Remember the glow of those early summer days when restlessness called to you beyond the school gates? Recall those days, full of experiences that defined your youth, bathed in the magic hour sunset of memory. Perhaps, like Nicole Kidman, you ducked into a theater and saw a film you shouldn’t have seen. One that taught you something about the world around you, spoke to the teenage rebel in your heart and introduced you to the possibility of this strange, dark room, with its flickering shadows on the wall.
“I didn’t know quite what I was walking into,” says Kidman, of the time her 14-year-old self skipped class and, still in school uniform, slipped into the seat of an inner Sydney arthouse to watch Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. “We’d done the book in school, so I knew in that sense what it was, but I didn’t know the film version. I remember being startled.”
As the synth strains of the film’s classical soundtrack started to play, Kidman became enthralled by what the film was doing to her. “I think that’s when I discovered the power of the director. I wasn’t yet a massive Kubrick fan or anything. I was a Vivien Leigh fan, and a Marlon Brando fan, and I’d go and see European films like Betty Blue; off-beat French films that were embraced in Australia. But the way [Kubrick] was able to grasp ideas and images and music… that’s when I went, ‘Oh, so this is what a director does.’”
Kidman has spent the life that followed that screening prodding and poking at the possibility she saw in that moment. “I love being able to move into these different directors’ worlds and somehow explore with them,” she says. “That’s what I’m interested in: to be molded or shaped, and find different parts of my artistic expression that haven’t come out yet.”
It is writ large today in every choice she makes, and in every role she plays. She may not have become a director herself, but she has worked with the best of them. Sofia Coppola, Gus Van Sant, Jane Campion, Lars von Trier and, yes, Stanley Kubrick. “I felt I was on a mission to work with him,” she says. “It seemed to be somehow destined.”
On which, more later. Because there is much to discuss with Nicole Kidman in 2017. It is just the latest of a string of anni mirabiles for the actress and producer, this time consisting of an unbroken run of work that began with HBO’s Big Little Lies in February, and continued with three films—John Cameron Mitchell’s How to Talk To Girls at Parties, Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer and Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled—and another TV show, Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake: China Girl, at the Cannes Film Festival. It will end with one more movie, Neil Burger’s The Upside, premiering in the fall. This, off the back of her fourth Oscar nomination for her role in Garth Davis’s Lion last year. For their part, it seems, directors can’t get enough of working with Kidman either.
“She’s a unique talent,” Coppola says. “She brings so much more to the role [in The Beguiled] than I could have imagined. She brings an energy to the set for everyone to do their best. She really thinks everything through, [and] you get the feeling that she wants to help the director get what they want in every sense.”
Kidman’s artistic curiosity manifests in this kind of steadfast commitment to the part and the team, her collaborators say. “I’ve worked with a lot of actors, and you can tell when it matters to somebody and when it doesn’t,” says Elisabeth Moss, Kidman’s co-star in Top of the Lake. “You could just tell that this mattered to her. She wasn’t 100% confident all of the time. She wasn’t, like, ‘I’m Nicole Kidman and I’m going to be amazing.’ She cared and she took her time with it, which meant a lot to me as a person who had worked on this almost every day, both the first series and the second. She gave a shit.”
Kidman ascended quickly in the ’80s and early ’90s, first in Australia where she starred in films like BMX Bandits and Dead Calm, and then in Hollywood with Days of Thunder, Far and Away and Batman Forever. By the time of Van Sant’s To Die For and Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady, Kidman was already using her newfound profile to satisfy the rebel spirit she took from that screening of A Clockwork Orange, and it wouldn’t be long before she was led to Kubrick himself, and Eyes Wide Shut.
Kubrick knew what he was doing when he cast the hottest celebrity couple of the day, Kidman and Tom Cruise, in his dark examination of marriage. And Kidman knew what she was signing up for, well aware that the press would project the movie’s content onto her relationship with Cruise. A similar fearlessness exists in choices like Jonathan Glazer’s Birth, in which Kidman plays a woman whose dead husband has been somehow resurrected into the body of a 10-year-old boy. And even in Moulin Rouge!, which called on Kidman to sing professionally for the first time, and played on the image of her as a kind of untouchable demigoddess.
In fact, the Kidman I meet at the London Hotel in West Hollywood one summer afternoon is far removed from notions the tabloid press has spent decades selling. With her stately carriage, ice blue eyes and porcelain skin, the red carpet image Kidman projects suggests an ethereal, otherworldly distance from the experiences of the average person. But that fiction is too easy—a by-product of a celebrity-obsessed culture that too often serves to denigrate and underestimate talented women. The reality is much more down to earth, of a curious, oftentimes geeky film obsessive who loves her work and the human collaborations that come with it.
And there is rarely anything inhuman about the characters Kidman plays. They are born of compassion and emotion. Kidman’s well is deep, and her willingness to bring her own truth to the screen suggests she has very little to hide.
“I’ve been in probably some of the most divisive films there have been,” she says, like Sacred Deer, which split the Croisette. “That’s a very powerful piece of filmmaking that people have strong ideas about. I love that. I’m so glad to be in those films, and I want to support the filmmakers that make them. I don’t want to be scared or shy or worried. The idea of not having limitations or boundaries is important to me. And maybe that’s not the healthiest thing, but I’m not here to be healthy. I don’t approach things from that safe place. I’m not interested in it.”
That has never been truer than in Big Little Lies, in which Kidman plays Celeste, a suburban mother living in the well-heeled paradise of Monterey, CA. As director Jean-Marc Vallée weaves David E. Kelley’s adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s novel around a murder and a town on edge—and as we are trying to work out not just who the killer is, but who the victim was—his camera alights on Celeste while she is forced to come to torturous conclusions about the way she is being treated by her husband, Perry (Alexander Skarsgård).
“It was the hardest character to work on,” Kidman says. “Virginia Woolf [in The Hours, for which she won an Oscar] too, but I almost got to give that up, in a way, because I walked into the river in the end. But for Celeste there wasn’t an end.”
Celeste came with raw physical and emotional baggage that followed Kidman off the set. “A lot of that was brought home with me,” she admits. “I went home crying. I was lucky to have a partner that would put his arms around me and hold me, because I would cry and I would be physically in pain, and he was like, ‘What is going on on that set?’ He would see the bruises and be aghast. But he’s also an artist, so he gets it and he’s willing to support me. That, for me, is an extraordinary act of love. To step back and just let me do the work.”
Of course Vallée and his crew worked hard to keep Kidman and Skarsgård safe. “We had a double when it was really violent,” Vallée says. “But the double would often do the first take. Nicole would be watching, and she would take over on take two, learning from the double.”
Real women in Celeste’s position suffer much worse, Kidman reasoned. And she has been overwhelmed by the response she has had to Celeste’s struggle, from women who know that life. Big Little Lies is her first TV series since Bangkok Hilton, the Australian show she made early into her career. “Telling a story in someone’s living room, where they’re sitting intimately close up, watching it… that’s a different way of reaching people,” she says. “The reaction has been intense, and sometimes very sad, and I feel responsibility to people too. So many people either know someone who has lived this or have lived it themselves. It is insidious, is what it is.”
And yet she frets about a subset of reaction that has asked, “Why didn’t Celeste leave right away?” For a long time, Celeste is convinced that separating from Perry would be detrimental to their two sons, and as long as she is the sole victim, keeping her children happy is her priority. “Maybe I didn’t do justice to that,” Kidman demurs. “But that’s the nature of abuse, isn’t it? I can tell you why Celeste doesn’t leave, and I would hope now a lot of people could tell you why she doesn’t.”
Indeed, the real tragedy of Celeste’s story, and why it resonates so strongly, is that it is all too easy to diminish oneself in service of a greater notion of happiness, whether or not that notion truly exists. “In the end, I believe Celeste really is leaving,” Kidman says. “She thought the boys were protected and then she found out they weren’t; that it was manifesting in a way that meant the pattern would continue. Her love for her boys was her saying, ‘No, I’ve got to stop this, and I’ll stop it now.’ That, to me, was Celeste finding her strength, even if it is not for herself, which is the saddest thing. It breaks my heart.”
“[Nicole] was completely, wholly given to this process,” says her Big Little Lies co-star Reese Witherspoon. “The deep way she analyses material, reads so thoughtfully, and thinks so comprehensively—not just about her character, but about the entire journey of every single character in the piece—was such a gift to the production. She just gave me incredible courage, and that’s the mark of a really great actor; [someone] who can give another actor the courage to do something that they don’t feel comfortable with.”
In 2017, it hurts to admit that Big Little Lies is unusual, but it is. Based on source material written by a woman, it is co-produced by Witherspoon and Kidman through their respective production companies, Pacific Standard and Blossom Films, and stars perhaps the most female ensemble on television today, including Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley and Zoë Kravitz.
A friend of Witherspoon’s handed the manuscript to her and her producing partner, Bruna Papandrea, before it was published. Kidman was their first call, perhaps because Moriarty’s novel, Truly Madly Guilty, was set in Australia rather than Monterey. “Nicole happened to be in Sydney, and Liane was living there,” recalls Witherspoon. “She went and closed the deal, and got the option. It was a one-two attack.”
“Liane was being pursued by numerous studios and networks,” adds Per Saari, Kidman’s producing partner in Blossom Films. “It was a highly competitive situation. Nearly every one of Liane’s books had yielded enormous book deals, but none of them had gotten made. Nicole met her at a cafe in Sydney and proposed a very persuasive offer. Nicole said she would make sure Liane’s book got made into a series, but in return Liane had to, then and there, let Blossom and Pacific Standard run exclusively with the rights. Liane countered that she would agree to that, but only if Nicole played Celeste. The series was on air within two-and-a-half years, which is warp-speed for book-to-screen adaptations.”
“We make decisions quickly, Reese and I,” Kidman says. “It was one of those perfect storms where everything comes together. This kind of had its own life. It made its own way.”
This is especially unusual for a project with so little precedent. “I’m normally the only woman in the cast,” admits Witherspoon, “so to have an experience where I’m looking across at four incredibly talented actresses and calling on them to help me for my performance, it’s a gift I’ve never had in my entire career. I feel really proud of the fact that Nicole and I worked really hard to make that happen.”
Saari says he and Kidman founded Blossom Films with an agenda to “support filmmakers and writers with interesting things to say about the world”. It is formed in the image of many actor-led production companies today. Where once, actors might have become producers solely in order to find themselves the juiciest roles to support their acting careers, today Blossom, Pacific Standard, and others like Brad Pitt’s Plan B and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way, are most interested in supporting the sort of projects studios aren’t offering, with or without starring roles for their famous founders. “We don’t gravitate to stories because they are easy or popular,” Saari insists, “but because they shed some light on parts of the world that need exploring.”
Kidman’s quest for understanding continues, even though she knows there is no end game here. “You always think, ‘Ah, I could have done better,’” she admits. “I think every filmmaker will tell you it has to be ripped out of their hands. I’ve never heard the word ‘perfect’ from anybody that’s very talented. It’s why I could have stayed with Stanley [Kubrick] for five years. Never come back.”
In fact, when she made Eyes Wide Shut with Kubrick—his final feature—she and Cruise spent two years in the UK. “Six months of that was just rehearsing,” she recalls. “But I look back at that and go, ‘Thank God I had this slightly zen approach to things.’ Because I was married and I had my kids there. It wasn’t like I was rushing to get finished, to get somewhere else. I was there, with Stanley, and I didn’t care. Whatever.”
I tell Kidman I feel Kubrick is misunderstood; that when the people that knew him talk about him, they say very different things from the critics who have judged his work. She agrees. “He was mischievous. Provocative. Funny. He had a great wit and he was a philosopher, but he was never preachy. It was always coming from a place of curiosity and questioning and exploration.”
Perhaps Kubrick’s lessons have fueled Kidman’s approach in the years since. Michael Grandage, who directed Kidman on the London stage in 2015, says he believes a side-effect of Eyes Wide Shut’s protracted production—and the fact that, while Cruise worked most days, Kidman had more time off—was that it gave Kidman an opportunity to fall in love with West End theatre. It wasn’t long after Eyes Wide Shut that she made her well-regarded London stage debut in the Sam Mendes-directed The Blue Room. It would be 17 years before she returned in the Grandage-directed Photograph 51. “She used the rehearsal process to get match-fit,” Grandage recalls. “She’s pretty remarkable, but it’s not by fluke. It’s by an applied, serious approach.”
Kidman fell in love with the story of the play, about Rosalind Frankin, the researcher who played a critical role in the discovery and understanding of DNA, even as the male-dominated field in which she worked kept her from the credit she deserved for her work. And bringing the play to life was joyous. “The rehearsal process was so great,” Kidman says, “because we were just in a church hall. It brought me back to being in Sydney doing theatre. No one has any money, so you’re just doing the show for 10 people in a church hall.”
But it took work. “Stepping onto the West End stage with a new play, having not been on stage for 17 years… I realized I hadn’t thought through all that. I had a moment where I went, ‘What was I thinking?’ Midway through rehearsal they said, ‘We’ve got to do some press to sell tickets,’ and I’m thinking, ‘Sell tickets? I haven’t even considered selling tickets.’ I was approaching it like a kid in drama school going, ‘Yeah, this’ll be fun to try.’ But if I can keep that approach, that’s the way to do it.”
She wants to return to the stage and says Photograph 51 will transfer to Broadway. “We just haven’t set the exact day.” Things are harder than they once were. Logistics. Kidman’s life is in Nashville, TN, with her second husband, the country musician Keith Urban, and their two children together. “As a mother and a wife, as much as I’d love to say, ‘It’s only me, and I get to go and do whatever I want to do,’ that’s not the case anymore.”
She’d have it no other way. “I want the family, because family, for me, is what I’ve always been headed toward. I just also have this massive creative fire within me that doesn’t burn out.”
She brought her husband and her kids to Cannes this year where, with four projects in the festival, she was the Cote d’Azur’s MVP for two weeks. It was tough for her. “My nature is an introverted nature,” she insists. “Not when I work, but in my actual life. I’m not the girl that needs to be the center of attention, so the idea of that was mortifying to me. I said, ‘I want my little girls to be there, and I want Keith to be there, and if they’re there, it’ll be a whole different thing for me.’ Then I’ve got my family life colliding with my artistic life and that’s going to be balanced. Getting to give them breakfast, and go for a quick swim, and then get organized and into a gown for a premiere… that juxtaposition was fabulous.”
Really, as an artist who talks so fervently and passionately about the role of the director, it’s a surprise that Kidman has never directed anything herself. She’s tinkered with writing, she says, and has ideas she thinks might lead her there eventually. But she carries the weight of the names she had worked with. “To step into those shoes,” she says, “I would have to really feel it. I think it would probably be something I write, if I was going to direct. I can’t see it being somebody else’s screenplay.”
It seems likely that Kidman will scratch this particular itch before long. Her curiosity is too unrelenting, and she has faced bigger challenges before. “I’m going to have to go, ‘No matter what, this story has to be told. By me. Now.’ And I can go in there and get lost in it and exist in the limbo that is required.”