Nicole Kidman Online
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New York Times Magazine
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Nicole Kidman Leans Into the Pain

October 2020   |   Written by David Marchese

In HBO’s mini-series “The Undoing,” a psychological thriller that premieres Oct. 25, Nicole Kidman plays Grace Fraser, a Manhattan therapist whose impeccably ordered life is suddenly shattered by violence and lust. In her stores of heat and cool, her emotional and sexual ambiguities, Grace — her name unironic, until it isn’t — is a kind of woman we’ve seen Kidman play before. A kind of woman we never tire of seeing her play. A kind of woman in which the 53-year-old actress keeps finding adventurous new depths. “I’ve fought that emotional intensity at times and tried to protect myself from it,” Kidman said. “Now I’m at the point where I’m like, no. Digest it. Maybe don’t even understand it. But always have it flow.”

So this question is probably too broad, but — I don’t want the light stuff. I like to get heavy quickly.

OK, great. What do you make of the relationship between you and your audience over the years? I probably wouldn’t have done a lot of the work I’ve done if I’d thought that out. I would have been like, people will think I’m a complete weirdo. That’s a frightening prospect, the idea of tempering things in relation to what people think. And of course now in society there’s an enormous amount of judgment. There has to be, as an actor, the possibility to not have it work. Sometimes it connects and people go, “I know you. I know that.” With Celeste I would walk down the street, and people wanted to hold me or protect me. The role connected me with the world in a beautiful way. But if I were attached to that, I then couldn’t go and play somebody that isn’t as relatable.

Celeste in “Big Little Lies” — as well as Grace in “The Undoing” — is a part that requires some sexual boldness, which is common for you but not many other actors at your level. Does the increased judgment you just pointed to mean boldness about sex might become rarer in Hollywood? Look at “Normal People,” though. That was exquisite work from those two actors. I’ve had situations as an actress where, oh my gosh, it was not what I thought it would be. I was probably at the forefront of this: When I went to work with Stanley Kubrick, he was like, I’m going to want full frontal nudity, and I was like, Ahh, I don’t know. So we came up with a great agreement, which was contractual. He would show me the scenes with the nudity before they made it into the film. Then I could feel completely safe. I didn’t say no to any of it. I’d wanted to make sure that it wasn’t going to be me standing there nude and everyone laughing at me. I was protected, so I got to explore a complicated marriage and the way in which Tom’s character is having those jealous images. I would never think of not wanting the storytelling to be told properly. Having them say, “Once you’re OK with it, great, that’s it” — what a fantastic place to be in as a woman. Please write that correctly, because otherwise, it will be misinterpreted.

Which part? The way in which the contractual agreement that I have with a director allows me to do nudity and sex scenes because I feel safe. Sexuality is over here in a box, and we don’t deal with it. I’m happy to deal with it, but there needs to be a place where you can go, I’m not going to be exploited. Then I’ll go down the road with you. I love the relationship between a director and an actor. When it’s pure, it’s exquisite. And the other actors, when you’re all there doing the work, it’s exquisite.

Is it more exquisite than life outside acting? It used to be. Probably changed mid-30s. I started working at 14. I had my first kiss onstage. I was living out my life artistically.

Did you realize at some point that living your life through your work was possibly unhealthy? I don’t know if it was unhealthy.

But it might raise the question of where you thought real life was happening. I don’t know. Do you believe in the parallel universes? I’ve just seen “Tenet.” [Laughs.] If there was a choice, I don’t know I would be an actor. But its pull is so powerful that it’s not a choice. But, gosh, what is reality? The idea of not being present for my children and not being here for my loved ones is devastating. And, on my deathbed, the idea of drifting off into another realm is scary. [Laughs.]

Why are you laughing now? I see the way you’re looking at me.

I promise I’m not looking at you in any remotely negative way. Sometimes I look skeptical when I’m not. You have to remember you’re speaking almost to Masha. I’m trying to be Nicole for you. But what I’m exploring right now is other realities. I did it in “Rabbit Hole,” where it’s all about, Is there a parallel universe where I’m happy?

When you were talking about your attitude toward your work when you were younger — The labels and exact timing, that gets too logical. It’s not like, “Right here is when it all changed.” The essence of who you are evolves. You implied, well, life is obviously more important than the work, than artistic life, and I was like, is it? I was being provocative with you. The deepest part of being a human for me is the connections. Because that’s what you’re left with. I was watching Philip Seymour Hoffman the other day, and I went, “Thank you for your work.” I watch different actors and films, it’s gut-wrenchingly beautiful. Watching Pacino in “The Godfather.” Looking at what Kubrick left us to ponder. It makes me cry because it’s an offering that goes beyond a life.

You’ve mentioned Kubrick a couple of times now. It’s obvious that working with him on “Eyes Wide Shut” was important for you. But I’ve been wondering about the total immersion and the personal psychological analysis that he asked of you and Tom Cruise as a couple for that film. At any point, in the middle of that, were you at all like, “This is a weird thing we’re doing”? No. This is where the fallacy is: We loved working with him. We shot that for two years. We had two kids and were living in a trailer on the lot primarily, making spaghetti because Stanley liked to eat with us sometimes. We were working with the greatest filmmaker and learning about our lives and enjoying our lives on set. We would say, “When is it going to end?” We went over there thinking it was going to be three months. It turned into a year, a year and a half. But you go, As long as I surrender to what this is, I’m going to have an incredible time. Stanley, he wasn’t torturous. He was arduous in that he would shoot a lot. But I’d sit on the floor of his office and talk, and we’d watch animal videos. He said animals were so much nicer than human beings. Though I do remember we were watching a wildlife thing where you saw the lion going after an antelope, and he could hardly watch it. Interesting, isn’t it?

You know how in “Eyes Wide Shut” you have that monologue in which your character is talking about infidelity and says to Tom’s character, “I was ready to give up everything”? That speech is all about emasculation and emotional aggression. If you’re acting those scenes with the person to whom you’re married, and doing it as part of this immersive process, can it open up negative feelings that later you maybe wish you hadn’t opened? That fits the narrative that people came up with, but I definitely didn’t see it like that. We were happily married through that. We would go go-kart racing after those scenes. We’d rent out a place and go racing at 3 in the morning. I don’t know what else to say. Maybe I don’t have the ability to look back and dissect it. Or I’m not willing to.

What satisfaction does acting give you now? It’s the strangest thing: A lot of people as they get older get more protected and terrified. My desire is to keep throwing myself into things. My parenting, my relationship, my work. I’ll take the pain. I’ll take the joy. Because the feeling makes me go, I’m in life. It’s an enormous gift, this life. My ability to love is so deep. My love for my children and for my mother, who’s 80 years old, and my desire to not lose her. You know, I was at her house last weekend and she pulled out a CD of my father singing. It was like being stabbed in the gut. My mother said, “I can’t listen to it,” and I went, “I can. I have to. I get why you can’t, Mama, but I want to.” Most people would turn it off. I left it on.

I’ve read you say before that you’re looking for risk in the roles you take. What felt risky about Grace Fraser? I’m not sure if I’ve said “risk.” That might have been attributed to me and not come out of my mouth. I’ve pushed myself into places that I don’t find comfortable. I’m interested in philosophy and the human psyche. I’m interested in stoicism. “Risk” feels superficial. It’s more about the stories and the ways in which I get to explore the psychology of who we are as people.

Are you interested in stoicism as a quality in which you’re maybe lacking? Probably. Stoicism would help me survive. Particularly for me having a mother who’s — I’m dealing right now with a mother who’s struggling. Mortality is very present — and pain. So how do you survive? How do you respond? I have the power to choose how I respond. You’ve reduced me to tears!

Hopefully for the right reasons. Yeah. Yeah. I am dealing with family right now, my life, and that all comes into play.

How did you used to think about balancing trying to do roles that allowed for a range of expression — the kind of roles you do now — with taking less complex roles that, for career reasons, you probably felt compelled to take? I came from an industry that’s small and was fighting to survive — the Australian film industry. My whole attitude was get out there and work. There’s no chance of being selective because you’ve got to make money. I didn’t come from an affluent family. It was always about being a working actor. Then I got taken under the umbrella of a company called Kennedy Miller. They did a series here on the Vietnam War and the way that impacted Australia. I played a conscientious objector, and that was my beginning of getting to do the things that I’m interested in: dissect a character and have a great arc and work with talented people. Then I fell in love and came to the States. Things were jagged. As I’ve gotten older, I do get to make choices and have some say in my trajectory as an artist. What an extraordinary thing.

I wonder if that answer betrayed some knee-jerk Australian humility. You said you just wanted to work, but I suspect there was always more to it than that. Now I have some control. There was a period of time when it was hard to even get a role. I’m talking over a decade ago when people were like, [snaps fingers] “That’s the age cutoff.” That’s when I produced “Rabbit Hole.” That was an amazing thing because I’d gotten married and was about to have my baby, and was going, OK, it’s not that satisfying careerwise. It was like a wall had been put around me. Part of the reason so many of us want to produce is because then we can have more say in where we end up.

That age cutoff presumably had something to do with other people’s perceptions about sexual desirability. What does it do to your head — as a person, let alone an actress — to have to face that? There aren’t many jobs where it’s so explicit that you can get dropped for a younger model. You’re not told it directly. You have to read between the lines. I suppose part of my naïveté is that I didn’t think of it like that. I thought, Oh, people are just sick of you. That’s my Australianism, like you said. But as an actor, being attached to your face and body and the form of it is not going to bode well if you’re looking for a long career where you embody different people.

There was a period in your career when a big part of your work — at least for audiences — had to do with your daring. Within a relatively short span, you did “Moulin Rouge!” and “Dogville”
and “The Blue Room” and “The Hours” and “Birth.” Do you still think about the element of surprise for yourself and the audience?
I don’t know. With “Dogville” I wanted to work with Lars von Trier. I loved the idea of something Brechtian on camera. I also loved going to Sweden and living communally almost and making a piece of cinema that way. “The Blue Room” was about coming out of Kubrick’s world and going, How do I work for another filmmaker right now? I can’t. I’ll go to the stage. “The Hours”: I didn’t want to play Virginia Woolf. I begged to play the Julianne Moore role, and Stephen Daldry went, “No, you’re playing Virginia,” and I’m like, “I’m completely miscast as Virginia Woolf. I can’t do it.” He went, “Yes, you can,” and that was that. When I roll with things, it’s far better. With “Big Little Lies,” Liane Moriarty said, “I’ll let you guys have the book, but you have to play Celeste.” These things just come.

This is another version of the audience-performer relationship question I asked at the beginning. You’ve done things like that Chanel No. 5 commercial or “Grace of Monaco,” which play with the idea of celebrity glamour and — But it’s intuitive. It’s not like I have to say my message. Chanel No. 5 was because I wanted to go and have Karl Lagerfeld dress me and run around. As much as I had a feminist mother, she almost dressed me up like a doll at times. We would scour the flea markets for the most beautiful dresses. I grew up with a love of that. The Chanel ad was fantasy for me.

What I’m trying to do is get you — one of the very few people alive who has embodied the image of the glamorous Hollywood star — to tell me what was interesting about that experience from the inside. Bringing humanity. Trying to demystify that and make it more human. “Destroyer” was finding the humanity of the woman. The humanity of the character is where I’m always drawn.

You’ve been deflecting, which is OK. Do I deflect a lot?

Yeah, you do. Of course, though. You’ve got me raw.

I’m asking about the idea of Nicole Kidman, and you’re not quite engaging with the question. Every movie star has a role that he or she plays in the public imagination, right? Can I stop you there? I don’t see myself as a movie star. I see myself as an actor.

But you understand these perceptions exist. I can put on a dress, but that’s the pomp and ceremony. The truth of it is I see myself as an actor. Baz Luhrmann would always say to me, “Nicole, you’re not the girl next door,” and I’d be like, “But I want to be able to play that!” “No, you’ll never get cast as that.” That I didn’t understand, you know? And Stanley would say to me, “You’re a thoroughbred.” I don’t take to that. Don’t confine me. Let me grow and explore. That’s all I ask.

My question is whether — It’s the thoroughbred in me going, I’m bucking now.

Let me rephrase it: What insights do you have about what the culture thinks of female movie stars? What can you tell me about that societal role that other people can’t? It interests me how the latest role you’ve played is usually the way in which you’re going to be perceived. I can see why other people go, “I’m only going to play something that everybody feels sympathy for.” That would be a disservice to the human condition for me because I’m interested in all facets of it. I feel like when these questions come, you’re putting a bridle on me, to use the horse analogy. It’s saying, “We’re going to tame you.” I don’t want that. It’s why I’m bucking you and deflecting you. Please don’t saddle me or bridle me.

Can we keep going for a little more? Yeah, you’re quite fun. On Zoom it’s the weirdest thing, having not done an interview for six months, talking about the past and films. Just a weird thing.

Let me ask a question that ties into “The Undoing.” It’s also about a very particular aspect of your acting, which resonated for me. Why are you rolling your eyes? Because I’m Australian. We have a tough time with compliments.

I didn’t say it resonated in a good way. [Laughs.] Oh, OK! There you go! But we’re probably of that ilk where it’s like, “Shut up. Don’t give yourself so much importance. Get on with it.” That’s what we’re raised with.

On a whim I watched “The Human Stain.” Oh, why? Ugh.

I’m curious about if — or what — you discussed about that part with Philip Roth. In his novel, your character is a bit of a cipher, but you wouldn’t know it from your performance. We talked more about life because I was with Philip Roth. Going to dinner with Philip Roth, I was always like, “God, tell me,” you know? He was one of the great minds. Difficult but great. He would give me tidbits about the character. I can’t remember. I have a pretty shoddy memory these days.

What did Philip Roth tell you about life? I remember I would just go, “Why?” He signed me a copy of “The Human Stain” with, “Why not, Nicole?”

Coming from him, that sounds slightly flirtatious. He hated the question “Why?” And he hated guilt. He said it was a completely narcissistic emotion — and selfish. Didn’t believe in it. Didn’t even believe it was an emotion. I think we fought about that. “I’m Catholic. It definitely exists, Philip.” And he said, “No, it’s selfish and narcissistic.”

Was he charismatic? Deeply. Powerfully. And angry.

About what? I think everything. He had a sore back and was angry about that. Very bad back. Did you know him at all?

Only through his books. Wouldn’t you say he had a lot of anger in him?

Among other things. Yes. He had a lot of things. He had a lot of pathos, a lot of anxiety, as those great minds do. The same with Stanley. The great minds, they were very challenging. As is Jane Campion, because I always want to put the women in there. You could ask me about Jane.

Why didn’t you wind up doing “In the Cut” with her? I was developing it with Jane for a number of years with Susanna Moore. I had a bad knee injury. A lot of things I didn’t do because of that injury, and I don’t like to talk about films that you end up not doing. I basically was unable to stand for more than 10 seconds for about a year. I can’t work injured. Jane wanted to make it, so I was so happy when Meg Ryan got that chance. I love when people get chances to do things that you don’t immediately go, That’s perfect. I suppose having Meg step in and do something she’d never had the chance to do was exciting for her. I love all Jane’s films. People like her change the world artistically. I’m incredibly dedicated to them. I’m about to go and do this thing with Robert Eggers in Ireland. That’s an unusual thing to be doing in a pandemic, but I don’t want to let him down. I believe in his artistry. So will I put myself in a bit of danger? Yeah, I will, to support that. It’s being dedicated to people who are forging art in treacherous times. I’ve dedicated a life to it and I will continue to dedicate my life to it. [Laughs.] Heavy stuff.

I’m sorry if I put you in a sad mood earlier. It’s not a bad mood. So not a bad mood. You’ve got to remember, I had a conversation late last night that affects me for today. So you get me now in that place. You get my truth. I’m not deflecting you.

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