If this 45th edition of the Telluride Film Festival can be said to be about anybody, way up at the front of that line is Nicole Kidman who is here seen on screens showing the huge range and fearlessness she has done for years in this business. We are seeing two distinct sides of that talent in World Premieres of both her uber-gritty cop drama, Destroyer, and the less startling but touching humanity of the mother trying to hold her family together after her son is sent to an Arkansas gay conversion camp in Joel Edgerton’s tremendously powerful and moving true story, Boy Erased.
I have often caught up with Kidman at high profile film fests like Cannes and Toronto where she has had years with multiple films on display, but when I talked with her at the beginning of this fest at the annual Patrons Brunch she surprised me by telling me this was actually her first time ever at the Telluride Film Festival, but that she was already loving it (something she emphasized all weekend at various venues before leaving town Sunday night). With husband Keith Urban, their kids, and even their two cats along for the trip to the Rockies, she came to play – both personally with the family, and professionally on the massively impressive screens set up each year in skating rinks and high school auditoriums.
Whenever Kidman is around, there is usually awards talk, and this weekend has been no different, especially after the debut of Destroyer in which she goes places I have never seen her go before, both in appearance and intensity as a police detective who is also a mother, and on a downward spiral after an undercover operation that went very wrong. The film flashes back and forward in time to put the pieces of the puzzle of this damaged woman together in ways that quite unexpected, to say the least. Kidman ranges from fierce to ferocious to sensitive to defeated to determined and so many other facets in a role that is simply riveting to watch in every way. On the other hand, the devoutly religious real-life southern mother she plays in Boy Erased, based on the memoir by Garrard Conley (played very effectively in the film by Lucas Hedges) in which his preacher father (an excellent Russell Crowe) sends him to a conversion camp in order to erase any feelings of attraction to men, is every bit as impressive. She is gonna have a hell of a Fall when these two films open beginning in November with Focus Features’ Boy Erased on the 2nd, and Annapurna’s Christmas Day release of Destroyer (In between just for fun she will be seen as Aquaman’s mother!) If all goes smoothly I can see a world in which Kidman could find herself in the running not only for the Best Actress Oscar for Destroyer, but also Best Supporting Actress for Boy Erased.
As to why she chose to be seen in a transformative way we have never seen her before in Destroyer which was directed by Karyn Kusuma and is about as gritty as movies get, it was clearly something that spoke to her. “I got sent the script and just read it and it grabbed me in my gut. I don’t even know why I respond to things but when it happens I go ‘okay this is what I am meant to do now’. So then I called up and they said ‘oh it is on offer to another actress, which is fine’. It was actually written a little younger but then they worked out a way for it actually to be for an older actress and I was able to step in and make it my own, and that’s just the way things happen,” she said during a Q&A after a screening of the film. “I do have a strong belief that you can push a bit, but things either gel or they don’t, they come together or they don’t. It was a really really tough shoot for me, and it was a really tough character for me to play, and I did not like playing it. I would sit in a chair and not talk to anybody. I got taught early on when you really get into a character you are not running for popularity on a film set. You‘re there to do the work, and so a lot of times, like with this character, you are just going to have to exist in that place. It is what I call the limbo and I just exist in a place that’s uncomfortable if it’s this kind of character.”
In the case of Boy Erased, she was approached by fellow Australian Edgerton (who plays the head of the camp in the film he wrote and directed), and immediately felt an urgency to be part of it as she explained at yet anotherQ&A after a screening of that film. “When I heard the subject matter I said that’s really important and I would love to be involved. I don’t care how big the role is, how small the role is, I just want to be able to contribute,” she said. “I love that the mother is the one that is the bridge, that is able to go ‘I want to keep this family together’. I’ve had my own mother, not with this subject, but in terms of just sitting at a kitchen table beating her fists on the table going ‘THIS FAMILY WILL STAY TOGETHER’. That’s how I feel and no matter what happens in the family the mother so many times tends to be the heartbeat of the family.”
A pivotal scene, as it turns out the first one she filmed upon arriving on location, has her character heeding the desperate pleas of her son to pick him up and take him home from the conversion camp even as the officials there try to lock her out and keep him there. When she emotionally shouts, “shame on you, shame on me” as she grabs her son and runs to the car, the audience burst out into applause. It is a bravura moment.
Kidman consistently looks for interesting roles like these as she told Telluride audiences this weekend, but she doesn’t have a general blueprint for what she will do. “I am not planned. I have a huge love of filmmakers. I started in the Australian film industry sitting on an apple box lucky to have a job, and I still approach it that way. I grew up around storytellers and filmmakers. I also grew up with provocative parents who kind of pushed me. I also loved reading. So put all that together and I would consider myself very lucky to have the opportunity because so much of being an actor is just having the opportunity,” she said. “I mean there are so many great actors out there and it is just when you get the chance or not. I have been given some great chances from different directors, and I have been up and down with ebbs and flows in my career. I have kind of been pulled to it since I was a little girl and I have just followed that instinct. Sometimes it pays off, and sometimes it doesn’t but I love what I do, and the passion for that, and that is why I am willing to work and work and work to try and dig and delve into characters and stories and places, and discover things, and just connect. Or sometimes not connect, sometimes it doesn’t happen but always the desire is to fully immerse myself in it, and I think I can be very very hard on myself and disappoint myself , and so I have to be careful with that, but I do say thank you , and say thank you so much for giving me the chance to be 51 years old and still doing what I love to do.”