By: Maja von Horn
Photography: Stanisław Boniecki
As a child she was shy and introverted. She didn’t like to sing or recite anything during family gatherings. But when she tried acting for the first time, there was no turning back as a teenager. “When I’m on stage or a movie set, I feel brave and free. I know that I can do anything,” says Agnieszka Grochowska, who performs in both Polish and foreign productions. But neither prestigious awards nor working with world-famous artists make her feel like a star. She’s modest and focused on new challenges, both private and professional ones. She has a sensuous voice, but speaks with the speed of a machine gun. And is a straight shooter.
Maja von Horn: How was your 2020?
Agnieszka Grochowska: Thankfully we were able to finish shooting Jan P. Matuszyński’s film about Grzegorz Przemyk [a young man killed by police in communist-era Poland], which went on hiatus in March because of the lockdown. Two other movies and a show I’m doing also stopped production. From March until August I didn’t work at all. Today I feel like I’m a different person. Earlier I thought of myself mainly as an actor. Today “actor” would be far on the list of words I’d use to describe myself. First and foremost I’m a person deeply immersed in the reality of the moment.
M.v.H.: And that’s quite far removed from movie sets…
A.G.: When I was 13 I started attending after school theater classes. Theater and film have been an ongoing adventure ever since — until March 2020. Acting became my refuge. When the camera’s red light is on or when I’m on stage, I feel more brave, more confident. I can say a lot about myself without anyone knowing that’s what I’m actually doing. The theater classes showed me that acting is fascinating, that it allows you to find yourself on the other side of the mirror. I never think of acting as work. It’s my great passion and it moves me deeply, sometimes to the point of paralysis. Now, for the first time in my life, I’ve been deprived of it. It’s a completely new experience.
M.v.H.: How are you coping with this new reality?
A.G.: There are days when I feel like I’m starting to get a handle on domestic life. But then there are others when I just sit down and want to give up.
M.v.H.: If you’re not an actress at the moment, who are you?
A.G.: In part an early education teacher, since my eight-year-old son Władzio, who is in second grade, is at home and is attending school online. In part a preschool teacher, since my other son Henio is four and sometimes stays home because someone at the preschool is sick. I acquired various new skills, I learned how to cook. I always thought that I don’t know how to, and during the pandemic I discovered that not only am I capable of doing it, but that it brings me joy. I became passionate about buying vegetables online. Aside from books, nothing makes me as happy as a crate of vegetables arriving on my doorstep once a week. I don’t eat meat, but only now, when I finally have the time, have I started to experiment with vegetables. I make cauliflower curry, I wrap various ingredients in cabbage, I make roasted pumpkin pasta. Lots of things. The boys have suddenly discovered that when a radish is thinly sliced it’s not as spicy, and even if it has a slight kick, it’s pleasant.
M.v.H.: You seem like a tough person for whom nothing is impossible. What do you do when everything appears to be hopeless?
A.G.: I felt like that just yesterday! I really was on the edge of a mental breakdown. But then a friend called and said she’s going to get a manicure and that she’s taking her eight-year-old daughter with her. It was a revelation — after all, I also could have my kids tag along when I’m doing something. Even if I’m alone with them, I don’t have to be trapped at home. I called all the beauty salons in [my neighborhood], and chose a small, intimate one where I made an appointment for the same day, noting that I’ll be bringing two boys with me. I took all the necessary precautions, of course. The manicurist let the boys hang out in the massage room, where they watched some movies from a kids’ online film festival. I got them snacks. They loved it! I don’t remember the last time I felt so proud of myself. I felt like I achieved something, like I finally dealt with my impotence. Because the worst thing is just to succumb to apathy. When you start thinking “why do I need painted nails?” you start believing that you don’t deserve nice things, that everything is gratuitous. Getting out of that state is a wonderful feeling.
M.v.H. The pandemic has turned out to be ruthless for working mothers.
A.G. From a professional standpoint, habits I developed earlier are helping me survive. For years, I’ve been recording audition tapes for foreign productions. In Poland I wouldn’t be asked to do that as much — here you could always meet up in person. My friend, Ania Kasińska, who recently directed her first short film Synchronizacja [synchronization], helps me with making these tapes.
Some of my best times during the pandemic have been when she’s brought over her camera. I don’t even care if I get any of these roles because going abroad to shoot is almost impossible these days. I don’t do it to get cast, I do it because I’m passionate about the work. I recently took part in a casting call for a movie. They were looking for an actress who was fluent in Italian. I don’t speak Italian at all, but I thought that since I perform in English, German, an Russian, I could easily do a role in Italian — I’ll just learn the script. I recorded the scene, sent it in, I heard they liked it a lot. In the end I think an Italian actress will get the role but I still felt a certain satisfaction. Mostly because I had something to do — in between making soup for the kids and bathing them I was studying Italian. But also because the Italians liked the tape. Despite a several month hiatus I am still able to get up to a certain level and speak to someone, move them. That’s good to know.
M.v.H. You take part in very diverse productions — movies and shows, in Poland and abroad. What are your criteria for choosing a role?
A.G. My favorite roles are those where I can do something I’ve never done before — a new topic, a new challenge. I look for roles in which something or someone sparks my interest. I did the show Motyw [motive] because I’ve been following its director Paweł Maślona for a long time, ever since his debut. Ideally the script is also great, but that’s not always the case. But if my relationship with the director is good, the director knows what they want, has a vision, and there’s still room for me to improvise, then I can even work without a script. In Motyw I had to improvise a lot, think up my own stuff. The sound guys would come up to me before a scene and ask whether I’d be spontaneously throwing a chair again because they have to prepare the microphones. If I have a good director, I’m not nervous, I’m not afraid, I don’t feel the need to control the situation, I don’t have to know what to say. If we fully develop the character beforehand and I know exactly who I’m supposed to be, then my goal is to simply be that person, I find that fascinating. But for this you need a powerful vision, good, original cinema.
M.v.H. Who, for you, is an example of such an auteur?
A.G. The Dardenne brothers, Lech Majewski, Paolo Sorrentino, Małgorzata Szumowska. I’d love that kind of collaboration, to enter into someone’s mind, someone’s world. Like that scene in The Muppets, where you open the door, and there’s a running train. I’m also very interested in the partner on set, the second actor — what they say, what they do. I don’t think about what’s written in the script; instead, I wait to see what my partner does. Maybe they’ll surprise me. They’re very important. I don’t ask why they changed a certain line, because I’m interested in the change itself. Mistakes are vital: in cinema they add a special quality that makes things happen. The older I am, the more interested I am in leaving my comfort zone, leaving behind what I know how to do, and searching beyond that. I’d like to know how far I’m capable of going, what fears I can overcome, whether there is something about myself that I don’t know.
M.v.H. You play Elle Fanning’s mother in Teen Spirit. What drew you to this project?
A.G. Definitely its creators: the director Max Minghella, and Elle. Max is a great actor. He appeared, among others, in The Handmaid’s Tale. Directing is in his roots: his father, director Anthony Minghella, got an Oscar for The English Patient. I tried not to think about the fact that both him and Elle are world-famous actors. I just tried to do my thing.
M.v.H. They are both a lot younger than you.
A.G. Elle is only 22 years old, but she has a lot of experience, she’s been in dozens of movies. She has more movies under her belt at 22 than the average Polish actor in their entire career.
M.v.H. How is she on set?
A.G. She’s a remarkable person, she has an amazing moral compass. She never loses focus, sensitivity, humanity. She’s not a diva. She doesn’t care how decked out her trailer is, whether people treat her like a star. She focused on the emotions she had to portray, the next scene, her partner, no matter their age or experience. As long as that’s your attitude, you can do great things.
M.v.H. I recently watched Strange Heaven by [your husband] Dariusz Gajewski. It’s a story of a Polish couple living in Sweden, whose 9-year-old daughter gets taken away by social services. I can’t recall when was the last time I was that deeply, viscerally moved by a film. What did work on the film look like?
A.G. I’m always so happy when I hear the film moved someone so thoroughly. I think it’s the best role of my career [awarded with the Golden Lion for best actress at the 2015 Gdynia film festival — ed.] I remember when we were shooting a scene where I meet with a woman from social services [played by Swedish actress Ewa Fröling, known from Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander — ed.] I was so overwhelmed by the situation that at a certain point I stopped saying lines out of the script and I started yelling. I sat and screamed out of a feeling of powerlessness. Later Ewa came up to me and said: “You’re completely crazy, but I love you.” Sometimes when I’m processing something, I try something new, and another actor says “I’m sorry but what are you doing?” And that’s it, that kills my sense of security. I immediately think “oh so I am insane” and we go back to the script. Ewa was a type of partner who says “whatever you do is fine.” I didn’t yell because it was my actorly idea for the scene, but because as a person, woman, mother, I couldn’t bear the situation. It’s not about how you act something out, it’s about what you act out. You enter into very dark corners of your own psyche and you have to trust that no one will leave you there alone. When we were shooting this movie, Władzio was just over a year old. Every day after the shoot I needed at least 1.5 hours to come around so that I could go to the hotel to be with my child.
M.v.H. I wish there was a Swedish character in the movie who turned out to be a human being, and not a monster with no emotions or empathy.
A.G. I think you’re right, it would probably have been better. One good scene would’ve been enough.
M.v.H. I heard that 12 years ago…
A.G. I know what you want to ask about: my biggest life regret.
M.v.H. You turned down Spielberg?
A.G. Spielberg has worked for many years with Janusz [Kamiński, the Polish director of photography]. In 2006 I made the film Hania with Janusz, and he showed it to Steven. In 2008, right before Easter, I got an email saying that Steven Spielberg would like me to fly out for a meeting with him. So I got on a plane to Los Angeles. I had an appointment for 9am at his office in the DreamWorks studios. We had a very nice conversation. He asked whether I was interested in doing American TV shows, and I said no, that I’m interested in feature films. Today it sounds completely foolish, but 12 years ago TV series were not the same as they are today. My only excuse is that I was this radical idealist who wanted to do so-called art.
M.v.H. How did Spielberg react?
A.G. He showed a lot of understanding: he told his assistant to set up meetings for me at all the biggest studios in Los Angeles -- Fox, Universal, etc. No one knew what it was about, why Spielberg was sending me to all these meetings. After all, I hadn’t done a single English-language role that they could look at. Nothing came out of these meetings, they mostly asked me about what Steven was like as a person, since none of those people had met him.
M.v.H. Do you sometimes fantasize about what would’ve happened if that meeting went otherwise?
A.G. I kicked myself after, I don’t think I ever regretted anything more than the answer I gave him. But now I think that if I wasn’t ready to think about [doing American TV shows] as something real back then, that I didn’t have the wherewithal that would tell me that I could do it, that means I wasn’t ready. You can’t get around that. I was mad at myself for a long time, but I think I cured myself of that. It’s not like I went back home and didn’t do anything. I met many wonderful people on my journey, directors like Agnieszka Holland (In Darkness), Andrzej Wajda (Walesa: Man of Hope). Thanks to the role in Walesa I have an agent in the UK and I do foreign productions. Maybe this was more of a realistic, achievable path for me.
M.v.H.: You also starred in the Hollywood production Child 44 alongside Tom Hardy. It’s a very different type of work than intimate European productions. Are you now drawn to Hollywood?
A.G.: In Child 44 I had one dialogue scene with Tom Hardy. On screen, it’s two minutes, but we had 12 hours to shoot it. Wonderful work conditions, basically unachievable with European budgets. For an actor, it’s an all-day workshop. 12 hours of acting on a high emotional level. In Poland we would have gotten tops two hours for the whole thing. They sent an acting coach, an accent specialist, who told me to do the whole scene just like I’d do it on set. It was very intimidating.
M.v.H.: What do you mean? You’re an actress.
A.G.: But I get intimidated, I’m shy. I love that no one knows me when I’m in foreign productions, they don’t know what to expect. I can have a fresh start, every time. It gives you a sense of freedom.
M.v.H.: Did you have any breakthrough moments while working with directors?
A.G.: There were three such moments. The first was while working on Beyond the Steppes from the Belgian director Vanja d’Alcantara. We filmed in Kazakhstan for two months. I play a character inspired by the director’s grandmother, who was exiled to Siberia during World War Two. I met her entire family at the film’s premiere in Brussels — young people who spoke this beautiful, pre-war Polish, even though they’d never been in the country. Those two months changed me as a person. It’s good to have a moment in life where you can confront yourself. The expanse of the steppe helps you look inward. You can walk for two weeks and not get anywhere. I’m quite impressionable when it comes to natural beauty, so when we saw the entire prairie bloom with purple micro-tulips in April, I was stunned. There were turtles crawling around us, wild horses were galloping about. It was one of those adventures that you later doubt actually happened. On the steppe, you get a sense that you’re tiny and meaningless in the world, but it also helps you find internal motivation.
The second important such meeting was Andrzej Wajda, who taught me artistic freedom. I was very intimidated by the fact that he was really interested in what I had to say, in genuine dialogue. For the first several weeks I was afraid to say anything, I didn’t think I could say anything that would interest him. But he was intrigued by everything, and listened to everyone. He’d take a good idea from anyone.
The third moment was Strange Heaven. I’d never have the courage to perform in the movie like I did if I hadn’t met Andrzej Wajda beforehand. In Kazakhstan I really understood who I was as a human being, I understood what it is like to be a discrete being. With Wajda I understood that I can be an artist, that I can have something to say. And during Strange Heaven I could start exploring what kind of work environment I wanted and needed.
M.v.H.: Is fashion an important element of self-expression?
A.G.: First of all, I get ashamed by flashiness, superficiality, when things are overly stylized. But I know that what we wear matters, I experience it nonstop. You put on a weird sweater and people judge you immediately — your status, your taste, your education. I love beautiful things, I love to surround myself with them, and I love the people that create them. I’m very impressed when someone conceives of a project and then puts it into action. I love supporting women who do that, and I’m flattered when they ask me to be an ambassador for their brands. They see me in a similar way that I see them — as a person who is faithful to herself, honest, determined. That’s when I feel the power of sisterhood.
M.v.H.: Speaking of sisterhood, you also support the Women’s Strike [Polish women’s rights movement — ed.]
A.G.: What happened in Poland is beautiful. Ironically, I think that it’s a good thing that the situation is so awful. Maybe we’ll have to scream in protest for another two years, but we won’t stop until something changes. Protest is fundamental to democracy. It’s an incredible feeling to come out in the streets with other women and cry out in unison. If one person is screaming on their own can be overwhelming. It’s much easier to do it in a group, you don’t feel any sort of weakness. You feel power, support, and sisterhood. A wonderful feeling of community. I believe that all of this will lead to change.