Nicole Kidman talks to Ingrid Sischy about her marriage to Tom Cruise.
There once was a wild-maned, fiercely independent Aussie actress who became the luscious young bride of America’s top movie gun. Ten years later, the fairy tale imploded. Now, with a slate of leading roles that include Virginia Woolf in this month’s film adaptation of The Hours, Nicole Kidman talks to Ingrid Sischy about the cocoon of her marriage to Tom Cruise, the way she feared being ostracized after that shocking breakup, and the mystery she’s just beginning to understand.
My life collapsed,” Nicole Kidman recalled recently. “People ran from me because suddenly it was ‘Oh, my God! It’s over for her now!’” Kidman’s leper moment came last year, when her former husband, Tom Cruise, fired her as his wife—that, at least, is how the split came across to the public. But on the day this past summer when she was reliving that moment of reckoning, it all seemed like centuries ago, not only because so much has happened in her life since then, but also because we were sitting in a trailer just outside of Poiana Braşov, Romania, a spot as physically and psychologically removed from Hollywood as it gets.
Romania is where Kidman will be through the end of this year, at work on Anthony Minghella’s film adaptation of Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier’s rather turgid best-seller about the Civil War. Although some scenes have been filmed in Charleston, South Carolina, the bulk of this epic is being shot in Poiana Braşov and nearby spots in northern Romania. One quickly understands why: these are places that epitomize the phrase “going back in time.” I had arrived in Poiana Braşov a day earlier, in the dead of night. After a hairy mountain ride to my hotel behind an endless stream of horse-pulled carts, and a sleepless night spent listening to wild dogs howl, I was glad to see the morning sun. So was everyone else on the set. It was the first beautiful day after weeks of relentless rain. Suddenly I heard the clippety-clop of horses’ hooves, and somebody said, “Here comes Nicole.” I spied the actress way up the road in costume as Ada, the book’s heroine, all decked out in her corsets and petticoated skirt. She looked the height of refinement, but when she spotted me she let out a hearty laugh. “You made it,” she said in her unmistakable Australian accent.
Before Cold Mountain is done shooting, Kidman, who stars in the film with Jude Law, will be on movie screens back home breaking audiences’ hearts with her mesmerizing performance as Virginia Woolf in Stephen Daldry’s adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s feminist novel, The Hours. That movie, which also features Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, and Ed Harris, and which doesn’t betray the profound sense of aloneness that makes Cunningham’s novel so moving, is scheduled to be released later this month. And just like last year—when Kidman surprised and won over moviegoers with the one-two punch of her swooningly gorgeous performance as a doomed dance-hall star in Moulin Rouge and her portrayal of a mother on the edge of madness in The Others— the studios’ release schedules have decreed that she will shortly follow up The Hours with yet another adaptation, this time of The Human Stain, the tough Philip Roth novel, which has been turned into a movie gem by the director Robert Benton and which will be in theaters next year. Benton’s casting of Kidman as the novel’s take-no-crap, been-to-hell-and-back female janitor, opposite Anthony Hopkins, is right on the money.
And that’s not all. On the heels of her breakup, Kidman spent last winter in Sweden, shooting Lars von Trier’s film Dogville, which is scheduled for release sometime next spring. Von Trier, the director most recently of Dancer in the Dark, wrote this latest film for Kidman, which serves to underscore what has been happening to her career over the last few years. While the world has remained obsessed with “The Tom and Nicole Story,” with what their marriage was really like—and especially with what went on between the sheets and with what truly caused the relationship to combust—Kidman has done something more useful: she has shown herself to be a major talent, a remarkable actress who can get in there with the best of them, go toe-to-toe, and come out with her credibility intact. What’s more, she’s proved herself to be a star with a capital S, the one-in-a-generation kind who, like Elizabeth Taylor, is bigger than the Hollywood system, and is also unafraid to be human and real, which only makes her more popular.
Offscreen, Kidman, like Taylor, has a love of life, a strong sense of loyalty, and a madcap sense of humor, and she seems to really know how to be a friend. (Her old buddy Naomi Watts, whose career has only recently taken off, told me, “Nicole was always there with her door open, her arms open, her ears open—just what you need.”) Kidman and Taylor know how to live it up, too, and while Kidman may not share Taylor’s predilection for carrying really large rocks on her mitts, she’s got the rags—closets full of the hippest fashion and vintage clothes. Put this pair in a room and you’ll hear two dames who really know how to laugh. In terms of their careers and their craft, there’s more than coincidence in the fact that, while Taylor showed the world what she was made of when she walked the razor’s edge in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Kidman is doing the same thing playing Woolf herself.
I’ve gotten to know Kidman over these last couple of years, right as her life was falling apart, in my capacity as editor of Interview magazine. What struck me initially is that she’s a person who doesn’t let others down. In one way or another, I have seen her stand by her word and be thoughtful in situations that would likely bring out the worst in other stars. The more one knows her, the less “actressy” she seems. She hasn’t undergone the kind of narcissistic transformation that can turn extremely famous people into absolute bores or unbearable phonies. She has gotten used to the attention that comes with being a star, but Kidman is not one of those types whom everybody else has to pamper and flatter; instead, she seems to be driven by a feeling that she has so much to learn, and so much to see. She’s still curious, still hungry, and will still almost kill her-self playing a part. It’s like she goes into a trance on set—broken ribs and bloody knees (such as she incurred on Moulin Rouge) or grossly swollen ankles (Cold Mountain) be damned.
Nicole’s childhood doesn’t sound that unusual, but there are a few kinks and clues to suggest that this was a kid with big ambitions. Born in Hawaii in 1967 to Australian parents, Anthony and Janelle, she grew up in an upper-middle-class suburb of Sydney, in a family that was close then and remains close today. Both parents worked, her mother as a nurse, her father as a psychologist, and it appears they passed on a strong sense of ethics and social conscience to their two daughters, Nicole and Antonia. As Nicole, the elder, remembers, “My mother would treat us as little adults. We would discuss things. I was raised to think and to question. She wanted girls who were educated, aware of everything, and opinionated. So did my father. They wanted us to be sure of being able to speak out. That’s gotten me into trouble at times.”
The outside world was less of an oasis, and at times Nicole felt like a bit of an oddball. She says, “My mother was a feminist in a conservative neighborhood, and my father was left-wing. I was Catholic, and most of the kids were Protestant. I looked very different from most of the other people. I was very, very tall”—she topped off at five feet ten inches—“with wild, wild curly hair, which I now try to tame. I couldn’t go to the beach, because I was so fair-skinned. One of my most vivid memories is of being a child, sitting in my bedroom, and hearing the laughter from the next-door neighbors. They had a pool and you’d hear them laughing, playing. I remember feeling not included in that, just sitting in my bedroom. . . . I had a huge desire to be somebody else. I would think, I’m not living the life I want to live. I would try to come up with images before I went to sleep, to then try and live the life I wanted to live in my dreams. And I was deeply romantic.”
Even today, when friends talk about Kidman they cite her love of losing herself in other worlds. She is an avid reader, frequently seen curled up with a book, oblivious to whatever’s going on around her. That started a long time ago: by her teens, novels were a primary means of escape. She has said that it was thanks to characters such as Dorothea in Middlemarch and Natasha in War and Peace that she began to think about being an actor. She told me, “I wanted to be those women. I would live through them, get lost in them, and be devastated when the books ended.”
Nicole also had a definite wild streak. She was hitting the clubs in Sydney by the time she was 14, drawn to the bohemian side of life, befriending the transvestites who frequented her favorite joints. Already showing her affinity for avant-garde fashion, she’d doll herself up in a tutu, fishnets, and lace-up black boots, and dye her hair like a rainbow or in even more intense shades of red than her natural coloring. Other nights she’d go vintage.
But of all the pursuits she followed in her teens, it was the drama lessons that from the age of 12 she took on weekends at Sydney’s Philip Street Theater which really stirred something within her. She got some saucy parts, too, including that quintessential southern belle, Blanche du Bois, in Tennessee Williams’s Streetcar Named Desire, played by Nicole at the ripe old age of 12. She’s less amused today by the cheeseball Australian films she found herself doing a few years later, such as 1983’s teen dirt-bike epic BMX Bandits and 1986’s Windrider, a romance about windsurfing (with the actor Tom Burlinson, a 29-year-old who became 18-year-old Nicole’s boyfriend)—but at the same time she oesn’t disown them. As an actor, she says, “you’re never in a position where you have an enormous amount of choices—that’s why I never judge other actors’ choices. One doesn’t know what’s behind them. Why does somebody need to do [a particular movie]? Because they have to pay the mortgage? I’ve certainly been in that position. BMX Bandits? Bring it on. I wanted to own a place. That’s how I bought my apartment. After that I always knew, if everything else went to pieces, I had a floor I could crash on.” As for the artistic side of the equation, such as it was, no matter how cartoony her parts, Kidman always comes off as a strong, memorable presence—and as killer sexy. Best of all her early Australian films is 1991’s Flirting, a girls’-school classic in which she plays the alpha prefect who turns nice.
She had begun to work steadily, but at the age of 17 two events temporarily sidetracked her career. First, she decided to see a bit of the world, bagging high-school grad-uation for an intoxicating few months in Amsterdam and Paris. Kidman recalls, “I was like, ‘Bring it on—bring on Europe!’” (“Bring it on” is a pet Kidman expression, a kind of exhortation to herself and others to let life happen.) That same year, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and went through chemotherapy. Kidman put everything on hold to be part of her mom’s support structure. She clearly respects and loves her dad, but her relationship with her mother seems to have been the more formative one. On more than one occasion she told me, “I still think one of my motivating forces is to make her proud of me.” When I asked Kidman to explain that more specifically, she answered, “She once said to me she wished she had had no children, which is a hard thing to hear from your mother. I think I stormed out of the house that day. But I understand what she meant, because she gave up a lot. She would have been an amazing doctor, she speaks French, she plays the piano, she’s far more brilliant than me at everything.” How many of us feel that same way about our parents’ missed opportunities and end up taking on the world in their name?
What set Kidman’s career in true motion was a 1986 Australian TV mini-series, Vietnam, which suggested she had real acting mettle. She took off in the role of Megan Goddard, an anti-war, anti-Establishment student, got nice reviews, and, out of that success, was eventually cast in 1988, at the age of 21, in the film Dead Calm, directed by Phillip Noyce and produced, as was Vietnam, by Australia’s legendary Kennedy-Miller Productions. This was the project that would bring her to America and alter the trajectory of her career. A thriller, Dead Calm required her to outfox, outsail, and outfight a psychotic interloper—we see her together, untogether, in the altogether, and her performance never falls apart.
The 1989 film, a smash in Australia and a player in the States too, came to the attention of the screenwriter Robert Towne, who was then at work with Tom Cruise on Days of Thunder. Towne, who is no monkey, showed Dead Calm to Cruise. Kidman had already been brought to America for a publicity junket for Dead Calm, been signed by ICM agent Sam Cohn, and flown back across the Pacific to Tokyo, where she was doing more promotional chores, when she got a call saying Tom Cruise wanted to meet her. When I asked what her first reaction to the summons was, she laughed, saying, “I thought, Wow! This is America! Tom Cruise wants to meet me. He made Top Gun and Cocktail—the films I grew up watching.” And the fairy tale began. Before she had time to straighten her hair, it seemed, she was in Daytona Beach, Florida, starring opposite Cruise in Days of Thunder.
Enter Cupid. Drumrolls. Music. Fireworks! Kidman was smitten: “He basically swept me off my feet. I fell madly, passionately in love. And as happens when you fall in love, my whole plan in terms of what I wanted for my life—I was like, ‘Forget it. This is it.’ I was consumed by it, willingly. And I was desperate to have a baby with him. I didn’t care if we were married. That’s what I wish I’d done.” But that’s not what happened. Instead, a few months later, Cruise’s divorce from the actress Mimi Rogers came through, and America’s most American leading man proposed to Australia’s latest hot export.
It’s hard to imagine a more dramatic personal and sociological change than the one Kidman experienced the moment she hooked up with Cruise. She went from being an actress who had begun to taste success—and who had always insisted on living on her own, even during her various romances—to a woman inside the engine of the Hollywood machine. As for the first piece of celluloid that came out of their alliance, let’s just say that time has not been kind to Days of Thunder. Still, it’s fascinating to see how Hollywood, led by producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer and British director Tony Scott, packaged her raw sexuality, putting a commercial gloss on it.
After Days of Thunder, she began working on Billy Bathgate for director Robert Benton, who recently teamed up with the actress again. I spent time with them this September on the Paramount lot, where they were re-recording fragments of dialogue for The Human Stain. It was quite an eye-opener to watch her work with Benton and the sound technicians. Kidman is a pro, but not a hack. She’ll want to keep doing a line or scene until it feels true, but she also seems to have unusually direct access to all sorts of inner emotions, which she is often able to summon in a matter of seconds and articulate with authenticity.
There’s a bit of a father-daughter dynamic between Benton and Kidman. When we went to lunch they both cracked up about the old days when Kidman, who married Cruise in the middle of Billy Bathgate, would go missing in action. Benton recalled, “One day when I couldn’t find her, somebody said, ‘Oh! Nicole is skydiving,’ and I almost had a heart attack. I thought, God! Like I don’t have enough problems.” Benton sat his star down and gave her a good talking-to. She solemnly listened and, as Benton laughingly told me, was jumping out of planes again soon after with her new husband. The thrill both apparently get from a sense of danger seems to have been an aphrodisiac for Nicole and Tom, who would also amuse themselves with adrenaline-pumping fun such as spins on Cruise’s Harley.
It’s clear that the couple’s chemistry worked big-time. When Nicole speaks of her years with Cruise she describes a devotion without clauses and without doubt. “I was willing to give up everything,” she explains. “I now see that as part of me. I’m willing to do that—I do it when I do a movie too. I’m willing to go, ‘Yeah, bring it on, consume me, intoxicate me.’ I want to feel alive—I want to reel, basically. I was reeling with Tom and I loved it and I would have walked to the end of the earth. That meant giving up a lot of things that were very important to me.” Kidman doesn’t pretend that she was impervious to the glare that came with being Mrs. Cruise. “You’re being watched and scrutinized, and that slowly affects you. But it’s also deeply romantic, because it feels like there’s only the two of you and you’re in it together, as if you’re in a cocoon, and you become very dependent on each other.”
Apart from her role opposite Cruise in Ron Howard’s immigrant drama, Far and Away, which was a nonstarter when it came out in 1992, Kidman’s career wasn’t on the front burner during the first few years of the marriage. Instead of klieg lights, her days were filled with squeals and gurgles, for it was in 1993 that the couple adopted a girl, Isabella. (In 1995 they would add to the family by adopting their son, Connor.) But ultimately the bubblelike existence had to end. This wasn’t the Dark Ages. The suffragettes had come and gone, Virginia Woolf had written A Room of One’s Own decades before, and Kidman, very much a woman of her time and of her upbringing, could not stifle her need to express herself. She started to pursue a number of parts. There was, for instance, 1995’s Batman Forever, directed by Joel Schumacher, in which she played the love interest, Dr. Chase Meridian.
Schumacher’s stories of life on the Batman Forever set with Kidman are telling. By that time she had become a certified member of Hollywood royalty, but it seems that that had killed off neither her sense of spontaneity nor her sense of democracy. There was, for instance, the day she got a craving for some kind of iced mocha concoction from Starbucks. As Schumacher recalls, she didn’t just order one for herself. “There were hundreds of people working on Batman, and, sure enough, an hour later, some kind of truck arrived with all these frozen drinks, and everyone had an iced mocha thingy.” But while Kidman helped to put the sass into Batman Forever, offering a glimpse of her flair for camp, the performance didn’t do much to thaw the ice-princess image that she had by now developed in the media.
In point of fact, Kidman had never been cold or rude to the press, but somehow her perfect behavior as Mrs. Cruise—the couple was famous for their highly controlled public appearances—and the sorts of roles Americans had seen her in, along with the presumption that she was being cast only to curry favor with her husband, all combined to make it seem as if she were high-and-mighty, exquisite, but made of marble. She, too, may have bought into some of that: “I felt I didn’t deserve to be there in my own right, and so throughout I wasn’t there as Nicole—I was there as Tom’s wife.”
What finally changed this was To Die For, which was also released in 1995. It was not a part that was handed to her on a silver platter. Even though she had a decent track record by then and was married to such a box-office biggie, she was not considered A-list and had to work to convince the director, Gus Van Sant, that she had what it took to play Suzanne Stone-Maretto, a woman who is so obsessed with becoming a TV star that she is willing to do anything to make that happen, including seducing a weirdo high-school student (Joaquin Phoenix) and persuading him to do away with her lunkish husband (Matt Dillon). Kidman has never been the type to let pride get in the way of work she desires. Even today she’ll do the requisite campaigning if she is after a role and she isn’t being pursued for it; she has an instinctive grasp of the ebb and flow of fame, of the fact that you have to get up on your board if you want to ride its waves.
Van Sant, whose deadpan way with a story is almost Warholian, recalls, “She got my number somewhere. I don’t know if it was hard to find it or not, but she just called me and said hi. She phoned right when Meg Ryan dropped out of the movie, which involved her knowing inside information. Our second choice was Patricia Arquette, and we even had a third choice, Jennifer Jason Leigh. Nicole was somewhere on the list. I had met her a couple of times. When she called she told me that she knew she wasn’t on the top of my list, and I tried to kind of say, ‘Well, I don’t know about that . . . ’ But she just cut me off and said, ‘Look, you don’t have to pretend that I am.’ I said, ‘O.K.,’ and then she said, ‘But listen, I’m destined to play this part.’ That worked really well with me because I believe in destiny.”
It did seem as if she had been born to play this knife-sharp black comedy, written to perfection by Buck Henry. She found humor in her character’s desperation and yet also made that desperation feel painfully real. She was so wickedly funny that at the time I remember being surprised—as were many others—that there was edge and bite underneath all that Hollywood polish. This was the beginning of her transformation from perfect escort to flesh-and-blood actor. When Portrait of a Lady, directed by Jane Campion and featuring Kidman as the headstrong heiress, Isabel Archer, was released a year later, the project’s ambition underscored the fact that Kidman might just become a big deal in her own right—even if the film itself wasn’t a breakthrough for anyone.
It was inevitable that performing in these kinds of films would affect Kidman’s sense of herself. She says, “I realized I could be fulfilled creatively and that I had given that up. I think this happens to women who re-enter the workforce. They go, ‘Hold on, there’s a world out there, and I wouldn’t mind being a part of it.’ I tried to deny it because it would have been so much easier for me to be satiated by being a wife. I wish it could have been part of my trajectory, but it wasn’t.”
Kidman imagined, like millions of women, that she’d be able to fulfill herself through her work and also be a dedicated wife and mother. Her goal was to do a worthwhile project every year or so and still have enough time and energy to give her family its due. For a while the plan worked, or at least it looked that way from the outside. The actress appeared in The Peacemaker in 1997 and in Practical Magic in 1998 (two films that ended up stiffing) while continuing to show up at her husband’s side, always looking like a million bucks, for every important occasion.
And then came an opportunity that seemed heaven-sent: the late Stanley Kubrick’s decision to cast Kidman and Cruise in his take on sexual obsession and jealousy, Eyes Wide Shut. The couple had a chance not only to work with one of the movies’ true greats on a film that promised to be electrifying, but also to work together. And so, in late 1996, they picked up their household, moved to London, and dedicated themselves to implementing Kubrick’s vision. It was not just a nine-to-five collaboration. Kidman and Cruise’s bond with Kubrick proved to be such that their lives became intertwined with his, and the film somehow bled into their relationship.
The two actors, especially Nicole, are known for living and breathing their parts when working; this time their roles were a bored husband and wife who get caught in a web of sexual pretending that then turns dangerously real and winds up threatening their marriage. Sounds like a recipe for an emotional Molotov cocktail that would test many a couple’s relationship. On top of that, the shoot, originally scheduled for 4 months, kept getting extended, and in the end Tom and Nicole would park themselves in London for 18 months. As Kidman remembers it, “Tom had such a very strong connection with Stanley, and so did I. That resonated through our lives and marriage—it had such a profound effect.” Even when the actors and their director weren’t actually shooting, they’d spend hours together every day. Nicole says, “Stanley saw Tom and I in the most extreme situations because of the way in which he works. He breaks you down. He challenged all of my concrete, solid bases that I’d set around myself, and basically disturbed them, and made me far more introspective.” Nicole does not get literal about how this experience shook things up, but she couldn’t be more clear that it did; the couple was also deeply affected by Kubrick’s sudden death during postproduction. But she has an artist’s acceptance of the entire experience as ultimately valuable, no matter how painful.
When we were talking I was honest with her about my reactions to the movie, which finally came out in the summer of 1999. I told her that, despite the film’s visual punch, the pre-release fuss and hype seemed way overblown considering the final product, which to my mind is not the revolutionary work that was promised but rather a bourgeois attempt at titillation, an effort at illuminating truths about sexuality and relationships which have been treated with much more insight by other writers and directors. Nicole responded in a way that is characteristic of her. She was not defensive, but heard me with real interest and openness. She then stood by both her director and her leading man: “I still think Tom was mesmerizing in it, but that’s partly because I know what he went through. To me, the themes are so important and so complex—and who knows what Stanley would have done [with it] if he had had more time, if he’d lived.”
In the fall of 1998, Kidman was making new headlines with her performance onstage in London in The Blue Room, which required her to be nude for 10 seconds. One night backstage Kidman found a big bouquet of red roses in her dressing room with a note from the Australian director Baz Luhrmann that read something like: “She sings, she dances, she dies, how can you refuse?” Luhrmann was referring to Satine, the doomed heroine of the movie he was planning to shoot next, Moulin Rouge. He was following his gut instinct that Kidman would shine in the part of a divinely romantic showgirl who drives folks wild, sacrifices for her art, and dies tragically of tuberculosis on her beloved stage. But Kidman was still perceived by audiences as distant and cold; there was resistance to her from some of the powers behind the project. Nevertheless, Luhrmann and his casting director were passionate about their choice. They fought until the deal was done, and a role that was loaded with risk for both star and director turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to Kidman’s career. Not only did it show what a multifaceted talent she is, but the part, which had her running off not with the rich producer but instead with the struggling writer, undercut her public image as a cool careerist and plainly rendered her human and warm. Whether she is flying through the air on a trapeze, singing an over-the-top love song with her leading man, Ewan McGregor, or breathing her last breath, her performance is big, bold, vulnerable when called for, and just right in terms of tone.
Like Van Sant, Luhrmann calls Kidman an ally. Recalling the Moulin Rouge shoot, which took place over nine months in Sydney, he says, “She never showed anything but absolute belief in the film, which I’ve got to say is one of the defining qualities of Nicole. She is absolutely at her best in the worst possible situations.” Little did anyone know how much she would be put to the test on this front. It was during postproduction on Moulin Rouge, sometime in February 2001, Luhrmann remembers, that he got a call from Kidman: “She said, ‘I’ve broken up with Tom’ or ‘Tom’s breaking up with me.’ She told me there were helicopters flying over the house, and she was genuinely devastated and shocked.”
The public’s reaction to the breakup has been a lesson in how the movies and real life can converge. The timing of the marital implosion led into a period when Kidman was also in the public eye because of Moulin Rouge. The fact that in this film she died as a heroine passionately committed to her art, a victim of her time and her circumstances, carried over to the perception of her as a victim in real life—a perception to which there seems to be more than an element of truth. My conversations with Kidman about this tumultuous, painful time, which also included a miscarriage, showed her to be a woman genuinely struggling to understand why her marriage failed.
I doubt that legalities are the only explanation for why this couple has been so respectful to each other in public. These are two people who understand good behavior and who are committed to their children’s well-being. Even though it looked at first as if they were going to land in an ugly legal battle, the couple settled out of court. Both parties have made it clear that they will not go into the nitty-gritty about what went wrong. But since their split played out publicly in such a bizarre way—with Cruise releasing cryptic tidbits to the press like “She knows why,” and Kidman seeming to be in a state of shock—one can’t help but still be curious. I asked Kidman point-blank, “Do you know why you broke up?” She said, “I’m starting to understand now. At the time I didn’t.” So I asked again, “It came as complete news?” She said yes.
Sometimes I got the feeling she’d do anything to reverse events. But I also had the sense she knew there couldn’t have been any other outcome, in part, it seems, because of her own artistic needs. It’s not clear how these conflicted with the marriage, but what’s unusual about her, given her status as a Hollywood institution, is that she’s willing to bare the confusion, the contradictions, the regret. She told me, “I didn’t have to have a huge career. I would have liked to be able to make a To Die For occasionally and things that could stimulate me. And this makes me sad, but I still would probably choose a marriage and an intact family over my career.” When I pointed out to Kidman that the beauty of living in the 21st century for women is that, one hopes, they don’t have to choose between work and family, she replied, “But I think I had to choose. I think [the marriage] would have come down to it. I suppose it wasn’t meant to be. What I see now is a nine-year-old little girl who [the divorce] affected and I see a seven-year-old boy, and see my duty as a mother. It means for the rest of my life I have to do things to protect and help them and make it up to them. That sounds so old-fashioned and strange. I don’t know why that’s in me, but it is.”
While it’s not unusual to worry about the kids in a divorce, Kidman is clearly wearing a kind of hair shirt; after all, she was raised as a Catholic. This leads to the role of religion in her marriage—specifically Scientology, which, as everyone knows, is Tom’s thing. When I asked Kidman about her ties to the organization, she said, “Tom is a Scientologist. I’m not. I was introduced to it by him, and I explored it. But I’m not a Scientologist. I told Tom I respect his religion. I said to him, It is what you believe in, and it’s helped you.’”
One of the most fascinating aspects of the entire story is how intrigued people are by the couple, even those who aren’t normally into tabloid-type gossip. The marriage remains a kind of blank slate upon which we can all project our own ideas; people have floated so many theories, from unfaithfulness to the fallout from pre-nuptial agreements to who knows what. The speculation was endless—and still is. This sense of mystery goes way back: the marriage had always been surrounded by whispers about the couple’s sexuality and questions about just what kind of transactions were taking place between them.
When I decided to face these issues directly with Nicole, she laughed at the awkwardness with which I brought them up, and then asked, “Do you want to know if I had a real marriage?” Even though I thought it was my duty as a good reporter to poke around in there, I was embarrassed by having to be so nosy. So I circled the issue of the relationship and brought up the fact that Cruise seems to call the lawyers whenever the g-word is thrown at him (and I don’t mean garter). This time, she grabbed the bull by the horns and said, in a serious tone, “Look, the marriage was real. The marriage existed because it was two people in love. It’s that simple. They’ve said I’m gay, they’ve said everyone’s gay. I personally don’t believe in doing huge lawsuits about that stuff. Tom does. That’s what he wants to do, that’s what he’s going to do. You do not tell Tom what to do. That’s it. Simple. And he’s a force to be reckoned with. I have a different approach. I don’t file lawsuits because I really don’t care. Honestly, people have said everything under the sun. I just want to do my work, raise my kids, and hopefully find somebody who I can share my life with again, or, you know, have a number of different people at different times who come into my life. I don’t know what my future is. But I really don’t care what anybody else is saying.”
On the same day that Kidman and I had this conversation in Los Angeles, I happened to visit the producer Lynda Obst. Philip Roth’s masterpiece American Pastoral is on her plate as her next film project. Kidman’s name came up as a possible lead. Obst and I then fell easily into the inevitable who-did-what-to-whom Tom-and-Nicole conversation. Has anyone in America not had this conversation? After a minute we laughed at ourselves and Obst pulled out a copy of American Pastoral and read a passage that says it all. The subject is “other people”: You never fail to get them wrong. . . . You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. . . . The fact rem ains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride.
Kidman’s willingness to stay on life’s ride, even when it feels like a roller coaster, is proven. She doesn’t deny that doing so was hard at first after the marriage fell apart. She even told me a story about being so upset that she was lying on the ground in the fetal position, weeping, while her parents, who had arrived to help her get through the whole circus, were trying to make her snap to. “That’s enough now—get up!” her mother said. She did. There were other issues to deal with, such as how the divorce was going to affect her career. Kidman remembers, “At the time, it felt like the work was going to be taken away from me. I had more things that I wanted to give, do, participate in creatively, and to have had that denied prematurely would have been awful.” She saw to it that none of this happened, and she had people who were true-blue behind her. One of them is Baz Luhrmann, who spent much of the first year of the breakup’s aftermath with Kidman promoting Moulin Rouge. Luhrmann had told Kidman that, under the circumstances, he’d understand if she bowed out of the promotional duties that can make a movie live or die. Instead, she stood by him and their work as though their lives depended on it. Luhrmann recalls, “I saw her realize the motto of the film, which is ‘The show must go on.’ She absolutely embodied its spirit.”
Between Moulin Rouge, The Others, and even the rather kooky thriller Birthday Girl, released last February (Kidman plays a Russian con artist with a throat-scraping, Moscow-ready accent), she made people take her seriously. As Anthony Minghella says, “Each film is so different and distinctive. They make you feel like there’s an enormously rich instrument there.” When Kidman received a Golden Globe and an Academy Award nomination for Moulin Rouge as well as a Golden Globe nomination for The Others, one could feel how happy people were for her. She was finally getting recognition for who she was, not who she was with. It really didn’t seem to matter to her that she didn’t win a prestigious statue on Oscar night. Stepping out on to that red carpet with her sister as her date, she was a class act in a pink Chanel gown.
When The Hours comes out this month it is bound to cause a sensation. It’s hard to imagine a finer cast of actors interpreting this remarkable book, which covers three eras—the beginning of the last century, the 1950s, and the 1990s. How appropriate that it is Kidman’s job to play Virginia Woolf at the time she was writing Mrs. Dalloway and looking for reasons to live as she struggled with thoughts of suicide. The meaning of the role is not lost on the actress. She says, “I truly believe characters come into your life at certain periods of your life for a reason, and Virginia came into my life to help me.” Her performance is nothing short of astounding. Much will be made of the aristocratic prosthetic nose she wears, which makes it difficult to recognize her. But even more amazing is the way she seems to transform herself in every possible way, from the lids of her eyes to her soulful mouth to her bony elbows to the crack in her voice, which is fragile and strong at the same time. Her portrayal of Woolf, accent and all, is so convincing it’s hard not to conflate the two women’s lives. When I told Kidman this she smiled and made reference to a scene in the movie in which Woolf is sitting on a bench at the Richmond, England, train station, having escaped what she saw as the suffocations of her country household. Her husband, Leonard, comes running up, afraid that she has tried to do herself in again. Virginia finally lets it all out. “The scene at the train station was the reason I wanted to do the film,” Kidman told me. “It is about a woman saying, ‘This isn’t what I want to be. I have the right to make choices for my life that are going to fulfill me.’ I loved Virginia. I just love when she says, I’m living a life that I have no wish to live. I’m living in a town that I have no wish to live in.’”
These were the exact lines I had written down in the dark when I first saw The Hours. They seemed to get at the essence of what Kidman’s life has been about these last few years, a period in which she has become not just a bigger star, not just an actress who deserves to be taken seriously, but a truly daring artist. Anne Roth, the costume designer who worked with Kidman on The Hours and who with Conor O’Sullivan perfected the soon-to-be-famous nose, said it perfectly: “It is like she is in a new skin. She is on her own satellite. She is all alone out there and it’s something you want to watch. It’s as if she’s an amazing piece of art.”
Who knows if this would have happened if she hadn’t gone through all her marital difficulties? When someone turns a potential calamity into something great we cheer. In Kidman’s case, she has moved people not only because she has done that, but also because of who she’s been. She’s shown her feelings. She’s asked for help. She hasn’t come up with a bunch of phony escorts to make her life look good. She doesn’t seem to mind that we can see that her life may be as messy and flawed as the rest of ours. She’s even been ruefully witty, as when she remarked to David Letterman, “Now I can wear heels” (a reference to the height gap between her and her ex).
On my last night of talking to her for this article, I went over to her house in Pacific Palisades for a glass of wine. It’s the same house that she lived in with Cruise, which embarrasses Kidman. She says that her friends keep saying, “Sell it! Sell it!” but that she prefers things to be done gently, not in a rushed way. She’s proud, however, that she finally bit the bullet and got a place in Manhattan in the West Village. When I went by the house in L.A., it happened to be September 11, the anniversary. The kids had made a fire, and Kidman was sitting with them in the den watching the news on TV, a rerun of the day’s memorials and events. When it was time for them to go to bed she said, “See, everything went O.K. today. Nothing bad happened,” and turned off the TV. Relief for all of us. She came back downstairs after tucking Isabella and Connor in. We went into the living room and I noticed art, such as paintings by Ben Shahn and Milton Avery, on the walls, and photography books on the table. There was a clear sense of shared lives and interests—it felt like a home, not a set. I thought about another line from The Hours: “I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.” For a while.