Kulig, 36, had enjoyed relative success working in film and television in Poland, in projects like "Elles" with Juliette Binoche, and in "Ida," where she played a pop star. But when "Cold War" premiered at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year (and an "eight-minute standing ovation"), Kulig found herself in a spotlight that has yet to dim.
"For me it's very exciting. I'm very happy about Polish films and more and more people from the states can learn about Polish film, Polish culture — this is one thing — but another, this is very new situation and very new for me how film works," Kulig said recently in Los Angeles. "We did Cannes, it was something very big. There was a big standing ovation and Julianne Moore and Benicio del Toro, they cried and they said, 'Thank you for this.' I was surprised, you know? I'd never been in a situation like that."
"Cold War" has struck a chord around the world. Achingly beautiful, tantalizingly brief (at 88 minutes), the film is a musical odyssey as Zula, an ambitious and talented girl from the wrong side of the tracks intent on survival, and Wiktor, an urbane musician who is taken by Zula's feral charisma, chase one another across the eastern bloc through the decades.
Kulig likened their romance to that of Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller, and its universal appeal to "Casablanca." "He was intellectual, more educated, very warm and calm, and Zula was quite like Marilyn Monroe like a wounded bird, like sensitive and emotional but at the same time distracted because of her difficult childhood," she said.
Pawlikowski said he made Kulig watch Lauren Bacall to get the "timing and delivery down." "The Zula character is quite nasty at times and quite sarcastic and Joanna doesn't have that in her character," he said.
And he's not surprised that she's getting such widespread attention for the role, in which her feisty and unforgettable character also gets to sing everything from folk to jazz and dance, although some have expressed a minor gripe with his choices.
"Joanna won the award for the best actress at the Cairo Film Festival. The local audiences adored her, but they were furious at me for having made the film in black and white," Pawlikowski said. "They said, 'She's so beautiful! Why would you have made the film in black and white?'"
The film proved so emotionally taxing on Kulig that once it was complete she and her husband escaped to California for a month, exploring the coast and the national parks in a rented car. "It was great. You travel, it's empty, you can be in your own world," she said. "Because when you're an actor, it's this wonderful job, but like you are in one subject for a long time. It's a very big psychological process ... You have to find your own place and come back to your own life."
And, importantly, she added, everyone is asleep in Poland when it's daytime in California. Now she's back on the West Coast again, although this time it's hardly a vacation. She's bouncing around between press engagements, "Cold War" screenings and awards events and industry meetings. She's met Brad Pitt, Timothee Chalamet, Quincy Jones and Lady Gaga at various awards events. Steven Spielberg wanted to meet with her. And she's already filmed a part in the Amazon adaptation of "Hanna."
"I'm open," Kulig said of her plans going forward. "I like new experiences in life and new cultures." Pawlikowski thinks she could be destined for bigger roles in Hollywood films too, provided she has the right material and director. ("It's not like actors just turn up and do something," he said.)
"The good thing is she's got her head screwed on the right way. She's not a young girl just starting. I think she'll make the right choices. She's got potential. She has a unique personality. It's rare to come across someone so original and genuine," he said. "She's a very truthful, spontaneous and in the moment person. She lights up. And she doesn't lie which is strange for an actor."
The future is bright for Kulig, and awards and a higher profile aren't the only thing she has to look forward to in 2019. She's expecting her first child in March as well. "This year, I will remember all of my life," she said.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr