From A-list actor to one of Hollywood’s most sought after TV producers, Nicole Kidman’s high-flying life is one to envy. Yet behind the scenes the Aussie superstar also harbours regrets – and fears.
Nicole Kidman’s eyes are focused on the screen in front of her, and for a moment she looks quite unhappy with what she’s seeing. “I look terrible,” the 53-year-old actor and producer laughs, as our video call connects and she studies her own image as it appears on the laptop. Kidman is not long home after a tiring day shooting in Byron Bay for her upcoming television series, Nine Perfect Strangers, based on the Liane Moriarty book about a group of people who meet at a health resort, so it’s understandable she might feel a little jaded.
As we talk, Kidman absentmindedly pins her hair back, in an almost ponytail, and looks comfortable in a loose, pale-cream blouse and black pants, which she’d changed into earlier. I ask her what she sees when she looks at others. The answer is eyes. “I look at people’s eyes a lot,” she says. “I see a lot of somebody through their eyes. Some people have very cold eyes, very shielded eyes, I want my eyes to be open and available. I want my eyes to speak.”
Kidman, and those piercing bright blue eyes, have been captured by some of the world’s greatest photographers and directors, from Peter Lindbergh to Annie Leibovitz, to Stanley Kubrick and Werner Herzog. She’s relaxed and disarming as we talk about everything from her fear of loss, after the death of her father, and her star turn to become one of America’s most sought after television executive producers.
Regrets, she’s had a few. “Do I wish that I hadn’t screwed up my hair by straightening it all the time? Sure,” Kidman says, of her once-curly titian locks. “I’ve had skin cancer; do I wish I’d been more careful with the sun? Yes, to all those things. But am I grateful to be around? Oh, yeah. And am I willing to share my knowledge, what I’ve learnt along the way? Absolutely.”
With homes in Los Angeles, New York, Nashville and Sutton Forest, NSW, Kidman has set up temporary camp in Byron Bay while she films Nine Perfect Strangers, which also stars Asher Keddie and Melissa McCarthy. She drives herself to the set each day and spends her nights in a rented house she shares with her sister, Antonia Marran, and a mixed tribe drawn from Nicole’s two and Antonia’s six children.
Nine Perfect Strangers sits at the confluence of shifting tides in Kidman’s world, her relocation to Australia with husband Keith Urban and their two children, the imminent broadcast of another project, the mystery thriller The Undoing, about a New York therapist whose world is upended after a violent murder, and the emergence of her company, Blossom Films, as a leader in diverse and award-winning, female-led productions.
Through her production house, Kidman has added the string of executive producer to her bow, and is part of a broad trend in which her peers, including actors Reese Witherspoon and Charlize Theron, have also launched successful production companies, resulting in a wave of content that has put women over 50, including Laura Linney (Ozark), Gillian Anderson (Sex Education), Jennifer Aniston (The Morning Show) and Laura Dern (Big Little Lies), into the No. 1 position on their call sheets.
“It’s the duty now, it’s the way forward,” Kidman says. “And that’s wonderful. Because before you’d get shut down and now everyone is open [to diverse ideas]. If you look at someone like Ryan Murphy, who’s been doing [diverse and gender-balanced production] for years, it’s fantastic. His whole company is devoted to diversity and telling those stories that wouldn’t be told, through different perspectives.”
“To have the opportunity now, it becomes such a richer tapestry,” she says. “And it’s far more reflective of what we’re living. Our children have a far different perspective because we’re now changing what it looks like on screen, what it looks like in their classrooms, what it looks like everywhere. Thank god. About time.”
Kidman’s double duty means longer days, 12-plus hours on set and a lot of homework for a project which has become a test case for COVID-safe television production. If all goes well, more international shows will likely beat a path to Australia’s door. And she is acutely aware of the scrutiny from American studios and unions, the Australian federal government and film investment agencies. The potential financial windfall for the local industry is high.
The cast and crew of Nine Perfect Strangers were not granted an exemption from the hotel quarantine imposed on all travellers to Australia, but a variation of the rules under which they were housed in a single hotel closer to the filming site. Kidman, who travelled by private jet, with minimal outside contact, was permitted to quarantine at her home.
The show’s sets are closed to visitors, masks are worn by the crew at all times and by the cast when they are not filming, production areas are equipped with hand-wash stations and split into zones to minimise contact and assist social distancing, on-set meals are pre-packaged and the cast and crew are temperature tested daily and tested for COVID-19 three times a week.
“We’ve got massive COVID protocols, but we’re doing it,” Kidman says. “I can’t quite believe it. We had a lot of hurdles and challenges, but we were really supported. It was a lot of sleepless nights. It still is, if I’m completely honest.”
Filmmaker Per Saari and Nicole Kidman met purely by chance, at a dinner party thrown in Los Angeles in 2004 by dialect coach Elizabeth Himelstein, who has, Saari says, something of a reputation for assembling very eclectic guest lists.
The 40-year-old grew up a long way from Hollywood, in Bozeman, Montana, in America’s north-west. But when film star Robert Redford came to town to make The Horse Whisperer in 1997 – when the population was 29,093 – Saari, then at college, saw his chance and sent in his résumé. He was hired, becoming Redford’s assistant, and after the film wrapped Redford offered him a job in Los Angeles, working for his production company.
At the dinner party, Saari and Kidman were seated together and immediately hit it off. “We bonded over movies. Nicole is a complete film nerd,” Saari says. “We really did seem to come from different worlds, she was from Australia and I was from Montana, but in the middle was this conversation about the kinds of things we liked. A little creative seed was planted from that.”
That seed grew into Blossom Films, founded by Kidman and Saari in 2010. “We’re just incredibly like-minded,” Kidman says of the partnership. “It’s been so long now, which is rare in this industry. I’m very proud of that because that’s the loyalty that we have to each other. He’s really fun. He has a great sense of humour, which is very important to me. You’ve got to be able to laugh. And we can belly laugh.”
Speaking on the phone from Byron Bay, Saari says Kidman approaches producing with a lateral mind. “Nicole is a collaborator and there is an ongoing conversation about how to approach things. She looks at all the points of view. She has an incredibly creative way of assessing any situation. She’s also able to not take things too seriously. I think that’s a great gift, to just let the levity speak. She’s as creative as she is analytical and that’s kind of her superpower.”
The company’s first production, 2010’s Rabbit Hole, about a couple grappling with the loss of their four-year-old son, in some ways remains its standard bearer. “I learnt how to make a film with very little money [$US3 million],” Kidman says. “It resonated, it found its way and made money for the investors and was ultimately a very, very tiny success [box office was $US5.1 million]. And it was gratifying because it was subject matter that would never have gotten made.”
In 2017, however, the company took its most significant steps, into the television realm, with Big Little Lies and later The Undoing, backed by HBO, Nine Perfect Strangers for American streaming service Hulu and, still in the planning stages, The Expatriates for Amazon Prime Video and Crime Farm for HBO Max.
The catalyst was Big Little Lies, which won four Golden Globes, eight Emmys and two Screen Actors Guild awards – at all three ceremonies Kidman was crowned outstanding actor – and cemented her position as a creative force to be reckoned with.
Among the company’s key collaborators is the Australian author Liane Moriarty. She gave Kidman and co-executive producer Bruna Papandrea the rights to her book, Big Little Lies, and wrote another, Nine Perfect Strangers, with Kidman in mind.
“Liane has that Australian sense of humour, at times irreverent, at times biting, but she’s capable of a deep osmosis,” Kidman says. “She’s deeply heartfelt, as well. Those are the things I respond to. When she writes about things like domestic violence or teenage suicide, they’re surrounded by some humour. But at the core of them, there’s really relevant, traumatic issues at play.”
The pair met in Sydney in 2014 when Kidman was looking at adapting Big Little Lies. “Most authors had said to me, ‘Don’t get excited until the day they start shooting, because there will be a lot of talk and then it just falls apart’, ” Moriarty says. “So to be honest, I was thrilled to meet Nicole, but slightly cynical about anything actually ever happening.
“I don’t meet famous people day to day, so [it’s a] disconcerting experience seeing a face that you know so well; you feel like you know that face, and yet you don’t. There she is, sitting across from you, so that makes you blink a little bit. She was lovely and warm and very down to earth.”
Most striking to Moriarty was Kidman’s passion. “I assumed somebody who’d been working for as long as Nicole had, and at her position, might be a little jaded and cynical,” Moriarty (pictured above, with Kidman) says. She found Kidman and co-executive producer Reese Witherspoon’s enthusiasm “really refreshing and really inspiring, that they still care so much about what they’re doing. They’re not just along for the ride.”
Strikingly charismatic, Nicole Kidman landed in Los Angeles in the aftermath of Dead Calm, Phillip Noyce’s 1989 thriller about a couple who rescue a dangerous man at sea. It was followed by two more films, Days of Thunder in 1990 and Far and Away in 1992, in which she starred with her first husband, actor Tom Cruise.
But it was not until To Die For in 1995 that the celluloid icon emerged from the shadows of the actor. In her first Hollywood film as a sole lead, she played ruthlessly ambitious television reporter Suzanne Stone. Then, in 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut, about a New York couple who explore infidelity, she came under the guiding hand of one of cinema’s great masters, Stanley Kubrick. Collaborations with Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!) and Stephen Daldry (The Hours) followed.
Kidman was richly rewarded for her efforts, collecting a Golden Globe for To Die For and Moulin Rouge! and an Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA for The Hours.
“Nicole brings incredible intelligence, a great sense of humour, generosity and trust,” says Oscar-winning production designer Catherine Martin, who worked with Kidman on two films. “You’re working with someone who uses her considerable intellect, her physical prowess and her ability as an actor to illuminate character.
“You can have the most beautiful clothes on the rail waiting for someone to put them on, but unless it’s illuminated by that extraordinary gift, they’re just clothes. Clothes are like the varnish on a Stradivarius for her, but she’s still the Stradivarius. Clothes never wear Nicole, Nicole always wear the clothes.”
Though Kidman and Martin attended the same school, North Sydney Girls’ High, they were several years apart and did not properly meet until 1993 when Martin and her husband/collaborator Baz Luhrmann were guest editing Vogue Australia and Kidman was invited to be photographed for the issue.
“Nicole has such vivacity, and charm, and Australian down to earth-ness, and mystery, and dynamism, and a great sense of humour,” Martin says. “Humour that is backed by intelligence is one of the most attractive characteristics in a person. There’s an ability with Nicole to not take herself too seriously, which makes her devastatingly charming.”
Yet with Kidman there is also something inexplicably cinematic. Her peers may be great actors and successful film stars, but Kidman’s relationship with the camera can create something intangible, evoking an echo of screen legends such as Katharine Hepburn or Barbara Stanwyck.
Puerto Rican actor Ismael Cruz Cordova, one of Kidman’s co-stars in The Undoing, credits that intangible quality to Kidman’s power as an actor. “The first few times I was with Nicole, I could not establish eye contact,” he tells Good Weekend. “I thought I was about to melt or catch on fire because she has the most beautiful, specific blue eyes.
“The intensity with which she nails her gaze into yours, it’s directly related to why she is a legend and why she is able to communicate and pierce all of us through the screen. I was feeling the full force of that in person. She tethers and connects herself to you in that way, and demands and extracts all of the truth and vulnerability that you can give.”
Kidman’s star power is, says Martin, an “incredible synergy between acting, directing, camera movement, bouncing of light and music. All the elements that inexplicably somehow come together to make something bigger. That’s what is so extraordinary about acting and about actors. When it’s done well, it’s like a gossamer thread. It’s like butterfly wings [or] dappled sunlight under a tree. It’s miraculous. It’s so delicate and it’s something to be revered and respected.”
Kidman’s fame has placed her on countless magazine covers, and at the top of a raft of confected media lists: most beautiful, best dressed, most influential. As a young actor she was ambitious but fame is a strange bedfellow, and Kidman concedes that as she has matured, so has her relationship with her own celebrity.
“I don’t need to be at the party,” she says. “I love to throw the party and if I can sit on the side and watch everybody laughing and dancing and having a great time, that’s my joy. I don’t actually need to be laughing and dancing.
“When I was alone, when I was single, I think [fame] was much harder because there wasn’t a shield. There wasn’t a place to go and to work through it, with a partner. I was lucky because my sister would come. I remember her flying to Cannes [in 2001] because it’s frightening walking up that red carpet with all that scrutiny, feeling very insecure and not quite sure where to go or how to survive.”
Of the many directors whose hands have guided her through her career – among them Jane Campion, Gus Van Sant and Anthony Minghella – the most intimidating, and the most influential on her as an actor, she says, was Stanley Kubrick.
“It was terrifying,” Kidman says of filming Eyes Wide Shut. “And then Stanley said, ‘Don’t put me on a pedestal because nobody can be creative on a pedestal. The reverence is unnecessary and ridiculous; let’s just work.’ So he was the one who sort of seismically shifted me.”
Kubrick’s death from a heart attack in 1999 after completing the editing of Eyes Wide Shut, his final film, deeply affected her. “I’ve been given death as a very sudden thing. I’ve not nursed someone through a slow death, I’ve just had people taken. Stanley, my friend Robert McCann [in 2005], my father [in 2014] and my brother-in-law [Angus Hawley, in 2015] … we’ve just had people that one minute are here, and then gone,” she says.
Kidman pauses. Our conversation has strayed into a realm where her vulnerability is exposed. “I’ve now had it happen repeatedly, I almost get scared saying it because I get terrified it’s going to happen again. I still have a lot of fear of that. I have enormous fear of that. We all have something, right?
“What it’s left … I’m working on this with a therapist and trying to deal with it, but it’s made me unbelievably [uncertain] in the world where I go … there’s an instability to the ground and to what’s here. Everything can be taken tomorrow. So that’s what I operate from.”
Such fear might explain Kidman’s relentless drive, with a film, The Northman, and Nine Perfect Strangers in production, another series, The Undoing, about to premiere, another film, The Prom, wrapped and at least two more series in development.
In the midst of that instability, however, is the great stabiliser of family. Growing up in Sydney, the Kidmans were – and remain – tight. Kidman credits her father for giving her his empathy and his scientific mind. And her mother, Janelle, for the gift of kindness. “My father was deeply empathetic, I never heard him say a bad word about anyone. My mother was the greatest nurse and takes incredible care of you. At the same time, she does not suffer fools, you can’t get away with a superficial response, she will break it down and challenge you.”
The darkest moment in their family life was the sudden death of Nicole and Antonia’s father, the psychologist and academic Dr Antony Kidman, in 2014, a loss still felt deeply. Antonia, who was living in Singapore at the time when her 75-year-old father visited and suffered a fatal heart attack, recalls having to break the news to her sister. “I remember ringing her and telling her what had happened … she was feeling it, and experiencing it and [I had] to stay perhaps measured because you’re battling through just the practicalities of everything, rather than hearing something where you’ve got time and the unknown,” Marran says, in a rare interview where she talks about her sister.
Such moments have made an already strong sibling relationship even tighter, Kidman says. “If you have a sister, as a woman it’s such a blessing because there’s this closeness where you can really delve into another woman with safety. We’re almost twins and we’ve been through a lot. I showed up for her and she showed up for me. That’s a lovely thing to have.”
Marran describes their relationship as one where anything can be discussed, honestly and without judgment. “Nicole will say things to me that I don’t know whether anyone else will say, or I won’t listen to from anyone else. And not things you’d immediately think of, not Dad’s death, or Angus’s death, but perhaps other things; she’ll help me navigate situations.”
Both sisters might seem to live very different lives. One is an actor and the other a journalist and television presenter who more recently retrained as a lawyer. In fact both are great prosecutors, of an idea, a character or a legal argument. “[In both situations] you’re inquiring into other people’s lives and experiences,” Marran says.
Kidman’s shift into producing was no surprise to her. “It seemed to be an inevitable addition to her career. She’s very smart and capable. She’s also incredibly creative. She is a thinker. Combine all of that with a strong work ethic and it makes sense she would move into production. I think she finds the process very satisfying.”
For the most part, having a sister who is a Hollywood star is a curious adventure. But there is a downside, Marran concedes: playing the parlour game of charades against an Oscar-winning actor at family get-togethers. “It’s awful,” she says, laughing. “Can’t stand it. To the point where I can’t play charades now at all. I think that with same-sex siblings and being the younger, you never put yourself in a position where you can obviously be compared to that person because it’s just not going to fly. It’s excruciating.”
As a sister, she says Nicole’s strengths are humour, sensitivity and a strong work ethic. “She’s diligent. She takes pride in her work and she puts in the hours. I think anyone who’s successful does.”
The pair have also bonded as mothers. Nicole has two young children – Sunday Rose, 12, and Faith Margaret, 9 – with husband Keith Urban, whom she married 14 years ago. (She also has two adopted now-adult children, Isabella, 27, and Connor, 25, from her first marriage.) Marran has six children, aged seven to 22.
“Since she’s had her children and married Keith, she’s sort of managed to maintain a very strong connection with her girls and her mothering role. I’ve got a number of older children, so she talks to me about stuff in relation to parenting.”
The key to the Kidman-Urban family unit, Marran says, is that they move as a single entity. “She weaves normality into their lives. She creates that sameness wherever they are. And they move heaven and earth to return to the fold. It’s a testament to that commitment.”
Kidman first read The Undoing when David E. Kelley, the author of influential television dramas such as L.A. Law, Ally McBeal and Boston Legal, sent her the scripts of the first two of six episodes. The pair had collaborated on Big Little Lies and Kelley wanted Kidman to executive produce the series and star in it as Grace Fraser, a successful New York therapist with a handsome doctor husband (Hugh Grant) and a school-age son (Noah Jupe) whose life unravels in the aftermath of a violent murder.
Kidman jumped at the chance to work again with Kelley as well as Danish director Susanne Bier, noted for her minimalist style and acute understanding of the axis between joy and tragedy – and who had, in 2016, directed another critically acclaimed television drama, The Night Manager.
“We’ve always wanted to work together, Susanne and I,” Kidman says. “Her Danish films are spectacular, her ability to access a woman and particularly mothers, and her ability to go almost inside the psyche and look out, which is what she could do with Grace in The Undoing. Susanne sort of is Grace. That’s the beauty of working with a female director, it was like I was working with someone also playing a character.”
Bier was also thrilled to work with Kidman. “Nicole came to Hollywood as a very young actor and she knows the workings of the system, she understands the challenges and she utilises that knowledge to the advantage of the artistic side of the production,” Bier says. “She’s the producer who is there when you need her and she will do whatever it takes. She has a very strong intuition for the right artistic decision.”
At the heart of The Undoing is Grace’s seemingly perfect life, an illusion shattered when cracks appear in its facade. The title of the book on which the series is based, You Should Have Known, is a clue in itself. And despite their differences – Grace longs for the perfection found in denial, while Nicole demands to know, even if knowledge is painful – Kidman says she found great resonance in the character.
“You become intimate by revealing deep truths, so, how intimate do you want to be, ultimately with each other?” Kidman says. “I’m someone who wants deep intimacy, so I want that, I’ll seek it out. At the same time, I can turn away from things and go, ‘Well, I’m just not going to deal with that.’ Or I’ll put my, as my mum says, my head in the sand.
“Some relationships work by [not dealing with it], my husband’s having an affair, and it works for me not to deal with it, or to allow it to happen and pretend it’s not happening,” Kidman says. “That wouldn’t work for me. Would I be completely devastated if that happened? Absolutely. I’d be wrecked. But I’d want to know. Different people have different sets of criteria. And as I’ve gotten older, the more we allow people to live the lives that they want to live without stepping in and scratching and telling them how they have to live it, I really adhere to that.”
The job also called on her to return to the recording studio, to perform the show’s theme, a slow, haunting mezzo-soprano interpretation of Dream a Little Dream of Me, a song famous as a hit for The Mamas & the Papas in 1968.
Though she sang on the Moulin Rouge! soundtrack and with Robbie Williams on their track Somethin’ Stupid, singing is not a comfortable space for her. “Far less so now that I’m married to a singer!” Urban, with four Grammys and four ARIA awards, is doubtless a tough act to follow. “I can’t do with my voice what I can do when I act and that’s very frustrating,” Kidman says. “With performance, there’s the possibility I may not get there. But at least I know I can try to reach it. With voice, I just can’t. I wish I could sing what I feel.”
The song itself is a serendipitous choice, for both actor and project. Donald Kahn, the son of lyricist Gus Kahn, who wrote the words in 1931, said that his father had once observed the song served a failing in modern romance: “That young men and women don’t know how to say I love you to one another, so we say it for them in 32 bars.”
Fortunately for Kidman, her husband can do both, telling her the first time not in three words but 32 bars. “He still sort of does,” Kidman says. “He can say it in words, but boy it really gets in when you’re given it through music. I think his strongest expression is through music. He’s got beautiful poetry when he speaks, but Keith is kind of unusual because he’s so auditory. He hears everything.”
Ultimately, The Undoing was “a leap of faith”. At the same time, Kidman is no stranger to richly drawn and complex women written in fiction or drawn from history’s page. Her career is peppered with such transformational performances: the sultry and compelling Satine, the writer Virginia Woolf, Big Little Lies’ tightly wound Celeste Wright and in Bombshell as broadcaster Gretchen Carlson.
“I don’t think I ever find a character easily, it’s not like you read something and go, ‘I know how to play this’, ” Kidman says. “I was really frightened of The Undoing and I was like, ‘Who’s going to watch me for six hours?’ That’s where Susanne was amazing. There were days when I was so tired, and she would capture it. That’s what was glorious. That relentless pursuit of emotional truth was what she was after.”
The series also brings Kidman back to the TV career she first conquered when she played Katrina Stanton in Bangkok Hilton in 1989. “I remember that role, getting on a plane, going to Thailand and London, working with Denholm Elliott and going, ‘Oh my gosh, this is big time,’ ” Kidman says. “Bangkok Hilton and [1987’s] Vietnam, they were the big things, those limited series rated through the roof. Television was where incredible work was being done, right? What’s fascinating is that I’ve come full circle and I’m working in TV again.”
The Undoing airs on Binge from October 26.