Vogue interviewed Nicole on her work as Celeste on Big Little Lies. Nicole shared how she had bruises from filming and how much it bothered Keith.
There’s been a general consensus among those in the office watching HBO’s irresistible Big Little Lies for the past few weeks: Nicole Kidman has never been better. In the limited series, the Oscar-winning actress plays Celeste, a woman in a deeply twisted, frequently violent relationship with her husband, Perry (Alexander Skarsgård). To the outside world, this photogenic and highly successful pair have managed to keep the spark in their marriage alive. But behind closed doors, Celeste has been quietly suffering from a never-ending cycle of psychosexual abuse, which she often mistakes for love, or intense passion. “It’s as if we turn each other on by rage,” she says to her therapist.
We spoke to Kidman on the phone from the set of her new movie Untouchable, and talked through the process of bringing Big Little Lies to the screen (she’s also an executive producer on the project), how her husband, Keith Urban, reacted the day she came home after filming covered in bruises, and the particular type of strain such a role required: “There are other characters that are easier to intellectually approach, but this was visceral,” says Kidman.
Congratulations on the show—not only do you star in it but you also produced it along with Reese Witherspoon. How did the series first come your way?
My friend Bruna Papandrea worked with Reese when they had the production company, Pacific Standard, and she called me—I’ve known her since we were teenagers—and said, “I just read this book and I think it could be amazing for us all.” And I read it overnight and went “Yeah, this is so good. I’m going to Australia tomorrow so I can try and have a meeting with Liane [Moriarty], the author, and try to convince her to let us option it. Reese also wanted to get it. So I flew to Australia and met with Liane and said, “If you let us option your book, I promise we’ll get it made.” And she said okay and took it off the market. But she had one condition, I had to play Celeste.
Would you have liked to play any of the other characters in the show?
That’s probably the character I would have cast myself in, or the director would’ve. In the book, Madeline was more different. In the TV show she came to fruition after David E. Kelley started to write it and he wrote it specifically for Reese. And then he wrote Celeste even more for me. He really took the book and made it into a limited series. We considered for a second trying to make it into a film, but then we knew it was definitely a limited series. There hadn’t been a female-driven one like this that we had ever seen.
I know there was a bidding war for it early on.
Nothing had been written. We just had the book, we had Reese, David, and I, and that was it. It was kind of amazing to feel the interest—that’s what happens when women combine their powers. If I’d gone by myself to try and do it, it wouldn’t have worked.
Was Liane surprised when an Oscar-winning actress called her up to meet for coffee?
No, because she had put the book up for option and lots of people were interested. Everyone was trying to get it. That’s the normal process for an author, the abnormal process is that it actually gets made. She’d optioned The Husband’s Secret and that hasn’t been made. It’s really tough to get stuff off the ground. It was just one of those things where the confluence of events and the timing was right. Reese and I were very committed to it. Then Laura [Dern] came on, then Shailene [Woodley], Zoë [Kravitz], Alexander. The biggest coup was getting Jean-Marc Vallée because to get a director of that caliber to direct all of the episodes [in a series] is unusual.
The whole series really looks great. The set design is amazing, the location, too.
We wanted it to be cinematic. In a way it was approached for TV, but in a way that it felt like you were watching a very long film. And the music is so good too, right?
What has been the response you’ve been getting after playing Celeste?
All I know is that now when I’m out getting coffee at Starbucks or when I’m on the set—I finished filming yesterday—all the women were like “Oh my god, you’re leaving before the series is finished, now we can’t talk!” They want to come and do a recap with me about all of it. I think the psychology is very interesting behind all the characters.
People really want to talk to me about it and really analyze it. It’s an amazing reaction because I’m usually either in very avant-garde art films, or unusual films, or things that are very, very divisive. To be in something that is so accessible and still topical is very interesting to me. And to be in people’s living rooms and be a part of their lives every week for a period of time, I like that. It’s a very invigorating and stimulating place to be as an actor.
What were some of those conversations like?
They’re upset, they’re disturbed. They say they know people, they know of people that have been through that. They want to understand why; they want to ask what Celeste is thinking, feeling.
It’s funny that people would think you would have answers about how a fictional character is feeling.
Well, I do, because I am playing her and got deeply enmeshed in her. I felt my way through that character because the only way to play her was to feel and be her. There are other characters that are easier to intellectually approach, but this was visceral.
The therapy scenes between Celeste and her psychologist are brutal. I cried while watching last week’s episode, where Celeste’s denial starts to finally unravel.
That makes me cry, when people have that type of response, because as an actor that’s a very deep, beautiful response from people. There’s enormous amount of this in the world, it’s insidious, it’s not understood, it’s very aligned with shame and secrecy and obviously pain and sacrifice and blame. All of those words are profoundly deep words and deep emotions. Yet the way in which it’s done is that it slowly unravels. It’s the way in which Celeste has to unravel herself. What is so important for her is that when she goes to seek help she doesn’t want the relationship to be destroyed, she just wants it to be fixed. She knows these things are unhealthy, but she’s not willing to delve any deeper than “I just need some tools.” That’s where it starts, and then slowly through this extraordinary therapist—who immediately knows the minute she sees them as a couple what’s going on—she knows it’s going to be a very hard road. Celeste is living in a very dangerous place.
Perry is an interesting character, too. He’s not a two-dimensional monster. We see moments of tenderness from him, right after he’s finished attacking her. She’s even comforting him after one bout of violence. You want her to leave him, but you can also sort of understand why it’s so hard for her, too.
That’s why Alex is so good. I’ve been reading articles that people have sent me that say they are glad this has started a discussion. You have domestic violence counselors who are analyzing the relationship and saying how authentic it is just because he’s capable of falling into his knees and crying and apologizing and saying he’s going to change. He’s a mix of control and possessiveness and shame and repentance. It’s a very dangerous and toxic relationship, but as they both like to say, “they love each other.”
Were you happy to put this character behind you?
I didn’t realize how much of it penetrated me. I would go home at night sometimes and be in a lot of pain, and I had to take things like Advil because I was being thrown around physically. I was really bruised. At one point Keith was like “I’m going to take a photo of your back because it’s covered in deep, massive bruises.” He was devastated seeing it, but then he would say, “But I have an artist wife!” He knows that’s how I work; I don’t even notice it half the time. I loved playing her, because she was a beautifully written character with a director that totally wanted to go there, and to have an actor like Alex to play opposite off of was amazing. That’s what we all seek as actors. But at the same time, when I walked away from it, I remember thinking that was the deepest I’ve gone in terms of finding and losing things.
I was surprised to see some reviews, mainly by male critics, that made comparisons of Big Little Lies to Desperate Housewives. It certainly sparked off a conversation about sexism amongst film and television critics in our office (and on social media). What did you think about that?
I didn’t read all the reviews, but overall I heard there was an extraordinary response. But you can take [the show] for what it is and think, “Oh it’s a bunch of affluent women running around with kindergarteners living out this very superficial life.” But I think that’s the brilliance of Liane, she writes these novels and then she threads in these deeply painful and topical and real emotions and relationships that you get pulled into. You think it’s light entertainment, and then before you know it, you’re gasping.