Warning: This story contains spoilers for Cold War.
Joanna Kulig’s performance in Cold War, Pawel Pawlikowski’s gorgeous film about star-crossed lovers struggling to be together despite the political and emotional forces determined to keep them apart, is one of the most dizzyingly electric of the year.
The 36-year-old Polish actress, who looks like the answer to “What would you get if you merged Kate McKinnon with Jennifer Lawrence?” plays Zula, an aspiring singer loosely based on Pawlikowski’s mother, who meets Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) when he auditions her for the folk ensemble he’s putting together. They form an instant connection, the intensity of which crackles off the screen, in part thanks to Kulig’s sultry looks, and mercurial temper.
As it turns out, Kulig was inspired by other on-screen legends, whom she looked to for lessons in seduction, sass, and melancholy.
“Pawel told me to watch Lauren Bacall,” the actress told Refinery29 on a recent phone call. “When I moved too quickly, he would tell me: ‘Lauren Bacall!' It was the code. And when I saw Lauren Bacall in my head, I started to move slower, be more elegant, lower [my] voice, my movements — especially in [scenes where Wiktor and Zula are] in France. I tried to be more like smooth jazz, slow, and very romantic.”
Bacall’s big break came when she was cast opposite Humphrey Bogart in 1944’s To Have And Have Not. At just 19, she was nervous performing in front of such a major star, who was in his 40s at the time. So, to stop her voice from shaking, she would lower her head and look up at him from under her lids, a technique that would ultimately become her signature look. (It definitely impressed Bogart — he and Bacall embarked on a steamy on set affair and married in 1945.)
“Amy, Marilyn, Whitney, and Zula all had some trauma in their past that made it very difficult,” she said. “When you don’t worry about your trauma, and then you have a difficult situation or pressure it comes back.”
To prepare for the difficult moments between Zula and Wiktor as they navigate new countries, and battle the inner demons that threaten to keep them apart, Kulig read about Marilyn Monroe’s marriage to Arthur Miller. The two first met on the set of the 1951 movie As Young As You Feel. It was an odd match: Hollywood’s golden star and the celebrated author didn’t seem like they had much in common. Still, their wedding in 1956 seemed to be a new beginning for Monroe, who had been previously married to baseball star Joe DiMaggio. It lasted just five years. Just like Wiktor and Zula, what started out as a fairy tale love story soured as Monroe’s insecurities and substance-abuse, and Miller’s growing contempt for his wife eventually drove them apart.
“[Miller] was an intellectual like Wiktor, and Marilyn was a star but she didn’t believe in her herself, and it was very difficult — very similar to Zula,” Kulig pointed out. “It’s love, but at the same time very difficult, kind of like Romeo and Juliet.”