Award-winning actress Nicole Kidman dishes out on her on-and off-screen roles as a mother
Nicole Kidman’s two youngest daughters get a little freaked out by the strange women who sometimes shows up in their kitchen. They didn’t mind the villain from Paddington because Paddington, is well, Paddington, and villains are pretty cool. But the most recent woman who showed up while mom was shooting the new series of Top of the Lake with Jane Campion – wild grey hair, freckles?
“I loved the way I looked in it,” Kidman says. “It was very freeing. My kids were, like, ‘Oh my God, you look like a witch!’ And I was, like, ‘Come on, not a witch!’ They’re used to seeing all the different women. I morph into – these funny women showing up in the kitchen. Yeah, they don’t like it. It’s, ‘Where’s Mom?
Right now, mom is sitting in a private room in the restaurant of the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, while her husband, the country singer Keith Urban, lays down some tracks in a studio not too far away. Wearing a Michael Kors shirt, jeans and Gucci loafers, Kidman has caught a break from planning dinner and breaking up fights between her daughters to talk to me about the extraordinary run of work she’s had, with roles in So a Coppola’s latest, The Beguiled, the upcoming second season of BBC2’s Top of the Lake and, before that, HBO’s Big Little Lies, playing a photo-perfect Monterey housewife trapped in a cycle of spousal abuse. The last of these performances drew gasps, an Emmy nomination and a rash of career reassessments with headlines like “How many times does Nicole Kidman have to prove herself?” Variety ran a Nicole Kidman World Cup on Twitter to determine her best performance; those paying tribute ranged from the actress Zoe Kazan to Moonlight’s director, Barry Jenkins. “She’s become cool again without ever seeking it out,” says the director John Cameron Mitchell, who made 2010’s Rabbit Hole with her. “She has this blueblood aura, this sort of regal poise, but in her film choices she’s incredibly punk.”
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The woman who shows up at the Four Seasons couldn’t be further from the cool ice queen of media myth, standing guard over the secrets of her previous marriage to Tom Cruise like a sphinx. Candid, deep-feeling to the point of tears when the subject of family comes up, Kidman, who turned 50 in June, is much warmer and more offbeat than you’d think – a kooky empathy attuned to an almost spooky degree to the emotional temperature of whomever she’s with, with an unruly laugh that seems to absorb all the ups and downs of a 30-year Hollywood career. “I’ve had such a weird, windy, twisty road with it,” she says. “So, this year’s been where people have kind of decided to discover things and support me – but other times they haven’t, so I’ve lived through it all.” Out comes that big, jaunty Aussie cackle.
The second season of Top of the Lake took Kidman back to suburban Sydney, where she grew up and where, in the series, Elisabeth Moss’s detective is on the trail of a prostitution ring. Kidman plays a feminist matriarch with a glorious cascade of grey hair, whose dinner table abounds with talk of Germaine Greer and revolutionary politics, but whose relationship with her adopted daughter, played by Campion’s actual daughter, Alice Englert, has degenerated into a haggard war of attrition. Kidman’s performance – ferocious, knotted, full of thwarted love – joins a growing throng of mothers she has played in recent years, from her saintly adoptive mother in Lion, to her Medea-like, murderously fierce mother in Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others.
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“The strongest force I can find within me, right now, is the maternal force,” she says. “Romantically, I’m obviously incredibly awake and alive. I have a really, really strong, good marriage. But maternal love brings you to your knees. It’s surfacing in pretty much everything I do.” What lends this weight is the hard-fought, and at times, torturously winding nature of Kidman’s path to motherhood. The woman has had to fight. Two miscarriages, two adopted children with Cruise. A miraculous, unexpected late pregnancy with Urban, and finally a fourth daughter, born via a surrogate just a few years ago. The plot of Top of the Lake: China Girl, too, touches on surrogacy, which in Australia is still illegal, feeding a black market.
“Jane said to me, ‘Would this be a difficult place for you to go in terms of what the theme of this is?’ And I said, ‘No, because my story seemed very different.’ Mine was agreed upon and it was a beautiful thing that a woman chose to give us. It was an incredible gift she made.”
The role brought her home in other ways, too. Her mother was a nurse who sacrificed her career to raise a family, but remained active in the women’s movement of the Seventies. “I grew up in that world of feminism,” Kidman says. “I grew up watching those dinner parties. That’s been my life since I was probably four.” If actors have long enough careers, they often end up playing their parents at some point, Brando burst onto the scene playing rebels, wounded and bristling against authority, but his maturity was reached when he stepped into the shoes of Colonel Kurtz and Don Corleone, the very authority figures his youthful rebellion presupposed, viewed through a glass darkly.
Kidman as a teenager was a handful, hitting the clubs in Sydney by the time she was 14 in tutu, fishnets and lace-up black boots, fighting with her mother every step of the way. Her fights with her tear-away daughter in Top of the Lake thus played like rematches with her teenage self, this time from her mother’s point of view. “Absolutely. I can do, and wear, and behave any way I want – and screw all of this. And I’m going to be with any man I want, and who cares about your beliefs? Totally. So, I’ve come at it from both sides, which is why Jane is so clever – she could sort of flip things. She’s incredibly perceptive.”
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Kidman and Campion go a long way back, not just to the 1996 Henry James adaptation The Portrait of a Lady, but to a handwritten note Campion sent the then 13-year-old actress after her headmistress refused to let her appear in the director’s student film. “It said, Don’t let anyone break your spirit,” Kidman recalls. She started acting at 12, playing Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, attending classes where they studied mime, fencing, the classics, the Greeks, Medea. “I was fascinated by all the sexuality. That was probably the strongest element, because the hormones are going for me, and I was trying to put some sort of meaning to it. There were just so many ways in which it could be expressed… I was always an intense child. I wanted to connect.”
When the critic David Thomson wrote about Kidman, itemising her “hide-and-seek eyes, boyish hips and elegant Australian body,” like a Renaissance poet eulogising his mistress’s eyebrows, he was roundly called out for his heavy breathing. But Kidman’s most vivid early performances were all to be found somewhere between Catholic school and red-light district, whether her alpha prefect in 1991’s Flirting, raising a toast to “risk”; her pre- Rapha elite host age, fighting back against her attacker in 1989’s Dead Calm; or best of all, her perky, murderous small-town machiavel in Gus Van Sant’s To Die For (1995).
That was the performance that won Variety’s recent tournament, with second place going to 2004’s Birth, Jonathan Glazer’s haunting masterpiece (if you haven’t, see it now) and third to Moulin Rouge (2000), Baz Luhrmann’s pop-bohemian rhapsody, with Kidman enduring broken ribs and bloody knees to play a doomed courtesan who sacrifices everything for love. “It’s hard to be a wife and a mother and do those performances,” she says. “Emotionally it’s taxing. I would love to be able to turn it on and turn it off that easily. I wish I could skim more, but I’m no skimmer… That’s the massive struggle of pretty much every artist, unless they’re alone, right? And I don’t want to be alone.”
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Acting and romantic love are alike, for Kidman, in that both involve the obliteration of self. She loses herself in roles and relationships alike – which may be one reason why her American film career seemed to truly take off after her marriage to Cruise ended abruptly in 2000. Before that it was the usual array of neurosurgeons, nuclear scientists and bat- shrinks. But soon she had won an Oscar for playing Virginia Woolf in The Hours, then collaborated with Anthony Minghella, Alejandro Amenabar, Lars von Trier, Noah Baumbach… Was she hampered by being thought of as Mrs. Cruise? “It’s so hard to come over here,” she says after much thought. “I was in a small pond before, then I came to America and was being given things and I was like, ‘These are the roles? Oh, I want to go home!’ But I got married, and when I’m married, I’m married. Then I was out of [the marriage] and suddenly the energy shifted in my ability to go anywhere. Yes, I can go to Europe if I want, and I can work with Lars von Trier, and I can do Birth and just follow my interests. And I didn’t have to be answering to a relationship – we had a two-week rule, of not being away for more than two weeks. I didn’t have any of that.”
These days, home base is a farm in Nashville, where Kidman goes largely unbothered: there it is the country star Urban who is the more recognised celebrity. She likes it that way. It was to this farm she retired when she first found out she was pregnant with Sunday Rose. The subject brings tears to her eyes. “I just went, okay, well, I’ve adopted two children and I’m never going to have a birth child, that’s going to be my path. I had to come to terms with that. That was part of the thing when I married Keith – ‘I probably can’t have a child, I hope you’re okay with that.’ And he was. Then suddenly – I got pregnant, against all odds. Really against all odds. Doctors were shocked.” She withdrew to the farm, calling her doctor every week to fret. “I can’t feel her.” He’d come by and let me see her. I needed that, I needed to be told ‛No, it’s okay’, because I had so much loss and tragedy. It’s a big thing in my life, things, people getting taken suddenly. Stanley [Kubrick], my father. I hear a phone call at 3am and I’m terrified.” But she adds, pluckily: “I’m determined to beat it.”
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They go everywhere together, her, Keith and the kids – packed onto the tour bus with dad or on location with mom, off to Morocco for Werner Herzog’s Queen of the Desert or Cincinnati for Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer, out in November. “We’re very tight,” she says. “And we’re hard to penetrate, we’ve been told.” We almost have our own language.” The balance is immensely precious to her. “I’ve lost a marriage by not being willing to have that happen. My daughter came running in yesterday screaming – she had a tick. And I’m thinking, gosh, I’m so glad I’m here to take the tick out. I don’t want to miss those things, so that’s why I now say no to a lot. The career I have in my imagination is superb. The one I have in reality is sort of back on track in a way.” She has just completed a film called Untouchable, and one with Joel Edgerton called Boy Erased, with Russell Crowe – another childhood friend, from the age of 14 – as her husband. Liane Moriarty, the creator of Big Little Lies, is about to turn in a novella, commissioned exclusively by the producers to see if there’s another series in there. Then Kidman is off to Australia to film Aquaman for James Wan, a Malaysian-Australian director.
“I wanted to do something nobody would think I would do, and I know James,” she says. “I play Queen Atlanna. She births a superhero. I said to James, ‛If I’m birthing a superhero, you better give me a good birth scene. And the Queen. Come on. I was, like, okay. Now we’re talking.” What will her daughters do when they find Queen Atlanna in the kitchen? “They’ll be, like, ‘Yeah, yeah, where’s the crown?” Her laugh fills the room.
Images by Shutterstock
While you’re here, check out our September 2017 cover star’s Emmy acceptance speech:
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