With blissful quiet at home in Nashville and a career taking flight, Nicole Kidman makes a ravishing turn in Werner Herzog’s film The Queen of the Desert as revolutionary figure Gertrude Bell.
Before this story is over, there’s a small but not impossible chance that either Nicole Kidman or I will injure an innocent stranger. I’m hoping this doesn’t happen, even though it might be exciting for the story. It’s more likely that one or both of us are going to hit a tree or smash a kitchen window. We are definitely going to cause minor damage to handsome green Bermuda grass. I am also pretty sure we have already frightened a handful of neighborhood squirrels.
It is a late-spring morning, and Kidman and I are on the front nine of the Hillwood Country Club, a handsome private idyll not far from Kidman’s home in Nashville. If you haven’t guessed by now, we are playing golf. We are both—how to put it—enthusiastic amateurs. “I’m a beginner,” Kidman emphasizes. “It seems to be the right sport for me now.” At the moment, Kidman’s swing—coached by Hillwood’s pro, Mike Lathrop—is pretty solid. Mine is not. Sometimes my swing looks respectable. Most of the time I look like Jim Carrey chasing someone with a fishing rod.
This is OK. In my time in Tennessee I have learned pretty quickly that Kidman—widely celebrated as a capital-S Serious Actress, one of the finest of her generation—does not take herself all that seriously. Kidman can make a joke, take a joke, huddle over the chances of the NFL Tennessee Titans, praise the genius of Southern fried grits, or discuss the parenting ritual of taking your kids to see the sugary Top 40 act Kidz Bop. (“Have you heard of Kidz Bop?” she asks. “That’s where we were on Saturday night.”) She may have that palpable star power and reputation for glamour—“An extraordinary actor who really stops a room when she comes in,” says her friend Hugh Jackman—but there’s not the slightest trace of actorly pretension. Jason Bateman, who directed and costarred with her in the upcoming The Family Fang, said he was surprised to see how removed the real-life Kidman was “from the regal and shy perception we all have of her. She’s down-to-earth and completely human.”
Kidman may be an icon with a country rock–star husband, Keith Urban, and of course there’s that Academy Award for inhabiting Virginia Woolf in The Hours, but right now she’s just another hacker trying to keep that irritating dimpled ball in the fairway. She’s dressed in a white Nike outfit and a pair of pink-and-white shoes, and the only evidence that a real-life movie star is on the course is the tag on her club bag that reads, uh, Nicole Kidman. There’s also the fact that every now and then, you hear a swing and a whoosh followed by a yelp in an Aussie accent.
“Awwww naawwwww,” Kidman says, watching an iron shot trickle away.
But again: This is fun. There are worse ways to spend a spring morning in America than hacking away with Nicole Kidman.
My turn. Awwww nawwww.
I was a little nervous at the prospect of meeting Kidman, I admit. I’d watched her in her latest film, Queen of the Desert, a romantic drama directed by Werner Herzog about Gertrude Bell, a real-life British emissary to the Middle East, and it was all so sumptuous and sweeping—desert sunlight and camels and gorgeous vistas, and Kidman’s Bell was the most striking element in the frame. In fashion, Kidman is known for quiet perfection, whether in sequined Nina Ricci or in high-necked Valentino couture, and has long possessed “that luminous thing . . . it makes you shy, like you’re talking too much,” says John Cameron Mitchell, who directed her in 2010’s Rabbit Hole. There is also this: Kidman has been a wildly famous superstar more than half of my life, from the time she leaped off screens in Dead Calm and Days of Thunder and married Tom Cruise. She’s been through all the showbiz fires and corn mazes, and remained both professionally intact and even something of a public mystery. When I arrive at her and Urban’s Nashville home, I assume there are going to be handlers upon handlers and probably a pair of publicists hovering above, suspended by wires. . . .
The door opens. “Hi, I’m Nicole,” Kidman says.
No wires. No handlers. Instead, she has Starbucks.
We wind our way through the house, downstairs and around a corner into Urban’s cozy recording studio, which sits on the first floor and looks out onto the family’s backyard. Kidman, who is wearing a floral-print Michael Kors dress, takes a seat on a couch across from me and puts our coffees on coasters printed with mug shots of famous musicians—Frank Sinatra, Mick Jagger, a stoic David Bowie, busted for pot in Rochester, New York, in 1976.
Kidman straightens in her seat. “Can I just show you one thing?” she asks. She stands and guides me to a window.
“These are my roses,” she says, pointing to a thick archway of flowers. “You have no idea . . . growing those roses in Tennessee . . . I sound like an old woman, but that is joy for me.” Turns out, she is a dedicated gardener, growing lemons, plums, grapefruits, and apricots at her home in Australia and making jams and chutneys that she gives to friends.
Right now, she’s all about these roses. “I bring my girls down here and say, ‘Look!’ and they’re like, ‘Ehhh . . . yeah.’ ”
Kidman and Urban’s children, six-year-old Sunday Rose (goes by Sunny) and four-year-old Faith (goes by Fifi), are at school. Urban, who just wrapped a season as an American Idol judge, is up in New York to work with the disco/funk legend Nile Rodgers on a track for his own upcoming album.
As for Mama . . . well, Mama is busy. In the coming months, Kidman will launch back into the public eye with a flurry of wide-ranging and ambitious projects. Besides Queen of the Desert, there’s Secret in Their Eyes, a thriller with Julia Roberts and Chiwetel Ejiofor, directed by Kidman’s friend Billy Ray. There’s The Family Fang with Bateman, which is based on a novel by a Tennessee writer named Kevin Wilson, and Genius, a literary drama with Colin Firth and Jude Law, directed by Michael Grandage. And in the fall, Kidman will return to the stage in London’s West End to star in Photograph 51, also directed by Grandage—her first play since her sensational late-nineties turn in The Blue Room.
“Keith and I always say, ‘We’re doing a play,’ ‘We’re doing a tour,’ because it is like that—the family has to do it together,” Kidman says.
This is how they roll. Kidman and her children have joined Urban on his concert tours, family roadies on the bus, and the whole jamboree came along to Morocco for two and a half months while she was shooting Queen of the Desert. Urban flew back and forth depending on his schedule; the girls stayed and grew to love the bustle of Marrakech and the camels, horses, and lion cub on the set.
“It was an assault to their little world,” Kidman says. “The smells, the tastes—everything is so different. By the end, they’re in the souks haggling, holding snakes, in it.”
I ask Kidman if her children like to watch their mother act. She laughs. “They come and sit on the set and go, ‘Where are the snacks?’ ”
She prefers it this way. Here in Nashville there is space for her kids to be kids and for Kidman to be a mother and the morning school-carpool driver. Kidman bonded about this balance with Julia Roberts while shooting Secret in Their Eyes. She and Roberts broke into the business around the same time and met socially over the years but had never worked together.
“We share a similar sense of ourselves,” Roberts says. “I have such a happy, excited feeling about my children, and I love to share stories, which can no doubt be nauseating at times, right? But Nicole is the same. We could just chatter away endlessly.”
At 48, Kidman has already assembled one of the more diverse, impossible-to-pigeonhole careers in movies, one that has seen her hopscotch from blockbuster dramas to tiny independents to avant-garde. “The thing for me about Nicole is I can’t quite classify her,” says Billy Ray. Kidman has done big stuff you’ve seen; little stuff you may not have; and all the spaces in between. “She seems simply to do what interests her,” says Colin Firth. “You could probably make any clip reel of her work at random and it would be dazzling.”
Kidman says she was inspired by a lesson from the late Stanley Kubrick, with whom she became close while making his last film, 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut: “He would say, ‘Anyone who puts out an idea, you cannot say no,’ ” Kidman recalls. “ ‘You have to wait 20 seconds before the word no comes out.’ ”
So she takes risks. She detours. Some of those detours work (recently the family film Paddington, in which Kidman played a villainous taxidermist pursuing the wayward bear, grossed more than a quarter-billion worldwide). Other detours become, well, detours. (Grace of Monaco, a poorly received Grace Kelly biopic, went to the Lifetime TV network instead of theaters.) Still, Kidman remains committed to the edgy idea, to fresh storytellers. For all of her work with directorial heavies—Kubrick, Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!, Australia), Gus Van Sant (To Die For), Jane Campion (The Portrait of a Lady), and Lars von Trier (Dogville)—she’s also rallied for newcomers like director Kim Farrant (who makes her feature debut with Kidman in the new drama Strangerland) or thrown her support behind innovative artists like Mitchell, the Hedwig and the Angry Inch sensation who came aboard Rabbit Hole after another director dropped out.
“She said, ‘I go on instinct, John, and sometimes it gets me in trouble,’ ” recalls Mitchell. “But she still does it. A lot of people, if they do an independent film, it’s, like, to get an Oscar—that’s the goal. As opposed to her goal: adventurous material.”
Baz Luhrmann knows this side of Kidman well. “There are a lot of roles she could have pursued that may have been more obvious and less fearful,” says the Australian director. “But Nicole’s choices are always surprising. After all, agreeing to do Moulin Rouge! at the time was pretty much considered career suicide.”
“I really think there’s a journey to be had,” Kidman says of the roles she’s taken. “I suppose I kind of have this very spontaneous, nonstrategic [side], which is why I’ve had such a winding career. Even at my height, I wasn’t looking to maintain that. I was always looking for what I feel now—where do I want to go?”
Soon Kidman will collaborate with Reese Witherspoon on a limited-run HBO series based on the darkly comic Liane Moriarty novel Big Little Lies, about kindergarten moms pushed to murder (!). But first, there’s that anticipated return to the stage. Written by the American playwright Anna Ziegler, Photograph 51 tells the story of the English chemist Rosalind Franklin, an overlooked pioneer in the study of DNA. Kidman had been kicking around the idea of Shakespeare or Chekhov, but in conversations with Michael Grandage, she decided she wanted to do newer work. She liked the idea of bringing further attention to Ziegler’s acclaimed play—which has had several smaller stagings, including a 2010 Off-Broadway run—and also to Franklin, whose contributions, compared with those of her male peers, remain underappreciated.
“When an actor chooses new work over anything else, it suggests a fearlessness in their character,” says Grandage. “I think that manifests itself in all her choices.”
Stephen Daldry, who directed Kidman in The Hours and recently had his own Broadway hit with Skylight, said Photograph 51 is another example of Kidman’s willingness to push herself. “It will be thrilling, and I am so looking forward to it,” Daldry says. “And who’s better than Michael? He’s such a wonderful actor’s director.”
Kidman can’t disguise a flicker of nervousness. Or maybe it’s just anticipation. The Blue Room, a sensual hit in both London and New York (remember the famous review in the Daily Telegraph: “pure theatrical Viagra!”), was more than a decade and a half ago. Kidman says she was “walking on air” for most of the show’s run but also remembers how grueling it was, especially when she lost her voice in the final week. Moving to London for Photograph 51’s three-month run is a “big ask” for her young family. “And a huge risk,” she says.
“Even Keith was like, ‘Why are we doing this?’ ” she says. But here Kidman mentions the thrill of theater, the chance to sink herself into a character, a challenge that tests her skill at every level. “I need to now push myself into a place I haven’t been for a long time.”
Kidman and Urban wed in 2006, endured a rehab stint for Urban shortly after they were married, started a family, and have remained steady champions of each other’s careers—Urban on the red carpet at the 2015 Oscars in a Louis Vuitton tuxedo, Kidman in Balenciaga at the CMT awards. “Look at Nicole and Keith being lovey-dovey at CMTs,” read a recent headline on USAToday.com.
Kidman doesn’t disguise her affection. She mentions a night out with Urban and friends not long ago where she watched her husband sing and play in an impromptu jam session. “I looked up at him at one point and I saw his tattoos and his foot going, and he had the guitar, and I was like, ‘God, I love that man. I’m so glad I’m in this world.’ ”
Did she meet Urban at the right time in her life?
“Oh, no,” she says. “I wish I could have met him much earlier and had way more children with him. But I didn’t. I mean, if I could have had two more children with him, that would have been just glorious. But as Keith says, ‘The wanting mind, Nicole. Shut it down.’ ”
Last September, Kidman’s family suffered a sudden loss: the death of her father, psychologist and biochemist Antony Kidman. The sadness is still very raw—Kidman’s eyes begin to well immediately as soon as she starts to talk about him.
“You’ve caught me at a time when I’m still recovering and in grief,” she says, pausing for a moment. “There are times you go, ‘Gosh, I wish I could just go and hide in a hole and never come out,’ ” she says. “And then you go, ‘That was yesterday.’ I have a four-year-old and a six-year-old, and just hearing their laugh . . . it’s life in its most powerful form.”
She of course has her own childhood memories: visiting her dad in the lab and watching him work with microscopes. When Antony Kidman visited Nicole’s school, he brought mice and talked science, “and all the kids are looking at me like I am crazy.” She says he would have been thrilled about her returning to the stage to play, of all people, Rosalind Franklin. “I’m getting my Ph.D. in DNA!”
Kidman smiles. She is in the role of mentor now—not only with her children but with colleagues. She looks at today’s younger actors and the frenzy of paparazzi and the endless sniping of social media and wonders how they survive it; even when things in her own life were at their craziest, she says, they were never as crazy as this. “We’re the generation that got to duck all of that,” Kidman says. “When I was with Tom, I don’t remember paparazzi sitting outside our house . . . not like now. This is different.”
She mentions working a couple of years ago with the now-25-year-old Australian actress Mia Wasikowska on the film Stoker and volunteering to help Wasikowska navigate the road. “I said, ‘You call me anytime. Anytime you need to ask something.’ That’s probably my maternal side, but it’s also a responsibility in the industry. It’s a tough world now. It always was, but it’s particularly tough now.”
Kidman even sees benefit in occasionally talking about personal topics as a way of helping others. She’s been up front on her experiences with motherhood, both with Cruise, with whom she adopted two children, Isabella Jane and Connor, now in their 20s, and with Urban. “I’ve experienced adoption. I’ve experienced birth with a genetic child. I’ve experienced surrogacy with a genetic child,” she says. “I speak openly about it because so many of my friends are discussing it. It’s important for other women to go, ‘I get it!’ ”
(Really the only topic Kidman declines to discuss is the Church of Scientology; the recent HBO documentary Going Clear alleged, among other things, that the church had actively tried to break up Cruise and Kidman’s marriage. Kidman passed on the opportunity to speak to the makers of the film and has consistently turned away requests to comment out of respect for her children with Cruise.)
All of that feels far away here in Tennessee. Kidman knows that there are things she misses in Nashville. Hollywood is still a town, she says, where a lot of business is conducted over dinner and at parties. “The power of face-to-face,” as she puts it, still retains influence. But the trade-off? Pretty good. Calm. Open space. Nature. “I can read here,” she says (recently she’s been reading Jon Krakauer’s Missoula and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s epic My Struggle). “I can write here. I can hike. I can take my kids to school. I can live the way I’ve always wanted to live.”
It’s almost normal. . . .
“A life,” Kidman says. “A real life.”
I should state for the record that no people were injured or harmed in any bodily way during the golf portion of this story. Kidman and I managed to depart the course at Hillwood Country Club without damaging any humans, homes, or automobiles (that we know of), although I will confess my ego was probably a little dented. That’s fine. It was still a pretty great way to spend a spring morning. Some credit the great Mark Twain with the line “Golf is a good walk spoiled,” and I know Mark Twain was a brilliant man who wrote a lot of wise things. But he never got the chance to play golf with Nicole Kidman.