Talent Without Borders: Polish Actors Around the World
small, Talent Without Borders: Polish Actors Around the World, Michalina Olszańska in 'Matilda', photo: TPO Rok, center, olszanska-matylda.jpg
They perform in big-budget series and art-house masterpieces – playing with their own images, shocking audiences and pushing boundaries. Polish actors are growing ever-bolder in their conquest of world cinema.
Four Oscar nominations. Awards in Berlin, Cannes and Venice. That’s only a small portion of the awards Polish films have received in the past few years… and only one reason as to why Polish actors are gaining in popularity. Actors have received the greatest benefits from Polish cinema’s recent boom. Thanks to the success of creators such as Małgorzata Szumowska, Paweł Pawlikowski, Agnieszka Holland and Tomasz Wasilewski, Polish actors have the perfect jumping-off point into the world market.
Bound by language
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There haven’t always been such opportunities. During the 1990s and into the next decade, the best filmic export from Poland was cinematographers, whilst actors were most often turned away from Hollywood’s door. The biggest reason for this was the language barrier – the Polish education system didn’t teach English at an advanced enough level, and since Polish TV often presents foreign-language films with a lektor [a voice-over that covers up the original language], it was difficult to improve their language skills. Because of this, the Polish actors who attempted to break into Hollywood weren’t always the most talented; rather, they were the ones who had the best English.
Polish actors have sporadically found spots on international screens – such as in Salt (2010), when Daniel Olbrychski played a Russian agent alongside Angelina Jolie, or when Krzysztof Majchrzak’s acting in Pornografia (Pornography, 2003) caught the eye of David Lynch and landed him in Inland Empire (2006). There’s also Jerzy Stuhr and Piotr Adamczyk’s roles in Italian films. Yet this most recent artistic boom has taken significantly longer. Its main representatives come from the newest generation – who lack insecurities, with their deft knowledge of English, and offer plenty of bold artistic choices.
Agnieszka Grochowska – a sought-out seeker
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A perfect example of a Polish actress who spent years building her international career can be found in Agnieszka Grochowska. In Poland, directors mostly saw her as a fit for romantic comedies. Meanwhile, in Sweden, she played the leading role in Nina’s Journey (2004), a World War II drama about a Jewish woman trying to survive in Warsaw. And though this film premiered in Poland without fanfare, Sweden crowned it the best production of the year and chose it as their annual Oscar pick.
Grochowska spoke of her international career to Anywhere magazine:
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Consciously or not, I have always reached for interesting roles and lines, though I cared less whether filming took place in Łomża or Paris. I didn’t open myself up to foreign projects to emigrate or start a career; I did it simply because I wanted to constantly find myself again, in a wonderful whirlwind.
Nina’s Journey led to Scandinavian audiences discovering Grochowska’s talents. In 2009, she appeared in the Norwegian comedy Upperdog, for which she received the Amanda Award for Best Actress. In recent years, Grochowska has also deftly linked her Polish and foreign careers. She performed in Child 44 (2015) alongside Tom Hardy, and she also played Elle Fanning’s mother in Teen Spirit (2018).
Marcin Dorociński – transforming his image
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Lately, Marcin Dorociński has built a career in both Scandinavia and Britain. One of the biggest stars of Polish cinema, in Poland, most of his roles count as testosterone-laden thugs or tragic heroes, whilst his most interesting character came from a Danish comedy.
In Small Town Killers (2017), Dorociński embodied a killer for hire. He spoke with a Russian accent, grew out his beard, maintained a menacing aura – and was completely hilarious. The Polish actor played around with his onscreen persona, trying out something other than the stoic expressions he’s usually known for. Alongside the Scandinavian stars Nicolas Bro and Ulrich Thomsen, Dorociński created one of his most successful roles of recent years.
When speaking to Piotr Gruszkowski of Gazeta Wyborcza, Dorociński spoke about the changing actor marketplace:
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A few years ago, when my agent sent out enquiries to European acting agencies, maybe five percent answered. In order for there to be something to send out, I have to do my part. So I act in movies, and then we edit these fragments into what’s called a reel. You also have to record self-tapes for auditions to remind people about yourself – maybe someone will answer. You can’t be afraid or get demoralised.
This is especially true given that interesting jobs can come from absolutely anywhere, as was proven by one of Dorociński’s films – Sean Ellis’ Anthropoid. Offered the role right before taking a vacation, Dorociński had only a few moments to think it through and change his plans. He took the role.
In Anthropoid, the actor played a member of a Czech operation planning the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, playing alongside Cillian Murphy, Jamie Dornan and Toby Jones. He wasn’t fazed by their fame, and his role turned out to be one of the most dazzling elements of the film.
Coming into their own
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In a conversation with Magdalena Juszczyk, Agnieszka Grochowska said of the new era of Polish actors:
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When I spoke with Maciej Musiał […], or Zosia Wichłacz and Michalina Olszańska, I regarded them with such happiness! They have a different outlook on life. They open the window and fly!
Nowadays, it’s these young actors who are leaving their mark on world cinema. After finding fame with excellent Polish directors, they are attracting attention amongst Hollywood aces. This is certainly the case for Joanna Kulig, whose performance in Cold War opened the door to many international productions. While spending a few months abroad promoting the Oscar-nominated film, she received multiple offers. Ultimately, Kulig guest-starred in Hanna alongside Joel Kinnaman, where she played the titular’s character mother. And though her character died in the first episode, Polish media was rightfully responsive to this new direction in her career.
Soon, we’ll see Kulig in yet another series. In the Netflix-produced show The Eddy, Kulig will play a character similar to the one she created in Pawlikowski’s films. Her role is that of a young talented vocalist with an addiction to alcohol and an uneasy romance with a musician. The Paris-set tale is a creation from Damien Chazelle, known for his musical La La Land. The series will also star the six-time Grammy award winner Glen Ballard. You can easily say that Joanna Kulig will find herself amongst a truly elite group.
From Nicola Tesla to a wizard
Another actor from Cold War will soon grace the screens of a foreign production. Tomasz Kot, known in Poland as a unique character actor (having played roles from Rysiek Riedel in Destined for Blues to Zbigniew Religa in Gods), will soon appear in theatres as none other than Nicola Tesla. After seeing Cold War, the director Anand Tucker called up the actor and convinced him that the role of Tesla could only go to him.
Kulig and Kot are merely the forerunners of the Polish talent currently entering international waters – there are plenty of others right behind them. After taking on the role of Roman Polański in the Oscar-nominated film Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019), Rafał Zawierucha is certain to snag other roles. Marcin Czarnik is another notable example – an acclaimed theatrical actor, he has now entered world cinema through the Oscar-winning Son of Saul (2015) and Sunset (2018), both directed by László Nemes. Most recently, he appeared in Netflix’s The Witcher. Bartosz Bielenia, too, is still enchanting international audiences, having appeared in the domestic film Corpus Christi – which is nominated for a 2019 Oscar.
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Czarnik’s example proves that actors don’t necessarily have to set out to the West – there are just as many interesting projects taking place with our Eastern European neighbours.
Michalina Olszańska, a new hope amongst Polish actors, discovered this fact for herself. The actress, who fascinated audiences in Agnieszka Smoczyńska’s The Lure (2015), showed up a year later in the Czech production I, Olga Hepnarová, directed by Tomás Weinreb and Petr Kazda. In this latest film, she took on the role of an adolescent murderer who received the death penalty in Czechoslovakia, a case which caused a scandal at the time. In addition to the Czech Lion Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role, Olszańska received critical acclaim and recognition at festivals in Minsk and Košice.
Even before the dust had settled from her festival tour, Olszańska landed on yet another film set – the big-budget Russian production Matilda (2017). Once again, she played the leading role, embodying Mathilde Kshessinska, the Polish ballerina who performed in Petersburg and entered into a romance with Nicholas II. The story covered a controversial period in the ruler’s life – though he was later elevated to sainthood in the Russian Orthodox Church.
The world at your fingertips
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Olszańska isn’t the only young actress navigating international waters. Zofia Wichłacz is another popular emerging star, whose talents are on full display in the BBC-produced series World on Fire (2019). There’s also Anna Próchniak, who has admitted in recent interviews that she has wound up on plenty of foreign productions recently.
Her journey to international stardom began with Anne Fontaine’s The Innocents or Agnes Dei (2016), a drama about nuns during World War II who become the victims of sexual abuse. Próchniak played one of the younger nuns, her charming performance leaving a vivid mark. International invitations flowed in for her after that. In 2017, Olszańska acted in the British thriller Bad Day for the Cut, and a year later – in the Icelandic Vultures, whilst in 2019 she performed in the BBC’s Baptiste and Juris Kursietis’s Oleg, where she worked alongside the brilliant Dawid Ogrodnik.
In a conversation with Artur Zaborski, Anna Próchniak spoke of her creative decision-making process:
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The borders have begun to blur because it’s no longer necessary to fly out to London or Los Angeles for a casting call. All you need is a self-tape, which you can even record in your own home. I have an agent not only in Warsaw, but in London and Berlin as well, which helps. […] The world is at your fingertips. We just have to get rid of our modesty as a nation.
Just like Tsar Aleksander
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While Hollywood lures people in with glitz and big budgets, productions in Hungary and Latvia attract those in search of artistic challenges. Still, big-budget cinema is hardly the purview of Great Britain and Hollywood alone – as proven by Paweł Deląg’s Russian career. The actor, who Polish cinema pigeonholed long ago as a romantic comedy lead, turned to Russia for an opportunity to unfurl his creative potential.
Deląg started out during the Moscow premiere of Kawalerowicz’s Quo Vadis (2001), when one of the film’s Russian producers noticed the Polish actor. A few years later, Deląg received his first proposition from the East. Though he played a German officer at first, he soon received the same roles as native-born Russians. He portrayed hardened government agents, handsome lovers and even Tsar Aleksander (in the French Napoleon: The Campaign of Russia). These days, the actor has his choice of films, and he receives about 25 screenplays each year – these include super-productions like Andrey Kravchuk’s Viking.
Deląg, Grochowska, Dorociński and their younger colleagues prove that in an open Europe, talent and hard work are enough to earn a pass to other countries. And success in cinema usually births more of the same – so we can look forward to the emergence of even more Polish international stars in the coming years.
Originally written in Polish by Bartosz Staszczyszyn, translated by AZ, Jan 2020
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