I first met Nicole Kidman about 15 years ago through a mutual friend. I don’t remember the exact moment, and neither does she. All I remember about those early days was her kindness and her beauty. Once, in London, at a mod hotel with great lychee martinis, we were both publicizing different movies and the place was humming with film people. My kids were very young then, sleeping upstairs; my husband and I didn’t get out much at the time, and I was enjoying this rare moment. Nicole was sitting opposite me, looking smashing, and I remember being so touched by what she said: “It’s important that we drink this in, and enjoy it, because one day when we’re old, we’ll have all these wonderful memories.” That really struck me. Nicole Kidman doesn’t take her life for granted.
There is a familiarity that develops between an audience and an actor who has dug as deep into the collective psyche as Nicole has. I felt I knew her even before we met: Her gaze—fierce, piercing, intelligent—has always drilled me to my seat. I can’t fidget when she holds the screen; my mind doesn’t wander. I suppose this is what they call charisma. “The way she hurls herself into her characters is unparalleled, and it’s so magnificent to watch,” says her friend and Big Little Lies costar Laura Dern. “She allows herself to be all women, but she doesn’t lead with shame or insecurity.”
I too am fascinated by the cocktail of talent, craft, and courage that makes Nicole so special. I would go so far as to say she is a character actress in the body of a great beauty. Consider a sampling of the emotions she brings out in her roles: the sociopathic charm in To Die For (1995); the soul-destroying grief in Birth (2004); the suicidal genius in The Hours (2002), for which she won an Oscar; the frightening dissociation in HBO’s Big Little Lies (2017), for which she took home an Emmy; and the chilling reserve in the just-released The Killing of a Sacred Deer. (To say nothing of the four—four—major films she has coming out in 2018.) The breadth of her work is tremendous.
At 50, a mother four times over and a devoted partner to her husband, country singer Keith Urban, she is also an extraordinary instrument of change—one who flexes her personal power not only in the world of motion pictures and television but as a U.N. Women Goodwill Ambassador. “By using her global visibility to speak out for women who have suffered abuse, Nicole has literally given her voice to the voiceless,” says U.N. Women communications and advocacy chief Nanette Braun. Supporting other women is a central point Nicole returns to again and again, but for her, talking isn’t enough; she is all about the doing. I was so glad to be able to ask my friend how she creates her characters, and how her feminism informs the choices she makes on (and off) the screen.
Rebecca Miller: Oh, Nicole. So tell me: In the very beginning, was there a moment you realized you were able to communicate so fluently with your emotions?
Nicole Kidman: No. That’s a lifelong journey. [Laughs.] My mother said I was always an intense child, a very sensitive child. So that probably helped the emotions to be very present. I was just a big thinker. I would evaluate and analyze and feel and cry and discuss and be angry. All of those emotions were very surface for me.
Rebecca: Were you a physically fearless or cautious kid?
Nicole: I’ve been told that I had really good fine motor skills, but that my gross motor skills needed some work. [Laughs.]
Rebecca: I see; you were very refined.
Nicole: I think that’s imprinted in me forever. You’ve got to be very careful what you tell a child! [Laughs.] My mum said, “Well, your handwriting and your drawing is excellent, but walking on the beam and doing the monkey bars is not your forte.” And I was like, “OK, you’re right.”
Rebecca: What, then, first drew you to acting?
Nicole: I would read. And I would morph into the characters and their emotions. And then I started going to a local drama school when I was, like, 10 or 11. And even at that age, things would just flow. When my toe would enter the water with something like Nora in A Doll’s House, somehow—without really understanding what I was doing—I would grasp the character’s inner conflict. It was very pure. I still have that deep passion and love for what I do. And when I don’t, I won’t do it anymore.
Rebecca: I’ve been thinking about how different all your roles are. Like, Virginia Woolf in The Hours and Celeste Wright from Big Little Lies are two completely different souls.
Nicole: Well, one’s fighting to just exist in the world, for her artistic expression to stay the way she wants it without medication or confinement. And then Celeste is in this situation of being deeply attracted [to her abusive husband] but also knowing she has to get out. In some ways, they were both fighting being trapped.
Rebecca: Can you tell me how your pledge to work with a female director every 18 months came about?
Nicole: As an actor you’re only as good as the things you’re offered. And there just weren’t any women offering me things. So when you dissect that, you realize there aren’t women offering you things because they don’t have the opportunities. I work to raise money for women’s cancers; I use my voice for violence against women. And so I was like, “I need to be part of the movement that will, hopefully, change the statistics in my field.”
Rebecca: The more people talk about it, the better it gets.
Nicole: Yes, but I also can’t be talking about it and not doing it. Because, to be an advocate, you have to actually put things into action. It’s like, “OK, Rebecca. You’re making a movie?
Let’s go.” “OK, Karyn Kusama”—I’m working with her next—“we may not have an enormous budget, but let’s go do it. I’ll get down in the trenches with you.” My nine-year-old daughter wants to be a director right now. Her whole attitude is “The world’s my oyster.” She doesn’t realize that it’s actually not.
Rebecca: A little bit of ignorance in that way is good sometimes. If you don’t know you’re not allowed to do something, you just do it.
Nicole: I think I do that with performing. I don’t even think of the risks, I just go, “This is totally going to work.” [Laughs.] Exercising those muscles gives you resilience. And I’m fascinated by resilience in human beings—what people endure and somehow survive. I just bow down to that.
Rebecca: How do you tell yourself, after so many years in Hollywood, “It’s OK to keep your heart out”?
Nicole: Well, Keith always says to me, “You stay raw and sensitive, and I’ll buffer things for you,” which is a beautiful offering. He is always told, “You’re so tough.” And he says, “That’s not what I want for you, Nicole. You don’t need to get a thick skin.”
Rebecca: Oh, my God. That’s sweet.
Nicole: From a partner, isn’t it? I think, for me, it’s about having a place that’s safe to nurture you, where the tears can be shed. That way I can actually go back open and curious and willing. And at times scarred and a little damaged, but not with a sword like, “I’m seeking revenge.” Because that just doesn’t interest me. I actually never choose films that are about revenge. I choose films, I’ve realized, about women who somehow find their way through.