalist. Known for such films as Sponsoring (2011), Woman in the Fifth (2011), Disco Polo (2015), Les Innocentes (2016). In 2018 she received the European Film Award in the Best Actress category for her leading role in Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War.
Translated from the Polish by Karolina Sofulak