Nicole is one of the performers highlighted in W’s annual January issue for Best Performances of the Year.
Nicole Kidman has always been an adventurous presence onscreen, but 2017 was the year when her daring really spoke to fans both onscreen and off. It felt like every project she appeared in had a cult following, from the films The Beguiled, directed by Sofia Coppola, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, and especially the zeitgeist-conquering HBO miniseries Big Little Lies. For the trauma she suffered poignantly on that show as the onscreen wife of Alexander Skarsgaard, the Australian actress won an Emmy. It also served as a platform for her newfound activism, with domestic violence as her cause célèbre. And she hasn’t stopped speaking up since, lending her powerful voice to the conversation about the sexual misconduct and systemic abuse of power by men in Hollywood. Here, in a new interview with W editor at large Lynn Hirschberg, Kidman recounts her brilliant year—and how her sensitive husband, Keith Urban, felt all of her onscreen pain.
So how did The Beguiled come to you?
Sofia [Coppola] came and saw a play I was doing in London, and then we went to dinner afterwards and she gave me the screenplay. She said, “I’ve written a script, I’d love you to read it.”
Had you seen the original [1971 film, starring Clint Eastwood]?
I hadn’t seen the original. She described it, and I’ve wanted to work with her. At one point we were sort of trying to make something else happen, and then that fell through. So it was just one of those things where it came together really quickly, and it was a delight to make. I mean, it really was.
I always describe Sofia as being so feminine and quiet, but incredibly powerful. She gets everything done without, really, raising her voice barely above a whisper.
Yeah, people do everything. She’s so quiet; she’s so elegant. But she’s very decisive and just very good at what she does—and everyone knows that, so they respect her.
And you’ve worked with women as directors pretty much from the very beginning. I mean, Jane Campion was—
Yeah, and she’s one of my best friends. She came and saw me when I was 14 doing, strangely enough, Sweet Bird of Youth on stage in drama school. I was playing Princess [Kosmonopolis]. I did not know what I was doing at that age. I had no idea what any of it meant. [Laughter.] Jane sort of saw me and she went, “I want her in my student film.” And we built a relationship. Then she brought me Portrait of a Lady. We built a friendship during all of that and have had a friendship ever since.
You’ve had this incredible year. I’m not even talking about TV right now, just movies. Did you set out to say, “You know, I’m just going to do everything that scares me”? Or was there a particular idea behind the films that you’ve done this year, which were really brave.
It was director-driven. I mean, I got to work with Jean-Marc Vallée, Jane Campion, Yorgos Lanthimos, and Sofia Coppola in one year. I was so fortunate, because when directors of that caliber choose you to be in their films or their television shows then, I mean, whatever happens it’s going to be an extraordinary experience and ultimately something will come of it that’s interesting or compelling or different. You know, you never know, but at least when you work with that caliber of director you’re safe.
But what’s so interesting about you—and you can’t say it, so I will—is that you’re unlike certain people who, when they get to a certain point in their career, they safeguard it. They get nervous about breaking out from what’s going to be expected from them.
They’re careful. They don’t do TV shows where they’re naked and beat up and lying on the floor.
But, honestly, is that because they don’t have the opportunity, though? I mean… I don’t see it as brave. That’s what’s interesting. People say, “Oh, you know, that you’re so bold and brave in your decisions.” And maybe I’m just insane. [Laughter.] But I see it as, um, I’m being given a chance. I literally still feel like I’m the kid at drama school hoping to get a role. That’s how I operate. I mean, that’s what I come from, and whether that’s to do with, I suppose at times, my own vulnerability and insecurity, I always feel like I’m so fortunate and lucky to have the job.
But I also was raised in a family that looks at things differently—a very liberal family, a family that discussed things—always politics and philosophy—and academic parents who loved reading. That’s how I was wired as a small child. I would always question and was fascinated by the psychology of human beings.
And I think your mom was also fascinated by it as well. Didn’t she feel that she would have had a bigger career at a different time?
Um, I don’t know if she feels that. I think she feels like she missed opportunities. Because I think women that came from a certain era, particularly the era before me, and my grandmother’s era—they gave a lot up.
You know, they didn’t get the chances that I suppose the feminists that started in the ‘60s really fought for. And my mum was determined, having two little girls, that we would have opportunities that she didn’t have. So I’m the recipient of a feminist mother.
Yeah, and part of my job now is to pass it on and give back and help create opportunities for the next generation that’s coming. That’s part of my desire now, particularly with female directors, female DPs, because there isn’t enough female DPs. And it’s not to say that I don’t love working with male directors, because there’s times when I love being viewed through that male lens and interpreted that way. But I just want it to be balanced. The next film I’m doing is with [the director] Karyn Kusama.
Yeah, so part of, you know, walking the talk of committing to female directors and. I start that at the end of the year and that’s a pretty out-there role. [Laughs.] Let’s see if I pull it off. But I was so happy to do the camera test the other day, because there was a female first AD, a female DP, and the female director. And I went, “Good. Okay, it’s shifting. The needle’s shifting a little bit.” So I’m happy to be able to put whatever power I have right now behind that cause.
And I’m always the first to say, “I’m the recipient of a really strong gorgeous mother, but I’m also the recipient of a very strong, loving father.” I had a great male figure in my life who helped to form me. And as much as I was raised by my mother, I was raised by my father, too. And to emphasize that is important right now—the need for the support of good men in society. You know, we need that. You can’t do it alone. So I love saying that I’m married to a really generous, kind, strong male. And Keith [Urban] incredibly supportive of me and his daughters.
When he watches you on film does he have a hard time sometimes?
[Keith Urban] is an artist. Um, he did have a hard time when he watched The Killing of a Sacred Deer. He saw it at the Cannes Film Festival and he was sort of hypnotized and shattered by it. [Laughs.] And when he watched Big Little Lies he was disturbed; he says that when he hears me scream or cry from a certain place in my soul it’s almost like it goes straight into him and he has a visceral reaction immediately. Because his brain and his heart doesn’t discern between acting and real life. They’re the same sounds for him. It throws him.
Well, I’m not married to you and it threw me. [Laughs.]
Oh, but you are, Lynn. [Laughs]
_In some cosmic sense. But, honestly, when I watched that the last few episodes, it was hard for me to watch you go through that. But important, obviously.
Important, um, but for me it was really disturbing. I get upset even when I go back into it.
I think that’s why there was such an outcry when you kissed Alexander Skarsgard [at the Emmys]. I don’t even think it was the kiss itself, but the fact that he was the guy who was throwing you across the room in the show.
People have trouble separating reality from fiction.
Right. There were times on that set when it was intense. But he and I communicated. There had to be such safety and such honesty and such raw vulnerability there that we have a different connection. So to be able to just give him a kiss, I mean, I’d kissed him many, many times on the set. [Laughter.] Much more than that. So that was just my way of going, in the moment—we were both shocked and we were like, “Oh, my gosh, I’m so glad you won.” Because I know what he put into that role. And to see him standing up there and to hear his name read out was just, I mean, that was a really brave thing that he did, to was play that person that way.
He never pulled back and he never talked about, never worried about how he was being depicted. He was just very honest and very true to what the story needed.
Alright, so let’s ask some fun questions about you now.
Okay. [Laughs.] I get too serious, too heavy, huh?
What was your favorite Halloween costume ever?
Oh, gosh. Well, Halloween’s not a big thing in Australia. It’s becoming bigger, but I didn’t really grow up with it. But my first memory of Halloween was because I was born in the States I remember a ghost, uh, a sheet that my mum made with the eyes cut out. I just remember looking through the eyes of the sheet and seeing candy as we held our hands out. [Laughs.] I must have been about three then. So that’s my first memory of Halloween, wearing a sheet. But I got candy!
What’s your feeling about New Year’s? Do you like a big New Year’s? Do you have a favorite New Year’s story?
Um… I have so many different New Year’s Eves where some of them, I mean, the greatest one was 1999, where we’re on Sydney Harbor on a boat. We were making Moulin Rouge, so Baz had sort of designed the whole party. And it felt like we’d invited all of Sydney. It was… it went off. [Laughter.] It was one of the most legendary parties, if I say so myself. I remember dancing in some little tiny Dolce dress—I was very much into the role of Moulin Rouge at the time—with a snake. That’s all I’m going to say.
Were you in full costume with the snake?
I was wearing… no. I was shimmying with the snake. That’s my memory. [Laughs.] And there’re photos to prove it.
I’m sure! [Laughs.] What was your favorite toy growing up?
A Barbie. And that was to the chagrin of my mother, because, obviously, Barbies were not something she wanted me to have because they have the perfect form. Particularly at that time they hadn’t been sort of changed, so they were the, the sort of the thing that every feminist was like, “No little girl should be playing with a Barbie.” But I just wanted a Barbie. It was, like, “I just want a Barbie because everyone else has a Barbie.”
Right. Did your mom make clothes for it?
You know, after a situation where I took a Barbie from the store and my mom made me take it back, she was like, “I’ll buy my daughter a Barbie.”
So you actually stole one—
I took a Barbie. I was a baby. I just wanted the Barbie! And my mum was like, “No. You’re not allowed to have a Barbie.” And then she realized, “Oh my gosh. I’ve got to buy her a Barbie.” So, you know, I hung my head in shame and gave the Barbie back and then my mum paid money for the Barbie. Um, but my grandmother was the most beautiful seamstress and my mother is a beautiful seamstress, so they made me the most beautiful Barbie clothes you’ve ever seen in your life. I mean, gorgeous. Like embroidered and all little tiny, tiny buttons down the back. I mean, we’re talking exquisite work. Which is where my love of fashion started.
Did you keep anything?
I’ve got a lot of those clothes still up in the attic; my mum keeps them.
Because they’re for your daughters?
No, my daughters don’t really play with those sort of things now. One of my daughters is really into editing and she wants to be a director. And the other one is far more into animals. We have two cats, Siberians. And we have fish, alpacas, no dog.
You have an alpaca?
We have six alpacas.
You have six alpacas!
And do the alpacas just roam?
The alpacas are in Australia, so…
Oh, okay. I was going to say, Nashville?
No. [Laughs.] Not around the streets of Nashville.
Well, who knows! You could walk them on a leash, I don’t know. I’m not familiar with the life of the alpaca.
Mmhmm. Can do that, yeah.
[Laughs] You can walk them on a leash?
Yeah, you can. I mean, they don’t love it. But you could. We don’t.
So here are some questions about the first time you ever did these things. What was your first job?
Um, an usherette in Sydney.
So you watched the plays?
Yeah. Sesame Street Live. I was very excited. And it paid really well. Well, for me at that time.
Where was your first date?
Gosh. I was, like, a really tall, skinny, freckly red-headed girl. I can’t remember my first date. I was, like, not that popular, I have to say. Golly, I don’t know. Is that bad? I remember my first date with Keith.
What was your first date with Keith?
Mm-hmm. Picked me up on a motorbike, took me to Woodstock. My kind of guy.
That’s a good date.
Mm. Hey, we’re married! It was a good date.
[Laughs.] What was the first album that you either bought, or were given?
Oh, Michael Jackson, Off the Wall. I just loved the whole album, and I just thought I was so cool that I could afford to buy an album.
What was your first red-carpet outfit? You have the best outfits. It would have been for Dead Calm or something like that.
No, no. Because I don’t think we really had red-carpets when Dead Calm came out. I remember going to the Academy Awards with Tom [Cruise]. I think it was a very, very short Valentino dress. It was black velvet. It was pretty great; I’ve still got it. I didn’t realize that you don’t wear very, very short to the Academy Awards at that stage. I just remember being sort of overcome by all of that. But that was fun.
What was the first time you felt that you were successful?
I don’t know. I think I don’t judge things by success. Um, I won a Golden Globe and I just remember the kind of the frenzy that surrounds all of that. But it’s more for me about the work, when I get a role that I’m so excited about that I can’t believe I’m going to get the chance to play. I still get butterflies.