From a summer romance in beautiful prewar Warsaw to a rebel resistance in the rubble of her struggling city at war, young Polish waitress Kasia Tomaszeski has seen a life’s worth of trauma in a few brief episodes. Actor Zofia Wichłacz was prepared for the dark role, but warns in a new interview — there’s still more pain to come for Kasia.
Jace Lacob: I’m Jace Lacob, and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.
In a shaky pre-war Warsaw, Kasia Tomaszeski marries her foolhardy British boyfriend, Harry Chase, only to throw her baby brother, Jan, on the departing train to save him.
Kasia I’m sorry!
Harry Kasia, Kasia!
Kasia I’m sorry, take care of him, okay?
Kasia Take care of Jan. If you love me you will take care of Jan.
Jace Later, Kasia puts her life on the line and joins the Polish resistance, fighting to keep her invaded country safe from the Nazis.
Mann Hey! I’ve asked you a question? Yeah?
Kasia Let her go. She doesn’t want to answer your question. Or perhaps she just thinks that you’re a virgin so you wouldn’t really understand her answer.
Jace Zofia Wichłacz knew she was taking on a tough role when she read Peter Bowker’s scripts for World on Fire. But it’s a challenge she readily embraced, particularly for the opportunity to bring to life Poland’s often untold story in the greater drama of World War II.
Zofia Wichłacz: it’s freedom. Dignity. Everything is taken away from her. So she really she she’s fighting to win those things back.
Jace We spoke with the up and coming Polish actress about pre-war Poland, swing dancing with Jonah Hauer-King, and what further troubles await her Kaisa.
Jace This week, we are joined by World on Fire star, Zofia Wichłacz.
Zofia Yes, or Wichłacz.
Jace Wichłacz. Yes. I do want to ask, what was your initial take on the character of Kasia when you first auditioned for the role?
Zofia Yeah, well, I, oh my god the casting process. It was very long. Like right now I just remember that it was the longest and most challenging actually casting process I’ve ever been to. And then I think I read just the first episode or the the first two episodes. So I already knew that, hm, this girl is interesting. I mean, by the end of the episode one, the scene at the train station kind of already defines the character. You know, that she’s not she’s not putting herself first. She she’s this kind of person that she cares deeply about her family. And that’s why she she does what she does on the train at the train station. And and then in the episode two, she goes through hell, basically. And then she joins the Resistance. So when I was casting for this part, I already knew. Well, great, because maybe maybe, um, the casting is just that the scenes with Harry and, you know, from the beginning where they’re in love and it’s all about the romance and being young and happy and but then, wow, there are so many emotional scenes and such a journey to this character. So I thought to myself, “Oh, wow, okay. I want to, I want to play her. I definitely want to play her.”
Jace It gets dark. It gets dark.
Zofia Yes, it gets dark. Yes.
Jace Peter Bowker in the script doesn’t overtly describe Kasia in the first episode. “She’s a young woman.” Did that give you the opportunity to infuse your own inspirations into developing this early, pre-war version of the character that we see at the beginning?
Zofia Yes, for sure. I really felt like I had so much space in terms of creating her own inner world. For example, I found this great jewish Polish poet from that time. I mean, she wrote this beautiful, very modern at that time, in my opinion, poetry, very feminine and very funny, as well. Her name is Susannah Drintonka. And I tried to create this world of Kasia, like, for example, I learned about Warsaw at that time. What was it like? What kind of city it was? Where would Kasia take Harry for for a date or, you know, all the cafes and theaters and places where you could go and see a cabaret or a show or there were plenty! I mean, Warsaw was full of such places before the war. So it was a very vivid city. And also that that was something also that I felt like I could really I can just do my own research and really create her world. Just I had this great space, you know? I like doing that, creating my own worlds for my characters.
Jace It’s funny you mention the Warsaw that we see in the first episode. It’s very different from what most Americans associate with Warsaw. It’s vibrant, it’s beautiful. It’s full of music and art. What research did you do in terms of pre-war Warsaw and the sort of cosmopolitan city that it was?
Zofia Yes. Well, I watched documentaries. I read about the city itself and. And I knew a lot about Warsaw from my other research that I did for a first feature film I ever did was, 1944. And this is this film tells the story of Warsaw Uprising in 1944. So I already knew the story of the city, which in 1944 was basically destroyed in ninety-something percent. So I remembered some stuff from the research I did a few years ago for that movie. And then I did additional research in terms of things like you mentioned, like music or places with or, I don’t know, museums or cafes or stuff like this.
Jace When we first see Kasia at the beginning of episode one, she herself seems so full of hope in life, much like Warsaw itself before the war. How did these first two episodes of World on Fire change her as a character?
Zofia Oh, those two first episodes change her completely. ‘Cause I always saw Kasia as a fighter. You know? Of course, she joins the Polish Resistance, so, yes, she’s a fighter in terms of fighting for her country and for her freedom. But her goal doesn’t have to be necessarily surviving at some point cause she’s so dead inside. At some point in the series, it’s about winning back some things that she’s lost or some people that she still loves who are out there somewhere and she can still somehow get them back in her life. So it’s freedom. Dignity. Everything is taken away from her. So she really, she’s fighting to win those things back.
Jace When I think about the family photograph with Harry — Kasia seems to be blissfully happy.
Harry Nareszcie! Nikt sie nierusza!
Stefan What? What did he say?
Kasia Stop teasing him.
Stefan What sort of camera is that?
Harry It’s a Leica.
Stefan Oh, German made! When Harry clicks the shutter perhaps we should all duck.
Jace It’s a moment of pure happiness that all of these people are sort of captured in amber. What does Harry represent to Kasia? What does he mean to her?
Zofia Well, I think I always thought of Kasha as this very ahead of her times character, a little like she’s independent. She’s working as as a waitress in Warsaw because it’s summer. And probably she’s dreaming of studying and maybe abroad. So when she meets Harry, I think she probably saw in him this kind of maybe a chance to go somewhere and see a different culture and different country. And of course, back then, traveling wasn’t that easy and wasn’t that obvious. I think also for people. She’s in love with Harry. And I think she’s very passionate about going somewhere and learning about different cultures and countries. So that’s very interesting for her and him as well. But they have they have a real connection, I think. And as we always talked about their relationships in rehearsals or something, we always thought that, yeah, they probably met somewhere, probably at the cafe where she’s where she works or somewhere in Warsaw. And they just had this the greatest summer of their lives just falling in love. And in the summer and when the city is so vibrant, like you said, and vivid and with the family, Kasia has, she’s very grounded. I think with she she she’s got a great family, supportive dad and two brothers and a mom who’s who’s who’s a bit afraid of everything I guess But she’s just very vulnerable, probably. But Kasia, I think she Kasia her loves her family deeply. So that’s why we can see her in this scene. We can see this pure happiness. And I think I really wanted to do it, for the audience to see that, because it’s the only moment in the series. Probably see only moment where we can see how. The this is great place in her life that she’s right now in this great place and it’s all going to go away in a second.
Jace I do love the fact that we get to see a happy Harry and Kasha in the first episode.
Jace At the dance scene, in the first episode in particular, to me, it shows how in love these two are.
Jace I love that you liken it to her summer romance.
Jace Between the two because it does seem very carefree and life, despite the fact that Harry has a girlfriend back in Britain.
Zofia Well, Kasia doesn’t know that.
Jace She doesn’t. And what did you make of that? The dance scene in that first episode and of their relationship there?
Zofia Well, as I said, like with the scene with with the photograph, it was again, the scene with the dancing. It was really important to establish in those very first seconds their relationship and and when we had so much fun on set. When I remember now I was filming of the scene and and preparing for the scene because we took some dance classes. We. It was so much fun. And and I knew I already knew that. OK. This is like one of those two or three scenes where she can be truly happy, carefree, in love. And I I personally, I wanted to have fun on set and to really enjoy that, too, because I knew that after this, it’s just gonna be tougher.
Jace Did you shoot that early on?
Jace That dance scene? Oh, that’s good.
Zofia Yeah. Oh, yes, I remember. We shoot that in in November already, but it was so hot. Like we were in Czech Republic. But I remember all over Europe it was this weird heatwave or something and I’m just wearing a shirt and a skirt in the scene. And we were filming in the evening and it was still pretty OK for me to I wasn’t freezing and it was November. But it was pretty unusual for November and Europe to be that warm. So we had so much fun and the weather was perfect. And filming this was truly, truly amazing.
Jace Immediately after the bombing, Harry’s thrown through the window into the cafe and proposes marriage to Kasia.
Harry Kasia! Kasia!
Kasia Harry! Are you hurt?
Harry Will you marry me?
Jace There’s a sense of desperation to the scene, but also unexpected humor. What did you, what was your take on this sequence and that sort of comedic element to it? It is quite a funny scene.
Zofia Yes, it is. Because Kasia, I’m sure she doesn’t. She doesn’t take him seriously. The very, very first. Second. And then she’s like, what? You’re serious for ugly after the scene? Oh, there is a scene. You know, right after that. Where? Where where they talk. And it’s suddenly serious. But the moment where there was an explosion and he proposed. Of course, it’s funny and maybe she would say yes when, you know, it’s so unbelievable and weird because they’ve known each other probably for, I know, three months or something, so yeah, but it is good. I loved filming this as well because again, it’s this rare moment where the humor might be. So it was nice to
Jace a little glimpse, just a tiny glimpse of it. Harry describes his proposal as, “An English solution.” She can live with him and then they can get her family out later, and Kasia hesitates. What’s behind her hesitation there? And does she know that leaving would mean their deaths?
Zofia Well, I think so. The situation. Looks like this for Kasia. Her dad and her brother are already in Danzig fighting. She doesn’t know yet that there might be. There might be. That they might be they might survive. She doesn’t know. There she is. She cannot get any information from anywhere. And then there is her mom who’s not. And she’s not well. She’s just terribly afraid of her husband and her son. And there’s the young brother. So Kasia escaping with Harry, she hesitates because it’s obviously it’s like, ‘Oh, so I don’t care about them. And I’m gonna leave the rest of my family in Warsaw, which is like which is probably gonna be bombed even more. And, uh, yeah. Yeah. I’ll go and be happy with my husband.’ No, I guess, she has to really think about it. And I think she doesn’t know until the very last moment. She of course she would love to go and be safe and be with the man she loves. But then, it’s her family, it’s it’s her family versus a man she loves, but she, I don’t know, she’s in love with him for a few months. So she feels like she has to stay and protect her family.
Jace Before this next question, a quick word from our sponsors…
Jace I do love the twist at the end of the first episode — instead of getting on the train with Harry, Kasia puts her brother Jan on the train with him at the last second. Was this premeditated? Did she know ahead of time that she was going to put Jan on the train? Is that why she has the very small suitcase? And when exactly did she decide that she was going to make this swap?
Zofia Yeah. Well, yes. So I knew. And I think I mean, Kasia knows a bit earlier. She. But we don’t see it as an audience. That’s why it’s a big twist. Yes. And but then there is this little scene where Kasia packs a suitcase. It lasts probably just one little moment where she packs a suitcase. And I as an actress playing Kasia, I knew already that she’s packing a suitcase for her brother. So she already made the decision. But of course, she feels so bad about this cause she’s going to say goodbye to the man she loves probably for the rest of her life. She doesn’t know. But yeah, she she’s made the decision. It’s not it’s not she she doesn’t decide on that at the train station. It’s before a few hours before, I think.
Jace In the span of an episode, Kasia goes from a carefree girl to an adult who sacrifices her way out for her younger brother. Is this moment a loss of innocence for her or a manifestation of her love for Jan?
Zofia Well. I think on it I’m sure it’s a it’s a manifestation of of her love for her brother and her family cause she’s about to stay with her mom. She has to protect her mom, who is not stable, So, yeah, it’s it’s her choosing her family instead of her own happiness. Yeah.
Jace The script reads, “Kasia stands on the platform watching the train pull away. She’s surrounded by other people waving passengers off, but she’s completely alone.” As an actor, how did you want to show that sense of of isolation, of being completely alone?
Zofia It’s always about the right focus. And I think and even though there are hundreds of extras standing next to you and you’re filming a big scene, which is like we filmed this scene for the whole day. And I think there were even more takes and more angles that they wanted to do. But we didn’t have time. So for an actor, I think it’s really important to stay in your zone or in your in your head and always remember, What do you have to do here? What is the goal and the purpose and then leave the right emotions and everything in there and the extras or people on set or the setting, you know, that the big train station or whatever. It cannot distract you. No, no, it shouldn’t. I mean, it’s it’s hard sometimes because then it’s it’s stress and it’s, you know, lack of time. And we’re running late, you know, all those things that are normal to filming. And then you just have to remember. Yes. You just said goodbye to the man you love and your little brother. And this is all that matters. There’s nothing more for you. You don’t see. You don’t see anything else in that moment.
Jace As bad as that is, episode two is even more brutal for Kasia. She survives a hellish bombing which turns Warsaw into rubble. How traumatic was it to shoot the scene where Maria is killed in Kasia’s arms?
Maria: Mezczyzni nie zyja. Wszyscy mezczyzni zgineli.
Kasia: I am sorry. The grief. It has driven her mad.
Felix Where were you going?
Kasia Anywhere the bombs aren’t falling.
Mueller The bombs won’t be falling by tomorrow. Warsaw has surrendered and life will be…
Felix What did the old bitch say?
Maria I said, hell.
Felix Wir verschwenden hier nur unsere Zeit.
Zofia Nie! Nie! Nie!
Zofia It was it was very yeah, it was very challenging, but I think we did it in two takes or. Yeah, two takes.
Zofia Because I prefer to be always ready and 100 percent prepared, you know, for a take. And especially in terms of such scenes, I prefer to do it in one or two takes. Just give it everything I have just, just do it. I remember that filming of the scene, we filmed everything until the moment of the the scene, the shooting, you know, the killing, and then we had a separate angle for me, one, because Maria has to fall down and I have to fall down with her. And then the camera was on the floor somewhere and we had to shoot it separately. So that was a big help from the production and from the director that I could, that we filmed the dialogue with them, the whole scene with Germans. And then I could only focus on this very last but most important moment. So that was great.
Jace Kasia defends her fellow server, Alena, when she’s being hassled by German officers about whether she’s Jewish, which results in Kasia being slapped and then punched by a German officer.
Mann Are you Jewish?
Alena I’m Polish.
Mann That isn’t what I asked, is it?
Alena I am Polish.
Mann Do you go with Poles or Jews? Huh?
Alena I don’t know what you mean.
Mann Hey! I’ve asked you a question? Yeah?
Kasia Let her go. She doesn’t want to answer your question. Or perhaps she just thinks that you’re a virgin so you wouldn’t really understand her answer.
Jace Is this the moment where she decides she won’t cower or she won’t be afraid and she’s going to fight back?
Zofia I’m not sure if this is like a rational decision, you know? Or like a moment of rational thinking, I guess is just she cannot stand the situation she’s seeing and especially after, that’s the day after Maria was killed. So Kasia has so much rage in herself, and sadness and grief and shock and so much just that, I guess she feels in that very moment that she has to do it. And it’s the right thing to do and whatever the consequences are, because she can be killed there. Maybe she wants it, maybe some part of her wants to be killed because like she’s been through that horror and maybe she doesn’t want to live.
Jace And she does seem to have a death wish, at times.
Kasia Yes. Yes.
Jace She’s drawn to that.
Kasia Yes. Yes. Well, it’s pretty, I think, understandable. You know, as. But, of course, I thought about that, too. And I read a lot about from the psychological point of view. You know, when you grieve so much and when things like this happen to you. What’s going on inside your head? How can you possibly cope with such experiences? So, yeah. My research was also about the psychology of mourning and losing people that you love. . And through grief, I don’t know, looking for revenge or wanting to die. Maybe. It’s all in Kasia. She’s so complex.
Jace She’s definitely heading that way by the end of this episode.
Jace I mean, Maria’s murder, standing up for Alena, seeing her brother again, very briefly.
Jace I mean, she goes on a what’s almost a suicide mission to kill this German, or she would have anyway had Tomazs not stopped her.
Jace But it does seem as though she’s either out for revenge or suicide at this point and trying to take anyone with her. Has she gotten to this place where reprisal is sort of the only option available to her that she can either die, or she can kill as many Germans as possible?
Zofia Yes, I think it’s for sure, and Kasia is in that place in in the serious somewhere, you know, in it. I’m sure she accepts, too, to do what she does with the Germans, because everything that happened to her, basically. So, yes, for sure. She. Yeah.
Jace And then Tomasz leads her to the Polish Resistance, which she joins as she pledges her oath. I mean, is this finally a sense of purpose for Kasia in a world that seems so totally chaotic? Does she finally now have a mission, an organization, a reason for living?
Zofia Yeah. Yeah, I think because it was always for me, it wasn’t survival for Kasia as a character. I didn’t always think of her as like, to survive was her, you know, the goal for the series or something? No. I always thought that she’s trying to win something back. Always. And it’s with Kasia, I think it’s also about the power, cause when she decides she will seduce and kill the Nazis, then also it’s about winning this feeling, being empowered in the situation. And I think it’s a very strong because when you lose pretty much everything, then how can you feel that you have some kind of power over your life? How can you do that? How can you? And she needs that feeling in order to survive and to want to live. So, yes, I think it was, she decides to do all those things because she needs this feeling that she’s in charge. She decides she can she can be killed, she can die. But she was it was her decision. And she was in this place of some kind of power.
Jace So what can you tell us about what lies ahead for Kasia this season of World on Fire?
Zofia Yes. So, yes, it does get darker. So for Kasia, the killing becomes a certain cycle. She does it, she’s getting better in it, and she and t’s less human for her. She, I think she becomes this, like some part in her is already already dead, but also, the whole, the vulnerable part and the you know, the girl that we see in there in the first episode. The sister’s very joyful and happy girl, she’s dead like, Kasia is different. So it gets darker in the sense that Kasia loses her innocence. It’s just so much, I think, she fights and she kills because there is so much grief and sadness inside her that she cannot cope with this in any other way. I think? So yeah. We see a lot of Kasia just seducing and killing in the next episodes, but also just being hurt and being, just missing her family. And Harry, for sure.
Jace Zofia Wichłacz, thank you so very much.
Zofia Thank you so much.
Jace As the war in central Europe heats up and Great Britain jumps into the fray, the real drama of World on Fire is only just beginning.
Peter Bowker: I mean, the intention is that each series will represent a year of the war and obviously the Pacific will start to open up in season three. Season two, North Africa provides a lot of what you might call the military action.Jace We’ll speak with World on Fire series creator and writer Peter Bowker here on the podcast next week, April 19.
MASTERPIECE Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob, and produced by Nick Andersen. Elisheba Ittoop is our editor. Rebecca Eaton is the executive producer at large for MASTERPIECE. The executive producer for MASTERPIECE is Susanne Simpson.
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