Even when laid totally bare, stripped of any apparatus, clothing, or even much of a character to hide behind—as she was, acting across from her then-husband Tom Cruise in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999)—Nicole Kidman is utterly commanding, regal, even. And that quality, that underlying grace, mixed with her fearlessness to go there—as she is currently doing on the West End, in Photograph 51—makes her a singular performer. But what makes Kidman especially rewarding to watch, whether as the sociopathic weather reporter in To Die For (1995), the cabaret dancer in Moulin Rouge! (2001), or in her Oscar-winning performance as Virginia Woolf in The Hours (2002), is not whatever actorly effort it takes to get where she’s going, but the candor she shows when she gets there. The way she welcomes us into her characters’ thoughts, discoveries about themselves, their fears, horrors, or resolutions is entirely spellbinding and one of a kind.
Since her break-out performance, in fellow Australian Phillip Noyce’s neo-exploitation film Dead Calm in 1989, Kidman has made nearly 40 films, in every conceivable genre, working with a wide range of directors, from Tony Scott (Days of Thunder, 1990) to Lars von Trier (Dogville, 2003), from Sydney Pollack (The Interpreter, 2005) to Noah Baumbach (Margot at the Wedding, 2007), and from Jane Campion (The Portrait of a Lady, 1996) to Werner Herzog, in the forthcoming Queen of the Desert, about the British explorer Gertrude Bell.
When she interviewed photographer Steven Klein for our September 2014 issue, Kidman told him that she loves the “limbo” of performance. “I do believe that there are many different realms we can exist in,” she said, “and a lot of this is just a dream state anyway.” And, thankfully, she doesn’t look to be waking up any time soon. Next year she’ll appear in Michael Grandage’s Genius, an adaptation of A. Scott Berg’s biography of the legendary book editor Maxwell Perkins. And in November, she, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Julia Roberts star in the dark thriller Secret in their Eyes.
“There have been times when I haven’t felt in the world,” Kidman told Klein last year, “when I haven’t cared whether I was going to be here or not, so my relationship with being on the earth was probably not as intense. And right now, there’s an intensity—I want to be here.” And here she is, in conversation with Lee Daniels, who directed her in 2012’s The Paperboy, on fear, lying, and dancing in the rain.
LEE DANIELS: Nic! Hi, honey. I just spoke to Chris yesterday. He told me that you were having the time of your life in London.
NICOLE KIDMAN: I am. I’m having a really good time here.
DANIELS: I was disappointed to hear that because, of course, I want you on my set. [both laugh]
KIDMAN: You promised me I would be there one day.
DANIELS: I can’t wait. Let’s see, what are we talking about? First, what makes you take a role? Are you afraid before you do something?
KIDMAN: Um, no. There are some things where I just jump right in. Actually, Paperboy was like that. I didn’t vacillate on Paperboy at all. I just wanted to work with you, and the character was like something out of great literature, so ripe and full. You just don’t read characters like that. Something like doing Empire is more to do with whether I can devote the amount of time I need to. I can’t pop in and pop out. I wouldn’t get there emotionally.
DANIELS: Whenever I’m with you, I get this energy like we’re being naughty. And naughty is controversial and will uncover something new that hasn’t been seen yet, a new personality trait.
KIDMAN: [laughs] I think you bring that out in pretty much everyone you work with, don’t you?
DANIELS: I don’t know. You in particular. You get this devilish look in your eye, like, “Uh-oh, what are we doing now?” Working with you, I understood what it must have been like to work with someone like Bette Davis. There’s a serenity about you. Are you aware of the hush when you come on set?
DANIELS: Well, there’s this hush every time you walk into a room. When you threw me that birthday party, there was this quiet, like royalty had walked in. And then you flip it on its head, because you become one of the guys. It’s very tricky of you. I’ve witnessed it, how you confuse people.
KIDMAN: I suppose expectations are strange and I shy away from them. And the whole point of being an actor is to connect. In the theater, which I’m doing now, when you walk into the rehearsal room on the first day, you’ve got to do it. I think that’s probably my main thing: just do the work. I’m not a big fan of sitting around, saying what I’m going to do. And we’ve all got brilliant ways of ducking and weaving so that we don’t have to do it. But my thing is to just get it on its feet and do it. Whether it’s a scene or just getting a character moving around. You’re going to fall flat on your face, just get back up again. By keeping it that simple, it allows me to play, because I do see it as playtime. I mean, we’re all lucky. We get paid to do it, but ultimately we’re the kids in school that never had to grow up, pretending we’re different people, and then convincing ourselves. I was with another actress the other day, and she said, “Oh, I’m not a good actress, because I’m not a good liar.” And I was like, “Golly, to me it’s the opposite.” You have to be so good at what you do that you believe it—so there’s no lie involved.
DANIELS: [laughs] Yes! I’ve seen you morph; it’s electrifying. I saw it happen in that scene on Paperboy, when we were in the car with Zac Efron, and the music was playing …
KIDMAN: Oh, that’s right. That’s a great memory.
DANIELS: And you looked at me with a twinkle in your eye, like, “This crazy fuck. I’m going to jump off the cliff with him.” I could feel that. I was like, “She thinks I’m a nut job and she loves it. She understands my insanity!” Have there been times with a director when you thought, “Oh my God, this was a mistake”?
KIDMAN: Absolutely. And it’s the difference between giving a solid performance and finding something more magical. I think so much of it is just chemistry, isn’t it? Whether you go, “Okay, we’re going to go places; I’m willing to push you to places, and then I’m going to be able to pull it all together and find the story through this.” Because I always go into it with 100 percent commitment. I try to get completely lost in it, but if I don’t have the support of the director, in that strange, altered, parallel universe where we exist, then it’s tricky. It doesn’t work. The magic doesn’t come.
DANIELS: Does your personal life ever bleed into the work? In other words, if something is fucked up in your personal life—family, husband, kids, parents, friends, what you’re going through—does any of that ever bleed into your work?
KIDMAN: Yeah, but we’re taught to bring everything—the state of being, the environment—and use it. If it’s raining, or the other actor doesn’t know his lines, everything has to be used. So your own emotional state comes into play, and I certainly remember that happening a lot on, say, The Hours, when I was going through an enormous amount of turmoil. And even though it was appropriate at times for the character [Virginia Woolf], at other times it wasn’t. But I would just bleed it in; it would manifest in different ways. For me, the idea of having a plan, that you’ve got to hit this particular place, shuts down other possibilities. And that’s probably why I work well with you because you’re also like that. You see something, you jump on it. Jane Campion is the same. You are very similar in the sense that everything is so detailed, and everything you see, or sense intuitively, you focus on and pull out.
DANIELS: I was so depressed that you were leaving us, your last day on Paperboy I was crying. And I think it started to rain.
DANIELS: I wanted to get myself out of the mood that I was in. So I said, “Let’s make it a dance number. Let’s dance!” [laughs] I was in a sad space and I wanted to see you and Zac dancing. The two of you looked at me and burst out laughing. And the two of you went out into the rain and danced, and it was magical.