Yes, Nicole Kidman’s career-high turn as domestic abuse survivor Celeste in HBO’s Big Little Lies earned the acclaimed actress more praise and awards, but crucially it also moved forward the conversation that Me Too began. For that, and a stellar career that spans four decades, we salute the queen of quiet intensity
This summer’s series two finale of HBO’s bleakly comic crime-based drama Big Little Lies ended with its heroines – “The Monterey Five” – turning themselves in to their local police department, possibly to fess up to the biggest lie of them all: the hitherto “unexplained” death of an abusive husband. Safe to say, then, that we’ve likely seen the last of one of streaming TV’s strongest ever ensemble casts. So long, then, Laura Dern’s rip-roaring turn as tiger mother Renata (“I will not not be rich!”); farewell, too, the sassy if insecure Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), whose self-tangling relationships with single mother Jane (Shailene Woodley) and unhappy Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) largely framed the action.
At the same time, breathe a sigh of relief for Nicole Kidman’s Celeste, the bruised and battered centre of BLL’s often nerve-shredding storm, on whose behalf – after suffering at the hands of her violent husband, Perry, played by Alexander Skarsgard, and, later, vengeful mother-in-law Mary Louise, played by Meryl Streep – the audience is determined to root.
Played with the kind of quiet poise to which only Kidman can rightfully lay claim, it’s a titanic performance and landed with such ferocity it seemed BLL’s producers (which include Witherspoon and Kidman) had somehow intuited the extraordinary circumstances that followed the show’s early 2017 premiere, when the New York Times finally unmasked the vile behaviour of Harvey Weinstein.
“I think other forces come into play in all of that,” cautions Kidman in Sydney, where she’s enjoying a brief respite from an implausibly full schedule. “There have been many stories told in this way and there were others circling around at the same time. But I think the combination of having something that appears frothy and then you dig into it and it’s not, that combination lets people in.
“And whether it was conscious or unconscious – and with us it was unconscious – there was no thought of what we were going to head into. The way Liane [Moriarty, BLL’s author] depicted the violence was just so powerful and so real, I responded to that. And then we were swept up in the whirlwind of it.”
That whirlwind landed the show eight Emmy awards, plus Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild gongs for Kidman, at a cost that clearly only she can quantify. Certainly, Celeste’s story – besides pre-empting the shift in our moral understanding of power and powerlessness in all its discredited guises – is a harrowing depiction of vulnerability that involves escalating spousal and prescription drug abuse as well as the degrading treatment often meted out to survivors of domestic violence on the witness stand. How does she do it?
“I try to bring that well of experience I have in terms of things that have happened to me,” says Kidman. “Am I willing to give them to the world? Am I willing to give them to a director? Am I going to actually get hurt or is it going to cause me an enormous amount of duress? But that’s the artistic path. So I really try to be unbelievably raw and available and shed all these layers until I’m almost skinless. But then I go and take care of myself afterwards.”
As befits the artistic path each has chosen, Kidman doesn’t discuss her roles with her husband, the singer-songwriter Keith Urban. “It’s just the nature of who we are. The idea of stepping in and guiding… the only thing that we really discuss is what it is going to cost our family. If it’s going to be too taxing on our children or him, I won’t do it.”
Still, it’s clear that aspects of motherhood and parenting have informed Kidman’s choices, most recently the role of Mrs Barbour, the emotionally unavailable Manhattan matriarch who loses her husband and son yet somehow connects with the unfortunate hero in this month’s big-screen adaptation of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.
“Absolutely! And I’d love to explore that more. Because I have come from a family I’m deeply attached to, [who have] shaped me, and I’m interested in what’s going to be passed on. I’m raising young children and I’m looking after my mother. I’m extremely close to my grandmother and my sister and I are like twins. We lost our father [in 2014] and my sister lost her husband when she had four kids, so a lot of themes I circle obviously come from my own family.”
Wary of unravelling a thread more safely left spooled, Kidman says she is uncomfortable with the term “toxic masculinity”. “I shy away from it. Because we are trying to build a society together right now, and labelling the new generation of men that, well, I’m very reluctant to do that.” That said, in her final BLL courtroom scene (Celeste’s mother-in-law is seeking custody of her grandsons), Celeste quietly admonishes those who’ve doubted her quiet conviction that male cruelty is not in itself hereditary, uttering a line that one senses the actor could well have willed into existence herself: “I will raise them to be good men.”
Who, then, have been the “good men” in Kidman’s life? “My father. When I stood at his funeral I didn’t want to speak, because I was emotionally so shattered and wrecked. But I had to talk about what a blessing it was to be raised by a good man. Because so many of my friends were not. And it was my first line: ‘I am one of the lucky women who can say I was raised by a good man.’ I was raised by a man who was present, who didn’t sexualise me, who saw me as a feeling, emotional, spiritual being. And I was raised by a man who would get on a plane at midnight if I called him to come and help me. That gave me the jumping board for my whole life. And that’s where it starts for me.
“And I’m married to a man who is just the greatest partner in life. He’s given me confidence. He’ll sit on the phone and talk to me. He’ll watch episodes [of BLL] and build my esteem. I take none of that for granted. It’s an incredible balm to have. I’m a very sensitive woman, so I bring all that to the equation too. I’ve definitely run the gamut in terms of emotions. But I’m devoted and loving and I have the capacity to love deeply, so I don’t want to get hurt. That was my opening line on one of our early dates: ‘Just be careful with me. Because when I love, I love from the deepest place.’ As a man, that either makes you run a mile or say, ‘OK, I’m going to step up.’”
Stepping up is something Nicole Kidman has never shied from, having explored every grimy crease of the serious actor’s playbook. Whether it’s taking a minor role to help Donna Tartt’s epic novel reach the big screen (“I am a huge believer in adult drama”) or opting to play Gretchen Carlson in Jay Roach’s dramatisation of the Fox News/Roger Ailes sex scandal (“Charlize – Theron, who produced it – called me up and said, ‘You’ve got to do this, girl,’ and I was like, ‘I’ve got your back, babe. I’m doing it’”), nothing can obscure that fascinating mix of gold statuette-grade glamour and home-grown groundedness that’s kept us watching 30 years after she battled a suitably psychopathic Billy Zane in Dead Calm. And as for those age-old tenets of Hollywood changing any time soon, the ones her generation, whether through production directing or casting, are currently doing so much to change, well, she’s not counting her chickens just yet.
“There’s awareness. But I think it’s more interesting to ask the younger men and women how they are feeling about it. Because they are inheriting this. They are the ones we are trying to give a different future with our storytelling.”