Chałka and Vegemite with Jacek Koman
Actor-singer Jacek Koman lit his own path between cultures and arts, from Łódź to Perth, ‘Moulin Rouge’ to folk-rocker, all the way to Hollywood and back. But a close shave with the secret police might have quashed his career before it started.
He sang ‘Roxanne’ with Ewan McGregor as a narcoleptic Argentinian tango dancer in ‘Moulin Rouge!’. He gave refuge to Clive Owen in the year 2027 as a farmer/freedom fighter in ‘Children of Men’ and as another gruff farmer, he hid Daniel Craig and other Jewish refugees in the WWII-resistance film ‘Defiance’. More recently, he has been leading a posse of Russian outlaws around Australia and Europe as the lead vocalist of the band VulgarGrad.
It has certainly been a wild and colourful ride for Jacek Koman, the Polish-Australian actor and singer, ever since leaving Poland on the brink of Martial Law. But it could have come to nought had he not managed to give the secret police the flick while studying drama in Łódź. “They didn’t have much on me,” says Koman with the beginnings of a wry chuckle. “They appealed to my patriotic feelings. And they told me that as an extra reward, I would always be able to afford coffee and cake.” Despite the ‘sweetner’, he kindly declined the goons’ offer of becoming an informant of the Polish People’s Republic.
Runs in the family
There was a touch of fortune to Jacek Koman’s entrance into the world. He was born on 15 August 1956 in BielskoBiała, southern Poland, on a sacred day in the Polish calendar, celebrating both the Assumption of Mary and Marshal Piłsudski’s famous victory over the Soviets in 1920. More importantly, he was born to actor parents, who dragged Koman and his older brother Tomek around Poland from one theatre to the next.
He spent his childhood between Bielsko-Biała, Koszalin, Szczecin and Łódź where he would ultimately study drama between 197478 at the famous National Film school. After graduation, he played Lysander in a production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and debuted with Juliusz Machulski (of ‘Kiler’ fame) in the director’s first film ‘Bezpośrednie Połączenie’ (Direct Connection). But the writing was already on the wall as the economic hardship and political coercion amplified under the Communist regime.
For 25-year-old Koman, it wasn’t necessarily his run-in with the secret police but a burning drive for freedom that provided the final straw. “For starters, freedom to travel,” says Koman. “It wasn’t so easy each time you wanted to go abroad. You had to apply for a passport and wait, biting your fingernails … I didn’t like that. And the world was calling, so it was partly an adventure to explore the world and partly an escape from the oppression.”
By some miracle, he and his brother Tomek managed to obtain passports and left in 1981, only months before the imposition of Martial Law. They spent eight long months fending for themselves in Austria before landing visas to Australia and a new life in Perth. 38 years later, he uses the word ‘euphoria’ to describe the experience and yet words seem superfluous. It’s all in his voice, the pitch of his trademark drawl rising.
“After months and months of waiting in limbo with no status in Austria, we were praying to be dropped anywhere, naked in the middle of a desert. But it was even better,” he says, laughing. “We still kept our clothes and were dropped in the middle of summer in Western Australia. Yeah, that was enough of a cause for euphoria.”
Jacek Koman is a Polish-Australian actor and singer known for his roles in ‘Moulin Rouge!’ (2001), ‘Children of Men’ (2006) and ‘Defiance’ (2008). He is also the frontman of the band VulgarGrad. He splits his time between his home in Melbourne and Poland,working as an actor in both countries.
After a crash course in the English (and Australian) language, he entertained the idea of studying science and winning a place in medicine, but the plan proved to be overambitious for the newly-arrived refugee. “Yeah, I didn’t do too well.” He instead worked a series of jobs: tiling work, bartending, selling fruit and even a stint on a cattle station.
Meanwhile, his friends and family back home were practically locked away behind the red seal of Martial Law. Not able to call his parents or freely write to them, he felt the oppression even as far as Perth. still, he found homely respite in a theatre group that he and his brother established with a couple from Poland, Krzysztof and Marta Kaczmarek, who would also move on to the silver screen. “We just started working on some stuff out of the need to do it and gradually we got funding for some projects.”
He later moved to Melbourne and hit the bigger stage. “The ‘90s were for me a decade of intense theatre work with a ew great directors, fantastic theatre companies and good material… There was ‘Angels in America’ in the role of Roy Cohn. There was some Beckett, ‘Waiting for Godot’, ‘Some Brecht.”
In 1994, he played Claudius in ‘Hamlet’ with Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, David Wenham (‘Lord of the Rings’) and Richard Roxburgh (‘Mission Impossible II’) at sydney’s famous Belvoir St Theatre. This Class of ‘94 would, of course, go on to win international acclaim and awards in some of the most celebrated films of their generation. It was during a production at this same theatre that Koman received his own big break when the director Baz Luhrmann cast him in ‘Moulin Rouge!’.
Landing your first big role in a blockbuster is one thing; playing a Roxannesinging, tango-dancing Argentine bohemian with a sleep disorder is quite another. He had to dig deep, all the way back to drama school in Łódź. Along with judo, fencing, skiing, horse riding, he had to endure four years of classical ballet under the instruction of a tough taskmaster who he affectionately calls the “ballet Nazi”.
He literally found his singing voice in the shower and nailed the part. “That’s what I keep telling my son: the bigger the challenge and the tougher the experience, the more you think fondly about it afterwards. I remember coming out the other end and that’s how it was for me.” He also received his first look into the ‘take-no-prisoners’ world of Hollywood business.
His rendition of ‘Roxanne’ eventually made the official ‘Moulin Rouge!’ soundtrack and his agent promised him huge royalties after the CD sold in the millions around the world. Sure enough, his first royalty statement arrived and just when he was about to jump for joy, he read the fine print. The studio had charged him for the use of the recording facilities at a rate nearly double the amount of his royalty cheque, meaning he actually owed the studio money. “My brother and I were planning to shoot a mockumentary set in Bangkok where I run this stall and sell bootleg copies of ‘Moulin Rouge!’,” he says, now able to laugh about the matter. To the inevitable police enquiries, his character had the perfect lament in store: “I’m sorry, I know I’m breaking the law, but I owe these gangsters money.”
But that fiasco was quickly forgotten when other big films came his way: ‘Children of Men’ (2006), ‘Defiance’ (2008) and Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Australia’ (2008) being the pick of the bunch. He also had the opportunity to return home and act in several Polish productions, such as ‘Lekarze’ (Doctors), HBO’s ‘Wataha’ (Wolfpack), ‘Prokurator’ (The Prosecutor), ‘Ziarno Prawdy’ (A Grain of Truth) and Chyłka-Zaginięcie (Chyłka Lost). “In Australia, I tend to be cast as a villain, the gangster, the rapist,’ he says, noting the stark contrast of the roles he receives between the two worlds. “And in Poland, I’m not limited like that. My limitations are different: my age, what I look like. I run hospitals. I am an attorney.”
He travels between the two countries quite often, but even in Australia, the home country is never too far away. His family celebrates Wigilia (Christmas Eve) and other Polish holidays. All the twelve dishes are laid out on the Koman dinner table, except for carp. He draws the line on carp. The family’s favourite is the custom of laying out a plate for loved ones past or not present. The only problem was that these dinners had become so popular that the space was quickly taken up with what he calls “Wigilia orphans”.
Back to the homeland
He will be returning to Poland in autumn to film a yet-to-be-titled Netflix series and next year, he hopes to tour with his larger-than-life band VulgarGrad. The official line is that the band is inspired by the old folk songs of Russian thieves (blatnie pesni) and a little bit of Perestroika-era punk. With Koman’s growling bass tones, one reviewer described the sound as something like ‘a soviet edith Piaf with a flickknife’ after receiving singing lessons from Tom Waits. Polish audiences will detect a bit of ska or Klezmer music.
Whatever the genre, every performance is a sweaty and heartfelt riot into another world where the theatre is as palpable as the music. All in costume with singing mostly in Russian, they swing out songs with fun and eclectic titles like ‘Solomon Pylar’s School of Ballroom Dancing’, as well as some Polish songs, such as the ‘Ballad of an Emperor’ from their new album ‘The Odessa Job’.
Bringing the theatre to music, Jacek Koman on tour in Europe.
The choice of venues also adds to the spectacle. On their last tour to Europe, the band played in a dive bar on Hamburg’s infamous Reeperbahn and in Copenhagen’s hippy-commune of Christiania. “We played in a shed so full of dope smoke that by the time we had finished unloading our equipment we were off our faces,” he says. “Dogs running around, groups of Inuit people. It was actually someone’s wake.”
The question comes up whether he thought about what would’ve happened had he stayed in Poland. “Maybe I would have become a businessman,” he says, before bringing up a childhood business venture he had run as a six-year-old at summer camp. He would peel thistle balls and sell them to other boys for the foosball table. “I would enter camp with five złoty to my name. By the time my father came to pick me up, I would have 40 zł,” he says, releasing one last throaty laugh. “So in business, I could have become the global producer of foosballs.”