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Nicole Kidman, From Down Under to ‘Far and Away’

Nicole Kidman, From Down Under to 'Far and Away'

1992   |   Written by Tom Keneally

The New York Times
May 24, 1992

LOS ANGELES— I know well the sorts of Australian summers that the actress Nicole Kidman used to flee. Cicadas screamed with brief life in the gum trees of the northern Sydney suburb she grew up in. Other Australian children stripped themselves down for the bright day. The young Ms. Kidman covered up. Big hat, long sleeves. She would have loved to conform to the national obsession with reddening, blistering, getting bronzed, this Celt far from the headwaters of her gene pool.

To the misfortune of complexion was added the misfortune of her parents’ uncomfortable politics. The liberal opinions of these genial people abashed the child Kidman in the conservative suburb of Longueville. Her mother, Janelle, was a member of the Women’s Electoral Lobby, her father, Antony, active in Labor politics in an electorate Labor never won. “There was always political discussion at our table,” says Ms. Kidman, now 24 years old. “We had a sit-down dinner every night, and politics was sort of the thing to discuss.”

To the child of such a family fell the doomed duty of handing out Labor Party how-to-vote cards on polling day. “I’d have a cap on hiding my face, in case any of the kids saw me,” she says.

And a third misfortune: being 5 foot 9 inches at the age of 13.

From an early age, Ms. Kidman began to spend weekends indoors at the small but fashionable Phillip Street Theater in the business and legal center of Sydney. She assisted the stage manager and did odd jobs. Safe from the embarrassments of height, politics and sun, she says, “I just loved it. I absolutely loved it.”

In these ways young Ms. Kidman got practice in being her own woman, a craft that anyone who meets her now can see still exercises her. The weekend journeys over the Harbor Bridge to downtown Sydney were votes for a future in Australian theater and film. They were of a piece, however, with the energy, resolution and shifts of chance that have now brought her to America and to the lead role in Ron Howard’s “Far and Away.” In the movie, which opened Friday, she plays the daughter of an Anglo-Irish Protestant landlord who willfully abandons her privileges to travel to America with a game and muscular Irish peasant, played by Tom Cruise, her husband of a year and a half.

The movie is Mr. Howard’s version of what the British call a ripping tale. Mr. Howard, whose great grandfathers participated in the 1893 Oklahoma land race, wanted to recount a story based on that huge scramble for land grants — a story, he says, of the kind “your grandfather told your father about how your great grandparents met.”

Mr. Howard has long been a champion of Ms. Kidman’s work. Although she was reserved at first in rehearsals, he said, Ms. Kidman had in the end “about as much range as any actor and is extraordinarily talented for her age.”

Ms. Kidman is not a product of any drama school but of a self-motivated experience in the theater. The brief period she spent in high school was at a renowned state school, North Sydney High, a great producer of talent, perhaps especially of talented women, including a swathe of politicians. The atmosphere of the place was, she says, “O.K., you’re having a career.”

In a nation that is sometimes touted as a kind of South Africa for women, she felt few inhibitions. “That’s what the women before us fought for, and now I reap the benefits of it, and I don’t even think of it.”

Her first professional performance came at 13: Sylvia in “The Women.” Then the Princess in “Sweet Bird of Youth.” By the age of 15, she was known locally for doing “older, sexually frustrated women.” This early typecasting sits oddly with the ice-cold young seductress Ms. Kidman would play in Robert Benton’s 1991 film “Billy Bathgate.”

Her parents were academics and presumed that she would go to college. But she had already starred in “Bush Christmas,” an Australian Yule classic, and then she got a part in a series for the Disney Channel, “Five Mile Creek,” which took eight months to film. From the enormous elevation of her 24 years, she believes that “Five Mile Creek” is what made her a pro.

“It was working on camera 6 days a week, 12 hours a day,” she says. “I’d always been intimidated by the camera. But it became like second nature. I didn’t have to worry about hitting marks. The camera wasn’t this ominous creature. I didn’t worry about it ever again.”

She had tutors and returned to school intermittently, but her formal education was near an end. She claims, however, that she read voraciously, especially plays. She seems to emit the sense of a lively, even a hyperactive intelligence. But because people are fixated on her marriage to the supereminent Mr. Cruise and may view her as a handmaiden, she gets little credit for it. (Ms. Kidman and Mr. Cruise apparently see their careers as separate; each employs a different publicist. Mr. Cruise, in a week during which he was busy arranging to leave for Cannes, certainly saw little need to speak for an article about the forthright Ms. Kidman.)

As an early sign of the viability of her choices, the actress wanted to buy her own apartment, cash down, before the age of 21. She got the apartment at 19. Her mother still wanted to protect her from the disappointments of auditioning and not getting roles. “Gosh, you’re a tenacious creature!” is the maternal cry that now most sweetly resonates with Ms. Kidman.

In any case, Ms. Kidman was long gone in her addiction to theater and film. “It’s that thing of always having to go back to the heat again, or through the rejection again, and then you win,” she says. “Suddenly you get a part, and it is the most incredible thing, when you get a role you really wanted. It’s unrivaled. That’s one of the things I’m addicted to — wanting to get the part. I always liked the audition process. Most actors don’t like it, but I do.”

In her late teens, Ms. Kidman worked with a repertory company called the Australian Theater for Young People. It allocated tasks cyclically: actor for one production, stage manager for another, costume designer for a third. The Australian Theater for Young People, she says, was her entire social life.

The Australian soap operas that dominate British and Irish television auditioned her but didn’t accept her. In her case, it proved a fortunate escape, for she could have been sidelined there for crucial years.

Instead, at 17, she worked in the mini-series “Vietnam,” directed by the Australian director John Duigan and produced by Kennedy-Miller, the same group that introduced Mel Gibson’s apocalyptic “Road Warrior” movies to the world. This was the first instance of what has been a consistent Kidman phenomenon: her ability to induce in producers and in directors as diverse as Phillip Noyce, Mr. Benton and Mr. Howard a sort of conviction-against-the-odds about the range Ms. Kidman is capable of.

Kennedy-Miller cast her in Mr. Noyce’s “Dead Calm,” a stylish 1989 psychological thriller. If it had not been set off the kaleidoscopic Australian Barrier Reef, one could have seen more clearly its antecedents, including the grim classic “Knife in the Water.” In it, Sam Neill played opposite Ms. Kidman, Billy Zane supplied the villain, the bearlike Mr. Noyce set the tone.

“Phil Noyce actually changes and becomes each character,” says Ms. Kidman. “You see him acting your part behind the camera, and have to yell at him, ‘Phil, you’re doing it again.’ He gets obsessed with the film, and there’s nothing else occurring in the world except this movie.”

Mr. Noyce and Kennedy-Miller had taken yet another risk. “I was 19 when I did ‘Dead Calm,’ ” Ms. Kidman says, “and I was supposed to be 24 and have a 3-year-old kid.”

Misplaced in the American film market, “Dead Calm” was still a critical success. The 19-year-old in Sydney was pursued by American agents and directors, some of whom flew to Australia to try to recruit her. Among those who were impressed by her at the time was Brian Grazer, Ron Howard’s partner in Imagine Films, the producers of “Cocoon,” “Backdraft” and “Far and Away.”

Mr. Howard says, “Brian told me about ‘Dead Calm’ and said we had to use this young woman.” By the time they contacted Ms. Kidman, Mr. Grazer and Mr. Howard were well into the nine years they spent getting “Far and Away” produced.

Meanwhile, Mr. Cruise also saw “Dead Calm” and wanted to act with Ms. Kidman. Two American directors were, in fact, competing simultaneously to get her into films waiting to be shot. She was beset from every direction by gratuitous advice. Mr. Cruise urged her to consider his projected film, “Days of Thunder.” There was no screenplay yet for it. But she says that “the ingredients were right.” Not least, of course, the chance to act opposite Mr. Cruise in what was planned to be a paean to stock-car racing.

“As it was, there wasn’t a screenplay yet, and we got caught up in getting a movie up by a certain release date, and the best interests of the film sort of got mixed up.” Ms. Kidman says.

The film, which was released in 1990, did, however, lead to her marriage to Mr. Cruise.

Ms. Kidman considers as crucial her experience in her next film, “Billy Bathgate,” drawn from the E. L. Doctorow novel about the Depression-era gangster Dutch Schultz. Her memory of making the film is very much at odds with that 1991 movie’s public image as doomed by conflict. Admittedly, the film did have the innate peril of deriving from a book almost “impossibly rich and wonderful,” Ms. Kidman says. “I would have liked my character to be closer to the one in the book. Robert Benton really threw the ball in my court. He put a lot of trust in me. I was an Australian actress who came in and said, ‘Oh, I can do it with an American accent, absolutely.’ ”

She speaks of working with Mr. Benton and Dustin Hoffman, who played Schultz, as a coming of age. Mr. Hoffman was such an icon of the drama schools, she says, that she believed his performances could be achieved only through intense and painful mental transformations. She was astounded by “his sense of fun when he makes a movie.”

“Now I think that fun is the key, that that’s where some of the best stuff comes out,” she says. “The atmosphere that lets people take a risk, and it doesn’t matter that people laugh at you, because everyone’s laughing already. Dustin really creates that on a set, and so does Tom — Tom Cruise does that as well. And Rob Reiner, who I’m doing a film with next.” (This will be “Damages,” a thriller directed by Harold Becker.)

The other wing of her education with Mr. Benton and Mr. Hoffman was that she sometimes found them waiting for her to express an opinion. “I wondered if I’d done enough work,” Ms. Kidman says. “But Benton says that in the end no one has the exact solution. That film gave me the confidence to speak my mind.”

The film raises the usual ill-informed surmises about Ms. Kidman’s career, the surmise, for example, that her part in “Far and Away” was in some way a condition of Mr. Cruise’s participation. Mr. Howard is emphatic that Mr. Cruise made no bid for Ms. Kidman’s inclusion. “I’m not going to tell you how to cast your movie,” Mr. Cruise told Mr. Howard.

Given his enthusiasm for her performance in “Dead Calm,” Brian Grazer had independently sent Ms. Kidman the screenplay early in the process.

Thus far, Ms. Kidman has emerged from all her films with her professional reputation intact. Her well-wishers in the film industry hope that that — at least — can be expected from Mr. Howard’s tale of Ireland and America.

Meanwhile, the Sydney Theater Company at the Opera House is looking for a vehicle for Ms. Kidman, perhaps for next winter. And she looks to the overdue but imminent development of a new generation of Australian directors — of whom Jane Campion (“Sweetie”) and Jocelyn Moorhouse (“Proof”) are harbingers — to provide roles in the future. She does not seem to see herself as hostage to America.

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