Strangers on a train

Tanna Frederick on telling true stories, understanding bigotry, and Train To Zakopané

by Jennie Kermode

Train To Zakopané
Train To Zakopané

What is it that makes people hate complete strangers due to characteristics beyond their control? What is it that makes us fall in love with people we hardly know? And what do we do when these feelings coincide? These are some of the questions addressed in Henry Jaglom's Train To Zakopané, based on a real incident in the life of his father. In this film, Tanna Frederick plays the role of Katia, a Polish girl with a deep hatred of Jewish people who unwittingly falls for a Jewish man. When we connect to talk about the role, I remind her that we spoke some five years ago about Ovation and her theatre projects at the time. She laughs.

“Was that really five years ago?”

Time flies, she says, and indeed she's been extremely busy in the year since, on both stage and screen - including starring in the theatrical version of Train To Zakopané which preceded the film. I ask her how that came about.

Train to Zakopané art
Train to Zakopané art

“You know, Henry has been talking for years – because I've been working with him for so long – about his father and this story about his father meeting this woman on a train and her spouting anti-Semitic remarks, and his father being Jewish and being in a compartment full of anti-Semites and this girl being very attractive and him, being very attracted to her, saying ‘I'm going to kiss the girl and then I'm going to tell her that I'm Jewish.’ So basically he was going to pretend that he wasn't Jewish and then destroy her by making love to her, or having sex with her, and then telling her that he was Jewish. So then the two had an affair, over three days on the train, and he ended up falling in love with her and she ended up falling in love with him, and then it became very difficult for him and so he kept putting off that fact that he was going to tell her. He kept up this charade and the love kept growing deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper.”

It's quite a story.

“I always thought this story was beautiful and haunting," she says. "Henry has always written in the realm of showbusiness or women’s films but he’d never written a family history story, and I really encouraged him to write this. I said ‘This would be a beautiful play, if you’re looking for the next stage play to do.’ And he was very reluctant to write it. He said ‘No, I could never write this. My father would kill me.’” She laughs. “And I said ‘No, actually I think your father would totally respect you for it, and even if he would kill you, you know, it’s a story that should be told. Politically this is so relevant right now, I mean theatrically this is beautiful and personally this is something that you need to get through, as an artist.’

“So he started writing it and he finished it so fast, he wrote it in about six days, and we put it up on its feet right away and started rehearsing it… Henry would come to rehearsals, watch, go back to the script, completely change five pages, give it to us and we would go back to rehearsals. It was a really exciting process. And then we would do that again, the process would repeat itself, until two days before curtain when he felt that at last it was complete.

“It turned out to be this beautiful piece that was very shocking and ugly and difficult but very necessary, and it really, really affected people to the core.”

Did it change much between stage and screen?

“No a lot, no. The dialogue of the play was already very 1940s cinematic and not much needed to be changed because in the film, also, it felt very stylistically 1940s. With Henry’s films, sometimes you can change the dialogue, sometimes it can be a little bit improvised, so this is quite a departure for him. Through his history he’s gone from absolutely no script and just an outline to having written this beautiful, specific dialogue. He’s a brilliant writer."

Did she feel extra pressure due to playing a real person?

“I felt I had a lot of responsibility. To play that character was very difficult because in order to put through the dynamic between love and hate in this piece, which the piece rests on, my character, right from the top, says such frightful, outlandish and disgusting things about Jewish people, and it’s already been set up that the man who she’s going to fall in love with is Jewish. It seems, I think, impossible that he’s going to fall in love with her or impossible for the audience to even like her and want the two of them to get together, unless this girl is not only likeable but somewhat loveable. To turn her into a loveable person where you understand where she’s coming from, was exceptionally difficult and very delicate.”

Was it a matter of wanting to make the audience sympathetic to Katia without making them sympathetic to her ideas?

“Yes. Very much so. As a play, every night when I would say those comments, people would gasp. They would say things about my character, they would yell things from the audience, they would murmur things to me and I would go, ‘Hey, I’m just playing a character.’ But it was interesting and kind of exciting as an actor because you don’t usually do a piece where the audience talks back to you, any more. People in the audience were very angry at my character. So then I needed to sort of massage them into he fact that this was a real girl, that her feelings were real because she had her own experiences with ‘the other’, because her father was a Polish man who died because of his experience with ‘the other’, which was a Jewish man but was the other and that’s this whole idea of the other and people hating the other is what we’re looking at in this, and trying to get people to look at their own prejudices.

Tanna Frederick and Mike Falkow in Train to Zakopané
Tanna Frederick and Mike Falkow in Train to Zakopané Photo: Ron Vignone

"Everybody has a sort of other that they’re looking at, the unfamiliar, the scary, that creates hatred, that creates confusion, that creates fear, and that in turn creates bigotry, that’s the root of bigotry. I feel I had to get that message across by making her case, as it were, viable, and making the audience understand that she also is coming from a very difficult place. She was hurt very badly and didn't understand and was uneducated. That exists anywhere, it’s existed since the beginning of time, and it can be broken through with love. It was tough, it was really tough.”

Katia seems like a character who hasn't analysed her own feelings very deeply, I suggest.

“I think that a lot of us know ourselves but don’t know ourselves as human beings, and she was definitely shut away by her trauma and shut off from herself by her trauma, and so in that sense, because she didn’t know herself, she didn't know about other people as well, she didn't know about other cultures.”

This, she thinks, is at the root of prejudice.

“Why do people have those feelings about other people, about other ethnicities, about what scares them? Yeah, she was very cut off from herself. I think in this day and age, people who have those feelings detach themselves from learning about other people and can more easily throw themselves into name-calling and detesting the other and not understanding how similar we all are.”

I mention that I recently spoke to director Jane Spencer about her new film South Of Hope Street, which Tanna has a role in. How has the shoot been going?

“Wonderful, so wonderful!" Tanna declares ecstatically. "I had the most wonderful time shooting that. She just sent over some cuts that we've been working on and they look beautiful, so wonderful and bizarre. It’s a Jane Spencer film. It’s completely a Jane Spencer film and the character is absolutely fascinating to play. It’s a beautiful, dizzy, bizarre, real part and oh my gosh, I love it; it’s incredible. Jane’s a brilliant female director to work with. She’s so strong and I love the pace of her films. She’s gentle but firm, she knows exactly what she wants, and she has this Alice Trough The Looking Glass sort of take on life that no other artist has. Watching and being in her films makes me look at life in a completely different way. She sends me away questioning life and feeling like I've stepped through the looking glass. I even felt that when I watched her first film and as an actress in that it definitely took me like a month to land back on Earth. It’s almost Terry Gilliamesque.”

She's also been moving, increasingly, into production. I ask if that's a new direction for her or if it's just another addition to the lengthy list of creative things she does with her time.

“I really enjoy producing and I produced, actually about five years ago, a film called Garner, Iowa which is coming out this year, and was the lead in that as well, and I think as an actor, sitting and watching every aspect behind the camera and sort of soaking everything in, it just feels really natural and really good to produce. Having watched everything going on and all the dynamics of the relationships behind the camera – from directors to the gaffers, to sound – I find it really natural and I really enjoy it because I’m kind of hyper. I’m a control freak as it is.” She laughs again. “Well, I wouldn’t necessarily put myself down as being a control freak. I’ve gotten better! But acting is only one component of it and I’m really fascinated by putting the whole entire gig together… Although I have done two films as an actor recently and it was really nice not to produce! I really enjoyed South Of Hope Street and it was really nice just to kick back and eat some gruyere cheese.”

It's something she intends to keep doing, and she also enjoys other actors' work in production.

“I’m obsessed with I Tonya and actors like Margot Robbie who produced that and stars in that. There’s something special, some certain quality I think, to films where actors also produce. Some are just hopeless. The ones that work where the actors also produce the film are really, really, really magical.”

Shortly after we finished speaking, she was due to attend the Train To Zakopané première. I asked if she was excited or nervous.

“I'm excited to see people’s reaction to it," she says. "I think the people who will come tonight probably haven’t seen the play, so I'm just going to sit in the back and stuff my face with popcorn because I'm sure they’re going to do the same thing… They’re going to be, like” - she makes a growling sound - “’Why is she saying that? That’s terrible!’ I'm going to have to go through that all over again tonight. So am I excited? Yeah. But you know, I’d kind of like to put that character to bed and I would be very thankful to not be hated anymore.”

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