Accent Pieces: Aleksandra Kaniak on Making a Place for Polish in Hollywood
Actress Aleksandra Kaniak has played hardened criminals, tough as nails police officers and battle-ready military officials. But for her most recent role she donned an apron, curled her hair into soft waves, and rehearsed tenderly, calling her son to breakfast.
Kaniak played the role of Mrs. Jankowski, mother of Jakob Jankowski, the main character played by Robert Pattinson in Water for Elephants. This role represents one of many in a career filled with fascinating characters, many of which hail from Eastern Europe.
Kaniak answered the following questions from her home for GALO in Los Angeles.
GALO: How and when did you come to the United States?
Aleksandra Kaniak: I grew up in Poland. I was born and raised there, and I came to this country at the end of 1989.
I was a very young girl. I didn’t have much going on for me. The wall had just come down and the situation was very uncertain. I was always fascinated by the American culture—American movies, American literature, everything about America. I decided I had to come here.
GALO: Tell me about working on Water for Elephants.
AK: It was interesting, because I worked on that particular movie in double capacity. I worked on it as an actor, and I also worked on it as a dialect coach. I came in and auditioned for the part of Robert Pattinson’s mother, Mrs. Jankowski. I got that job. Then they brought me to a table read, which was a little bit nerve racking because, here I am, sitting with two Oscar winners and this lovely young man named Robert Pattinson, who is the biggest movie star in the world right now. They brought me in to read for my part and a couple of other female parts. There was some Polish dialect in the movie and they had to speak Polish, and of course, all those actors don’t speak Polish. So they all started coming up to me and asking questions.
Polish is not an easy language. So eventually, after the table read, I got a call from a production company and they asked me if I would be willing to work on the movie as a language consultant and dialect coach as well. They just didn’t think about it at the beginning of the movie. They didn’t think that it would be necessary, but as it turns out, it is.
I’ve seen it before, when you have a movie and you have a big budget production, and people have to speak a foreign language, and they speak something gibberish. It’s silly. It’s important to pay attention to details like that. It always surprises me when they pay attention to the smallest pieces of clothing or a certain timepiece, but suddenly, an actor has to speak a [certain] language and he doesn’t. So I think it’s worth the extra money, spending money on a dialect coach.
GALO: Was it flattering to be cast as Robert Pattinson’s mother?
AK: It really was. I mean, I am not at the age where I run after 24-year-old boys and scream, “Robert, can I touch your hair?!” I knew he was famous, but I am not a teenage girl, so I didn’t know how famous he truly was until I got the job.
I really didn’t realize how big he truly was until we got to the movie set and there was security all around. I’ve been on big movie sets before, but I’ve never seen security like that. There were all these teenage girls hanging around the set for hours and hours, rain or shine, just waving and screaming every single time a car drove by. At one point they had to call the police. So, yeah, it was very flattering.
It was very funny, when I said I got that movie, somebody said, “Oh, are you playing his love interest?” I said, “Well, you know, they are not doing a remake of The Graduate. I am his mother.”
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