Town & Country
December 2016 / January 2017
THE ACTRESS STEPS AWAY FROM HER QUIET LIFE IN NASHVILLE FOR HER MOST COMPLICATED ROLE YET: MOTHER.
There’s a moment in the new film Lion when you can actually see a mother’s heart swell with love for her son. He has come to his adoptive mother to explain why he needs to find the woman who gave birth to him, and he’s worried she won’t understand. In the same moment you also watch her heart cracking just a tiny bit because of all that he doesn’t comprehend: that’s there nothing she wouldn’t do for his happiness. It’s a breathtaking reveal—seeing a woman’s complex emotions battling for dominance—and also worth noting as the moment when Nicole Kidman manages to once again disappear completely into a character.
“As I was filming her in this scene I forgot where I was,” says Garth Davis, the movie’s director. “I was completely transported.” Dev Patel, who plays the son, says he was so enthralled by his co-star he almost forgot he had his own lines to deliver. “I was mesmerized,” he says. “I was literally just feeding off her energy and what she was saying. She was so in her skin. She was acting from the gut—you could feel it. It was an honor to be in the room with her.”
Here’s the funny thing about Nicole Kidman: She has the soul of a character actress but it happens to be housed in the body of a movie star. Close your eyes and think of her, and what comes to mind is a tower of flame-haired elegance on a red carpet, but she’s also the chameleon who transformed into Virginia Woolf in The Hours, a sociopathic newscaster in To Die For, and a mother shattered by grief in Rabbit Hole. “I see so many people, media included, focused on her beauty,” says Davis. “Some are even blinded by it. For me, I get swept up in her ability to play anything without losing her down-to-earth quality.”
Despite her glamour, and the fact that she has been a magnet for public speculation for nearly three decades, it’s clear Kidman has made conscious choices to stay grounded. For example, she lives in Nashville, not Los Angeles or New York, with her husband of 10 years, country star Keith Urban, and their two young daughters, eight-year-old Sunday (“Sunny”) and five-year-old Faith (“Fifi”).
She tends to favor small, interesting, independent movies over big studio productions. When Town & Country caught up with her it was on set in Ohio for The Killing of a Sacred Deer, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster) and co-starring Colin Farrell. “It’s a very low-budget film—shoestring, really,” Kidman says cheerfully. “But don’t worry, you don’t see the deer killed.” (Another pleasant surprise about Kidman: She’s really funny.)
When asked how she’s picking projects these days—because trying to find a pattern in her acting choices is a brain-breaking business—she laughs. “I call myself the wild card,” she says, “because I have no idea what it is. I’m so spontaneous—sometimes to my detriment and sometimes my benefit—but it’s how I’ve always been. My husband never knows what I’m going to choose. And then he’ll ask me to explain why and I can’t!”
It’s usually only after she has finished a role that she understands what has led her there. “I can see now, for Lion, that it was important to me because I’m a mother with adopted children.” Kidman and her first husband, Tom Cruise, adopted Isabella, now 23, and Connor, 21. While her relationship with them has reportedly been complicated, she now states firmly, “This movie is a love letter to my children.”
Certainly her character in the film—which, thanks to a strong showing on the festival circuit, has already garnered Oscar buzz—is a testament to a parent’s unconditional love. Kidman plays the real life Sue Brierley, an Australian woman who adopted Patel’s character, Saroo, after a series of unfortunate events led to his being separated from his biological family in remote India. In life as in the movie, Saroo embarks on a mission to track down his parents.
His adoptive mother makes plain that there’s nothing she wouldn’t do to help him find his happiness. “Sue is deeply maternal and full of unconditional love, which is beautiful,” Kidman says. “That’s why I wanted to do it. I relate to that. I feel that for my own children who are adopted. It’s not about anything else other than ‘I wanted you.’ It’s that deep and personal, and whatever your journey is, I’m here to love and support you. That’s what I connected to.”
Patel admits he found the idea of one of Hollywood’s most famous women playing his mother more than a little intimidating. But his nervousness evaporated when he met Kidman and was greeted with a big hug. “She’s the consummate professional but also immediately disarming,” Patel says. “It was very easy to work with her. Garth put us through extensive workshops, and Nicole came in and kicked off her shoes to get down to it. There are a lot of actors who wouldn’t get so down and dirty and gritty off the bat. She was one of the team right away.” And she was equally amenable offscreen, hosting barbecues for the cast, the Brierleys themselves, and her own family. “Nicole and all the little children were running around on the beach playing cricket,” Patel recalls.
For Kidman it was gratifying to see her daughters in Australia, the country where she grew up. “They played with wallabies and kangaroos. Now it’s one of their favorite places,” she says. “And they’ve been a lot of places. They’re very well traveled. My daughter can go to school and say, ‘I’ve been to Paris. I’ve been to Morocco. I’ve been to Italy and China and India.”
For all their traveling, the Kidman-Urban clan doesn’t like to separate, and it tends to voyage as a pack, whether it’s to one of Mom’s film sets or Dad’s concerts. “They prefer the tour bus to a film set,” Kidman says with a sigh. “There’s better craft services; you get to sleep in a bunk. You know, that whole road trip vibe.” She laughs affectionately. “They’re cool cats, those girls.” Still, neither has yet shown any inclination to follow in her mother’s footsteps. “Sunny is more interested in directing—but that’s just the nature of an alpha eight-year-old,” she says. “We don’t say bossy; we say leader.”
The girls have a good role model: Kidman has quietly been doing her part to support female-centric projects. Next year she’ll appear in Sofia Coppola’s Civil War drama The Beguiled, with Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning, and she’ll reunite with her longtime friend and The Portrait of a Lady director Jane Campion for the second season of the acclaimed miniseries Top of the Lake. “There are very few trailblazers like Jane,” says Kidman, who met Campion at 14 when she was cast in a student film by the budding director and considers Campion one of her closest friends. “She paved the way. There are not many females in her generation that are her equivalent. Which is sad, because you can think of many, many men with that powerful and visionary language. That’s what we’re looking to change now. It has to happen.”
Kidman is certainly doing her part. Along with another close friend, Reese Witherspoon, she is executive-producing and co-starring (opposite Laura Dern and Shailene Woodley) in HBO’s forthcoming Big Little Lies, which is adapted from Australian writer Liane Moriarty’s best-selling novel. “I’m glad to be a part of a community where I can do that,” Kidman says. “If I can, I will give a woman an opportunity. Reese and I were like, ‘You have to make this.’ ” The experience was so pleasurable that Witherspoon and Kidman have already decided to option Moriarty’s latest book, Truly Madly Guilty.
But it’s not just women she champions, it’s storytellers; she’ll work with a director regardless of how many credits he or she has on IMDB. Kidman has recently teamed up with Lanthimos (“I just believe in him as an artist, and his voice, and the purity of his art”); with Jason Bateman, who directed her in last year’s The Family Fang; and with John Cameron Mitchell, the Rabbit Hole director with whom she’ll reconnect next year on How to Talk to Girls at Parties. “It’s a huge leap of faith. I just trust and believe and off we go,” she says. “I’m never guarded once I’m in. It’s how I choose to live. It would probably be easier and safer to be more guarded, but that’s just not me.”
Very true, says Lee Daniels, who directed Kidman in 2012’s The Paperboy. “If I had told her to jump off the roof, she would have done it. The things she did for me in that movie—I don’t know if anybody else would have gone that far or made herself that vulnerable,” he says. “She really bared her soul.”
Daniels, like so many others, wasn’t certain what to expect when he first met Kidman. “I walked in thinking she was an ice princess,” he says. “But there’s this dichotomy there. A fragility. She puts up a wall—and her beauty helps with that as well—to mask this very fragile artist.”
But a sensitive spirit doesn’t mean she’s not brave. Take, for example, the now famous scene in The Paperboy that called for the Oscar-winning Kidman to urinate on Zac Efron. “It came time to shoot and I just said, ‘I can’t do it. It’s Nicole Kidman—I don’t know if this is a good move for her career. Do I really want her to do it?’ ” Daniels says with a laugh. “She actually ended up talking me off the ledge. She was like, ‘Come on, Lee. This is what I signed up for.’ ” The scene stayed, and Daniels was knocked out by his star. “She’s ride or die,” he says. “That’s why I will work with her forever and ever.”
Last year Kidman, who started her career in theater, faced down another fear when she returned to London’s West End after a 17-year absence, playing the overlooked DNA scientist Rosalind Franklin in Photograph 51. “It was terrifying,” she says. “But the terror resulted in such joy. I hadn’t had that for so long. Every night to be doing what I did when I was a child…to be doing it again. It just felt so satisfying to be performing in front of an audience. You live and die every night, and you have to make it work. There’s an enormous amount of gratefulness. It’s ultimately the purest form of acting.”
The theater bug, it is safe to say, is back. “I want to keep doing it. I don’t know if it’s a high, but it’s what you need to do. It’s not necessarily a comfortable feeling. But it’s a need.” (The play received nearly universal raves and won Kidman Best Actress at 2015’s Evening Standard Theatre Awards.)
It’s getting to be evening in Ohio, and Kidman’s break from shooting is almost over. She’s on a group text chain with her Nashville friends, including Connie Britton, Sheryl Crow, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, and Cassidy Bentley, wife of country artist Dierks Bentley. They’re all having dinner together this evening, but she’s missing it because she’s working. To hear Crow tell it, Kidman is an indispensable part of the group. “We ran into each other over the years at different events, but it wasn’t until I moved to Nashville that we became good friends,” Crow says of Kidman. “It doesn’t matter where in the world Nic is. She always immediately responds with words of encouragement and offers up prayers when one of us throws up a flare.”
She also brings to the group a taste for adventure. “She has jumped out of airplanes on numerous occasions—she is fearless,” Crow adds. “You can see it in her acting choices, but I had no idea that she approaches everything in her life with that kind of attitude.”
Kidman thinks that this desire to be thrilled is one of her most pronounced, and vital, qualities. “The mistakes I’ve made have always involved people not matching the extreme artistic desire—when I’ve tried to be a bit more homogenized, or tried not to be as bold. When I’ve been guided into places that don’t suit what I am intrinsically—that’s when it doesn’t work out.”
And what is she? She laughs. “My whole thing is I’m going to try it. I think that’s probably frustrating to people who wish for me to be more strategic. But I’ve been the same way since I was 14. I don’t conform,” she says. “That’s just my nature.”