She was The Sparkling Diamond in Moulin Rouge! and shone a light on domestic violence in Big Little Lies, but as Nicole Kidman stars in Sky Atlantic mega hit The Undoing, Josh Smith meets an icon who, during her 30 years in Hollywood – and beyond – has had to overcome plenty of her own professional and personal hurdles…
It’s 2.32am on a Monday morning and unsurprisingly, I am half-asleep when the phone rings. “Hello Josh, it’s Nicole and yes, you are dreaming,” the voice says. It takes me a few seconds to really register this – but yes, NICOLE FRICKING KIDMAN is calling me in her soothing Ozzie accent. I can hear my teenage, Moulin Rouge!-obsessed self screeching the words to the Elephant Love Medley in excitement.
It’s not every day your very early alarm clock is an interview with an Oscar-winning actress whose career has spanned three entire decades, (basically my whole life) after breaking through in the 1980s at 22-years-old with the TV show Bangkok Hilton and the movie Dead Calm. Nicole has since nailed every single genre going, from musicals, namely the aforementioned Moulin Rouge!, to superheroes films Aquaman and Batman Returns, and deep dramas including The Hours, Lion and Bombshell, to TV hits Big Little Lies and most recently, The Undoing (more on that later). In further proof that the 53-year-old has literally done it ALL, Nicole has even featured on her own No.1 single, Somethin’ Stupid opposite Robbie Williams – and it’s still a bop. Lest we forget.
For all the awards and blockbusters, it hasn’t always been glittering success. In 2010 Nicole took her career into her own hands by launching her production company Blossom Films, starting with her Oscar-nominated role as a grieving mother in Rabbit Hole and going on to collaborate with Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine with Big Little Lies where she played Celeste, a mother tormented mentally and physically by her abusive husband.
“I was not getting to play the things that I was being offered a decade prior,” Nicole says, candidly. Speaking from her film trailer in Australia, where she’s starring in and producing her latest TV show Nine Perfect Strangers – about a group of stressed city dwellers who descend on an island paradise to bask in the glow of Nicole’s Russian wellness guru. She continues, “I knew there were great stories out there for women, but they weren’t being funded and everyone kept saying, ‘There’s no interest… they are going to flop’ or ‘The only thing you can do is romantic comedies,’ or ‘You can go into theatre?’
“So, I went and did Photograph 51 (in London’s West End in 2015) thinking, theatre is the way you go now, and I can go and explore Rosalind Franklin, this scientist whose life was never celebrated for what she contributed to society and to the world.
At this stage in her life, how liberating has it been to take control of her own career? “Honestly it’s been a surprise, because as much as you think, it would be amazing to have some sort of control over my destiny as an actor, the actual reality of it happening is so far-fetched. Especially where I was at, before Big Little Lies, people always said, ‘Oh, well, you make about four or five good things and then usually it’s over.’”
Sexism has naturally had a part to play in the script of Nicole’s life. For someone who was integral to the#MeToo and #TimesUp movements, encouraging Hollywood to wear black to the Golden Globes in 2018 in a protest against its inequalities and abuses, I wonder: from that moment when she zipped up that black Givenchy dress, how far do she think we have come? “Oh, my gosh,” Nicole exhales. “I think it’s still work in progress, but I’ve worked with some of the greatest. When you watch Meryl Streep’s career – she’s become a very good friend of mine – and what she’s managed to do… I really use her as a beacon as she’s always saying there’s still so much work to be done. And there is.
“I think there’s a lot more safety,” she goes on. “I read an interview recently about the way they made Normal People. There’s a lot of sexuality in that show, but both actors felt very safe and they were able to still do these really intimate things. That’s amazing, but is there still an incredible disparity? Yes. Are we all working to change it? I hope so and we’ll continue to. I hope the generations to come look back and go, ‘Wow. That was good work.’”
The “good work,” for Nicole continues with The Undoing where she even sings the theme song. “Congrats, you have got all the skills on show,” I joke. “No, I didn’t have to dance, and I didn’t have to purr Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend,” she laughs back.
In case you aren’t already hanging off your sofa every Monday night on Sky Atlantic – Nicole’s latest intense AF thriller The Undoing follows Grace, a New York-based psychiatrist whose life is turned upside down when her doctor husband, Jonathan played by Hugh Grant, goes on the run as a body is discovered in the local neighbourhood. It’s got more twists and turns than the big dipper and to say it’s anxiety-inducing is an understatement as so many personal traumas come to the fore.
Well-versed in mentally challenging roles, how has playing a psychiatrist compounded the importance of talking and listening for Nicole? “It’s how I work,” she answers. “You’re having to constantly dig into the depth of your past, your desires, your future – everything. My lifelong work is emotions and keeping them there, ripe and raw. Then being able to put them away and going to live your real life is the sort of the quandary. It’s like being a boxer. When you put a boxer in a ring you say, ‘OK, you’re allowed to knock that person out. Now, step out of the ring, go walk down the street and don’t hit anybody.’ That’s your discipline.
“It’s a psychological discipline. As an actor, you’re told, ‘I want you to explore every facet of emotions and psychology. Now, go back into your real life and be totally normal.’”
“That can’t be easy,” I say. “I’ve had to learn how to shield,” she responds. “It can be very taxing as I absorb a lot of the emotion, so I’ve had to find a way to balance that.”
For Nicole, maintaining that balance comes through regular exercise, and of course her solid relationship with country musician Kieth Urban, whom she married in 2006. “I run outside listening to music,” Nicole says, in her soothing tones. “And I have a very good relationship. It is a very soothing, comforting place for me to go, and he’s a very strong, warm, kind man. I’m very fortunate to have that in my life, because it’s a really strong place to be able to go and curl up. And this is a lonely world, right?” Nicole turns the questions onto me, before continuing: “That’s sort of an extraordinary thing to have found, particularly later in my life. But it saved me, as well, which is a beautiful thing to have.”
How do you feel like it saved you, I ask? “They say loneliness is the great killer. It causes so much pain and I’ve been lonely, and it is very, very, very hard. You see it in older people. You see it in young people. You see it now in this world. We can’t even hug anymore. Loneliness is an epidemic. So, I am very fortunate to come home to him. My heart goes out to the people who don’t have a person to go to now.”
At this point Nicole’s mothering instinct kicks in and she enquires about my relationship status. “I’m getting quite emotional listening to you,” I tell her. “Me too,” Nicole replies. “This year, it’s become so apparent. I’ve also got friends that have been struggling so much, I think it’s been incredibly traumatic.
“What’s interesting about The Undoing is this enormous discovery of, ‘is the relationship I’m in really the relationship I want to be in?’ This time now also really plays into, ‘Oh, my gosh. I’m now having to spend all this time with this person, and this isn’t the person I thought they were.’ I think that’s the psychological depth of the series, is that nothing is what it seems for Grace and everything she thought she had, obviously wasn’t real. It’s terrifying,” Nicole concludes, bringing the conversation back to her latest project.
The setting for The Undoing, in the high-flying world of New York’s elite is far from Nicole’s origins in Sydney. “I’ve always been aware of privilege because both my parents came from nothing,” Nicole reveals. “When we moved to America, we had nothing. My parents had to go to the Salvation Army and get a donated mattress, which we all slept on, while my mum helped put my dad through his PhD as he came from a very poor family. When he became a psychologist, he would offer his behavioural therapy for nothing if they didn’t have any money, because he just wanted to help. I grew up with one of the gentlest, kindest fathers who was a giver and my mother was a nurse, so my family had that social conscience.
“When I was younger, I would sit in the hospital and wait for my mum to finish work, where I saw a lot of people battling for their lives with cancer and terrible injuries,” Nicole reminisces. “As a child, I was like, ‘This is awful.’ But that’s a really good thing as I’ve always been able to take a step through into other worlds and put myself into a position of gratitude and the desire to go and help. Now I am in a position to go, ‘I’m going to be really authentic and do a story about a boy who’s gay and his parents don’t believe that it’s genetic, like with Boy Erased, and maybe I don’t reach a massive audience, but hopefully they reach some people.’
“I also married a man who’s totally self-made and came from a background where he said every brick in his house is a gig. He grew up on a farm, literally in a shed. They didn’t have bedrooms. Four of them lived in a shed that subsequently burned down. They have talked of a community that came and helped their family because they had nothing.”
As I talk to Nicole it’s clear her mothering instinct flows through every aspect of her life. Her eldest children with Tom Cruise – Isabella and Connor, both now 27 and 25 respectively – were adopted. And after worries over her fertility, she gave birth to her first biological child with Keith (Sunday Rose, now 12), followed by Faith, nine, who they had through surrogacy.
“I just love kids,” she beams. “I said once, ‘I prefer children to adults.’ I like adults more now, not more than kids, though. I love being around children and we’ve got five kids living with me now because Keith had to go back (to Nashville) to release his album. So, my sister moved in to help me while I’m filming, and we have three of her younger kids – she has six – living with us. It’s just fun because I just find their perspective not so heavy. It puts you in a more childlike place where you go, ‘I can move through this and it can be fleeting. It doesn’t have to become a massive weight.’”
Nurturing comes as second nature to Nicole as acting does. “I like the feeling of taking care of people, that’s my joy and it’s not about then receiving something back,” she says. “I’m an eldest child, my mother had breast cancer when I was 17, and I had to take care of her. That’s a place in which I feel confident and I feel good when I’m able to do it.”
But just like for any mother, lockdown has presented its challenges for her. “Our kids – because we travel, and we won’t be apart – are used to having to learn online,” she explains. “But the social distance has been very difficult for them. They are working through the emotions. For a 12-year-old, it’s about not being able to access friends easily – that’s a whole thing which every parent will be going through. And then, there’s a nine-year-old, who’s socially forming. One of the hardest things is just watching them pine and yearn for their friends. I pine and yearn for my friends too.”
One thing we are all pining for right now is a little escapism, which comes in the form of Nicole’s next project, Ryan Murphy’s Netflix movie adaptation of the Broadway musical The Prom. Nicole plays Angie, a struggling Broadway chorus girl who joins forces with a set of musical divas played by Meryl Streep, Andrew Rannells and James Corden to help an Ohio schoolgirl, Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman) who is banned from attending prom with her girlfriend, Alyssa (Ariana DeBose). Camper than actual Christmas, The Prom is High School Musical meets Glee, but on sequin steroids – and with a social conscience. While Nicole relished the chance to have “fun wearing sequins”, nerves crept in about returning to her Moulin Rouge! musical days. “It was pretty daunting doing that Fosse number, but it was also so fun to be doing it!”
High school was equally daunting for Nicole. “I was a teenager who wouldn’t conform, but I had a lot of fears and insecurities because I was very tall. I was 5ft10in’ by the time I was 13 years old,” she says.
What was her own prom experience like? “I wore a 1920s flapper dress, which goes along with my ‘not conforming’ sensibility. I bought it in a vintage store and I just loved the idea of a flapper dress, it was black and white beading – it was definitely not tulle and big skirts. I think I remember getting a little drunk too, which is probably a lot of people’s experiences at their prom or formal.”
Drinks and sequins aside, the main message of The Prom is something Nicole is so proud of. “It’s about how unconditional love will conquer all,” she lights up. “For a parent to say to a child, ‘You’re loved. You’re just loved,’ is the most important thing and, ‘you can believe, you can do, you can be who you are, and I will love you.’”
I feel better just hearing that, I tell Nicole, who is truly channelling the Russian wellness guru she is currently playing in Nine Perfect Strangers. She will return to set just minutes later after eating her packed lunch. “I will love you. Josh, I will love you. Relax. Breathe. You are safe. You are loved,” she says calmly as I remain anything but calm on the other end of the phone. Is Nicole Kidman actually telling me she will love me? These Nicole mantras should leave Gwyneth Paltrow quaking in her wellness crystals!
“The place that I’m the head of [in Nine Perfect Strangers] is called Tranquilem. Come any time, I’ll take care of you,” Nicole jokes as she sashays to set, and I sashay to sleep, and to manifest that invitation into reality.