Don’t look, John!” jokes Nicole Kidman as she glides off to be photographed in a sequined thirties-style evening gown by Gucci. “This is a very see-through dress.”
It’s one of those sultry Tennessee afternoons when the wild petunias droop and you can hear the mosquitoes revving their engines for takeoff. All of us who’ve come for this shoot—the photographer, crew, hairstylist and makeup artist, and the Vogue editorial team—have clustered in the thick grass of a farm outside Nashville, close to the Harpeth River. We’re looking a whole lot hotter than we’d like to be.
The only one who doesn’t is the one who should. Surrounded by reflectors in the bright, clinging air, Kidman strikes pose after pose, cool as a bottle of chilled Cristal even when she later changes into a green Valentino trench coat clearly not intended for the Southern sun. You’d think there was nowhere she’d rather be than on this muggy lawn not far from the home she shares with her husband, Keith Urban, and their daughters, Sunday, nine, and six-year-old Faith.
Kidman carries herself with such immaculate poise that I remember Sofia Coppola telling me, “I even love the way Nicole stands. Her bearing is always so regal.” Indeed, it is. There’s a reason the Oscar-winning actress, who celebrated her fiftieth birthday with her family in the Bahamas this June, has appeared on Vogue’s cover eight times.
Of course, regal or not, 50 is a notoriously cruel milestone for Hollywood actresses. In fact, just a couple of years ago, you heard not-so-quiet whispers that Kidman had become passé. “Probably I was,” she admits matter-of-factly. Yet ever since she hit America in the early nineties, skeptics have underestimated Kidman’s ability to reinvent herself—from Aussie ingenue to Mrs. Tom Cruise to mainstream movie star to serious actress. And so it was again. Far from marking a ruinous downward spiral, her fiftieth year may have been the most triumphant of all in her glowing career.
She earned an Oscar nomination as the hero’s adoptive mother in Lion. She received her best-ever reviews—and spawned giddy Emmy talk—for her powerfully layered performance as the abused wife, Celeste Wright, in the HBO smash Big Little Lies. And that was just the beginning. Three years after an opening-night disaster with the widely panned biopic Grace of Monaco at Cannes (whose story about Grace Kelly’s constricting marriage to Prince Rainier echoed, in a way, Kidman’s own “royal” marriage to Tom Cruise), Kidman returned to the festival this May with four—yes, four—projects in the official selection, including Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled and the second season of Jane Campion’s crime series Top of the Lake. Each shows a different aspect of her remarkable range. Flaunting four looks and four accents, it was as if she were trying to duplicate Meryl Streep’s whole career in a week. She became the queen of Cannes—much to her surprise and delight.
“I was terrified to go back,” she says, shaking her head, “but both Jane and Sofia said, ‘Go, and it will be a whole different experience. We’ll hold your hand; don’t worry.’ ” They were right. “It was like a fairy tale, like the universe conspired to deliver one good thing and then another good thing and another, all at the same time.”
We’ve moved, mercifully, into one of the air-conditioned houses on the property, and Kidman has slipped into her own clothing, a long, white cotton dress with lace trim. Asked who designed it, she gracefully leans her swan’s neck forward to reveal the label: Ermanno Scervino.
“It’s very Beguiled, isn’t it?” she says with a laugh. “And full length. It’s not what I usually wear, because I’m so tall.”
I’ve been meeting Kidman on and off for 20 years. I interviewed her for her first Vogue cover in 1999, when she starred in Eyes Wide Shut with Stanley Kubrick. I flew to the outback to watch her brave soul-sapping 110-degree heat—while clad in cashmere—for Baz Luhrmann’s Australia. Through it all, she’s struck me as being essentially the same—smart, driven, eager to laugh, and gifted at making you feel like you’re the most interesting person in the world. But on this Tennessee afternoon, Kidman seems more relaxed than ever before—mellower, less guarded, more nostalgic and reflective.
“Nicole has always taken charge of her life,” explains Luhrmann, who’s been with her during some of its turning points. Campion, who has known her since the eighties and worked with her on 1996’s The Portrait of a Lady, attributes Kidman’s continuing success to her resilience. “She has the humility to reorganize herself,” she says. “If something didn’t work, it didn’t work. It’s a key quality to be able to call a blunder a blunder and to say, ‘I want to fix it.’ I’ve seen how low she has been, and how she’s pulled herself back. It’s inspiring.”
For most of her career, Kidman was thought wildly ambitious—people joked that her murderously climbing weather girl in To Die For was typecasting—and it’s clear that at times she’s had celebrity on her mind, leaping into star vehicles such as The Interpreter, The Stepford Wives, and Grace of Monaco, all of which crashed and burned. Yet for all her glamour, she’s too recklessly interesting an actress to fit comfortably into the straitjacket of the blandly conventional leading lady. Moulin Rouge!, yes; Bewitched, no. In fact, one big reason for her current renaissance is that she’s begun fully to embrace character roles that showcase her ability to play several levels at the same time.
“Nicole can never be just one thing,” says Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek director best known in the U.S. for The Lobster, who directed her in the tragicomedy The Killing of a Sacred Deer. “She can’t be just a housewife; she can’t be just a doctor or just a mother, because she is sexy, funny, elegant, scary, and clumsy—sometimes all at the same time.”
She loves nothing more than walking the emotional high-wire. The supreme example may be Big Little Lies, in which her character, Celeste, is caught in a marriage to a controlling husband (played by Alexander Skarsgård), whom she knows she should leave but to whom she’s drawn by their thrillingly dark, passionate, and violent erotic chemistry. While many viewers found their damaged relationship upsetting and baffling, such murkiness is precisely what drew Kidman to the role.
“Sex is a huge part of who I am,” she says. “Things collide in terms of my intellect meeting my sexuality, and it’s a really complicated collision. It’s what I’m drawn to. If Celeste was just in the marriage trying to get out—without the sexual chemistry and desire to stay there—I wouldn’t know how to play her.” Of course, things are much more tender in her real-life marriage to Urban. “They say kindness isn’t sexy,” she tells me, “but it is.”
Famously proactive in seeking out daring new filmmakers from all over the world, Kidman says, “I love strong points of view. I like artists, people who are extremely passionate and committed and, even if they get lost at times, find their way back. They stretch me, they move me.”
“There are very few A-list actors who haven’t rested on their laurels and played it safe,” says John Cameron Mitchell, who directed Kidman to an Oscar nomination in 2010’s Rabbit Hole and has her playing a South London punk in his new movie How to Talk to Girls at Parties. “Of her peers, only Isabelle Huppert and Tilda Swinton have that same ‘I want to try everything’ vibe.”
When I mention this comparison to Kidman, she claps her hands in delight. “Put Tilda and Isabelle and me together in a movie!”
“But the director would be terrified,” I reply.
“They shouldn’t be. We’re pussycats. The least controlling and the most adventurous.” She smiles. “I would’ve made Elle in a heartbeat.”
Kidman attributes her fearlessness to her upbringing. “You have to remember I’m the daughter of a very provocative mother,” she says of Janelle Kidman, née Glenny, who taught nursing and edited her husband’s books. “She always challenged the system, challenged me, challenged everything she could,” Kidman continues. “It’s been a wonderful benefit. There’ve been times when I’ve thought, Why can’t I have a mother who strokes me and tells me I’m wonderful? But I have a mother who’s very strong, who comes from that era of the conformity of getting married and having lots of children and not doing anything. She was determined to push us out of that.”
And does Kidman raise her own daughters in that same way?
“No, I’m probably the antithesis of her! I’m like, It doesn’t matter how you do it.” She gives a big laugh. “My mother was brilliant and didn’t have the career she should have. I’ve had the opportunities. I’m of the generation that has been given an enormous amount as a woman by that generation of feminists. So I’m in a place with my daughters of ‘Follow your bliss. Let’s find out what you’re passionate about, what you love.’ I am more fired up now because I don’t want things that were fought for in the fifties and sixties to be taken away from the young girls of the future. It can happen very easily.” In her own domain, Kidman has been out-front in calling for more woman filmmakers, even publicly pledging to work with at least one female director every eighteen months.
Meanwhile, she still feels the emotional ripples from the sudden 2014 death of her adored father, Antony Kidman, a psychologist and biochemist, who shaped her in big ways and small. “I like to be in the kitchen in the morning when the girls stumble in,” she says. “I like the hubbub. My dad was always there with the BBC on when I got up. My mother would lie in bed, and he would bring her breakfast on a tray.” The memory gets to her, and her eyes well up.
Kidman feels life very deeply—“I don’t skim” is how she puts it—and the loss of her father, as well as some close colleagues (Kubrick among them), has imbued her with a melancholy sense of life’s evanescence. “I’ve had a lot of cases where people just evaporate, and that’s very disturbing. So the idea of anything being solid doesn’t exist in my world. And I’m not good at compartmentalizing.”
Luckily, her husband is. “Keith feels these things, too,” she says, “but he’s better at dealing with it. He’ll be ‘OK, but now let’s just get on with it.’ Which is why there’s such a great balance in our relationship. He says I’m an actor and he’s just a performer, an extrovert. He gets up onstage and connects with his audience every night through songs and joy and love. Darkness is not a huge part of his art. Whereas I . . . .”
Her family has become her refuge. She brought them with her to Cannes, where Sunday and Faith spent their time at the pool, gobbling French fries and asking when she was going to get home from her premieres.
“They wait up for me,” she says, clearly pleased by this fact. “I’m very, very happy I have that. I’ve wanted that for a long time. It’s the thing that gives me more joy than anything and is the basis of it all for me.”
She amplifies this one morning when she calls me from Nashville, the home base of Urban’s music, where the family lives the majority of the time.
“Our life here probably isn’t what you expect,” she says. “I read at the school. We’re a very tight-knit family—we get anxious if we’re separated more than two days. We try to have sit-down dinners every night we’re here. Friends from school come over. Sometimes we’ll have nine kids for dinner.” She laughs. “I can live out my fantasy of having lots of children.” When Urban goes on the road, Kidman and their daughters often join him on the tour bus.
In Urban, Luhrmann tells me, Kidman has found a partner with whom she shares “a passionate Katharine Hepburn–Spencer Tracy relationship. Keith is her equal in a different art. He’s grounded, knows himself, and knows his own worth. When they’re together, you feel that you’re with two warm, secure people.”
They share a desire to let their daughters have a normal childhood. Even as Kidman refuses to discuss them in detail (“Sunday jumps on things if she hears someone at school talking about something I said”), she doesn’t want to cloister them either. “I’ve never taken them anywhere publicly, because I’m protective of their identities and don’t want them exposed early on. But part of me is pulled in that direction. Sometimes they say, ‘I wish I was getting dressed up and going with you.’ I don’t want them not included. They were up late and dancing with us in the Bahamas for my birthday. In our private life, they’re always involved with us. I don’t like the whole kids’-club thing.”
As she says this, I hear someone in the background. It’s Sunday, who’s heading off with friends on a day trip.
“Would you like to say hello to John?” Kidman asks her.
Sunday declines this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Her mother tells her to have fun, and I hear a little voice reply, “I love you.”
While Kidman has finally created an embracing family life like the one she grew up with, it has barely slowed her enormous appetite for work. She is in talks to costar with Russell Crowe and Lucas Hedges in Boy Erased, Joel Edgerton’s film about a young man forced into gay-conversion therapy. She’s taking her first dip into playing a superhuman with Aquaman, in which she plays Queen Atlanna. (“I finally get to have that crown and that trident and that mother-of-pearl tail!” she says.) Ideally, she’d take her award-studded West End performance in Photograph 51 to Broadway, although family schedules may make it hard. And then there’s the whole question of bringing back Big Little Lies. “I’d love to do a second season,” she tells me, “but only if it’s as compelling as the first. We’re working on it.”
At 50, Kidman is savoring her successes—including her images in Vogue—as never before. “Everything becomes more meaningful as you get older,” she says. “It’s crazy. Big Little Lies means more. Lion’s success means more than Moulin Rouge!’s success. When you’re young you have that slightly laissez-faire approach to everything. I know what Vogue is in the world. It’s an institution, and to have been on it is ‘Wow!’ When Elle Fanning was on the cover, you thought, Elle has arrived. So to have been on the cover eight times! It’s amazing.” She shakes her head. “I’m absolutely, on the record, amazed.”