Some actors thrive when portraying characters from another time period, creating a world long gone by for audiences to relish. Actress Maja Wampuszyc is the latest thespian to add to this list, showcasing her talents alongside Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard in the Weinstein Company’s latest release, “The Immigrant,” and in the upcoming Steven Soderbergh series for Cinemax, “The Knick.”
From her flawless command of the Polish language, audiences will be surprised to learn Maja was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. Perhaps being the daughter of two Polish emigrants is her secret weapon to grasping the vernacular perfectly.
Maja appeared on-screen in Henry Jaglom’s “Shopping” and made her Broadway stage debut in 2009, originating the role of Ida Haller in Academy Award nominee Dan Gordon’s “Irena’s Vow." Since then, Maja has showcased her talents in numerous theater productions, including earning the distinction of portraying Geraldine Connelly in Paul Green’s “House of Connelly,” a role that had not been reprised since Stella Adler played it back in 1931.
We recently caught up with Maja Wampuszyc to find out about “The Immigrant,” “The Knick” and more.
Tell us about your role in the period drama “The Immigrant.”
MAJA: I play Edyta Bistricky, aunt to Marion Cotillard’s character, Ewa Cybulska. Edyta is a woman who emigrated from Poland and now lives in NYC with her husband Wojtek.
What was it like playing a Polish woman in America during this era?
MAJA: I didn't think about it too much in those terms. Although I am American, I speak Polish like a native speaker and accepted the language as part of the story. The film is not about being Polish or the Polish experience. It is about the immigrant experience. When Edyta left Poland, she said goodbye to everyone and everything she knew and loved, almost certain to never see her family again. The film is set in a time when there was no Internet. No Skype. No airplanes, yet alone frequent flyer miles! That isolation was the reality that I focused on to build the character. And this was very interesting to me. Also, the story is not exclusive to any ethnicity, race or religion. The film is about survival without losing one's humanity and this is a universal challenge. The circumstances of the film are still relevant today, and unfortunately will probably always be relevant. If you haven’t seen the film, go. You’ll understand what I mean.
How was it working with the Oscar-winning Marion Cotillard?
MAJA: Amazing. Fun. When you work with someone that good, it's easy. We didn't “work” anything out between us. We just did it.
Any interesting stories from the set you can share with us?
MAJA: Because I helped Marion with her Polish text, I was fortunate to be on the set a lot. We spent a lot of time together. Marion is lovely and she worked with complete dedication. She is an artist and every detail mattered to her. Nobody knew who I was or that I was in the film. They just knew me as the “Polish Coach.” I liked this anonymity. It helped me prepare for the role.
The funny thing is, when it came time to shoot my scenes, I knew Ewa Cybulska's lines better than my own! But it all worked out. It always does.
The day we shot our scenes in the East Village it was one of the coldest days of the winter. Expected temperatures were below zero Fahrenheit! The brownstone where we were shooting had tiny rooms and there was absolutely no space for anyone or anything that wasn't essential to the work at hand. Most of the crew was outside for a good 14 hours in the freezing cold. But it was unbelievable. I never heard anyone complain and everyone was smiling. So many people working together for one goal, to tell a story! I was only one part of the equation and whatever nervousness I had that morning quickly disappeared. Because of the crew.
What did you find the most challenging about the role?
MAJA: I try not to think about the challenges of anything. Something is either worth doing or not. If you think in terms of challenges you get stuck in your head worrying. When I work, I try to master the nuts and bolts. The text, language, physicality and fall in love with the story, character and everything around me. Then I try to forget about what I know and do it.
In retrospect it is hard to accept that Edyta will never leave her husband.
And the most rewarding?
MAJA: To work with this caliber of artists: Gray, Khondji, Cotillard, Phoenix, Renner, Shapiro Katangas, just to name a few; and to have people respond so positively to the film. I don’t think it can get better. It can be different. And it is definitely part of my dreams coming true.
Again, in retrospect, I learned from Aunt Edyta, that even the seemingly voiceless can make themselves heard.
You’re also going to appear in Steven Soderbergh’s upcoming Cinemax show “The Knick”; what can you tell us about this project?
MAJA: Loved this experience. It’s a period drama. I play a Guest Star role opposite Jeremy Bobb. A widow caught up in a unique situation. The show is based on New York's Knickerbocker Hospital. I think it will be dark and compelling. I love the tag line: Surgery wasn’t always science! I can’t wait to watch it. It premieres August 8 on Cinemax.
You seem to be getting cast as foreign woman of a different time period lately, is this on purpose or just a coincidence
MAJA: Honestly, I don't understand casting. When I get cast, I say “thank you.” And when the job is over, I hope and pray that the next one is around the corner.
Lastly, how can fans keep up with your busy career?
Thanks, Maja! We’ll definitely being following your every word…especially if we have to read them as subtitles.