Before you met him, what did you think of James Gray as a filmmaker?
I had seen Little Odessa because of the wonderful Tim Roth. I immediately responded to the visceral relationship that James has with his characters and the stories he tells. It’s very important to me to feel that telling that particular story is a matter of life or death for a director, and I could immediately tell that that was the case with James. Later, I saw and loved all his movies, particularly We Own the Night. And he films women wonderfully.
How did The Immigrant come to you?
James and Guillaume Canet became great friends as soon as they met. They wrote a first draft of Blood Ties together, Guillaume’s new film, in Paris. We met several times, shared good food and long talks about films. There were even some heated discussions when we disagreed about an actor… Some time after that, James sent me an email. He wanted to know if I would let him write a picture for me. It didn’t make any sense! I have a list of all the filmmakers I’d dream of working with, and I can assure you James Gray is on that list. I should have been asking him. I can’t express how I felt when I read his email.
What did you like about the story?
It’s a very personal movie for James. And what’s beautiful is that it’s a costume drama built on the scale of this little lady. It could be a big epic about a Polish immigrant coming to New York. But it’s an intimate work, a portrait, a character study.
The big challenge for you, who didn’t speak Polish, was obviously the language?
When I want to make a movie, I focus on the beauty of the story and the character, that’s why I didn’t panic immediately! Then I had to start working, and it got tough. There is not a single word that sounds like English or French in Polish. And yet I had no choice. I had to do everything I could to speak Polish without the hint of an accent. I had very little time, just over a month between Rust and Bone (Jacques Audiard, 2012) and The Immigrant. I worked with different coaches, one of whom was the actress who plays my aunt in the film. Mid-shoot, James came to me, startled, and said: “You sure have a lot of Polish dialogue!” He had just realized that he had written me twenty pages of Polish dialogue. Whenever I had a free minute on the set, I buried myself in my notebook. “I dreamed of it being perfect.”
Ewa sounds very different from you in real life. Did you find her voice thanks to the language?
I always try to disappear into the character as much as possible, and to find a specific way for her to speak, even in French. Polish brings a different vocal pitch, which helps to give a specific identity to the character. Speaking English in a Polish accent was difficult, but it allowed me to use a different voice. I went through a lot of books at the Polish bookstore in Paris, and saw as many Polish films as I could to listen to the language. I knew where my character was from, and I needed to understand her social background and to know more about her life. Ewa is an educated woman who trained as a nurse. She went through horrendous things that gave her great resilience. What she wants is to make a life for herself in this new country, but not without her sister. She shows amazing strength to find her.
What was shooting on Ellis Island like?
Everyone in the crew was emotional, you could sense it, because their families had arrived there at some point. It was so inspiring: the technical crew, the extras, everyone had a moving story to tell. James himself shared a lot of memories of his family. There’s a scene where Ewa doesn’t know how to eat a banana. That’s directly from his grandmother. In another scene, which is not in the final cut, she mistakes pasta for worms.
James Gray and Joaquin Phoenix have made four movies together. How did you find your place?
I certainly got mixed up with an old couple! They’re both very generous and endearing. Sometimes, when I saw that they were going to keep talking for five hours, I’d tell them: “See you tomorrow! It sounds fascinating, but I have a kid and I have to get home.” Their working relationship is wonderful to observe. And Joaquin is an impressive actor. We met every day before the shoot started, to discuss our characters. That’s when I met him for the first time. He has impeccable instincts, like a wild animal. The character of Bruno was difficult for him, he struggled a lot, and it was very moving to see him fighting with himself. Sometimes, at the end of the scene, he would come up to me and ask me to forgive him for what his character was doing to mine. I had never met someone quite as touching.
What about Jeremy Renner?
He joined quite late, but immediately felt part of the family. The four of us were like brothers and sister. I realize now that we all share an extreme sensitivity and that we all have to struggle with it. It made us closer. For Ewa, who is drowning, Orlando looks like a lifeboat that could save her. Each time she sees him, she wants to believe that she will escape, and she’s full of hope.
What memories do you keep today of The Immigrant?
It was a beautiful experience, with blessed times and others that were more difficult, because we didn’t have all the necessary funds. I loved Ewa and her spirit. And I formed a bond with James Gray that goes deeper than any other I have had with a director.