Child 44, Wałęsa's Wife and Steppe Turtles: An Interview with Agnieszka Grochowska
small, Child 44, Wałęsa's Wife and Steppe Turtles: An Interview with Agnieszka Grochowska, Agnieszka Grochowska in 'Beyond the Steppes' (2010), full_grochowska_agnieszka_portret_forum_770.jpg
Over the last decade, Polish actress Agnieszka Grochowska has managed to emerge as a respected film and theatre actress in Poland and in the English-speaking world as well. In an exclusive interview with Culture.pl, she told us with disarming modesty about her 360 seconds in Child 44, acting in a foreign language, and steppe turtles.
Culture.pl: You recently acted in the mystery-thriller Child 44. What was it like to play in a hit movie, besides major international stars like Tom Hardy and Gary Oldman?
Agnieszka Grochowska: I was quite surprised that it happened. In fact I didn’t act with Gary Oldman, we didn’t have a scene together unfortunately. I had two scenes with Tom Hardy, one of which has dialogues and is about 2.5 minutes long. It took 12 hours, a whole day, to film those 2.5 minutes. It was very pleasant to work with an actor of Tom Hardy's calibre on a dialogue scene for 12 hours. I often joke that my screen time in this movie adds up to about 360 seconds, which isn’t all that much, but of course working on Child 44 was wonderful.
You usually act in Polish. In Child 44 you had to play in English. Did that affect your work?
It had a fundamental effect because I don’t think in English. It’s hard to act in a foreign language, because when you are to extract certain emotions from yourself, you associate these emotions with your native language. But then again I only had about 10 lines to say, so it wasn’t that hard . The filmmakers were also very well prepared, they had a language coach. This coach could tell me, very quickly and precisely, for instance in which vowel I was making a mistake, or what was I pronouncing wrong, and that really helped me with my acting. Being coached like that, I felt as if I had to learn a song by heart.
You lived in Poland when it was still a communist state. Did your experiences with a communist country come in handy when you were making a movie about the darkest communist times in the Soviet Union?
I don’t think so, when things were changing here I was only 10 years old. Children live a sheltered life. I didn’t understand the extent of chaos in Poland in 1984, I was 7 or 5 back then. When the martial law was introduced, I was 2. I didn't find anything strange in having no toys and sewing dresses from curtains. I thought the entire world was like that.
In the Polish film Wałęsa. Man of Hope. you played Danuta Wałęsa, wife of Lech Wałęsa, the Polish leader and Nobel Prize winner, who played a key role in bringing down communism. What sort of a task was it to portray Mrs. Wałęsa, one of Poland’s historical icons?
The biggest problem was that there was almost no information about her. Nobody knows what she was doing in the 70s and 80s, there are no archival recordings, there are only scraps. Fortunately, about a week before the filming started, her autobiographical memoirs Marzenia i tajemnice / Dreams and Secrets was published. This book contains her recollections and thoughts and that helped a lot. I was quite surprised when the Wałęsas’ children and their friends reacted so positively. For instance some of the younger children of the Wałęsas’ think that I really played their mother, that I managed to convey the atmosphere that they remember from home. This had completely nothing to do with my acting skills, because I knew almost nothing about her.
You played in the Oscar-nominated film W ciemności / In Darkness, which is based on true events that occurred during World War II in German-occupied Poland. What are your recollections of working on this movie?
This was probably one of the hardest movies I played in. This film was partially made in real sewers in Łódź. It took 3 hours just to start filming in those sewers because every sound endlessly multiplies over there, nobody was able to give basic commands, to manage the hundred people that worked underground. After waiting 3 underground, everybody, including the actors and Agnieszka Holland, would go completely nuts. We knew that we'd had to stay there for many more hours, and this was a daunting prospect. The film tells the story of the people who died in there, who experienced horrible things… when you enter that world, it gets inside of you.
You received the Norwegian equivalent of an Oscar, an Amanda award, for your role in the Norwegian film Upperdog, but you didn’t show up at the 2010 ceremony in Haugesund to collect the award…
I was in Wałbrzych then, where I was filming Bez wstydu / Shameless and I couldn’t go. Unfortunately that’s the way things go sometimes. I was very happy to receive the award nevertheless. Upperdog was, by the way, a great success, it won awards for best film, screenplay and cinematography. It was a hit and did very well in cinemas. In this movie I play a comedy role, which I never do in Poland. And that’s the benefit of acting abroad, people don’t perceive you through the prism of what you’ve done.
foreigner's guide to polish film
You’ve also received important film awards in Poland and have been honoured with Polish state distinctions: The Gold Cross of Merit and the Bronze Medal for Merit to Culture - Gloria Artis. What is your secret to running such a successful acting career?
I don’t know. I never really had a plan and what happened and keeps on happening from time to time totally exceeds my expectations as an actress. I don't think I took any specific steps to be where I am now. The one thing I have always done was to choose radically, I think. My radicalness consists in in never choosing roles for money. If I don’t like the script, the director, if my intuition tells me not to do something, I don’t do it. I can’t tell myself to do something when I don’t like certain elements, when I feel something’s not right.
You played in very many films and theatre plays. Which role or roles do you consider especially important to you and why?
I definitely enjoyed working on the Belgian film Beyond the Steppes, which was made in Kazakhstan. That was a real adventure, for 2 months I lived in the steppe and every day I saw running wild horses and turtles, an amazing sight. I very much enjoyed and appreciated working on Filip Marczewski’s Shameless. In this movie Mateusz Kościukiewicz and I play a pair of siblings in love. I played a girl from Wałbrzych who wears mini skirts and has many problems, an interesting character. Working on the movie Obce niebo / Strange Heaven directed by Darek Gajewski was also very interesting. The film, which will premiere in mid-October, tells the story of a couple of nice hard-working Polish immigrants in Sweden, whose child is taken away from them by a social protection office as a result of strong cultural differences. I play the child’s mother.
As a film professional what Polish movies would you recommend to foreign audiences, apart from those in which you act?
Ida is definitely worth watching. This is a black-and-white movie and it so happens that many Polish black-and-white movies are worth recommending. My favourite Polish pictures also include Rękopis znaleziony w Saragossie / The Saragossa Manuscript with the superb Cybulski, actually most of the films in which he played are just great, and many films by Andrzej Wajda, for instance the brilliant Brzezina / The Birch Wood with Olbrychski or the eternal classic Ziemia Obiecana / The Promised Land.
You’ve just finished working on a Japanese film made in Poland which is entitled Persona non grata and is set to premiere at the end of this year, what sort of picture will this be?
It’s a movie about Chiune Sugihara, who was a Japanese consul in Kaunas during World War II. In that capacity he saved the lives of thousands of Jews. When the Red Army was near Kaunas, he issued visas for 19 hours a day, so that Jews could escape. He didn’t inform the Japanese government about this noble undertaking. In Persona non grata I play Irina, his great love. Working on this movie was an interesting experience, because acting with Japanese actors use specific means of expression and show emotions very specifically, and that was very cool.
Interviewed by Marek Kępa, June 2015