[Francine Stock] Ladies and gentlemen, good evening and welcome to this BAFTA A Life in Pictures with Nicole Kidman. It is almost impossible to believe that Nicole Kidman has been appearing on our screens for more than three decades now and if you look on IMDb there’s more than eighty acting credits and nearly twenty producing credits. And the glory of it is she’s in the most wonderful period of her career right now at this very moment. So let us remind ourselves of her life in pictures.
Ladies and gentlemen will you please welcome to the stage the glorious Nicole Kidman.
Nicole Kidman: Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you.
FS: Welcome to BAFTA and to your life in pictures. So Nicole let us do the inevitable, conventional thing and start at the beginning, which is you were born in Honolulu but you were brought up in Sydney and I imagine this was a house where there were books and cinema and theatre and all those things were a regular part of growing up—is that right?
NK: Not so much cinema. I mean books, science, politics, emotions and a very tight, close-knit family. Probably parents that had a huge love of the arts so I would go to the theatre, I would go to the opera, I would go to the ballet, modern dance. In Australia we have a place called the Opera House, which is what it says, the Opera House.
So I would go, I remember I’d go with my father and I’d see things like—I would see modern dance and there would be sort of naked people dancing on stage and I was maybe eleven or twelve watching that. I remember sitting next to my dad thinking ‘oh my gosh I hope he’s not noticing what I’m noticing.’
But it was a very liberal household but with a strong moral code, would be how I would describe it.
FS: And you were quite a precocious reader I think because I remember around the time of Portrait of a Lady you said that you’d first read it when you were in your kind of early teens, and for Henry James that’s quite a challenge isn’t it.
NK: I read War and Peace when I was thirteen. And the reason I did—I had one of those long reading lists from school, which had, you know, the 100 Great Books, and I was determined to be able to tick it all off; I don’t think I have to this day. But I did start voraciously reading when I was little, partly because I was so fair I wasn’t allowed to go to the beach during the midday sun, so there was sort of I could go in in the afternoons more, my mother would keep me out of the sun because she was also fair and she’d had a lot of skin cancers and so she was determined to protect my skin as a little girl. So from that came—and it’s interesting how—and I hated being fair skinned, I so badly wanted to be darker skinned—but because of that I would stay indoors and I would read, and through reading came my love of characters and my ability to… well my imagination grew, but my ability to sort of enter into the characters that I was reading was there from a very early age.
FS: But you decided though at some stage that it would be performance rather than writing—because your father wrote as well, apart from all the other things he did, scientific things—
NK: My father was a biochemist who sort of at some point in my life went ‘oh now I’m going to become a psychologist as well,’ and we were then raised with sort of a mix of psychology and science and then my mother was a nurse who became a nurse educator and then she would edit his books, but they were both academics and unfortunately I never got my degree which is, you know, for them, ‘you want to be an actress, what?’ But my sister has subsequently, and I’m so proud of this, she’s forty-eight years old now and she just got her law degree, so out of their two children one of them got a degree.
FS: Well I’m sure they’re not—I’m sure they have many other reasons to be extremely proud! So at what stage were you absolutely set on performing?
NK: I just—there was nothing in my family that suggested to be an actress, which is why I’ve always said it’s in my blood, I don’t know where it came from, how it appeared, but it’s like a pull and a calling, and as much as I’ve tried to move away from it and there have been times where I have and particularly after I gave birth to Sunday Rose I was like ‘I’m done, I’m going to live on this farm in Nashville and I’m done,’ and it’s like this slow thing that pulls me back and I love it. I’ve now reached the point where I say ‘this is what I do, I’m incredibly grateful for the life and the journey it’s given me so far, I can’t believe I’m still here doing it like this,’ and it gives me enormous joy but it also puts me in a place of being able to communicate and be in the world and participate in the world and have a greater understanding of people in the world and I learn so much from it.
And I’m a giver, I love to give to the detriment of my health sometimes, but I am. I love giving—I give to a director, I give to the art in a way that I just think that’s what is in me; when I started going to drama school there was always that pursuit of excellence and you just give: You give everything you have to the performance, to the role, to the piece of art that you’re working on.
FS: So the moment when many people in this country became aware of you probably was with Dead Calm.
NK: No, Vietnam. I did a miniseries a long time ago and I remember coming to London and a couple of people on the street go ‘ah I saw you in a thing called Vietnam!’ So I see that as the first thing, but yes Dead Calm was my first sort of big film that kind of took me on a much bigger scale than working in Australia.
FS: And from there you went to Hollywood and obviously you did that whole series of films with Days of Thunder and Billy Bathgate and Far and Away, that whole kind of run of films. Was there a sort of plan then, were you thinking ‘this is how it’s going to be, this is my trajectory?’
NK: There’s still no plan!
NK: No, I mean I follow my heart and I follow, sometimes I’m very whimsical I’ll choose to do things on a whim. I like not feeling trapped, I like to feel that I’m free—free to go wherever I want to go. And so no, I’ve never really lived by a plan. I mean I fell in love very young and I got married very early, I was twenty-three years old, so that was like ‘oh now this is what I’m going to do.’ And then I worked and then I remember when I was given the script that Buck Henry wrote for To Die For and I went ‘oh this feels like being back in Australia again. This feels like the roles I was playing when I was, you know, in my teenage years working in the Australian film industry.
FS: So what was it about Suzanne Stone, who is the would-be TV anchor, but I mean she starts off—in the scene we’re going to see she hasn’t even got there yet—but what was it about her?
NK: Strangely enough it was Gus Van Sant. It was…
FS: Who directed it.
NK: I’m very director driven and I saw Drugstore Cowboy when I was in Sydney in Darlinghurst and I remember thinking what an amazing film. And I thought the balance of sort of his style and how funny it was and how dark it was, and I was just very drawn to Gus. So when I heard that Gus was doing To Die For that was what was appealing to me initially.
And I mean it was a great script. Buck Henry, for anyone in this room who knows the great screenwriters, Buck Henry is one of the great screenwriters. And I just went ‘this would be an honour to say these words,’ and I didn’t change a word in that script. Because a lot of times you’re allowed to, sometimes directors encourage you to improvise; on that particular script it was strange for Gus, but absolutely every word that was written is in that film.
FS: So Gus Van Sant, but Gus Van Sant has said that you—
NK: He tries to, yeah—
FS: Well he says you weren’t immediately in his mind for the part but that you kind of—
NK: I called him up and I said I would—because I’d done Days of Thunder and I’d done Billy Bathgate with Bob Benton who did Kramer vs. Kramer, but they were smaller roles and this was a great role and they’d cast Meg Ryan in it, and she’d turned it down—I mean they’d offered it to her and she didn’t want to do it, and so Tom actually said ‘you should call him,’ so I called him and said ‘please, please can I have the chance to audition for you,’ and then I got cast in that role, and even then we both had to—the studio didn’t want to cast Joaquin Phoenix because Joaquin hadn’t done anything at that point. He was River’s younger brother and the studio was like ‘hmm, I don’t think so,’ and they had a bunch of other actors that they preferred but both Gus and I said we’d quit the film if they didn’t cast Joaquin. I mean it didn’t matter to them if I quit it but it certainly mattered if Gus was going to quit. So Joaquin got cast, and Casey Affleck, strangely enough. Those two.
FS: Well let’s see this first clip now from To Die For, and here is Suzanne going to the local cable channel to make her mark.
FS: Just wonderful. BAFTA-nominated for that and you got a Golden Globe as well. Suzanne is—it’s that amazing life force that has a deadly payoff, but still, wonderful.
NK: Yeah, yeah. Kind of foreboding that film. Yeah, it’s interesting how your life is nothing unless you’re on TV!
NK: That’s her big catchphrase, and now reality television right? So.
FS: One of the producers of the film said I think about you that you’re ‘a character actress in the form of an ingénue’ and that was what came out so beautifully in this. And I mean it’s funny because the phrase character actress has sometimes been seen almost as a secondary sort of thing, but it’s really important—you can be a star and a character actress as well, can’t you?
NK: I think what’s important as an actress is being not attached to your physical form. I mean we’re here to create characters, to become other people, and that requires not just emotionally and physically but almost spiritually there has to be this movement towards just complete metamorphosis of who you are. So if you’re too attached to your own identity, I think that’s when you get stuck, or that’s certainly been—my path is always to explore a huge array of people and I’ve been lucky in the sense that I’ve not been sort of pigeonholed into one thing and I think that’s what happens to actresses is they do get pigeonholed and it’s not fair because there’s incredibly talented women there but a lot of times they get stuck into one thing, not through their own fault but because that’s how an industry or the people who are casting the films see them. So I’ve always tried to blur those edges and push those boundaries, and I’m continuing to try and do it. And it’s not always easy and sometimes you fail, and I’m willing to fail; I’ve failed many times and that’s part of the journey, you know.
I think once—and I’m determined as I’ve gotten older not to be so fearful of trying things because it’s still that kind of youthful abandonment which is what I try to have when you go ‘oh give it a go, give it a go!’ But I’ve been lucky that I’ve had writers and directors and producers that have taken massive risks on me and so you know, that’s a fantastic thing as an actor that people believe in you and give you a chance.
FS: So I’m going towards the end of the ‘90s, I mean presumably To Die For brought you kind of a wider range of roles, sort of all the offers that that brought…
NK: Kind of. I mean it sort of did. It’s really hard; it’s hard as a woman in this industry and it’s hard to keep forging ahead to not then get typecast in that kind of role, you know. So it’s constantly sort of stretching and putting your hand up and being willing to try things and change and—but it’s, as my mother says to me, ‘it’s never been easy,’ like it’s never been given to me on a platter and as much as it may have looked that way it’s actually never been like that. I’ve always had to go ‘I could try that,’ or ‘I could do it,’ and I’ve always studied and tried to—and I’ve sort of had times where I’ve been like ‘gosh, this is now personally too damaging or it feels too much,’ but as I say I have that calling and so then I can’t walk away from it.
FS: Because at the end of the ‘90s of course there was—
NK: Sorry I’m digressing.
FS: No, no, no—
NK: Get it back on track!
FS: No but the digressing is, that’s all part of it. So towards the end of the ‘90s you worked with Kubrick on his last film Eyes Wide Shut—
NK: Which we didn’t know was going to be his last film.
FS: No obviously, but the kind of attention that was placed on you and you know sort of the spotlight about you being so famous and part of a famous couple. That must have been extraordinary and actually quite, almost inhibiting in some ways in terms of kind of career choices. So what a contrast, then, to work with Baz Luhrmann. Within a couple of years of that you go to Moulin Rouge, which seems to me like it was probably the polar opposite of ways of working.
NK: But that’s what I’m saying, its’ that wonderful thing of being able to do something here and then go right over here and do something the complete opposite of it. So for me on working with Stanley I just treated it as you know—the great thing Stanley always said was ‘don’t put me on a pedestal. Throw ideas out and let’s just, you know, pretend that we’re all in this together and there’s nobody here with ‘great ideas’,’ and you were never allowed to shut an idea down. You always had to wait before you went ‘that’s a terrible idea.’ You had to take a minute to think it through. Because it’s interesting if your initial response—because a lot of times people respond initially with ‘no, no, no,’ but it’s great to let something sit and develop and then go ‘maybe, maybe.’ And that’s what Stanley was brilliant at, was sort of leading you laterally into different places because it was always like ‘well maybe, maybe this, maybe that.’ But I just treated that as being a kid, being an actor in acting school, really, and going ‘I’m here with the greatest teacher and I don’t care if this film goes on for five years,’ I just loved being around him.
And then out of that I went and did The Blue Room, which was a play in London because I met Sam Mendes and I met David Hare and I met a lot of the people that were—and then I met Patrick Marlborough and I would go and see theatre all the time because I had a lot of time off on Eyes Wide Shut and that led to The Blue Room, which Baz came and saw me in and sent me a box of two dozen red roses and said ‘I think I have a role for you, her name’s Satine. I’d like to meet you after the show.’ Very Baz.
FS: So you knew Baz Luhrmann, presumably from—
NK: I’d met Baz, I’d done a—I mean I knew of Baz and I’d done a photo shoot with him for Vogue where they took over the magazine and they sort of put me in some wigs and clothes and dressed me up. But I didn’t really know him. I knew of his work because of Strictly Ballroom, but I was like [gasp]. And then I heard it was a musical and I was like ‘oh no I can’t sing.’
FS: But you can sing.
NK: No I willed myself to sing. I mean I really—I can sing where I can, you know, sing in the shower but I’d never sung publicly. I was not confident, I still am not confident with my voice, but when I really go ‘ok, I can do this, I can do this,’ and having him believe in me and believe I can do it, that’s how I was able to sing. And I kind of discovered my voice on that film.
FS: So what was it—because it was quite a long rehearsal period I think, and what was it like in this great big—
NK: Months and months.
FS: —venue, because he took over this huge place didn’t he?
NK: Amazing. The way he makes films is just, it’s gorgeous. You live in a big, we were in this big old Victorian house in Darlinghurst, which is a suburb of Sydney, and it was very bohemian and we would have parties and we would dress up and we would rehearse and then we would have more parties and do some more rehearsing. It was all very, you know, that sort of artists living this bohemian life and then happened to be making this film, which at the time was considered very, I mean it was a risk to do that film.
FS: I mean people talk about it now as the reinvention of the musical but—
NK: But there had not been one, Chicago hadn’t been done, there’d been no film, and to be using known songs and then reinterpreting them—all of that was new at that time. And you know I was also learning, having to dance and hanging from trapezes… I mean it was fantastic and it’s one of the great memories of my life and I’ll never forget my father, who’s not here anymore, but I remember seeing him—I was up on a trapeze, we were shooting in a studio in Sydney and I looked over and I saw my dad in the corner; I’d called him up and said come by because we’re shooting a big sequence tonight you might want to watch it. And I saw him across there and I just remember his jaw going…
I was hanging on the trapeze and there were about 150 men all with top hats and tails below me. Fantastic, right?
FS: I think that seems a good moment at which to see a clip from Moulin Rouge.
FS: It’s the moment when you suddenly climbing to the top of—and it’s an elephant! It’s just everything’s so huge and breath taking.
NK: Yeah and but then what he does is he has this massive scope to his frames and to his production design and then he brings the emotions back to very simple, pure emotions, which is Baz’s exquisite genius.
FS: Were you surprised by the reaction to it? I mean it just took off.
NK: No I mean I thought it was fantastic. I was like ‘why doesn’t everybody love the film?’ which is sometimes—I’ve realised I have kind of odd taste, but yeah with that film I actually thought oh this is, I could see what it was. There’s some times I’ve seen films and I’ve gone [gasps] and you know almost been nauseous with disappointment but with this one I was really excited.
Then I remember we went to the Cannes Film Festival and I remember it got sort of a mixed response initially and then I was like ‘what?!’ But this is where family members become so important; my sister was with me at the time and she said ‘listen to nobody; the film is fantastic. I love the film, I don’t know what you guys are all worried about.’ And that was it. And then the film sort of took off, found its audience, made its own path and then got nominated for a lot of Academy Awards and had an extraordinary life.
FS: And continues to be—
NK: Yeah well it’s just good to always know that sometimes things come out and they don’t get the response initially that they then get later on. The problem is right now things are, so often they disappear before they’re allowed to find their audiences or before they’re allowed to be discovered which I find very, very sad. Because so many times you hear these stories of Bonnie and Clyde and those films that initially didn’t connect and then suddenly they found their way, they made the money, they found their audiences, but it took time. The one thing that frustrates me right now is it’s just so quick, you know.
FS: It’s all about the opening weekend.
NK: Which is disappointing, you know, because art is, you know, sometimes it needs to be digested or processed before it is really understood or loved. Anyway, we’re all in it together!
FS: But in terms of—so something that is so extraordinary and of itself like Moulin Rouge, so at that point, you know, you’re looking at different scripts, do you then think ‘OK now something different,’ or is it just that it depends what comes along?
NK: No that was the strangest thing. I was shooting Moulin Rouge, then I was cast in The Others and I went off and I did The Others straight after it, so I had just that wonderful, once again, this and this. A lot of times roles for me have come sort of where they’ve been piggybacked, like they come very close together and they’re very, very different. I don’t know why that happens and then there’s nothing. So yeah I went to Spain and I made The Others almost immediately after that I think I had about six weeks off. Yeah.
FS: Goodness, so yes again that’s completely different to have that kind of choice. So you mentioned David Hare the dramatist earlier on—
NK: You obviously don’t have a clip of The Others
FS: We don’t have a clip of The Others. We all remember it!
FS: We all remember it very well and indeed it was BAFTA-nominated.
NK: Here I’ll do it for you!
FS: You can’t give anything away, of course. No we don’t, but we do have a clip of The Hours.
FS: For which you won a BAFTA and indeed an Oscar.
NK: I did.
FS: Playing Virginia Woolf. So this is—David Hare adapted the screenplay, Stephen Daldry directed, but David Hare adapted the screenplay—
NK: He gave me those words. He gave me the most beautiful words, I’m eternally grateful.
FS: Yes, yes.
NK: Stephen Daldry said to me—I said to him, ‘well I can’t play Virginia Woolf, you’re not thinking of me for Virginia Woolf?’—
FS: So they came to you this time?
NK: Yes, and I said, ‘No you’re crazy. I can play Julianne Moore’s character in the film,’ and he’s like, ‘no, you’re playing Virginia Woolf,’ which is very Stephen. And I desperately wanted to work with him so I acquiesced and then I went in to the makeup room and we were sort of playing around and they said ‘would you be open to changing your face?’ and I’m like, ‘whatever you want to do, do to me.’ And that’s how that started to, I suppose, blossom with Virginia.
But it was interesting because I then got very, very scared and tried to pull out of it because I was going through things in my own life and I just felt ‘I’m completely overwhelmed and is there any way you can cast somebody else?’ To which they said ‘no, get on the plane. Get here.’ And then I just got so immersed in her. I started to—she just came into me, I don’t know any other way to explain it.
FS: But when you’re dealing with someone who is a sort of literary legend as it were, about whom there are certain kind of preconceptions, do you then go and do your own research about where you’re going to find her?
NK: Yeah, yeah. And, and it’s sort of like layers where you do the research and you do work on the voice, I actually have my dialect coach here who coached me on that, Sandra Frieze, she’s here tonight.
FS: Where is she?
NK: So she has some great stories, but I remember we slowly worked on her vocally. Virginia herself sounded very, very different, we had a little bit of some of her speaking, right Sandra? But we then tried to—Stephen was like ‘no that’s too extreme we want the sound to be a little bit more I suppose accessible to a modern day audience,’ and that’s how you slowly compile: You do the research, you do the emotional work, and then you kind of abandon yourself to the muse. And if you’re in the hands of a great director that helps. And also as I said being given the words, and those words David gave me were just sublime, so…
FS: Well let’s hear some of David Hare’s words in context in the clip please.
FS: With Stephen Dillane there as Leonard Woolf.
NK: And that is always, the actors in a scene together and it is always about the two of you, so I mean I have so much I have to give thanks to him because you see how when it is two actors together that’s the energy that gets created; it’s not just one, it’s never just one.
But also I find that I think something in me deeply relates to the idea of we do have the right to choose our own destiny, we have the right to choose what we want to do with our bodies and to choose our own prescription. And I think that just vibrated incredibly deeply with me, so there we go.
FS: It was an amazing performance. I was talking to David Hare about something the other day and he was saying that line, the Richmond line, he said ‘PHD students come to say ‘now where exactly is that in Woolf’s work?’ and he has to say ‘well actually I made it up’.’
NK: There you go. That’s what I say, it’s incredible writing.
NK: And when you’re the recipient of great writing it makes you look all the more better.
FS: I’m really interested in sort of pursuing this whole idea of how you say ‘I’m going to mix it up I’m going to try something risky next time,’ because it must be—it must get more difficult when you win BAFTAs and Oscars and things like that; isn’t there a sense that you’ve got more to lose?
NK: No, I don’t think so. I think it’s, you know, there’s expectation but so then you don’t live up to that expectation for a year or two but then you rise up again or then you discover something else or you go and, you know, in my case I went and met somebody and I fell in love and I actually had a whole different path in terms of what I wanted to do. I was very lonely and I didn’t want to be lonely. So I went ‘OK I’m now going to try and meet my partner,’ and that takes time and you know it can’t be working all the time and flitting off around the world. So I actually kind of went far more inward then and out of it I managed to meet a wonderful man and I now have two children out of that marriage, which has given me incredible nourishment and unbelievable blessings to have them. So I think the thing it did was it highlighted to me the idea that I was quite—that I needed to go and have more of a real life because I had an incredible artistic life I just didn’t have the balance there, that’s more what happened.
But in terms of the work, I think I’m always like I’m going to just try. I think I always just have that working actor approach, which is we try things. I would never have gotten back on stage recently for Photograph 51 if I hadn’t had that slight just ‘oh well I’m going to try it.’ Because if I got caught up in the idea of what was going to be needed or required or even financially what the investments people were putting into you—I’d be absolutely shackled, I wouldn’t be able to move forward. And so much of it is just constantly moving forward and trying to be hopeful about what the future brings. You’re all looking at me intensely!
FS: But I mean part of that is also sort of taking control to an extent—
NK: I now feel like I’m in a therapy chair in front of so many people and a camera. This is, uh-oh—
FS: Well that’s kind of appropriate for what you’re going to be—what we may see you doing in a few moments time as well… But the—you started to produce, so for example Rabbit Hole which you made with Aaron Eckhart.
NK: Yeah, yeah.
FS: So that was a question of you taking a little bit of control and saying—
NK: That was—I had had my daughter who’s now ten, and I was living in Nashville on a farm and I’d had the whole pregnancy growing vegetables and saying to my mother ‘that’s it, I’m done,’ and my mum’s like ‘hmmm, I think hmmm, you’re going to want to keep your toe in the water.’ It was fantastic advice because she said as a woman, yes you’re in this place now but I would keep your toe kind of in the water with your career because I think you’re going to want it and you’re going to want to be able to go back to it. And I’m so glad I have a very opinionated, strong mother who’s very wise and I do listen to her. I bristle, but I listen. And so that’s when Rabbit Hole—I read a review in the New York Times of this film and I thought it was a devastating review and I went and saw the play and thought it was fantastic and I reached out to David Lindsay-Abaire and asked if we could option it, and we made the film for $3.2 million and it was my first foray into producing and it was very low budget but it was successful in its own little way and that kind of gave me the bug.
But it was part of me always wanting to also take control of my destiny because a lot of times as an actor you are at the mercy of what you’re offered or what you audition for and you don’t get the chances sometimes, so I went ‘gosh it would be great if I could develop a few roles or a few things that I would be able to play or that I would be able to develop for my friends or in some way, you know, broaden the horizons a little bit.’
FS: And were there specific things that you felt, kinds of roles that you felt were lacking then?
NK: I was just, yeah; I wasn’t being sent anything that was terribly interesting. I was being sent—I was also kind of, there was a time in this industry when they go ‘oh well you’re kind of past your due date,’ kind of thing and we’ve seen what you have to offer and that’s it and we’re moving on to the next thing, you know. And that’s just the case for actors and actresses and probably all sorts of people in all sorts of fields. And at some point you go ‘gosh I kind of don’t want to give in to what the normal trajectory is.’
And having people like Meryl Streep and Susan Sarandon and Glenn Close and all these women that were paving the way give you the chance, and then obviously in this country you’ve got, you know, Maggie Smith and Judi Dench and the greats. But they’re at least paving the way for you so you can kind of cut through the grass yourself as well.
FS: So the next clip we’re going to have is actually from the film Lion.
NK: Right. Which came a long time after!
FS: A little bit of a—rushing through—
NK: We do a big jump now.
FS: We do, we do. Through the wonders of this process.
NK: No but it’s interesting to say because that is the path of, you know, a career. There are some careers that are just extraordinary from beginning to end and there are some careers that ebb and flow, you know. And it’s a great thing to constantly talk about is that idea of being, of persevering and staying true to the idea of why you do it and the love of doing it, you know, because this is the nature of most people’s careers and lives, right? There’s a couple of very blessed that get to just sort of exist up here, but my career at that point there was a long sort of a place where I just was not, not getting the things or made the choices that didn’t turn out to be what I’d hoped they’d be.
FS: And how do you, when things don’t go so well how do you cope with that?
NK: You know, feel it. Feel it and work through it. And luckily I have a very strong, tight family and I’m also the type of person that expresses myself so I tend not to hold it in, so if you live with me… But because of that emotionally it comes out, I don’t keep it all in. And I also try to—I grew up with a father and a mother who were also pretty resilient themselves, they didn’t have a lot of money, my father moved to the States where I was born and they had to survive and my mum helped put him through school so that he got his degree, she didn’t get hers, but they were resilient together. So I grew up seeing that and I saw that union and that incredible ability to support each other and help each other.
FS: So Lion is a film about this little Indian child
NK: Yes, back to Lion.
FS: Saroo, who is adopted by a couple, now this is a real story about real people—
NK: It is, yes.
FS: And you actually got to know the person—I was going to say the character you play, but she’s not a character—the person.
NK: Yes, beautiful Sue. Brave Sue.
FS: So how is it then to actually know the person you’re going to play? Is that quite a tricky negotiation I would imagine?
NK: With her it was like I met a soul sister, so it wasn’t. It was very the minute I met her I was just—I understood her, I knew her: We’re both Australian, we both adopted children, we both—there was just something that I connected to. So it was very, very easy. The role was small and condensed so I was trying to put her life into a very—because it’s not her story—into a very, very finite amount of screen time. That’s what I found very hard because she’s fascinating in her own right and warrants her own film but because this was the story that was being told I had to condense it all into a small amount. And luckily I was working with a director who was really trying to show all of her edges and facets in very quick grabs, Garth Davis, so…
FS: Yes, so when you have that limited amount of time, I mean what are the things that—because you’re going to have to make quite an impact… How do you distil that? How do you distil a life into a few moments?
NK: Well they were beautifully written once again, as I emphasise always the writing. They were beautifully written and I think because the strength of the story supported it, I was able to just sort of be there and you could feel her and you were able to understand her story very, very quickly. Obviously I was working opposite Dev.
FS: Yes, Dev Patel.
NK: Who is just fabulous.
NK: And once again Luke Davies wrote a beautiful screenplay and gave me a fantastic what I call soliloquy, monologue, which I think very much summed up her psyche. You get into her brain in one—in a couple of paragraphs.
FS: Let’s see the clip now from Lion.
FS: Dev Patel obviously is not Australian, but it does raise an interesting question because you were playing there obviously opposite David Wenham as your husband there, the strength of Australian actors and Australian film talent generally. I mean this is a country of twenty-five million, it’s not sort of a huge country but very well represented internationally in terms of its film talent. Why is that? Why is it so good?
NK: I mean, something in the water!
FS: Not the crocodiles!
NK: No I think—I don’t know how to answer that I just know that the Australian film industry made me, you know, it gave me all of the… I started working when I was fourteen and I’ve been given so much from that industry. And I worked I think, you know there’s very few jobs available and there’s you know not enough films made I still always hope there will be more—it was so great to use my Australian accent in a film because it had been so long since I had.
And I will continually be giving back to that industry for the rest of my life. I went back and did Top of the Lake: China Girl, which is Jane Campion’s second of the Top of the Lake series that she directs and that was just a wonderful thing to be able to do. I’m always looking to be able to find Australian writers and directors I just think, you know, a lot of it is there’s an enormous amount of care given to the actors and the people there and we’re also very protective of each other and we tend to sort of recommend each other for different roles and even globally we’re always like ‘oh well you know there’s this great…’ I remember recommending Ben Mendelssohn, he’d done—and I was like ‘you must read him he’s so good’—so we always kind of look out for each other. But I have no way to explain the talent other than maybe we’re very sort of encouraged.
FS: Now you mentioned Top of the Lake that second series which was extraordinary, in which you were playing another mother there—
NK: It was nice to go back and do something to support Jane who obviously gave me a huge chance when I was young and she was one of the first people when I was really young—I was fourteen—and she came to the drama school that I was going to on the weekends and she cast me in her student film called Girl’s Own Story, which I subsequently pulled out of. I know. Because I didn’t want to put on a shower cap and kiss a girl. I’ve told people this before and now I wish I had put that shower cap on and kissed that girl but whatever.
But she’s one of my truly great friends and I had, still have, an incredible friendship with her so many years later.
FS: And you were very much part of the reason why her film In the Cut was made, isn’t that true?
NK: Well no I actually read that book and then I actually ended up not doing it but she went off and ran with that and I sort of had a—
FS: But you recommended the book to her?
NK: I recommended the book to her yeah. Yeah. But we did Portrait of a Lady together and I think that’s when we really sort of—but even prior to that we’d had a friendship. I love this; the other thing I love is when you form… I think what happens in this industry is you, you know, you make almost like a ten year jump when you work with someone because you work so intimately it’s like ten years of a relationship together in three or four or five months. You are suddenly like—well that’s how I work where it’s very, very—so I’m very reluctant to let the people I work with leave my life. So I have long friendships with most of the people, particularly directors, that I’ve worked with.
FS: Top of the Lake, obviously this is long form television, about which there is a great deal of talk, and the relative merits of that as opposed to feature films, and we’re going to talk a little bit about Big Little Lies as well, but I just wondered if as a general principal the idea of developing a character over a number of episodes, having all those hours as it were to do this, is that more satisfying, different satisfying?
NK: Different, different. I think what’s happening now is when, you know if you have seven, eight, ten hours to develop a character over the course of a limited series, that’s fantastic, but how do you make it compelling? Because it still has to be compelling storytelling. And that’s a different skill; it’s a different skillset. Not just for the actor but also for the writer and for the directors that do it, because you have to somehow make this, instead of two hours or three hours or ninety minutes, you now have this long format and it still has to warrant the time. It can’t be sort of waffling on where people lose interest, it still has to be tight and fascinating and hopefully wanting you to keep watching.
FS: It’s got to have that momentum, hasn’t it?
NK: Yeah. In, say, Big Little Lies, having the ability to have Celeste, see her unravel really and see layer upon layer get lifted off was a fantastic sort of format for that character and for that relationship, for it to be delved into in the way it was and for it to be shown in that way. That was bold of Jean-Marc and David E. Kelley and Liane Moriarty but it was a wonderful thing as an actor and Alex, Alexander Skarsgård and I would both say that. We were just so lucky to have that time to be able to play that relationship out in that way.
FS: So it was directed by Jean-Marc Valée from a script by David E. Kelley.
NK: Sorry I’m meant to say all the names, aren’t I?
FS: That’s all right.
NK: You say them.
FS: I’ll say them. Thank you! Directed by Jean-Marc Valée from a script by David E. Kelley, but originally from a novel by Liane Moriarty. And it’s about—if anybody hasn’t seen it, I’m sure many have—it starts off in an almost quite conventional way, which is a whole lot of women meeting around a school gate and you think ‘oh it’s going to be one of—‘ and it gets so complicated as they gradually foreground the lives of each of them. And I have to say by the time I was watching the final episode of this series I could almost not bear the tension. So that absolutely does keep that.
But your character Celeste, who seems to have the perfect marriage and has the handsome husband, has been a lawyer but now has these two beautiful little boys—everybody sees her as the paragon and it’s that sort of gradual lifting off of the paragon… We’ll show a little clip and then maybe we can talk a little bit more about it afterwards. So this is Celeste and her husband Perry, who has just returned from one of his many business trips and they’re just discussing domestic arrangements.
I mean you could not really have done that story in the same way in a feature film, I don’t think. Because it is that gradual realisation—it’s the way we as the audience gradually realise what’s happening, and then of course the sessions where they go to the therapist, which play out at a length that it would be quite difficult, probably, to do… So I mean, do you feel that the strength of television at the moment, and it is so strong and you’re one of the producers of Big Little Lies—do you feel that threatens theatrical cinema at all?
NK: Um, I don’t know. I mean I think a lot of people watch television now but there’s something wonderful about going to the cinema and sitting with a big group of people and watching a film together. I still do it. My husband and I, my kids and I, we go, we pay our money and we go to the theatre in Nashville and we watch a movie together. I hope that survives because it would be such a pity for that to get lost. But at the same time for stories to be told and for stories to reach audiences—I mean Big Little Lies reached probably further than any other thing I’ve ever done and the response that I’ve had from people, particularly women, is wider than anything I’ve done. But you know, I don’t think you have to choose, I think there’s still a huge love, people who love film and love to go and watch film. I will keep giving myself to filmmaking and doing films.
I mean Destroyer was one of the reasons—I went from this to Destroyer which was a, you know, low budget film with a lead female, directed by a female, and we got the film made. And I’m actually here promoting it because I want people to go see it.
FS: We’re going to come to Destroyer in just a moment. We’re going somewhere else first.
NK: I jumped, sorry! I’m wilful!
FS: That’s good! We can jump and we’ll jump back again. And also there is another series of Big Little Lies coming out as well.
NK: Yes, yes, with Andrea Arnold who’s directed it. And yeah, we were given the opportunity to explore their lives further…
FS: Did you know when you were making the first series?
FS: And then there was the Golden Globe and its BAFTA nominated—
NK: It’s an enormous amount of work doing something that is that long, so… And also you do it where we treated it like it was really a seven hour film, so that was the… I mean really Jean-Marc Valée brings a cinematic understanding and storytelling to the limited series format, so it’s an enormous amount of work.
FS: And as you say huge reaction. And I mean that’s—were there people writing to you or contacting you about the character Celeste?
NK: Mainly in the street. You’d meet people, or in restaurants they’d come up and then you’d get yeah, just the way in which you interact with people. But it’s interesting, and also the way in which television now reaches globally so quickly it’s a different world but also it’s good to be changing and willing to change, I mean I’m always open to change myself as a person and as an actor and as a woman, so I’m constantly open to ‘OK, what’s the new frontier?’
FS: And in the mean time you have films as well; you have Destroyer, which we’ll talk about in a second but there’s also Boy Erased, in which you’re playing another real person and this is the sort of slightly adapted version of the story of Garrard Conley, who’s called Jared in the film, a boy who’s put into conversion therapy for homosexuality within his Baptist environment. Now it’s a film that is very, it’s pretty condemning of the methods of the sort of brainwashing kind of…
NK: It’s an interesting kind of film because Joel directed, wrote, starred and produced it—a fellow Australian—and he just called me up and said ‘would you be interested in being in this film? I’ve been sort of thinking of you for this role, she’s a real woman, her name’s Nancy in the screenplay but her name’s Martha in real life. Give it a read.’ And I read it and I didn’t realise that conversion therapy still existed or that it ever really existed, I suppose I’d never really been aware of it. And so I subsequently then read Garrard’s book and I just, I just went ‘I’m in.’ Let me tell the story, let me be her, and it’s a supporting role so it was a finite amount of work for me and I was able to just—you know I always say there are films that you do because those stories need to be put in the world, there’s a reason for them politically or emotionally to be out there, and then there are other films that are entertainment, there’s other films that are just the story I connect to and for whatever reason it vibrates through me and I have to be in this and through me comes the story. But for me this was, I wanted to be a part of this because I was just shocked they were in existence.
FS: In the clip we’re going to see this is the mother talking to—
NK: It’s interesting because she is very loving, they have an incredible relationship, Garrard and Martha, in real life now and they always did; she’s a wonderful mother but she did something that she thought was the most loving thing to do, she thought it was the right thing to do because she didn’t know any other way of behaving and her husband. And when their son came to them and said, ‘you know, I think about men I don’t know what to do,’ they went, ‘we know what to do,’ and took him to this place that their church said they needed to go and this will take care of it. And she then decides it’s completely wrong, he’s been in there a few weeks, and she gets him out. But she’s making apology now in the film, but in her life her idea of allowing the film to even be made is her way of making amends to him. Because she’s exposed her family to scrutiny and judgment and herself, but it’s her way of being the mother she wants to be to him and taking care of him and loving him and apologising to him, which I find incredibly moving. So now the clip won’t move you at all, but…
FS: No but the clip is absolutely of that moment, the turning point moment, if we could see it, please?
FS: You say that sometimes you make a film because you have to tell something—it is extremely shocking to realise how widespread this still is. I had thought it was something to do with the 1970s, I mean I didn’t actually believe this was happening now and on such a scale that it turns out it is, so in that sense it is a… Do you think films can change things? Do you think if not change they can—
NK: Stories definitely, yeah.
NK: Do you?
FS: I think they can definitely raise consciousness yes, but there are sort of anecdotal examples of legislation changing immediately after—both American and here as well…
NK: I think shining light onto things or even putting it out into the conversation, raising people’s awareness, yeah. I think all of those things go into—whether they immediately change things or whether they slowly drip, drip, drip change things, I think absolutely I believe in the power of storytelling or art to change the world, absolutely.
FS: So Destroyer, in which you also play a mother, and in fact the scene we’re going to see is—
NK: I’m always a mother.
FS: Well these are important figures in our lives.
NK: I think probably my energy, you know I have a deep sense of I suppose the idea of just taking care of people and I have this desire to mother, whether it’s a child or whether it’s—not my husband, thank God—I don’t mother him, but in terms of I do enjoy it. I get incredible—I’m deeply satiated by taking care of people so that’s probably a strong, that maternal pull is very strong for me.
FS: That, however, cannot be said about the character in Destroyer.
NK: Well I say that because no, is she what we call a good mother… no. Has she made bad choices… yes. That’s interesting to me, because I’m not just about playing mothers who are sort of standing there in all their glory, you know, looking like the Madonna. It’s not that, there’s very complicated emotions in terms of mothering and I think the idea of playing a woman who’s made terrible choices but is still in some way trying to create now the path for her child to have a different life to her, that is very—I think that’s very relatable to a lot of people. The character itself is primal and angry and shameful and complicated and all the things that can be repelling at times, but she’s hopefully compelling and fascinating and also I feel for her. I did. So I’m hoping that comes through. But she’s somebody that doesn’t say ‘I love you,’ has never been able to say ‘I love you,’ she was doing drugs when she found out she was pregnant; those things carry a weight on the shoulders of that woman and so the idea of playing that role, I’d never played a role like this before and I wanted to do it.
FS: And you absolutely inhabit her physicality, I mean the way she walks—she’s got something wrong with her, she limps as though there’s something wrong with her legs, but—
NK: No well when you see the film there’s a reason she moves that way.
FS: Absolutely yes.
NK: We can’t give it away.
FS: I have seen it. But it’s just for you to do that, the way you move, it’s completely unrecognisable and I would not have known… Obviously from that close up you can see that it is, you kind of make out that it’s you, but did you have to work on that for a long time, the movement thing?
NK: No, the director sent me some footage of coyotes and…
And I watched these mother coyotes and the way they moved. It’s very, very strange to sit with people and talk about acting process and probably shouldn’t do it because I also believe in the mystery of a performance and not stripping it down and telling you all about how… Let it just be because I still love the magic of what a performance is and what a film is, you know. But no that character kind of started to come through in a weird way; there was nothing conscious or no definite choice made. My voice, everything just started to change, it was one of those weird things. It was uncomfortable for me as Nicole in that state for a long period of time, it wasn’t pleasant, but you know, I do believe that you give things up artistically at times in your life, you know, you commit. And sometimes that means you commit more at that particular time and then you’ll go back and your family—I’m lucky I have a family that understands what I do, you know. Even though I have young children they have a kind of almost a fascination with it, they both have interests in storytelling now and their imaginations have been really strengthened by watching me, even though their favourite film so far is Aquaman.
Destroyer they’re like ‘eh,’ but they do give me—they give me the place to go create it, as does Keith so I’m very lucky. But this did take a lot more than I thought it was going to take and it took me off into a kind of a limbo state that I existed in for a period of time.
FS: We’re just going to see a little fragment, which is the detective and her daughter.
FS: Director Karyn Kusama, female cinematographer, and female editor I think, as well?
NK: Yeah, yeah. Primarily female crew.
FS: Certainly, and a very tough story indeed.
NK: And a limited budget and what I call scrappy filmmaking where you’re just down in the ditches getting it done, you don’t have a lot of money, you’re out on location. I mean we were in South Central LA at one point shooting and they were like ‘get inside there’s a shooter, a live shooter.’ And I’m like ‘what?’ and I’ve got the gun and I’m like out on the street and they drag me in and I hit the floor because there was a shooter, helicopters and… that’s the kind of locations we shot the movie on. But that’s, you know, when you don’t have the money to build the sets and create the whole thing, you’re out there and you’re doing it. It’s a different type. And it’s a wonderful thing as an actor to go from say a Big Little Lies to that, and that for me is the magnificence of being given the chance to play things and people taking risks. Because you go ‘no one would ever see Big Little Lies and then go ‘oh I’m going to give you Erin Bell’,’ you know, but Karyn took a chance on me.
FS: As you look around do you see that things are improving—I mean if you look at the evidence on screen you would say that women do seem to be getting a wider range of roles, that there seem to be more women directing. I mean it’s happening slowly, slowly—what’s your feeling, what’s your gut feeling about it?
NK: I always just look at the statistics. The statistics are not good, so statistically I don’t know the exact number right now but…
FS: It’s not looking good.
NK: But it’s about eleven per cent for female directors, isn’t it? Which, you know, I made a pledge a couple of years ago to work with a female director every eighteen months because you’ve got to act to change the statistics; I have to do something. We can talk about it and we can all talk about it or I can actually just get out there and do it. So that’s what I’m sort of at this stage of my life and in my career trying to do is change the statistics.
FS: Time for some questions from the audience. A hand up straight away.
FS: Great there’s a microphone coming down there, two away from you. Anyone further up there as well, any more hands up there?
NK: Oh wow.
Q: Right, OK. Thank you for a wonderful evening.
NK: Thank you. Thank you for coming by the way on this cold London night.
Q: Going back to Moulin Rouge, which I absolutely adored, and it’s great to hear that process that you went through with Baz and everyone living together, it was really great—what was the process with Australia, because that’s like a really big film and could you talk about how that developed in comparison to Moulin Rouge?
NK: It was similar. Because there wasn’t song and dance in that, we were more working on scenes, and but there’s always—that’s his nature is he gets everybody there for two, three months prior and you workshop, you learn all the skills that are required for the film, you all spend a lot of time together. And it creates almost that kind of troupe feeling like a circus, where you’re all in it together and that was very similar. I recently watched Australia again and I was like ‘oh wow.’ It was a massive undertaking, that movie, and strangely enough so relevant for today. I went—it’s actually even more relevant of now than it was when it was made. But I always say that Baz is ahead of his time, he just is, he’s just got that brain; he’s so well-educated and so finely tuned I just feel that he actually is a filmmaker who is ahead of his time.
Q: Thank you.
NK: Thank you.
Q: Thank you so much. My only regret is there are so many other films I would love to hear your perspective on.
NK: They left a lot out.
Who chose these?
Q: May I just quickly ask you about Dogville, which infamously was a very arduous shoot documented as well. So what we saw you go through on set would maybe be tantamount to abuse or bullying, but yet you committed to it as you always do, and I’m wondering now being a mother could you see yourself going through an experience like that again, being able to work on the film the way you did, and then maybe just talk a little bit about working with Lars as well?
NK: Yeah I probably wouldn’t be able to go and do a film the way I did—we all lived in Sweden and I mean I was single at the time so I was just there living in one of the houses on the property and we would go off to the studio and work and then come back and all eat dinner together, that’s Lars’ process. So I probably wouldn’t be able to do that because I do bring my children and I have my family with me and I set up a way in which we can function wherever we are.
That film I saw very much as—you know I see a lot of the directors I work with as philosophers, where they have ideas that they’re putting into the world. I mean I saw Jonathan Glazer with Birth, Kubrick, Lars, Campion; I mean I see them as philosophers actually, modern day philosophers, so I’m absolutely willing and I think, you know, I didn’t feel that that was abuse on Dogville because I was there and I was going ‘ok well what are we artistically trying to achieve?’ and the way I approach the work is always through—and I’m more than willing at times to put up my hand and go ‘this is too much now,’ you know I have certain boundaries, but I also have a very strong commitment artistically that I’m willing to commit to. But it’s my choice.
You know, even with something like Big Little Lies, we’re doing scenes where I’m in those scenes and I’m actually physically getting hurt, being bruised, getting really hurt, but I know I’m in it doing it because I feel that doing that will somehow make the scene better and I know what I’m doing if that makes sense. So it’s a very, very strange thing being a very committed artist. And always finding what your boundaries are and how far you’re willing to go and then coming back. And you’re going to make mistakes and you’re going to go off the rails at times, but you know, I don’t have all the answers for that. I know… and I, at times I’ve gone too far and I’ve rebalanced myself, so it’s always a journey, you know, artistically. Did I answer that question?
FS: Running right to the back there.
NK: Am I choosing or are you?
FS: I am. Well you can choose!
NK: No, because I was like ‘yes you!’… Who is it?
Q: Thanks very much, it’s been very interesting to hear you talk about some of your films and stuff tonight. If I could just ask a question about your work as an actress in terms of the craft.
Some of the shoots you work on extend over quite a long period of time and on different films you’ll have different levels of rehearsal period, but in terms of developing your character, I would imagine that as time goes on during the shooting process—and sometimes you’re shooting out of sequence—
Q: Sure—your idea of what the character is might evolve. But yet there has to be a certain consistency from the start of the picture the audience see to the end. So how do you negotiate that?
NK: It is so hard. It really is. You know the wonderful thing about being on stage is you control it from beginning to end. You do not have that luxury in film or TV. And I always say an actor can’t be a control freak because we don’t have control. And so a lot of it is trust. And I really have an enormous amount of trust; it’s probably why I attach so strongly to the director, because there’s a huge amount of trust in that.
And there will be times that I say to the director ‘are you sure this is going to…’ and they’re like ‘we’re in this together,’ and a lot of times you’ll look back and you’ll think ‘I wish, if only I could have gone back and redone that, and redone that,’ but that’s art anyway. Every time you look at it you would redo it and you would do it differently. I mean they’re captured moments and part of it is just having to let it go. So it’s this weird, massive amount of preparation and then it’s complete trust.
Q: Do you like to watch the rushes or do you just go for it.
NK: I never watch rushes and I never watch—they have a thing on the set called playback where you can go and watch playback, and I never watch it.
Q: Thank you very much.
NK: I still don’t even understand lenses properly and I’ve done that purposefully so that I don’t become too aware. I have no idea which is my best side—people will go, you’ll sit down for an interview and sometimes they’ll go ‘do you have a side you prefer?’ and I’m like ‘no, doesn’t matter.’ So I really try to not have that, I suppose, that eye on myself I that makes sense. So yeah.
Q: Thanks so much.
NK: After all these years in the industry they’ll say ‘oh we’re using a long lens,’ and I’ll say ‘ooh, well ok…’
FS: Well it’s working out pretty well so far!
NK: Ignorance is bliss!
FS: Thank you for your questions but Nicole Kidman most of all, thank you for your Life in Pictures.
NK: Thank you, thank you so much.