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Leading Lady: Nicole Kidman on conquering her nerves and why nothing tops the London stage

Leading Lady: Nicole Kidman on conquering her nerves and why nothing tops the London stage

2015   |   Written by Nick Curtis

Evening Standard Magazine
December 10, 2015

Nicole Kidman’s turn as a pioneering scientist in Photograph 51 electrified the West End and saw her named Best Actress at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards. She talks to Nick Curtis

Nicole Kidman is in a wistful mood. She has won the Natasha Richardson Award for Best Actress at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards in partnership with The Ivy, for her performance as forgotten DNA pioneer Rosalind Franklin in Photograph 51.

Soon she will be back at the Nashville home she shares with her husband, country singer Keith Urban, and daughters Sunday Rose, seven, and Faith Margaret, five, and preparing for her second family Christmas without her beloved father Antony Kidman, who died of a heart attack last year.

The memories of her second London stage run, which ended the night before the awards, are still fresh. ‘It feels sad,’ the 48-year-old Hollywood star tells me. ‘The beauty of theatre is that it never comes again. That’s it, done, it’s all just memory then. That’s what makes it spectacular. I loved doing it every night. I had forgotten that direct connection to the audience. And the immediacy — I haven’t had that in so long. You feel the energy of the audience. Even going and signing [autographs] at the stage door was a powerful thing for me.’

In person, Kidman is a beguiling mixture of grace and girlishness: slender as a bluebell, her porcelain skin unlined, but prone to big grins and wide-eyed astonishment. The Evening Standard Award itself, she says, is ‘amazing’ and ‘absolutely the equivalent, for the theatre world’ of the Oscar she won in 2003 for playing Virginia Woolf in Stephen Daldry’s film The Hours. She was accompanied to the star-studded event by her husband, and wore an arresting black and white lace and silk Alexander McQueen dress. After shooting the breeze with theatrical royalty — Ian McKellen and Judi Dench, and Hollywood favourite Ruth Wilson, her co-star in the forthcoming How to Talk to Girls at Parties — her poise faltered when she stepped on stage.

In her emotional acceptance speech, Kidman thanked Urban, saying his frequent flights to and from London represented ‘love in action’, declaring: ‘I will love you until the end of my life.’ She also paid tribute to her late father, a biochemist (like Franklin) who later became a clinical psychologist. ‘Every night before I went on stage I would kneel in front of his photograph and look into his eyes, and he would give me the strength to go and do it,’ she said. At the very end of her speech she took a bow ‘to say thank you for the privilege and honour of appearing on the London stage’.

It was 17 years ago, midway through her first marriage, to Tom Cruise, that Kidman made her explosive West End debut in David Hare’s The Blue Room at the Donmar Warehouse. A brief nude scene led one overheated critic to declare her ‘pure theatrical Viagra’, and she won a special Evening Standard Award then for further galvanising an already buzzing stage scene. In the still-electric London theatre of 2015, Photograph 51 required a different sort of stimulation: it needed her star wattage.

A densely clever play by unknown American writer Anna Ziegler about science and sexism, it showed how in the early 1950s, using crystallography, Franklin created the photograph that identified DNA’s double-helix structure — only for her work to be used and then eclipsed by the more famous Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins, who went on jointly to win the Nobel prize. Franklin died aged 37 of ovarian cancer, possibly caused by exposure to radiation in her work. In the script, as apparently in life, she comes across as spiky, focused and intractable.

Kidman and director Michael Grandage had been discussing doing a play for years when he passed her Ziegler’s script on the set of his forthcoming first film, Genius, about literary New York. ‘I still act like I’m just out of drama school: “Yeah, that sounds good, I’ll do that,” ’ Kidman says. ‘I respond to people and I became very attached to Michael during Genius.’

Having grown up visiting the laboratories where her father worked, ‘there was a connection there with science and his legacy, and also just with her,’ smiles Kidman. ‘I felt her [Rosalind’s] presence every night and was so glad to be able to be the conduit for her to be recognised.’ She insisted the play should be done in London ‘because I’m Australian, so England, and the UK, is so much a part of what we are raised on, especially in theatre’. She researched Franklin’s life in depth, and the entire cast visited the archives of King’s College, where Franklin worked, to see the real Photograph 51. ‘It’s about this big,’ she says, holding her finger and thumb four inches apart.

In the weeks leading up to opening night at the Noël Coward Theatre she suffered crippling stage fright. ‘I was standing in the wings, feeling like my heart was going to jump out of my chest,’ she says. ‘My mouth was so dry I’d drink about two bottles of water during the show.’ But the critics raved. The usual reservations about star casting were aired, but Kidman implies, in the nicest way possible, that anything that gets a new play wider exposure should be applauded, especially one by a female writer: ‘And I also want to see unknown actors making a name for themselves.’ At the end of the run, Grandage offered any aspiring actors working in the theatre as ushers or programme sellers a chance to audition for him. ‘I started off as a 14-year-old, wanting to act, working as an usher,’ says Kidman. ‘So that’s like the magic stuff.’ She, meanwhile, donated her entire fee to the Actors’ Benevolent Fund and to King’s College, the latter bequest in the name of her father and Franklin.

While in London she managed to hook up with theatrical chums: David Hare, who wrote The Blue Room, and his fashion designer wife Nicole Farhi; Sam Mendes, who directed her in it when he was ‘just this wunderkind who was coming up’ and is now simply ‘The Sam’ who wins Oscars and makes Bond films.

Her sojourn in the capital has been a family affair. Her two daughters came with her, and were enrolled at a school where a childhood friend of Kidman’s works, so her free time was mostly spent ‘taking my kids to exhibitions and museums, ice skating at the Natural History Museum, driving into the country on Sundays’. Urban made 15 or so trips to and fro, between musical commitments in Nashville. ‘A musician and an actress is kind of a great combo,’ she muses. ‘Both gypsies, both artistic but not in the same field. He’s just a cool guy, he’s mellow, and I say that as a huge compliment.’

Kidman uses the phrase ‘I’m older now’ three times, and seems sanguine at 48. Born in Honolulu and raised in Sydney, she got her international break aged 22 in the 1989 thriller Dead Calm: the next year she was married to her Days of Thunder co-star Tom Cruise. The couple adopted two children, Connor, now 20, and Isabella, 22, after suffering fertility problems, and divorced in 2001, two years after filming Stanley Kubrick’s erotic thriller Eyes Wide Shut together.

Throughout her career, Kidman has alternated big box-office films (Batman Forever, Cold Mountain, with more nourishing fare (To Die For, The Portrait of a Lady, Dogville, Moulin Rouge). When she won the Oscar for The Hours, she has said she felt terribly lonely. Three years later she met Urban, a New Zealand-born Australian who’s the same age as her, at a Californian event promoting Antipodeans called G’Day LA. They married in 2006: their first daughter Sunday was born naturally, Faith via surrogacy. The Kidman/Urban clan seems utterly loved up.

Were there things she learned from her first marriage that she did differently in her second? ‘Any time you have a chance at something again is good, but each combination of people is different,’ she says. ‘I was a baby when I married Tom, but I don’t regret any of it. But out of respect for Keith I tend not to discuss any of that now…’

She has maintained a dignified silence over her split from Cruise and his influence on their adopted children — particularly the part played by his belief in Scientology — and still speaks of him with affection. ‘Be the best you can be, not the worst, and think of the children,’ she says.

Enough looking back anyway. Kidman has four films out in the UK next year, and may be shooting Wonder Woman in London in the spring: she’ll play the heroine’s mother Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons — ‘a great thing for my girls’ — if the dates fit in with Urban’s touring schedule. Photograph 51 may then transfer to Broadway, and she might do another play soon. More immediately, there’s Christmas to look forward to.

‘We just hang out, eat, play,’ says Kidman. ‘My sister has six children and they all come over, and my mum. We have big family Christmases that are never the same because you don’t have the patriarch of the family [my father] there any more. But it is what it is, isn’t it? It takes on a whole different meaning.’ She gives that big pearly grin again: ‘But having been in the theatre, doing six nights and eight shows a week, I think Christmas has been well earned.’

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