Nicole Kidman on The Beguiled, Big Little Lies and BMX Bandits.
During a 34-year career, Nicole Kidman has worked with everyone from Stanley Kubrick to Lars von Trier. And with four astonishing performances at Cannes plus Big Little Lies this year, it’s clear she has no intention of slowing down. Total Film talks the
I USED TO TRY TO FIT INTO AN IDEA OF WHAT YOU’RE MEANT TO BE IN TERMS OF A FILM ACTRESS, BUT NOW I DON’T BOTHER!
This month, Nicole Kidman hits that most significant of milestones. The Australian actress turns 50, but she won’t be throwing a lavish party. “I always say I get enough attention,” she says. “The last thing I need is a huge birthday, having to talk to a lot of people.” She’d rather just spend time with her husband of 10 years, musician Keith Urban. Besides, Kidman is not one for counting the rings. “I probably don’t mark time with years,” she says softly. “I mark it more with memories.”
In 2017, there’s already been much to celebrate, much to remember. Oscar, Bafta and Golden Globe nominations for Lion, a hugely moving drama that sees Kidman play Sue Brierley, the real-life Australian who adopted two Indian boys. Then there’s been last month’s return to the Cannes Film Festival, with three major new films and a television show unveiled. Plus, the huge success of the David E. Kelley TV drama Big Little Lies, which she executive produced.
It’s typical of Kidman’s eclectic journey. Hawaii-born, Sydney-raised, she became a break-out star Down Under in films such as Dead Calm and Flirting; hot Hollywood newcomer thanks to 1991’s Days Of Thunder and Far And Away, meeting and marrying her co-star Tom Cruise; then an arthouse connoisseur, beginning with Gus Van Sant’s To Die For and her old friend Jane Campion’s Portrait Of A Lady.
By 1999, she was working with Cruise on Stanley Kubrick’s swansong Eyes Wide Shut. Divorce from Cruise followed, but so did a new phase of her career. Directors such as Baz Luhrmann ( Moulin Rouge!, Australia), Lars von Trier ( Dogville) and Jonathan Glazer ( Birth) flocked. She won an Oscar for playing suicidal writer Virginia Woolf in The Hours. True, there were flops ( The Invasion, Grace Of Monaco), but the good far outweighed the bad.
Just look at her Cannes choices this year. Sofia Coppola’s remake The Beguiled, with Kidman starring as Martha Farnsworth, the headmistress of a Virginia girls’ school that takes in Colin Farrell’s wounded soldier during the American Civil War. She’s with Farrell again in the idiosyncratic Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Killing Of A Sacred Deer, as the wife of a surgeon who forms a dangerous attachment with a young boy.
To show us her light side – we’ve seen it before, most recently as the villainess in Paddington – Kidman pops up in John Cameron Mitchell’s How To Talk To Girls At Parties as a fashion mogul who sets her eye on Elle Fanning’s mysterious alien. And then perhaps her most mouthwatering Cannes offering: a reunion with Campion in the second season of her sublime New Zealand-set procedural Top Of The Lake.
“Never play it safe,” remarked the New York Times once of Kidman’s red-carpet sartorial choices, but it could just as easily be applied to her career. Next up? The chance to be a “mermaid warrior”, Queen Atlanna, in Aquaman. What a way to mark your fiftieth…
The past 12 months or so have seen you work with some remarkable directors. Do you feel you’ve enjoyed a great year?
Yeah, I do! I worked with Jean-Marc Vallée [ on Big Little Lies] and Jane Campion and Yorgos Lanthimos and Sofia Coppola… it doesn’t get better than that. But I don’t know how that happened – that wasn’t like, “Oh my gosh! I’m going to plan this out.” Things just arrived and schedules aligned.
Lion was another highlight, gaining you a fourth Oscar nomination. Did you find it hugely emotional to play?
When I initially read it, I had that reaction – but I didn’t know it was a true story even. But then when I found it was a true story, I was like “Oh…” But subsequently getting meshed in the whole world of the Brierleys and getting to know Sue and the whole family… they’re pretty special but she’s just had a very, very unusual life, and at times traumatic life, and yet she managed to pull it all together and give these boys this beautiful future and life. And that’s the thing that touches me the most.
Were you cautious about meeting her? Maybe meeting her would influence you in some way…
It was more like I didn’t want to let her down. Obviously, it’s a supporting role, so it’s not her story – and she contributes to it. But her story itself – her life story – is so compelling. I was like, “Gosh, I hope I can somehow get her essence into the amount of screen time I have so you can really feel who she is and what she is.” So I wasn’t reticent to meet her, but I didn’t want her to feel that everything she shared with me – because I spent so much time with her – was not on the screen, because it couldn’t be. But I wanted to somehow honour her life.
You’ve also gone on to do the second season of Top Of The Lake. Was that due to Lion director Garth Davis, who codirected the first season, or more down to Jane Campion?
Oh, to Jane. Jane I’ve known since I was 14. Our friendship is really strong. A couple of
years ago, we were at dinner, and she said, “I’m writing a role for you now and you have to say ‘yes’!” I’m like, “OK!” And then she wrote me a supporting role in that. That for me is like home; Jane is like home. I’ve known her my whole life. I can say anything, be anything, do anything with her – and I love her! So Garth is… probably initially because Jane had chosen him to do Top Of The Lake with her, when I first read Lion, and I knew that he’d done that, I knew that he must be great. And Greig Fraser, the cinematographer [ of Lion], Jane shot Bright Star with.
We’re all connected.
What about Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled? It’s a remake of the 1971 Clint Eastwood film directed by Don Siegel…
Yeah. It’s just her remake of what she envisioned. She has a very particular way of doing this, Sofia. I love that she’s got such a strong… you know Sofia’s filmmaking and it’s not her father’s filmmaking. I really like that! And that’s hard. So I really like supporting that. When she called me up… she’d offered me something else and it didn’t come together and then she said, “I’ve written this script and do you want do this with me?” I said, “Of course Sofia, I’ll do anything with you!” Sofia knows Jane and Jane and I love Sofia. I hate to say but it’s also connected.
You’ve engineered a double bill with Colin Farrell, in The Beguiled and Yorgos
Lanthimos’ The Killing Of A Sacred Deer, right?
I did! We would say to each other, we’re in rep together – film rep! A little two-handed theatre company! We now want to go and do the third thing, but we need someone to offer us something. That would be cool – because they’re so different, the two films, good lord! As Colin and I said, “How amazing is that – to flit between those two?” And Yorgos is just a master.
Were you a big fan of The Lobster?
Agh! And Dogtooth! That brings you to your knees! He and the writer [ Efthymis Filippou] he works with – they’re so Greek! And fabulous. I love that he’s so powerful in his style. What he does cinematically has not been done. He’s really to himself, of himself. And then John Cameron Mitchell’s How To Talk To Girls At Parties… Yes, that I did in England.
In Croydon, right? It’s hard to imagine you in south London…
Oh, yeah! [ laughs] When I was young, I lived in Brixton for a while! Yeah!
Brixton has changed a lot since you were there…
Yes, from when I was there – I was opposite the jail!
What did you make of Croydon?
Cool! Obviously I spent so much time in England and lived all over the place, in all different parts of my career – when I had no money, when I did have money, all those things. I’ve experienced it many different ways. And that’s why I went back and did the play [The Blue Room] there because that’s probably where I feel the safest. I didn’t choose Australia, I chose London – both the plays I’ve done have been in London.
WHEN I WAS YOUNG, I LIVED IN BRIXTON FOR A WHILE – OPPOSITE THE JAIL!
Is it important for you to do projects back in Australia when you can?
Yeah. I’ve done smaller stories in Australia, like Strangerland – I was supporting a first-time female director there and it was really low budget. So that was a different type of film to make. To do something like Lion, which is actually being seen worldwide, and being acknowledged as an Australian film that works internationally, that’s really gratifying. And that’s rare in our industry; we’re trying to always build our industry. I love going home to shoot, really because I know the whole crew. Everyone I work with, pretty much, I’ve either known since I was young or they’re the children of people I work with!
Does that make you feel slightly old?
Yeah! Yeah, of course! I’ve been in that industry since I was 14 years old and it built me! And then I jumped over into some American films but then I moved into the British films and stage plays. Even Eyes Wide Shut, we shot in England, so a lot of my twenties were spent being a part of the British film industry and also doing theatre there. So probably the place I’ve worked least is America. And I’ve shot a lot in Europe, like with Lars [ von Trier]. I’ve just not shot a lot in the States.
IT WAS A COLLISION OF PROFESSIONAL SUCCESS AND PERSONAL FAILURE
Despite starting in your teens on films such as BMX
Bandits, do you remember what it was like to be a fan?
Yeah! I was a kid who waited for Abba! So I’ve been in that position. I was taken to the set of The Year Of Living Dangerously, and I remember seeing Mel Gibson from afar, and I thought “He looked at me!” But he had no recollection! It’s important that you always remember that; try to have some contact with people, it’s what I like to do. It’s important to remember where you’re at, and where you’ve come from, so you never get trapped in the world that you exist in.
You previously mentioned shooting
Eyes Wide Shut. Working with Stanley Kubrick must’ve been one of your greatest moments…
Yes, and I learnt from him. I absorbed him like a sponge. One, I liked him and two, he was just a great teacher – even though he would never say that he was teaching you. To just observe him and be around him… I really just liked him. And I really enjoyed him. I was devastated when he [ draws breath] died. That was just so… awful.
Kubrick’s passing was rather like David Bowie’s. They finished their work and then passed away…
Yeah… Bowie was just a tragedy for me too. Really. That’s a soundtrack to my childhood, Bowie. I think music is… filmmakers, yeah… but when music dies, you still have the music. Gosh, it really hits you – your mortality.
You went from Eye Wide Shut straight into Moulin Rouge! as Satine. Did you always want to sing?
No! [ laughs] I could sing as Satine. When I put on a character, I can sing. I wish my voice had been better. I wanted to be Mariah Carey or Celine Dion as Satine, but I had to use what I had. But I also think people have callings in life. My calling isn’t to play music; my calling is to act.
Was there anything that inspired that when you were young?
I read. Not just plays. I read a lot of literature, which was how I developed my sensibility really and escaped a lot of my childhood. I would just read, and I loved reading – and I still do.
You played Virginia Woolf in The Hours. How did you feel when it won you the Oscar?
When I won my Oscar, it was a mix of popping a champagne bottle but at the same time feeling incredibly lonely. Just because I didn’t have what I have now. And those situations when there’s an enormous amount of professional success, that can only magnify sometimes the things you don’t have in your real life. When everybody goes home, the party’s over. And that was very apparent then. That was probably the most, through that whole time, from when we first took Moulin Rouge! to Cannes all the way through to winning the Oscar for The Hours… that was a very strange time in my life. It was the collision of professional success and personal failure. And a lot of times, I know that happens for a lot of people – the collision of two things. And it’s probably ultimately the balance of life.
Did you sense you wanted something else in life?
I desperately wanted to have a baby [ she eventually had two with Urban, Sunday Rose,
now eight, and Faith, six, born via surrogate] and I wanted to have a real life, I wanted a full life. I had the opportunities to live my life through characters, which is very compelling and can be fulfilling to a degree, because you’re changing every few months into something else. You’re meeting new people, you’re forming very, very strong bonds with directors and they become like family. But then everyone goes home to their families and then you’re like, “Well, I’ve got my kids and I’ve got nothing else in my life.” I didn’t even have a home then. I was renting and just moving around, very gypsy-esque. So that’s when I went: “I just want something… I want somebody who’s going to share that with me.”
You were also taking increasing risks in your career with films such as Birth and
Was that deliberate?
I don’t see it as risky. That means at some stage I’m going to crash and burn, because I really don’t see it as risky. My make up is not able to define what’s a commercial hit movie or what’s not. I mean, with Dogville I walked on and saw there was no set – oh, my gosh. I’d seen the tests, but when you walk on and see it, you go, “Gee, is this going to work?” But knowing [ Bertolt] Brecht, and knowing the way in which you can achieve something through theatre and going, “Well, can we achieve this in cinema?” and having seen things in the ’70s attempted like that… if you can really create a world, then anything’s possible. It’s about creating truth on screen. But, yeah, I didn’t see working with Lars as risky, because he has great taste in performers. I think when you work with someone who has only made mediocre movies… that’s the risk!
What first drew you to Lars von Trier?
I saw Breaking The Waves years ago, and I responded to it in such a strong, strong way. I said in an interview to a journalist, who asked me which director I’d like to work with, that I’d like to work with Lars, and obviously he heard about that. Years later, that’s how the script arrived.
What about Birth? How did you find working with Jonathan Glazer?
I think what’s lovely about Jonathan is that he sets a bar, in terms of where he wants you to go, and then he allows the camera to just capture things. The scene where I’m listening to the music, in most films that scene would be cut, because there’s no dialogue, there’s nothing. It’s just a reaction. And he doesn’t do that, but lets it play out. The film has its own pace, has
its own quality, which I think is different to the pace of a lot of films.
Is going deep into character something you like doing?
I had that chance a few times. I had it with The Hours. I feel like I had it with The Others. It’s frustrating as an actor when you do work and you know you haven’t gone there – and you maybe haven’t asked for it or it’s not needed or the role is not complex enough to require it. All of those things. Or you attempt to reach something and you don’t get there.
Rabbit Hole won you a third Oscar nomination, playing a mother who loses her child. What took you down that path?
I think I was drawn to the material because it’s the thing I most fear. That sounds very strange, to want to go there, but that’s what I can get from it as an actor – to go to places that are terrifying to you. That’s very rich. And it’s worthy. I feel like if people can actually be living this, then I should be able to act it. And if I can’t act it in this deepest possible truth that I know, then I’m frustrated at myself and get angry at myself.
What about Stoker? Was it awkward working through a translator with South Korean director Park Chan-wook?
Strangely enough, once you get the rhythm of it, it isn’t that jarring. And particularly because Park constructs his shots… he had two, three-minute shots, which would take maybe half a day, sometimes all day to shoot. So you’re doing it very slowly. But it’s very specific. It’s not like Lee Daniels, who is the complete opposite and is very brazen and he’s “Try it!” He’s yelling off camera, and it’s a completely different kind of filmmaker. And for me, I got to make Lee’s film The Paperboy and Stoker back-to-back, which was really weird. From Louisiana and Lee to Nashville and Park, they were very different sets. But as an actor that was amazing.
You played Dr. Chase Meridian in
Batman Forever and you’re about to star in Aquaman. But you’ve not done too many summer blockbusters…
I’m not great at just playing the girl. I can’t do it. As Baz [ Luhrmann] would always say to me, you’re not the girl next door. I’m like, “Is that a compliment or is that an insult?” I recently was hiking with Jane [ Campion] and she said, “You have to play characters – that’s what you do best.” And Stanley Kubrick said it to me: he would
always say, “You’re a character actress. That’s actually what you are.”
Do you have a strategy for your career?
I’d love to say it’s a strategy but there’s no strategy. It’s random, spontaneous choices, and a lot of it is where my psyche is at the time. I think my heart – and I’ve said this – is probably pulled more towards independent filmmaking, but you don’t even know what independent filmmaking is any more, because there are so many different forms of it. Where the financing comes from and all that sort of stuff. But I suppose what that really means is that I’m just interested in things that are not so mainstream; I like things that don’t conform. I used to try to conform more and fit into an idea of what you’re meant to be in terms of a film actress, but now I don’t bother! And I think my spirit probably tends to be a ‘buck the system’ spirit anyway. So I’ve always had that. I dig my heels in every now and then, and think, ‘I’m not going to do what’s expected or what people think is the right thing.’ So I have a little bit of that in my personality.
What about producing? How did you start doing that?
I produced In The Cut, because it was a book I read years ago, and I just used my own money, bought the rights, and took it to Jane.
Is it becoming more important for you?
I just want to support writers and directors who are not able to get their projects made, and find new talent and put my weight behind people that need opportunity. Because I had that. As an actor, people mentored and believed in me – and I’m very much about cultivating and helping people do that.
One of your recent successes is Big Little Lies, which you executive produced alongside Reese Witherspoon. You’ve not done much TV. Is there any reason?
No, but I don’t have any snob factor in relation to it. It’s become the thing, almost more than film. I think when you have seven hours or 10 hours or six hours to develop a character, any actor would relish that. With Big Little Lies, we could’ve made it as a film – but we wouldn’t have been able to give five women really good roles. We would’ve had to have narrowed it down and we were really committed to each one of the characters being explored and being able to get great actresses for each role, and we got great actresses.
Has the industry woken up to the fact that we need good female roles?
Yeah, but any time you rest on your laurels with that stuff, it will go back 10 steps. So it’s more about just constantly talking about it, supporting, pushing for it, so that it gets traction – far more than for just a couple of years.
What about inequality in pay? Have you experienced this?
Probably. I don’t ever find out. I wouldn’t know what other people are paid and I feel I still have that slightly old-school thing where I would never ask. A little embarrassed and shy – which is probably the wrong approach to money, but I get a bit awkward with it all. Of course I believe in equal pay but my ability to advocate for myself isn’t that strong. It should be better. But that’s just the generation and me being who I am and the way I was raised, and then a product of being a woman as well. Not good!
TV’S BECOME THE THING, ALMOST MORE THAN FILM
Lion is available on DVD and Blu-ray now. The Beguiled opens on 14 July. Top Of The Lake Season 2 begins on BBC2 in late July. The Kill ing Of A Sacred Deer and How To Talk To Girls At Parties open later in the year.
beguiling Starring with Colin Farrell in Sofia Coppola’s latest.
Kidman watches back a scene with director Baz Luhrmann on the set of 2001’s Moulin Rouge!.
beside the sea Out for a run with Shailene Woodley and Reese Witherspoon in Big Little Lies.