Actress turned novelist, and wife of actor Patrick Wilson, Dagmara Dominczyk writes about her childhood Poland in The Lullaby of Polish Girls
In her yolk yellow cardigan and poppy-red lipstick, Dagmara Dominczyk is positively luminous when she arrives at a Polish restaurant in Brooklyn. She’s got vivid blue eyes and speaks in a dulcet voice, trilling and clear, as she casually greets the staff in her native Polish. We take our seats in a booth, and she tells me that this neighborhood (Greenpoint)—this restaurant (Karczma)—was her old stomping ground before she moved to Montclair, New Jersey two years ago with her husband, the actor Patrick Wilson, and their two young sons. “I fought it tooth and nail,” she says of the move. Dominczyk, who grew up living in Manhattan and Brooklyn tenement apartments after emigrating to America as a child, says she never could have imagined wanting a suburban life for herself or family, but now she’s made peace with it. “Even though I cried for two months straight.”
The eldest of three girls, all of whom are actors (“We’re like the Polish Baldwins.”), Poland-born Dominczyk still maintains ties to Greenpoint, a neighborhood that is sometimes referred to as “Little Poland” because of its large working class Polish population. And now that she is equipped with a driver’s license (for the first time), she often makes the drive in from New Jersey to visit friends and her favorite bookstore, WORD on Franklin Avenue. What made her most recent visit to the store so unusual, though, was that she came not as a customer but as an author: The store just hosted the launch party for her debut novel, The Lullaby of Polish Girls.
The Lullaby of Polish Girls follows the lives of three Polish women who first became friends as young adolescent girls in the small town of Kielce, Poland, the same town where Dominczyk was born. Two of the girls live year round in Kielce, and one, Anna, spends only summers there after emigrating to America with her parents. After falling out of touch in their 20s, the three are brought back together when the husband of one is murdered by his brother-in-law. This, in fact, is precisely what happened to a friend of Dominczyk’s from Poland, which she learned in a phone conversation with her mother around the time she’d wrapped her first two big movies in the late 90s (a smallish role in Rock Star with Mark Wahlberg and Jennifer Anniston; and the female lead in The Count of Monte Cristo opposite James Caviezel.) “I couldn’t stop thinking about how our lives all started from the same beginning point,” says Dominczyk, “born in that town, raised in that town, very working class, blue collar. And not only did the roads diverge, but they’re such different kinds of roads.”
Dominczyk hadn’t seen this friend in years, but was nevertheless still shaken by the news. “I won’t say this is a veiled memoir, it’s not,” says Dominczyk. “But I did pull stuff—I wrote what I remembered.”
Like Anna, Dominczyk moved to New York with her family when she was a little girl, and later spent summers with her grandmother back in Kielce. Also like Anna, though she loved returning to Poland, her life ultimately took an entirely dissimilar course from that of her friends who remained there. “There’s this little beaten path that they stayed on,” she says, with glassy eyes and tender recollection, “for lack of options or how they were reared.”
When she arrived in America, Dominczyk was “that cliché bucktoothed, shy girl,” until she learned English and started reading books. Acting had not yet occurred to her, but she does remember a particularly defining moment in the fourth grade. “We had to do a famous woman project, and dress up as her and deliver a famous speech,” she recalls. “And I chose Sojourner Truth. I dressed up in a long skirt with a headscarf, and delivered this speech and it was amazing. And I remember my friends were like, ‘Whoa!’ There was something in me, I think, I just couldn’t name it.”
Four years later, in the eighth grade, a friend was applying to the LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts and invited Dominczyk to audition with her. Dominczyk, who had long been performing and videotaping skits and fairy tale adaptations at home with her two younger sisters, decided to audition as a drama student. She went to the library across the street from where she lived (“my oasis”), found a book called Monologues for Teenagers by Teenagers, selected two, auditioned and was accepted.
Her experience at the Performing Arts school amplified the chasm between her American self and her Polish self, and she realized she didn’t feel quite whole in either place. “With my American girlfriends, we would talk about the future—we were all artists and we would talk about our goals and our dreams and our feelings, and how we would turn it into art or drama or a song or a painting,” she says. “It was all about the future, and we wanted to chase it down.” Not so with her Polish girlfriends, who “didn’t give a shit about the future.” At one time accepted as one of them, Dominczyk slowly began to stand apart in stark contrast from her Polish friends. “They laughed that I wanted to be an actress—not out of malice, not to mock me, but more from a place of ‘get real.’”
She explored this turning point in the book, again through Anna, the character that most mirrors Dominczyk’s own perspective. “The line that I wrote and that I kind of felt, and that I hope my friends read, if they do read the book, they’re not big readers, but I hope they will,” she says, “is—‘for so many years she was one them, and yet she was better.’”
Dominczyk later attended Carnegie Mellon in Chicago, where she saw for the first time, but did not meet, a senior drama student named Patrick Wilson, who would later insist the two had once had a conversation in the hallway of the theater department. Dominczyk says she remembers seeing him in a school production of Cabaret, “and thinking he was very good looking, but I don’t remember a conversation at all.” It wasn’t until 10 years later, at a Carnegie Mellon alumni party, when she realized that he was the one. The two had been invited to the party to discuss their careers with current students, and instead they talked all night only to each other.
Wilson soon moved from LA to be with Dominczyk in New York, and they married within a year. After the birth of their first son, when Wilson’s career was on the rise, she decided to take a break from acting. A second son delayed her return, in large part because her priorities had shifted, but also, she notes, with a kind of self-awareness buoyed only by the weathered grace of wisdom, “I also stopped watching what I ate and working out for the first time in my life, and gained a lot of weight. So even if I wanted to go back, there was no place for me.”
A sad commentary, she knows too well, on the indefatigable pressures women are faced with to be thin. Earlier this year, Dominczyk now rather famously took to Twitter in response to the uproar surrounding Lena Dunham’s choice to cast Wilson as her love interest in the second season of Girls. Responding specifically to a tweet that read, “Patrick Wilson is so hot he would never do Lena Dunham,” Dominczyk tweeted: “Funny, his wife is a size 10, muffin top & all & he does her just fine. Least that’s what I hear rule #1 – never say never.”
Dominczyk shares an anecdote having to do with the book jacket cover for the UK edition. “They sent me this cover, and it was three girls laying by a pool, you couldn’t see their faces, but they were all blonde,” she says, almost laughing but not quite. “And they all had these size zero bodies. And I said, ‘Seriously, one of the characters has an eating disorder. How would I ever live with myself if I put this as my cover?’” The publicist told Dominczyk, who now affects a British accent in the retelling, “‘No, no, it’s priht-tee!’ And I said, ‘Yeah, it’s priht-tee, but it’s not my book and it’s not the girls that I’ve created here.’ So they changed it.”
Over the past few years, Dominczyk has made a slow return to films, mostly independents, including a scene stealing turn in Vera Farmiga’s Higher Ground, and as an American opposite Wilson, who plays a Pole, in James Gray’s The Immigrant, which recently had its premiere at Cannes. This summer she, along with Wilson, her sister Marika and her husband, actor Scott Foley, plan to shoot a movie together, scripted by Foley, funded en famille.
But it’s the book she’s most excited about, and in the end, she says, it’s about a natural progression that started as a girl in Poland. “I loved stories. I loved reading stories. I loved writing stories,” she says. “And then it turned out I loved telling stories.”