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'I want to be whatever I want to be': Berlinale's Darling Mateusz Kościukiewicz

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The Eu­ro­pean Shoot­ing Star 2014 Ma­teusz Kościukiei­wcz has been the face of Pol­and on Berli­nale ever since 2011. De­spite being cur­rently maybe the most promi­nent actor of the Pol­ish al­ter­na­tive cin­ema, Kościukiewicz avoids celebrity life and finds refuge in places where ‘no­body likes him’. In­ter­view

Kościukiewicz’s was one of the rich­est fil­mo­gra­phies among the Eu­ro­pean Shoot­ing Stars. He took part in Peter Green­away’s and An­drzej Wajda’s films and had lead­ing roles in cev­eral cel­e­brated films: Małgośka Szu­mowska’s con­tro­ver­sial film In the Name Of which  won the Teddy award last year, Baby Blues (2012) that re­ceived The Crys­tal Bear and Sui­cide Room that was nom­i­nated for the Teddy award in 2011.

Cafeba­bel: Most of your films have been, at least for me, some­what specif­i­cally Pol­ish – with a par­tic­u­lar his­toric­ity, cer­tain aes­thet­ics, cer­tain bru­tal­ity. Do you find this par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant?

Ma­teusz Kościukiewicz: Poland a strange coun­try, a coun­try of many dif­fer­ences, many clichés and many op­po­si­tions. It is a very catholic coun­try which now tries to be more open, while still being ho­mo­pho­bic, na­tion­al­is­tic, with one leg in Eu­rope, look­ing for­ward to mod­ern times and not want­ing to be left be­hind, and an­other leg in the old times. Many peo­ple have the feel­ing it used to be bet­ter dur­ing com­mu­nism. While the truly free cul­ture was forced into un­der­ground, there was still a so­cial safety net. Ob­vi­ously, these ten­sions have an ef­fect on what we see hap­pen­ing in the Pol­ish cin­ema.

We are in the process to change the so­ci­ety that is still fas­ci­nated with an ideal of a wartime  char­ac­ter sac­ri­fic­ing his or her life for the na­tion. But today young peo­ple in Poland don’t want to die. We want to live. I want to be what­ever I want to be: gen­der, ho­mo­sex­ual, what­ever.

Can cin­ema fa­cil­i­tate this change?

Cin­ema has a lim­ited in­flu­ence on so­ci­ety. As with other cul­tural forms, such as books and the­atre, it de­pends on the ac­tual ex­po­sure which re­mains lim­ited to the more urban lay­ers of so­ci­ety. Many peo­ple are not ex­posed to the new crit­i­cal cin­ema. Ei­ther be­cause they don’t want to or don’t have ac­cess to these films. I come from Nowy Tomyśl, a very small town, and I see the cul­tural in­fra­struc­ture there still re­tains the form it had in the times of com­mu­nism. I as­sume the sit­u­a­tion in most of the places apart from the big­ger cities is sim­i­lar. As film­mak­ers, we feel that many peo­ple want to go to the cin­ema, but aren’t able to do that. But the sit­u­a­tion has been im­prov­ing grad­u­ally. But to be hon­est, I am not sure cin­ema can change the so­ci­ety.

Still, In the Name Of played an im­por­tant role in the de­bate on ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity among priests in Poland.

In the Name Of was some­thing re­ally strong and am­bi­tious and has been in the cen­tre of dis­cus­sions in Poland about ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity and pae­dophilia among the clergy. Maybe, it even was among the main trig­gers of, or at least co­in­cided with, the start of the cur­rent loud de­bates on gen­der is­sues. Many of the talk­ing heads on the TV dis­cussing gen­der don’t re­ally have the slight­est idea of what they are talk­ing about.

Do films like In the Name Of shed a dif­fer­ent light on ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity and gen­der is­sues?

A story of a priest in­volved in ho­mo­sex­ual re­la­tions set in a Pol­ish re­al­ity of a small vil­lage was re­ally some­thing new, even rev­o­lu­tion­ary. At the same time, we were also wor­ried whether the film and the prob­lem it ad­dresses, will be some­thing new for the rest of the Eu­ro­pean so­ci­ety. It was also very touch­ing when peo­ple dis­cov­ered the film, also thanks to the Teddy award, and saw us as free­dom fight­ers. I be­lieve it is the aim of cin­ema to show peo­ple other than our­selves.

You men­tioned that you often play trou­bled char­ac­ters. Are you not afraid that the label of ‘mas­culin­ity in trou­ble’ might stick to you? Was it a con­scious choice?

Ac­tu­ally, one of my first big char­ac­ters was a funny guy who is ar­rested. The sec­ond one, in Mother Teresa of Cats it was a deeper one and for which I won Best Actor award in Karlovy Vary in 2010. It was a sadis­tic char­ac­ter, a son killing his own mother. It was com­pli­cated to deal both with the sub­ject and with my own emo­tions about it. Then came a film about the in­ces­tual re­la­tion­ship be­tween a brother and sis­ter, then the story of a priest and his ho­mo­sex­ual lover. But then I also took part in a com­edy.

Often film di­rec­tors con­fronted me with a chal­lenge. The di­rec­tor shows me as a dif­fi­cult, strange at times al­most autis­tic, po­etic, avant-garde char­ac­ter. The deep con­nec­tion and iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with them some­times had a dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect on me. Though, I now as­sume a more tech­ni­cal ap­proach to my sub­jects, the ef­fect is often the same.

I see two con­trast­ingly dif­fer­ent types of char­ac­ters emerg­ing: the one – prob­lem­atic, emo­tion­ally dis­turbed; the other – so­cia­ble and hap­pier from the com­mu­nist Poland.

Yes. As a mat­ter of fact there were those two types: one dark and one nos­tal­gic. In the past, the in­spi­ra­tion to act often orig­i­nated in lone­li­ness. But now I out­lived this phase. Now I have a tech­nique and I don’t put my psy­che and my emo­tion under so much strain.

Books often in­spire me in my work. Usu­ally, it’s dif­fer­ent for every role. I am being very prag­matic in that. I focus on spe­cific things and try to ap­pro­pri­ate them for my work. For In the Name Of, for ex­am­ple, it was Life and Times of Michael K. by J. M. Co­et­zee, a Nobel Prize win­ner from South Africa. Gen­er­ally, I am more ma­ture now and film di­rec­tors in­creas­ingly find me more at­trac­tive be­cause I have be­come more pro­fes­sional. My next pro­ject is a lead­ing role in a Jerzy Skolimowski film.

How was it to work with the big names like Green­away and  Wajda?

It was strange. While work­ing on Green­away's Night­watch­ing, I only saw him from the dis­tance and never found a chance to speak to him. That was in the very be­gin­ning of my ca­reer. I played a stu­dent of  Rem­brandt and spent a week and a half shoot­ing but they prob­a­bly cut me out fi­nally. I never saw the film. But it gets a bit bet­ter year by year. Last year Wajda gave me a big­ger part. (laughs)

You never fin­ished a pro­fes­sional actor train­ing. You also said that school was for you al­ways a hid­ing place. But hid­ing from what?

I was hid­ing from every­thing: from so­ci­ety, from prob­lems, from ca­reer, from brain­wash­ing. From every­thing. Schools were very silent places where no­body touched me, no­body talked to me, no­body liked me.

You are mar­ried to the film di­rec­tor Małgośka Szu­mowska. She also has been some­what of a Berli­nale’s dar­ling in the last years. How did you meet and how is it to work with her?

We met at a party and work­ing to­gether was great. If you work with some­body who you are deeply con­nected to, you don’t have to pre­tend to be any­thing, you don’t have to ex­plain too many things, speak too much. It is enough just to look in the eyes of the di­rec­tor that knows more than you and you know every­thing. It’s much eas­ier that way. One can work harder on the mat­ter it­self, con­cen­trate deeper on the sub­ject. I like the way she is di­rect­ing me. Every­thing is fine. We don’t quar­rel on the shoot­ing.

You said that the Pol­ish film scene is im­prov­ing. Is it an in­ter­est­ing space for ac­tors who want to do some­thing more am­bi­tious?

I con­sider my­self to be very lucky. I started work­ing when the Pol­ish Film In­sti­tute began to grow and give funds to cin­e­matic pro­jects. Now, ac­tors of my gen­er­a­tion get the chance to work in a va­ri­ety of pro­jects which was im­pos­si­ble ear­lier. I was one of the first but after me came many more.

Most of them are men. I don’t know why young ac­tresses don’t show up so much. There are very few like Aśka Kulig who played in Elles and is now mov­ing to other in­ter­est­ing pro­jects.

Are you not tempted by the Pol­ish celebrity world?

I am work­ing within the al­ter­na­tive cin­ema world. I’m not show­ing up on TV. I am not going to fancy par­ties. I am re­ally fo­cused on my life. I have two kids. I am a very busy guy. I don’t have time to make a celebrity ca­reer. I don’t give a shit about that.

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