BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. – For Nicole Kidman, this holiday season brings a tale of two drastically different mothers.
On Friday, “Boy Erased” begins expanding into theaters across the country, based on the true story of a Baptist family grappling with their son (played by Lucas Hedges) coming out. His preacher father Marshall (Russell Crowe) is ashamed and decides to send Jared off to Christian-based gay conversion therapy. His mother, Nancy (Kidman), silently acquiesces.
Then this Christmas, Kidman takes the lead in “Destroyer” (out Dec. 25), a crime noir in which she plays Erin Bell, an alcoholic LAPD detective who has largely abdicated parenting duties to her teenage daughter as she throws herself into a decades-long quest to bring down a gang leader she failed to nab years before.
The pair of tour de force performances are earning Kidman raves and Oscar predictions.
“I’m playing mothers who are on different ends of the spectrum,” says Kidman, 51, a frothy cappuccino quickly losing heat by her side. In “Destroyer,” Erin “is working through enormous pain and shame and wreckage,” she says, while Arkansas mom Nancy “is all love-based, is all about her child and still had to navigate through something that she did to him that she now feels incredibly ashamed about.”
Conversion therapy, an attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity through tactics that range from hypnosis to shaming, is still common across the United States. “I didn’t have any idea it existed,” Kidman says. “I was just like, ‘Is this real? Still?’ ”
According to a UCLA study, 698,000 LGBTQ Americans have undergone some form of conversion therapy. This year, almost 50 bills have been introduced targeting the discredited medical practice in 24 states, but even if they pass, church- or preacher-organized therapy would not be covered under the law.
Joel Edgerton, who directs (and stars in) “Boy Erased,” which is based on the 2016 memoir by Garrard Conley, knows his film is landing as the Trump administration is moving to define gender at birth, a pledge that clearly targets the LGBTQ community.
Though the trans community isn’t the focus of “Boy Erased,” the government’s recent stance “is very much part of the conversation that we’re having,” Edgerton says. ” ‘Boy Erased,’ while it’s just a story of one family … it speaks to the rights and freedoms of the (LGBTQ) community in general. And the rights and freedoms of anybody to be who you are if you’re not harming anybody else.”
Kidman, who lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with husband Keith Urban and their two young daughters, gently steers away from politics. She says she hopes the film drives home the message that “you can navigate as a family through anything if you stay with the love.”
She wants gay children to watch “Boy Erased” and “feel safe. We all want to make the world feel safe. That there’s somewhere you can go where you’ll be understood, where you’re listened to and you’re believed. … And I love also that (Jared’s mother) in the film apologizes to her child. I think there’s power in apology. And I really believe healing can happen when there’s a heartfelt apology. I believe people can make amends. And I believe people can change.”
Old wounds drive “Destroyer,” in which Kidman plays an undercover cop who must live with a mission gone wrong, 17 years later. “Destroyer” depicts an almost unrecognizable Kidman, gravelly and gaunt, covered with liver spots, her hair shorn into a ragged crop.
“What she responded to was this idea of a spectrum of masculinity and femininity in all of us,” says director Karyn Kusama (“Girlfight,” “Jennifer’s Body”). “And while she, in her day-to-day life, is quite openly in touch with her femininity and a kind of softness and vulnerability, I think she was really drawn to the parts of this woman that were so unlike her, that were so emotionally shut down and so defensive.”
Kidman says she was lucky that Kusama “let me show the wreckage” of a woman “who’s an alcoholic, sleeps in her car, who’s absolutely enraged at herself. … That plays out physically. The teeth, everything has to look different. But if that’s the focus of the performance, then I’m screwed.”
On the set, the “Destroyer” crew was taken down by a “grim” virus, Kusama says, including Kidman, who continued to work on the tightly budgeted film despite running a 103-degree fever. “She sort of had the flu cranked up at an 11,” the director says. “It was a testament that we all powered through, and she was able to still show up and do it.”
She’s the kind of movie star who sits on the set chatting in between takes rather than hiding in her trailer, says Edgerton, who was only socially acquainted with Kidman prior to shooting. “We had a movie star on screen, but we didn’t have a movie star on set.”
Kidman has been fascinating to watch of late, from her award-sweeping turn as a domestic abuse survivor in HBO’s “Big Little Lies” to eccentric independent releases such as “The Killing of the Sacred Deer” and her upcoming comic-book turn as Jason Momoa’s mom in “Aquaman.”
To Kidman, her career is “so random and weird” right now, she says with a laugh. But Kusama says working with the high-wattage star left her with the indelible impression of a woman who “works very hard to have a personal life and family time” while continuing “to make truly audacious creative decisions.”
“It’s very interesting to be in that orbit and see how much work it takes to maintain balance and some semblance of sanity,” Kusama adds.
The acclaimed actress is equally open about what power actually means in Hollywood.
“I can get a certain (film made) sometimes. And sometimes not,” she says, describing an “out there” passion project she can’t get made. “That’s the reality. We cannot get funding for it. … I would love to say, ‘Yeah, I can just get anything made.’ I mean, maybe Bradley Cooper can, or something, but I can’t.”