Nicole Kidman and Sue Brierley became “soul sisters” when the actress played the adoptive mother in the new Australian film Lion.
Nicole Kidman and Sue Brierley became “soul sisters” when the actress played the adoptive mother in the new Australian film Lion. Here, the two women discuss their commonalities: motherhood, adoption and being redheads, with Sophie Tedmanson. Styled by Christine Centenera. Photographed by Will Davidson.
“AT THE END OF THE DAY, FAMILY CREATION IS ABOUT THE ONLY THING YOU’VE GOT A SAY IN”
Sue Brierley: “When I emailed you I was concerned about how you’d come out of a film process like Lion. Having lived that story [Sue adopted Saroo Brierley from India when he was five years old, then supported him when he searched 25 years later to find his birth mother in India], I knew what it’s like, but I was worried about you, quite honestly. When you came into the caravan [on set], I could see you were a bit shaky, and you said: ‘Wow, you cried a lot.’ And it really cut me to the core, because people think that you just go through a process like that, but it’s not quite as simple, is it?” Nicole Kidman: “No, it’s not. Also because I was trying to really honour you and be a conduit for your feelings, and because I’ve learnt so much about you, I feel unbelievably connected to you. And the way in which you’ve really kept the family together, how you’re the glue of all of it, I wanted to honour that. I’ve seen my own mother do that in our family. I know that’s what the woman does in the family: it is the glue, the strength of that maternal force. And obviously the film follows Saroo more than it follows you, so I wanted, in the parts that I’m in, to try to layer in as much as I could with you, because you’re special. That’s why I’m glad that the world is getting to see just a glimpse of you.” SB: “I don’t know about you, but I’ve thought about it a lot, and what I’ve done, I’m hoping that the film might reawaken women thinking about adoption, and give them the freedom to say: ‘Yes, I would be a great mother’, or maybe: ‘No, I won’t’, so they can make these decisions about the child they wish for. To question if they can help another little child, that doesn’t have to be through birth or otherwise. I’m hopeful. My husband John said: ‘Don’t get your hopes up too high; look at the situation in Australia now and how it’s been for so long.’ The adoption process is not likely to change dramatically anytime soon. I’d be happy if 10 women thought differently about motherhood and adoption.” NK: “It doesn’t have to be biological. That’s what I love about this movie, and what I keep trying to say: once the bond is there between a mother and a child, the biological part of it is sort of the least important part. I think when that bond forms, it’s astounding how powerful it is.” SB: “Do you think the bond forms before you’re even in a situation where something might come in to play? Say you become pregnant, have a partner? I almost feel that the strength of what [motherhood] I’ve got gripped me very early in my life.” NK: “Yes. That’s why I always said I related to your story. Because I always knew I’d adopt; I just always wanted a child. I think from a very early age, I wanted a child. I knew that I was going to have a child and that it didn’t matter [how], I actually didn’t know if I was ever going to give birth to a child. So that was the least of it for me. And what I did first was adopt.” [Kidman adopted two children – Isabella, now 24, and Connor, now 21 – with her first husband, Tom Cruise.] SB: “That’s exactly how I felt. I hadn’t even started menstruating when I started to dream [about children] and then all of a sudden, bang, the answer came to me. I’m very lucky that I achieved my dream. I’ll never forget that. I mean, with such obstacles put in your way …” NK: “But I also love what you said when you got married. Tell us about that.” SB: “It would never have happened if I hadn’t met someone who agreed with my philosophy of parenting. John and I met when I was 16, and we talked about these things quite a lot. Our generation was very interested in the world and what direction it would take. Even just thinking about my boys [Sue and John also adopted Mantosh from India], how they’ve been thinking of the world and relating. At the end of the day, family creation is just about the only thing you’ve got some sort of say in. So much else is just out of our hands: there are all these crises and economics and wars, there’s a lot of stuff that we can’t do anything about, but we can look after children.” Sophie Tedmanson: “Sue, you told me that in the early days when you first adopted that people treated you like you were a different kind of mother.” SB: “Well, that’s definitely true, I’m not sure if it was the same for you, too, Nicole? Because people don’t necessarily have a good understanding of other people’s choices and situations as far as families go. In those early days, most of my friends had babies and couldn’t get their heads around why we weren’t doing the same. Because we had to wait 16 years for a baby, until Saroo arrived. People couldn’t understand it, so they were very awkward at times; they either fell into a defensive reaction of: ‘We did this’ or: ‘This is the right way’ or: ‘We won’t go there.’” NK: “Or: ‘We feel so bad that you couldn’t have your own children.’ That’s what I got a lot of.” SB: “Oh, I have lost count of the times that that was said to me.” NK: “People don’t mean it to be offensive, but it is.” SB: “It is, because they look at it as if you’ve endured a tragedy. And you’re over the moon! You’re so happy! So how did you respond?” NK: “I would say, basically: ‘This is my destiny, this is what I wanted, and this is my child.’ And that’s the simplest way to handle that. And then they would back off and say: ‘Oh sorry. Of course it’s your own!’ [she laughs]. And even some really close friends who I confided in were still sort of: ‘Oh, but one day, we really hope that [you will give birth] …’ and you just go: ‘Oh, shoosh!’ It’s very unusual, but I’m hoping now that the world is changing in relation to that, especially through education.
“You gravitate towards the people who are far more understanding, who have an innate understanding, which is what we naturally had from the minute we met, which is why I probably felt so incredibly easy with you. And that’s just the natural flow of our relationship.” SB: “You know, you’re a very special person, too. Last week we did an interview with 60 Minutes and the reporter, who interviewed me when we first went to India when Saroo found his birth mother [in 2012], reminded me that back then we were joking about who would play me if a film was made of Saroo’s story. And of course I said you …” NK: “Are you kidding?” SB: “No!” NK: “Oh my gosh! Look how powerful your visions are! Golly. That’s amazing! I cannot believe you said that.” SB: “Back then were just so excited about 60 Minutes and the book! Now the book’s in 15 different countries and languages, there’s a children’s edition being worked on. And further to your earlier question, Nicole, I think maybe you could read Saroo’s book to your girls.” NK: “Maybe … because people have been asking me if I’ll show them [her daughters Sunny and Faith with Keith Urban] Lion, and I don’t know … in terms of my own films, I rarely show
them to anyone. Keith hasn’t seen Lion. He’s going to see it at the New York premiere, which we’ll all be at, right?” SB: “I’m looking forward to that.” NK: “And Dev [Patel, who plays Saroo in Lion] is divine. I caught up with him on the weekend, he is hilarious. He’s so nervous. And just so gawky and adorable. And everyone’s laughing because I’m like: ‘Oh my son, my boy’, and he’s so big! Like your Saroo, so big!” SB: “Saroo sent me a photo this morning, of he and Dev standing together, they’re just having the best time.” ST: “Is it true that during the filming your families all bonded together in Tasmania? Were you barbecuing on the beach together?” NK: “Yeah! We had a beautiful barbecue that Garth [ Davis, Lion director] organised; what area was that again?” SB: “It’s called Primrose Sands. It was just idyllic.” NK: “I want to go back and go camping there. I keep telling the world about this part of Tasmania, because it’s just gorgeous there. We went sailing there, we played cricket there. And when we got off the boat, someone was standing there with wine and oysters, and I thought, this is the life! That tells you so much about Hobart and Tasmania. The people … just standing there with big smiles on their faces.” ST: “Nicole, how important is it, when you’re playing a real person, to spend time and learn from them? Or do you not do that until you’ve formed the role yourself?” NK: “For some reason when I met Garth, the first thing I asked him was: ‘ Can I meet Sue, can I talk to Sue?’ But I didn’t want Sue to feel put upon, so my producing partner [Per] came down, and sat with Sue and they talked and he asked questions and recorded it. Then I watched it and we finally we met in my apartment in Sydney and we talked and talked and talked about really deep stuff – like, almost within the first five minutes – and I cried. I sort of held her and cried, I mean really crazy stuff.” SB: “It really was like we got connected at the soul, and it sort of paid off. And the same when Per was here, because he was an absolute delight, really. Some of the questions he popped out, well, I cried, too! I guess out of this whole process, for me, the biggest part of it, was you [Nicole] wanted to embrace and connect with this film role and so, for me, it was just like bam! – there you are, straight to my source. And I felt really happy to open up and let it out.”
“ACTING’S GIVEN ME THE MOST EXTRAORDINARY OPPORTUNITIES TO MEET PEOPLE IN MY LIFE WHO I STAY CONNECTED TO FOREVER”
NK: “And I learnt so much, just even talking to you and being around you also felt very soothing, which is very unusual for me. So to answer you, Sophie, this is completely unusual for me. Sort of not the normal approach, but I knew that. I felt a pull towards Sue and I felt a pull towards the role, and I followed those instincts. I just naturally followed them and I’m so glad I did.” SB: “Me too, me too. I feel very proud of that fact. Because sometimes society is sort of posturing and you get the feeling you’re being judged more than you deserve … and not that I’m saying I’m haughty in any way, but, you know, sometimes it takes a special person to really recognise a couple of women like us, who acknowledge that. This is a powerful thing. Do you feel like that, Nicole?” NK: “I just love that, yeah. I just love when you said we are like sisters of the soul: that’s what it felt like, and I’ll feel like that forever. That is incredibly special. And it’s unusual, because a lot of times we’re all guarded, we all have a way of approaching situations and when that just falls by the wayside … that’s the kind of people I seek out and want to keep in my life. And that was facilitated directly, because there was this amazing opportunity through the film, the bridge was built for us very easily and very quickly, otherwise we never would have found each other. Acting has given me the most extraordinary opportunities to meet certain people in my life, who I stay connected to forever: that’s probably the greatest thing that acting has given me.” SB: “And furthermore you can share that with your children, too.” NK: “My children [daughters Sunny and Faith] get to travel; they get to see things that they would normally not. I sometimes feel bad they’re taken out of school, and they’re travelling around and doing these things, but then we all have different parts and I want to keep us together.” ST: “Nicole, in a recent interview, you described this film as ‘a love letter to your children’. And there is a powerful scene in Lion where, as Sue, you are talking to Saroo and explaining why you chose to adopt. I can only imagine it was such a personal scene for you with your own experience as a mother – through adoption, birth and surrogacy – so did that strengthen your bond with Sue? Because you’re both Australian mothers, you’ve both adopted children, you’re both extremely maternal. Was that scene special in that sense, as well?” NK: “Definitely, and it vibrated within me for that reason.” SB: “I feel it’s the most powerful scene of a mother-child relationship; to show how precious your child is. I’ve often felt sad with the way adoption is portrayed in the media, because it often comes over as adoption is the second-best thing, and deep down I cry for the children who get traumatised by that, by knowing that there are other issues, that they’ve come into a family because of a sadness; it’s such a delicate thing. To help children who are adopted through that process, we all know people who have struggled with it, and even with the fact that Saroo felt really driven to find his first mother, that was so precious to me, because he felt he was able to. I’m still very curious and haven’t got to the bottom of it … I think it’s actually a natural instinct. Just like the mothering is this need to know … we talked about his first mother and family a lot, and I tried to encourage him, saying we were sending messages by the heavens, so his mother would know he was okay. When I first met Kamla [his birth mother], all I wanted to know was did she get a feeling from the heavens that Saroo was still alive? That was the message I was sending her for 25 years.” NK: “Isn’t Sue amazing? This is how she talks! I’m crying here!” ST: “Do you feel the same way, Nicole?” NK: “Yes! Because I think when you view it in that way, the love is so powerful for a child, for the birth mother, the father, for everyone involved. There’s such a unity, which ultimately is a gorgeous message to the world. Love is the strongest, most powerful emotion that exists in the whole make-up of the family. It’s not: ‘Oh, I don’t want you, I’m so threatened, oh my gosh’; it’s not that, and I think that’s what is so special about the way this is portrayed in this film and why Luke Davies wrote such a beautiful screenplay, because at one point Sue [in the film] says, in such a concise way: ‘I can’t wait for her to meet you to see how beautiful you are.’ And I don’t know if you actually said that [Sue], but obviously what you’re saying right now, that that’s the feeling and love for me is one of the most profoundly beautiful, unconditional love, and that’s the way to say it.” SB: “You’ve hit the nail on the head, because, you know, to meet Kamla and show her this most beautiful boy, I’m proud. And then it turned around when I knew she certainly did feel that connection and that was why she’d never moved house, hoping he would return. You know, I felt giddy, and I started to cry, and she started to comfort me. She was comforting me! That I was so worried she had lost a connection with the child she’s given birth to. I’m just so lucky I had that life experience.” NK: “It’s far deeper than so many relationships, and then he ends up with having both of you, and a child only prospers from that, I think.” ST: “Sue, what did you think when you first saw Nicole, in the flesh or on screen, in character as you? And Nicole, vice versa?” NK: “Well, I don’t look anywhere near as good as Sue! She has exquisite skin, let me tell you, I love it. It’s like baby-soft skin.” ST: “Sue, you have red hair as well, don’t you?” SB: “Yes! I was told that the wigs that were made for you [Nicole] were made from Eastern-European hair, so it would be the same texture as mine.” NK: “But your hair is much better in real life.” SB: “It’s very difficult in that regard, I was a bit concerned about those things … but I was mesmerised.” ST: “What were your reactions when you saw the whole film?” NK: “My first reaction was: ‘Is Sue okay? – Was she okay when she saw it?’” SB: “I was blown away. We were almost shocked … we couldn’t believe our own lives being portrayed so accurately. I had to get someone to get me a glass of water … I couldn’t walk very well.” NK: “Oh, my darling …!” SB: “What I needed was your arm around me, Nicole, like you do when we are together.” NK: “I saw it with my sister [Antonia]. It was fantastic, because she’s got six children and she said: ‘This isn’t a film, this is an experience.’ She was enraptured, she’s a massive champion of the film. Let’s change the perception of adoption, Sue!” SB: “I’ve got a great teammate for that.” NK: “We’re soul sisters.”
Vintage jacket, $400, from Route 66. Alexander McQueen dress, $4,800, and harness, $10,190. Eres bra, $255, from a selection at Sylvia Rhodes. Stetson boots, $470. All prices approximate; fashion details last pages.