“Motherhood brings me enormous joy”
Nicole Kidman opens up to Stephanie Rafanelli about her four children, loving Keith, missing her dad and why she can’t wait to be a grandmother.
There is a little noise that Nicole Kidman emits when she is deep in conversation: something between a sigh and an “ah” that comes out as a soft “wah” and signifies intensity of emotion, accompanied by a tilt back of the head or a swipe of a palm on her brow, her russet curls scraped back today in a topknot.
Her complexion, which can be bloodless on screen, is flushed a wild rose; perhaps glowing a little pinker through the force of maternal passion. For she is trying to persuade me to get pregnant. “Come on, please, have that baby!” she begs, leaning in close, her eyes flashing with mischief. “Babies bring so much joy. Wah!”
Nicole is so far from her image as the regal redhead, a vision of intimidating stature who, I admit, I expected to be a little pinched.
In an old AC/DC T-shirt and jeans, she is hanging out at home (admittedly, a stately Tennessee mansion set around a pool), with Sunday, eight, and Faith, six, her daughters with country singer Keith Urban, enjoying time with them before launching into a hectic US film schedule.
We talk in her slate-grey painted office hung with framed maps, a break in a day in which she appears to be knee-deep in domesticity. Sunday, who is suffering from a cold, peeps her head out from behind the door frame. “She’s very shy. How is your ear feeling?” Nicole says, tenderly. “And your throat? A little bit sore? Okay, gargle with a little bit of salt water.”
Nicole has a sensitivity to others that quickly comes to the fore. “As my husband says, I’m ‘deeply maternal’.” She laughs as if this is the mother of all understatements. “I like to take care of people. It brings me a lot of joy.”
If you are looking to understand Nicole Kidman, then motherhood may provide the most powerful clue. It is, she says, central to her most important perceptions about herself, her life and even her career. Her latest film, Lion, which has garnered her a Golden Globe and Oscar nomination for best supporting actress, is the perfect case in point. A powerful, emotionally charged drama, Lion is about a five-year-old Indian boy, Saroo Brierley, who accidentally boards a train and becomes lost in Kolkata before being adopted by an Australian couple. The story is about the power of maternal love in all its forms, from natural to adoptive motherhood and all variations in between.
“For me, mothering brings me enormous joy,” says Nicole, 49, who recently told a US magazine she hoped for one more child, despite her age and history of fertility troubles, saying her grandmother had given birth at the same age. “I still have the faintest hope that something may happen to me this year.
“I love mothering. I just have a strong maternal pull, as does my sister Antonia, and I’m also the eldest child in my family, who I always think takes on that caretaker personality.
“I was the girl that always wanted the white picket fence and everything that comes with that,” she explains, her soft Australian accent in full bloom. “I just have an incredibly complicated inner life, an imaginary, creative life. And those two things can collide.”
After more than 15 years in Los Angeles – she was married from 1990 to 2001 to Tom Cruise, with whom she adopted Isabella and Connor, now 24 and 21 – Nicole moved to low-key Nashville in 2006 “to have a life” with her second husband, Keith. Sunday was born in 2008 when Nicole was 41, and Faith was born two years later to a surrogate mother. Since then, she has eased her foot a little off the career pedal, but “I couldn’t give up everything creatively because that would cause a frustration inside of me. I’m still battling with it all.”
To reconcile her warring urges, the Kidman-Urban clan stick together, going on Keith’s tours whenever possible and also accompanying Nicole on shoots, taking a travelling tutor with them for the girls’ schooling. The family’s recent gypsy wanderings have included a stay in Marrakesh while Nicole was shooting Queen of the Desert, Werner Herzog’s biopic of explorer Gertrude Bell. They also decamped to London in the northern autumn of 2015 for the theatrical run of Photograph 51, in which she played biochemist Rosalind Franklin, whose contribution to the discovery of the structure of DNA was overlooked by history. Her new TV hit, Big Little Lies – based on the bestselling book by Australian author Liane Moriarty – was fitted into short but intense filming sessions in LA throughout 2016.
Yet Nicole does feel the force of
‘the push-pull’. “Oh, my gosh, the intensity of the emotions I feel! It’s not necessarily great for a child to have an intensely emotional mother. And I don’t want to be a helicopter
parent, so I’m trying to… ” she puffs her cheeks as if about to explode with affection, “balance the intensity of the love. It’s really hard.”
Love and loss
Nicole is a woman torn between continents. Her father, Antony, died of a sudden heart attack in 2014 while in Singapore visiting her younger sister, Antonia, a journalist with six children.
“My mother is still going through terrible grief,” says Nicole. “They were together for 50 years. It’s awful to see, so sad. She’s in Australia, which is why we all go back four times a year. In your 40s, you are grappling with all those things: trying to be the mother and the daughter. It’s a lot.”
Nicole is also still grieving for her father, with whom she discussed Photograph 51 before taking the role (as a biochemist, Antony was aware of Franklin). He never got to see the play. Even so, Nicole says, he is still with her.
“I loved my father very much,” she says. “I’m happy to talk about him because it keeps him here with me. I miss him every day. I think anyone who was close to their father would relate to that, would know that feeling. It’s not a morbid thing, it’s just that he is very much a part of me still. Every performance was for him. Literally every time I was about to go on, I would speak to him. I had this photo of him when he was young in a lab coat with his curly hair.
“So from playing in the lab as a girl to going on stage wearing a lab coat playing a biochemist – it was unbelievable for me. I would literally cry in my curtain calls.”
That’s the thing about Nicole – she is very human, open about her vulnerabilities. Which doesn’t mean there aren’t places she won’t go. She politely declines to discuss the health of her mother, who was rushed to a Sydney hospital in late November with suspected heart problems. “I don’t want to talk about my mum in those terms,” says Nicole. “That’s her privacy. She’s strong, my mum. I’m so grateful she’s in the world. I speak to her or text her almost every day. She’s an amazing woman and I love her.”
Nicole has always maintained a dignified silence about her relationship with Tom Cruise and the Church of Scientology, of which he is a leading member. A recent documentary claimed that the church ordered the break-up of their marriage because of Nicole’s refusal to join. She recently bared a little of her life with Tom, describing theirs as “a beautiful marriage”, and admitting she was the loneliest she has been in her life following their divorce. She has also endured tabloid speculation about the state of her relationship with her adopted children, both of whom are adherents of Scientology.
Yet she talks warmly about her older children as we discuss Lion. Incredibly, the film is based on a true story. Saroo Brierley, played by British actor Dev Patel, still lives in Tasmania. He spent much of his young adulthood searching for his Indian birth family. Nicole, who plays Saroo’s adoptive mum, Sue Brierley, says the film is about the emotional power of motherhood. “Nothing comes close. Seeing Bella and Connor grown up and still having a six-yearold in the house.”
I’m happy to talk about my dad because it keeps him here with me.
Now that Bella is married, Nicole might even be a grandmother soon. “I hope so!” she cries, immediately. “I’m not meant to say that, am I? My sister’s friend, who is 43, just became a grandmother. My sister and I were saying, ‘Oh, she’s so lucky!’” But motherhood, she says, should be without expectation.
“The fact is that this film, when I first read the script, reached out to me in a way that few scripts ever have,” Nicole says of Lion. “It was like a love letter to all my children, Sunday and Faith as well as Bella and Connor. I think it’s beautiful and powerful, like poetry. It’s all about unconditional love, for me. Obviously, I am an adoptive mother, so the strength of that relationship is what I related to.
“There’s a line in the film where my character, Sue Brierley, says, ‘I want your mother to see how beautiful you are.’ She holds her adopted son’s face as she says that and, to me, that is unconditional love in its purest form, the most pure form of mothering that there is. There are adoptive mothers, biological mothers... whatever the mother relationship is, the central idea is that as a mother you want your child to be loved. I love that.
“Motherhood is about the journey. There are going to be incredible peaks and valleys, whether you are an adopting mother or a birth mother. What a child needs is love.”
Nicole always saw herself as a young mother. Growing up in Sydney, she had decided to become an actor by
14, a career her mother worried she was too thin-skinned for. Her big break came at 22, in the thriller Dead Calm, catapulting her into a leading role opposite Hollywood’s young gun Tom Cruise in Days of Thunder. The pair married when she was just 23 and adopted Isabella and Connor after Nicole suffered an ectopic pregnancy. “I was so young when I got married,” she says. “I look back now and I’m like, ‘What?’ You look at Taylor Swift, I mean how old is she? She’s 26. I had two kids by the time I was 27 and I’d been married for four years. But that’s what I wanted.”
Nicole had a solid acting career throughout her marriage to Tom, but it was not until their break-up, shortly after a miscarriage, that she showed the world her true range. Grieving and depressed, her turn as Virginia Woolf in The Hours landed her the Best Actress Oscar in 2003.
Could she have burrowed so deeply into Woolf’s tortured spirit if she had not herself been suffering?
“I don’t know,” says Nicole. “Would I have done Rosalind the same way if my father hadn’t just passed away? Probably not. Sometimes it all comes together. And sometimes it doesn’t.”
She has never been a strategist, always choosing films impulsively. “Well, it has worked and not worked for me,” she says, chuckling.
One of her other rather impulsive decisions was to
wed Keith, who had a history of drug and alcohol problems, in June 2006. She says they barely knew each other at the time. Everyone thought was a huge mistake. Not least when Keith went into rehab four months later. Nevertheless, they celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary last year.
“That’s really big for us,” she says. “It was really up and down for the first three months. We’ve been through a lot in the past 10 years, but we’re stronger than ever. I say that while touching wood and no way in a boastful way. I just say it with wonder. Absolute wonder.”
She giggles a little woozily. It’s easy to feel the strength of their connection.
“It’s because we are Australian,” says Nicole. “Even though Keith was born in New Zealand, he’s still an Australian. I met and fell in love with an Australian man in America – what are the chances? He was born the same year as me. That’s so serendipitous and it’s obviously part of why we fell in love because we are both Australian.
“I think when you have all that history that’s the same – the shared love of good coffee, the music, Cold Chisel, the beach, the sun. We share all of that because we both experienced that as teenagers, even though we met much later in life. Yet we have that together. He still calls me his ‘Aussie girlfriend’. That’s how he introduces me – ‘That’s my Aussie girlfriend,’ he says. I love that.”
The shared experience has also bonded them. “When you’re older,” says Nicole, who turns 50 in June, “you’ve been through things, you’ve made mistakes.
“So you come into it [a second marriage] still giddy, but wanting it to last. We always consider the ‘us’. We say, ‘Is this going to be good for us?’ It’s the simplest phrase, but it works.”
Nicole and Keith do not disguise their affection for each other at public events and he provides support for her on the red carpet.
“I’m not a peacock,” says Nicole. “It’s not in my nature. I think people get frustrated with me because you’re meant to be, but I’m just not.”
She has, however, shown a little more of her fun side lately – dancing on stage with Keith at one of his concerts and releasing an unofficial video of the pair singing his latest hit The Fighter in their car.
But there is little she likes more than a quiet night in with Keith and the girls. “I don’t have that FOMO thing: fear of missing out. I can stay home and not go to the party. It’s so much nicer at home in my jammies.
“I had a girls’ night out recently with five of my Nashville girlfriends. We eat really early, senior hour. We get there at 6pm in this empty restaurant and we have the best time and, at the end, we looked at our watches, ‘Oh, 8.30pm! Awesome!’”
Nicole also works with friends. The new TV series Big Little Lies, which she co-produced with Reese Witherspoon, deals with a group of school mothers and their involvement in a murder. “Reese and I are a good team,” Nicole says. “She got married and had children really young. I think that’s why we get on. She’s moving to Nashville and we have beach houses next to each other in the Bahamas.”
Nicole will also appear in New Zealand director Jane Campion’s series
Top of the Lake this year. “She’s championed me since I was 14,” Nicole says, “and now we go hiking on Sundays and have long dinners and watch the sunset. I said, ‘Janey, it’s amazing that we have this friendship. Wah!” Her eyes are brimming with emotion again. “As Janey always says, ‘The real life is so much better.’”
And with that it’s time for Nicole to dose her daughter up with cold medicine and eat some smashed-up watermelon. Domesticity is her happy place.
He calls me his ‘Aussie girlfriend’. I love that.”
Lion is at cinemas now. Big Little Lies screens on Sky’s SoHo channel, Sundays at 8.30pm, .
Nicole Kidman says her latest film, Lion, is “a love letter to all my children”.
With Faith and Sunday last year on one of their frequent trips home to Sydney.
FROM LEFT: Nicole’s adopted children, Connor and Bella. The actress with her first husband, Tom Cruise, with whom she says she had “a beautiful marriage”. Nicole and her father Antony, who died in 2014 – the pair had a close bond.
FROM TOP: Nicole and Reese Witherspoon in Big Little Lies. A grey-haired Nicole in Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake. In the movie Lion, Nicole is the Australian woman who adopts the lost Indian boy Saroo, played by Sunny Pawar (above) and Dev Patel (right).
Actress Nicole Kidman joins her husband Keith Urban on stage in Nashville on New Year’s Eve, 2016.