The cover of our Nocturne Issue talks about her newest film “Lion” and her decision to continue to take on small roles.
Nicole Kidman, gently, asks me if I have children.
I do not, I admit, but would she like to tell me about hers? The actress, 49, after all, has described herself on more than one occasion as having a very strong maternal instinct, and in her new film, the absolutely stunning Lion (director Garth Davis’ first film), she plays the role of an adoptive mother of two orphans from India. “I’m incredibly protective of their little worlds right now,” she says of her own two biological daughters, aged five and eight, whose father is Australian country musician Keith Urban. “We don’t live in Los Angeles, and we don’t Instagram them. I have a strong sense of trying to give them a protective life,” she says, pausing briefly. “They’re aware. But they’re also incredibly naive still, which is a beautiful thing.”
Kidman and her family live quietly together in Nashville, which seems incongruous with the image that Hollywood has painted of the actress over the course of her thirty-year career. Before we begin our conversation, she apologizes for our scheduling conflicts, adding that she has to go to a parent-teacher conference when we are finished. I try briefly to imagine Nicole Kidman at a parent-teacher conference, and have a little trouble doing so. On the red carpet and at events, the nearly six-foot actress brims over with a certain quality of bubbling but dignified glamour—one that she wears delicately and well. And she’s a sharp sport, too. She laughs often and could easily outpace the person who claims they blow through books like a brushfire. (“I’ve always been a reader,” she says, and then lists off several books she’s read recently, some I’ve never heard of.) One of her defining successes in all these years has been maintaining a protection of herself—the same protection she employs to veil her children, and the same protection that makes it difficult to imagine Academy Award-winning Nicole Kidman sitting in a classroom, patiently absorbing the details of her children’s school lives. Though this self-preservation clearly works wonders: this way, she’s always had the necessary backup reserves to unleash all that is asked of her on the screen. And not infrequently, that is a lot.
“I’m idiosyncratic,” Kidman says of her desire to take on projects both big [like, say, The Stepford Wives (2004)] and small (such as a film her production company, Blossom Films, produced last year: The Family Fang). “I can’t analyze it at all, it’s just what
I lean towards. It’s frustrating for people at times because I could probably have had a far different career if I was more open to big things.” I tell her of a sketch from the Funny or Die show Billy on the Street where Billy Eichner organizes
a “raising awareness for Nicole Kidman” protest in the park, to remind people that just because the Oscar winner has been working on independent projects lately doesn’t mean that she’s any less an Oscar winner. She is prematurely embarrassed by the prospect of being the unwitting star of a comedy sketch. “I’ve always been fascinated with examining human nature,” comes back her defense of these indie career choices, just in case she needed one. “I think the thing that scares me the most is when people are desensitized and cold. Even if their reactions to things are strong, I like that because it means people are feeling feelings.”
Kidman has had extra helpings of those raw feelings over the span of her life: her father recently died; she was divorced from Tom Cruise. That sensitivity to the world around her is an interesting contrast to her more right-brained upbringing: her mother was a nurse and her father a biochemist. “Anything I asked was always answered scientifically: sex education, anything. It was always presented without a lot of flowery descriptions.” She and her sister grew up going to their mother’s hospital or their father’s lab after school, which Kidman admits was not a normal upbringing, but that only impressed in young Nicole that quality of wonder that she’s never lost. And with wonder and openness comes the easier potential for hurt. When her father died of a heart attack in 2014, Kidman made a point of noting to Vogue that she felt incredibly raw. More than two years after his death, she reflects now that, “Once you lose a parent, there’s a thing that changes. I felt that my life really took a massive turn in that sense.” Some might think a massive turn after a life of protecting a bleeding heart would mean a closing off—a retreat from realities—but no, instead, Kidman describes how much more open she has begun to feel as a result.
“I knew right after I won the Oscar,” Kidman says of her 2002 win for playing Virginia Woolf in The Hours, a role in which she was hardly recognizable. “I’d worked a lot and I suddenly had an Oscar and I was like, I have nothing else. Help.” In what is one of the most touchingly gentle Oscar speeches in all of history, Kidman became unable to continue talking because she couldn’t stop crying. To pull herself together, she physically turned her back to the audience and gave herself a moment. When she turned back around, she gave a warm shoutout to her mother and her daughter, saying, “My whole life I’ve wanted to make my mother proud.”
“That was a massive wakeup call,” Kidman says now, almost fourteen years after the win. “I said no, I want love. I want a partner. I’ve said it before but I wanted someone to jump on the bed with and go, ‘Oh my gosh, wow.’ Someone to go to the parties with. I went to the Oscar party I think for about ten minutes and then I went home. This needs to be shared.” Within three years, Kidman had met Urban at an event in L.A. that honored Australians. They were married in 2006 in Sydney, where they now return at least four times a year, with their young children. “We’re a very tight family,” she says of her now-husband of ten years and her two girls. “They have a fantastic father, which I think is really important for a young girl.”
In Lion, the Australian actress gets a chance to really go home, both physically and emotionally. “My Australian agent had sent me the script and said, ‘You should read this. I think you’ll respond to it,’” she says of the Luke Davies-penned screenplay. The movie is based off of A Long Way Home, the autobiography of Saroo Brierly (played by Dev Patel), who was separated from his birth-mother at age five, adopted by Australian parents, and then after a lifelong quest, was reunited with his mother twenty-five years later.
“I sat down, read it really quickly, and cried. I connected with Sue and the ideas of the mother, the adoptive mother. It was sort of meant to be. She had the vision and that was it.” In the role, Kidman plays Saroo’s adopted mother, Sue, in a cropped ginger wig and frumpy, suburban clothes. As always, Kidman easily disappears into the role, shedding the poise she is known for in favor of a more subtle, emotional dignity. “The film speaks about all mothers—be they biological, adoptive, or even just people that are a mother figure—it’s all about the power of that role. And the strength of that role. The warmth of that role. I liked the way in which Sue was connected to Saroo’s birth mother. My favorite line in the film is when she says, ‘I can’t wait for her to see how beautiful you are.’ That role—the one of the adoptive mother—hasn’t been
Kidman continues, “I think the idea of destiny is a very strong thing. When you’re an adoptive parent, somehow—in this huge world—you and your child have found each other. For whatever reason, you’ve been put together. That’s a really profound thing when you think about it. To dissect it is almost too much,” she says, wavering between an attempt at dissecting and a commitment not to. “Everyone has their path. You are a guide for a certain number of years, and then you have to let go.”
The next big project for Kidman, after premiering Lion, is a seven-episode series for HBO called Big Little Lies, based on a book by the same name. The Oscar-winner stars alongside Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, and Zoë Kravitz, who all play different kinds of mothers, and who are all concealing a secret. “It’s got dark undertones, but it’s very funny, it’s very topical.” Witherspoon, who is also a Nashville native and who has a house next door to Kidman in the Bahamas, is a continued inspiration and friend to Kidman. “She’s extraordinary in the sense that she just went, ‘That’s it, I’m going to take my career now and I’m going to redefine it.’ She’s doing it! That’s inspiring. I can’t wait to see what she’s going to do next.”
Does Kidman see herself treating her career similarly into the future?
“I’m committed to the stories ultimately… and storytellers, and substantial female roles,” she says. “At this age, time is precious. There’s no reason to waste it on projects I’m not interested in. You don’t have to just rely on what’s thrown your way.” And that means advocating to get projects like The Family Fang and Rabbit Hole made, as well as knowing when she has to take time off to be with her family. “I would have loved to take my play Photograph 51 to New York but I just couldn’t do it. I’m a mother and a wife and it wasn’t going to work for our family.” Those parent-teacher conferences won’t wait, after all.
During our conversation, Kidman reiterates her thrill at the world around her, citing more than once that she is grateful to be able to stay so curious and in touch. “To see the fall today and that crisp, cool air,” she begins, wistfully, the lilt of her Australian accent pulsing with a clip of metered joy. “And to walk and see leaves falling and to feel that that is so beautiful. To think, ‘Huh, this is it, this really is it.’ To breathe that in, to really breathe that in is wonderful. That’s probably my state of being right now,” she says, once again pausing with the healthy inquisitiveness of a person figuring it out even as the words leave her mouth. “Right now, I’m breathing a lot in.”