The Big Little Lies star reflects on her career, her marriage, her faith, and the sisterhood of her hit TV show.
Nicole Kidman is one of the few movie stars left in Hollywood. Her chameleonic acting abilities are legend; her beauty, profuse. She is poised and regal—a perennial showstopper. It’s hard to imagine that she is even human. Almost two hours into our hike in Nashville’s Radnor Lake State Park, however, Kidman becomes undeniably mortal.
“I have to pee,” she announces. That makes two of us. Looking around, we see nothing but road ahead and road behind. “It’s 30 minutes this way,” she gestures, “and an hour that way.” Then, in her lilt, says, “And I think we may be lost.”
I look her straight in the eye and break the news. We’re going to have to go in the great outdoors. Dressed all in black—parka, beanie, cargo pants, sneakers, and backpack, carrying coffee, water, and apples—and not a stitch of makeup on, the glamazon climbs a small hill and flashes those baby blues: “Remember, it was you who didn’t want to go to a café.” Then, from behind the tree, “Keep asking me questions!”
Our hike around the roughly 1,400-acre natural reserve is not the first time our paths have crossed—in Australia, shortly after she married Keith Urban, she giddily told me about her hope to give birth; in Los Angeles last year, she courageously ate worms for Vanity Fair’s Secret Talent Theater, a heroic display still collecting views on YouTube.
This time, we’re on a dirt trail winding through nature where you could easily get lost for hours—and we nearly did—looking for a notoriously elusive owl. Despite the cold, we pass a few clusters of people—some carrying long-lens cameras. “That’s our paparazzi,” Kidman says with a laugh. But we’re in Nashville—and here the sights are trained on actual wildlife. A group of young women passes us, and I’m shocked none even do a double take at the Oscar-, Golden Globe–, SAG Award–, and Emmy-winning star. “No wonder you love Nashville,” I tell her. “Total privacy,” she concurs. I learn over my time spent here that “Nashville etiquette” means letting people live their lives in peace. “See? This is why I live here.”
This bucolic Tennessee life offers respite from Kidman’s wildly dynamic and duly prolific career, making her a once-in-a-generation talent with no signs of slowing down. There was the role that ignited it all, in Dead Calm (1989). She took a risky star turn that paid off in Gus Van Sant’s To Die For (1995), then stayed busy with big studio films like Eyes Wide Shut (1999), Oscar-nominated Moulin Rouge! (2001), and, in that same year, The Others. She got her best-actress Oscar for playing Virginia Woolf in The Hours (2002). More obscure artistic adventures followed—Lars von Trier’s Dogville (2003) had her crawling on all fours in a dog collar; Birth (2004) drew controversy for a scene in which Kidman bathed with a child. Films like The Stepford Wives (2004), Bewitched (2005), and The Interpreter (2005) skewed more commercial, though to less acclaim. In Fur (2006), as Diane Arbus, she shaves Robert Downey Jr.’s entire body. She launched her production company, Blossom Films, with the festival hit Rabbit Hole, then pushed new limits in Lee Daniels’s follow-up to Precious, The PaperBoy. Last year she was nearly unrecognizable in the gritty neo-noir Destroyer, and then as the Southern mother to a gay son in the coversion-therapy film Boy Erased, both while DC Comics’ Aquaman grossed more than a billion dollars. Big Little Lies, the seven-part series that received 19 nominations and 13 awards, marked a return to the small screen, where she got her start as a teenager in Australia. This V.F. cover makes her 10th.
“I’ve done weird films and I’ve done things that are so obtuse, which I’m still committed to because I like performance art and not conforming to what everyone expects of you. I don’t think in normal terms.” She laughs as she tells me, “Keith always says, ‘You’re so not mainstream.’ ”
Kidman made Nashville her home 13 years ago, after she and Urban got married. (To put things in perspective, her 10-year marriage to Tom Cruise ended two decades ago.) Urban, last year’s Country Music Association Awards’ Entertainer of the Year and 2019’s Academy of Country Music Awards’ Entertainer of the Year, sells out arenas worldwide but despite their doubly blinding megawattage as a couple, “[it’s] extremely simple with what we want from each other and what we want from a relationship. Just peas in a pod in that regard,” says Kidman. She loves being a “tour wife” and says she can memorize his tour schedule and dates in one glance. “I love that Keith is a guitar player and a singer, but his passion is guitar and writing music,” she says. “That’s what I’m around every day.”
The whole family loves music. Faith, 8, plays violin. Sunday, 10, who was playing piano that morning, is also interested in her mother’s line of work. Sunday showed me an iPad film, a hospital drama, that she made with her friends. Maybe it’s just a phase; neither parent pressures the children to follow in their footsteps. “You can’t really get kids into anything, I’ve realized. You can push them a bit, but motivation is a really hard thing. I mean, nobody motivated me to be an actor; if anything they tried to deter me.” Kidman loved Gwyneth Paltrow’s Mother’s Day Goop podcast because Paltrow and Blythe Danner explored their mother-daughter relationship in the context of their shared industry.
Though Kidman is jet-lagged, just back from Europe the night before—Urban has been on his Graffiti U World Tour—she has already chaperoned a fourth-grade trip to the state capitol this morning. Kidman and Urban are involved parents, in the unique way that means for ones who go on world tours, or movie sets, and bring the girls, plus tutor, along. Kidman keeps them with her as often as possible when she’s working or flies home constantly, even during intense shoots. Yet in other ways, Sunday and Faith sound like any other kids. Kidman says her parental policies might even make her “unpopular”—“They don’t have a phone and I don’t allow them to have an Instagram,” she says. “I try to keep some sort of boundaries.”
Kidman’s children with Cruise are now adults. Their son, Conner, is in music and, Kidman tells me, lives in Miami. Their daughter, Bella, is married and recently launched the T-shirt line BKC (Bella Kidman Cruise). “Bella lives just outside London. You know, she really feels more English. We lived there for Eyes Wide Shut, Mission Impossible, and The Portrait of a Lady,” says Kidman. “They both had English accents when they were little.”
Motherhood has allowed Kidman to flex her mind in other ways. She says people are shocked by how good she is with numbers (though it’s always a challenge to get her kids to do their schoolwork), and that brings a certain agility to her day job. Kidman’s producing partner of 10 years, Per Saari, confirms: “She’s as analytical as she is creative. She’s able to sit down and look at a budget and work that as magically as she’s able to sit down with a script and arc a character. Her superpower is her brain. And she never forgets anything, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
This spring, Blossom Films began shooting The Undoing, based on the book You Should Have Known, by Jean Hanff Korelitz. The six-part series is directed by Susanne Bier, and Kidman has re-teamed with Big Little Lies’ David E. Kelley to write and executive-produce. Hugh Grant and Donald Sutherland will star with Kidman. Additionally, Blossom just signed a first-look deal with Amazon Studios and already has a series, The Expatriates, in pre-production.
At 51, Kidman is that historical Hollywood age when women, especially leading ladies, are expected—or forced—to fade to black, perhaps a Broadway role or cameo as the lights dim. Instead, Kidman burns bright as ever. After the success of 2018 are two pivotal roles, as Mrs. Barbour in The Goldfinch and Gretchen Carlson in Jay Roach’s still-untitled Roger Ailes biopic.
“There isn’t a shelf life like there used to be,” Kidman tells me. “That’s why it’s so important to keep changing. We live longer now, if we’re fortunate. So there has to be a place to put all that creative energy.”
And there’s the second season of Big Little Lies, with Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Zoë Kravitz, and Shailene Woodley, debuting next month on HBO. Kidman says that after 30 years of doing no TV, she was pleasantly surprised by how much she cherished all that time she spent with her co-stars. “To watch Zoë and Shailene grow up and to see them become women … it’s so nice, and I’ve never had that. I know Laura and Reese feel that, too. We’re all so different, yet we complement each other.” She says the whole cast plans to attend Kravitz’s wedding to actor Karl Glusman. Witherspoon says they all love to tease Kidman about the little “snack bag” she carries around. “It’s very idiosyncratic snacks. We always make fun of her ‘old lady’ hard candies”—always butterscotch and peppermint.
“Nicole and I talk about this often. I’d been in a show with maybe one other woman, but never five female leads,” says Witherspoon. “I never even had that many conversations on-screen with women who had the same size part as me. It’s pretty amazing to get to work with this group. I feel like it’s a singular experience I’ll never have again.’”
Meryl Streep says that camaraderie is why she didn’t hesitate when the call came to join the cast for the second season. “The fans wanted more, I wanted more. I signed on without even knowing what the part was because I had such confidence in this group and just how smart they all are and how high the bar was going to be.”
Kidman nods to the prototypical happy ensemble. “Look at the Friends cast, they spent all that time together—they’re different because there are no men in our equation. I mean, there are, but they’re not on the group chat, let’s put it that way.”
Wait. Nicole, Reese, Laura, Zoë, and Shailene have a group chat?! What about Meryl?!
“Yes,” says Kidman. “And she’s very funny.”
Witherspoon describes the ultimate girls’ night. “Can you imagine that we got to go to dinner with Meryl every week? And hear her stories!? It’s like years and years of actresses being siloed off, and finally they let us intermingle. You can only imagine the conversations that we had. It was a really amazing experience of sharing our indignities and our triumphs, and just every rainbow of the female experience in our business.”
Big Little Lies, based on the book by Liane Moriarty, is about five women, all mothers, in the affluent Northern California community of Monterey—a tour de force of female complexity in all its beauty and ugliness. Nicole and Reese joined forces with their separate production companies and brought it to life at HBO. “We read it at the same time, and we both wanted it,” Witherspoon tells me, “so instead of going against each other, we got on the phone and decided to partner and to do it together.”
Richard Plepler, then C.E.O. of HBO, recalls, “I remember as the cuts were coming in and the quality of storytelling and the performances—we knew immediately that it was something quite magical.”
Just watching Kidman in the scene where she is alone with the therapist dancing around the semantics of domestic violence is a master class in acting. As directed by Jean-Marc Vallée and written by Kelley with Moriarty, Kidman’s performance went on to receive three best-actress wins—a SAG Award, a Golden Globe, and an Emmy.
When it came time for a second season, no one was contractually obligated, and there was no source material, as the book didn’t have a sequel. As Saari says, “There was an enormous appetite amongst the people watching the show. So we started thinking, ‘We do end the first season with a cliffhanger.…’ This cop is sitting there with the binoculars, there is an open-ended story. So, we went to Liane and asked her if she would write a book.”
That 200-page novella has never been published, and the plot is shrouded in secrecy. Kidman would only relay, “I hope there’s an enormous amount of truth. It’s the aftermath of a death.” Kelley returned to write the teleplay and Andrea Arnold was brought in to direct, with Vallée staying on as a producer. Kidman tells me, “Marc’s still very much the father of the series. His vocabulary was set in the first one and then Andrea got to mine us for different emotions.”
Streep plays Mary Louise, the mother-in-law of Kidman’s Celeste, who comes to town to get to the bottom of the death of her son. Streep tells me about their first day on set together. “Right off the bat she did a scene where she had to do something really, really hard, like waking up out of nothing and going right into sort of a breakdown. She did it over and over and over again, to the point where I thought, Is she being harmed in this process?” says Streep. “I scurried over to the director and I said, ‘Don’t you think you have it?’ I mean, I’ve done this before with other people, because I know what it takes to do that. She was O.K. It’s just like she has a kind of a placid, very quiet reserve that sits on top of this titanic power.”
Streep says this season we will see more of that from Kidman. “I’m in awe of her. She’s like a secret, soft Valkyrie with a spine like steel. She’s very disciplined, but it’s all in protection of a very tender self. You forget,” Streep continues, “that she’s six feet tall, you know? But she is six feet tall, and sometimes she raises all of it up, and it’s … wow. That’s what you see in the end of this series. You see the full height of Nicole.”
Kidman was raised by intellectuals: her mother, Janelle, a nursing instructor in Sydney, and her father, Antony Kidman, a biochemist, clinical psychologist, and author. Her father died unexpectedly from a heart attack in 2014, and the pain of that loss is still acute with his eldest daughter.
Kidman and her younger sister, Antonia, were reared on conversations about politics and philosophy every night at dinner. From an early age they were taught to think for themselves, to question, and, most important, to give back. “My mom always told us to ‘get a cause!’ ” Kidman got several.
In 2006, she was appointed Goodwill Ambassador for U.N. Women. Last year, she donated $500,000 to support the U.N. Trust to End Violence Against Women.
“With Big Little Lies and the role of Celeste, she took on an additional role—working with advocates and survivors,” says Esta Soler, who runs the non-profit Futures Without Violence. “Two days after winning the Emmy she came to San Francisco and stood with survivors and advocates to promote prevention and education.”
Kidman takes the lessons into her own home, though she concedes it’s a challenge. “I was talking to Sunday about there being little girls in different parts of this world who don’t own their bodies. A man owns their body. Her eyes were like ‘What?’ We’re trying to educate about those things. But it’s giving the information gently, and then guiding.”
Jonathan Berek, currently of Stanford Women’s Cancer Center, first met Kidman 28 years ago, when he was at U.C.L.A. At the time, Kidman’s mother, Janelle, was in the midst of breast-cancer treatment. “I credit Nic with being the catalyst that created Stanford Women’s Cancer Center: Under One Umbrella. It was just our 10th anniversary, and Keith performed. We raised three and a half million dollars, which brings our total for the fund-raising at about $52 million.”
Back home in Australia, where the family manages to spend time at least twice a year, her involvement with the Sydney Children’s Hospital is well known. She buys holiday presents every year for the staff and the children and never misses an opportunity to visit. “The dedication Nicole pays to her acting is mirrored in her dedication to sick kids,” says Vanessa Johnston, head of communications for the children’s hospital. “On a recent visit, I witnessed her steal a moment with Keith, where they both shed a tear before continuing.”
Kidman finds herself crying a lot these days. She has a strong belief in God and isn’t afraid to say it out loud. “A lot of my friends tease me.” The Kidman-Urbans go to church as a family. “That’s how we are raising our children. Keith has his own beliefs but he comes, too. I had a very Catholic grandmother, and I was raised praying, so that had massive impact. I wouldn’t say it’s absolutism, there’s constant questioning—I’m a willful, feisty girl. For me it’s very important that I don’t have judgment. My dad would always say, ‘Tolerance is the most important thing.’”
After I descend the hill from my turn behind the tree I ask Kidman why she finds herself frequently on the verge of tears. “Because, Krista. Life!” Like most people at the midcentury mark, she has considered her own mortality. “I’m far more raw and honest now, because before I used to be so scared. So now I’m just like, ‘What the hell. Share, share ideas, share.’ And it’s not safe to do that sometimes, because you’re suddenly exposed. But at the same time it makes you feel closer to people.”
Then I see the owl. Kidman has the excitement of a child on Christmas morning. We both whip out our phones to get a picture. Kidman, in another mortal moment, can’t get hers to work. I snap one, but the bird is so well camouflaged, it just looks like part of the tree in the photo. We stop, put our phones away, and take in this beautiful creature in this beautiful place and breathe in our gratitude. After all, I got to spend the afternoon with a unicorn, and we both got to see the owl.