A Modern Immigrant Finds the Spotlight

June 14th, 2013

The pirogi were warm, the honey-cherry liqueur was uncorked and the muggy basement of Word, a bookstore in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, was standing-room-only.

Dagmara Dominczyk, an actress familiar from films like “Higher Ground” and television shows like “Person of Interest,” was back in the old Polish neighborhood to celebrate the publication of “The Lullaby of Polish Girls,” a novel that mirrors her own experience as a Polish ?migr?. It has received strong advance buzz.

On the sidewalk, middle-age women who might have known her as Miss Polonia of Greenpoint, 1992, called out, “Dagmarka, stand here, we take photo now,” in thick Polish accents. Ms. Dominczyk, clutching a cigarette in one hand, her hunk-actor husband, Patrick Wilson, in the other, flashed a Hollywood smile.

“Those who know me know I love to write,” Ms. Dominczyk, 36, said. “Those who know me a little bit know I’m an actress. Those who don’t know me know I’m married to Patrick Wilson.”

In some ways, hers is a classic immigrant tale of bootstrap success. But there’s a younger sister, too, Marika, an actress blessed with the same piercing eyes and sculptured lips, who is also married to a recognizable actor, Scott Foley.

Together, the two sisters — along with their acerbic Eastern European wit, their small-screen-idol husbands and their impossibly high cheekbones — are becoming fixtures on the red carpet and in tabloid magazines. Think of them as the modern, boho-Brooklyn version of the Hungarian-born Gabor sisters.

“I feel like there was always something in me that was meant for a bigger life,” Ms. Dominczyk (pronounced “Doh-MEAN-chick”) said.

The Poland of her early childhood, however, was no place for Hollywood dreams. She was born in 1976 in Kielce, a hardscrabble city where her father, Miroslaw Dominczyk, was a local leader for Solidarity, the trade union led by Lech Walesa.

His glory was short lived. In the middle of the night on Dec. 13, 1981, police burst through their front door with clubs. Dagmara, then 5, recalled watching from the window as her father was hauled away in a white van to prison. Eleven months later, the family was exiled and ended up in the Glenwood Houses, a public-housing project in Canarsie, Brooklyn. Their mother, Aleksandra, cleaned houses. Miroslaw eventually toiled as a cabdriver, then a building superintendent.

It was hard watching her father, a crusader back home, grow embittered as he dragged garbage to the curb. “I wanted to make good on the family name,” she said. “I wanted to leave a legacy.”

The chances of that seemed remote, living in a housing project deep in Brooklyn. But at age 14, Dagmara earned a coveted spot in the drama program at LaGuardia Arts high school, the so-called “Fame” school, where fellow students included Adrien Brody and Adrian Grenier.

“She was very studious,” Marika recalled of Dagmara. “She would get up early and ride an hour to high school. I just kind of hung with the neighborhood crew and played spades on a milk crate.”

Dagmara’s drive led her to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where she would meet Mr. Wilson, an all-American Paul Newman type who would go on to Broadway and star as the Mormon in HBO’s “Angels in America.” The two fell out of touch after college, but Ms. Dominczyk’s dalliance with famous actors was only getting started.

Her big break came in 2002, when she landed the female lead in the Hollywood remake of “The Count of Monte Cristo.” With her $ 200,000 paycheck, she and Marika, who had been modeling, rented an apartment in Greenpoint and set about blowing her windfall as quickly as possible, writing checks to friends and family in Poland and New York, but also partying alongside the Leonardo DiCaprio entourage at clubs like Lot 61. The bookish Dagmara was suddenly hanging out with Edward Norton, the sisters said, and carousing into the wee hours.

“All of a sudden, there she was with a beer and a cigarette,” Marika recalled. “I thought I was the bad one.”

Although Dagmara was earning positive notices as a serious actress, the sisters shared a rough overlap with the Gabor sisters, Eva and Zsa Zsa, who were tabloid staples in the ’60s and ’70s: they were two sassy, charismatic, Eastern European man-traps who would become just as famous for whom they married as for what they accomplished on-screen (unlike the Gabor sisters, however, they are famous for only one marriage apiece). As with the Gabor sisters, there is also a third Dominczyk sister, Veronika, 27, who is starting to collect screen credits herself.

Dagmara reconnected with Mr. Wilson in 2004 and married him the next year. Two years later, Marika, who turned heads in the film “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” married Scott Foley, the square-jawed actor from “Felicity.”

The older sisters had to get used to being semifamous in their own right, semifamous as celebrity spouses. Sometimes, Dagmara finds herself taking on Mr. Wilson’s admirers head on.

When her husband appeared in a graphic sex scene in the second season of HBO’s “Girls,” one fan tweeted that no chiseled hunk like Patrick Wilson would go for a non-supermodel like Lena Dunham. Dagmara fired back: “Funny, his wife is a size 10, muffin top & all, & he does her just fine,” in a Twitter message picked up by celebrity blogs. “That’s my dad in me,” Ms. Dominczyk said. “He always said, ‘We came to this country, it has freedom of speech, and I’m going to use it.’ ”

Lately, the pace has settled down, as both sisters have balanced career with motherhood. For the last few years, Dagmara said, the glittering life was largely confined to children’s play dates with actor friends like Liv Tyler at her three-story colonial in Montclair, N.J., while finishing her novel.

“Lullaby,” which Publisher’s Weekly called a “gossipy, feisty debut,” is a coming-of-age tale of three young Polish women, one an immigrant daughter of a dissident in New York, brimming with teary epiphanies, betrayal and love, as well as the grit of both New York and Kielce. “Girls” with a Polish accent. “Going back to that world,” she said, “that was my way of keeping it real.”

The same might be said for her debut reading in Greenpoint. At one point, Dagmara felt overcome with emotion as family, friends and the neighborhood “aunties” showered her with accolades, so she ducked around the corner for a cigarette. Marika soon joined her. They had traveled a long way from the Flatbush Avenue stop on the No. 2 train, but there they were again, alone together.

It felt like a moment of arrival, Dagmara recalled: “It was no longer us against the world.”

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