From a kid in BMX Bandits to a film doyenne whose staying power mocks the myth that only youth survives Hollywood, Nicole Kidman combines serious star appeal with endearing childlike curiosity.
Nicole Kidman has already given as many bravura performances as any actor can rightfully be expected to deliver in one lifetime. But this has been an exceptionally rich period of late for the lithe, supremely poised Australian. Her Oscar nomination for Lion kicked off 2017. This reassuring nod of approval from her American colleagues was followed, in December, by a standing ovation back home, as Kidman picked up Best Supporting Actress (Lion) and Best Guest or Supporting Actress (Top of the Lake: China Girl) at AACTA. And if that were not enough, Kidman has also drawn kudos for her work in two high profile indie films, The Beguiled, directed by Sofia Coppola, and Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer.
But it was Kidman’s portrayal of battered housewife Celeste Wight in Big Little Lies that set Hollywood on fire. Many critics have gone on record proclaiming that it was the finest performance of her distinguished career. It is no wonder then that Kidman’s contribution to the critically-acclaimed HBO TV series earnt her the Emmy for Best Actress.
What makes this all the more remarkable is that Kidman is winning such plaudits in a year that saw her turn 50, an age that has traditionally seen female film stars fade from glory. But times are a-changing, and just as Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren, and other women are proving, Nicole has just begun a brave new era in which she feels unbound and more open to new challenges than ever.
“I’m blown away,” she says. “For all this confluence of events and success to be happening in the year that I turn 50, that feels really powerful and makes me unbelievably thankful. I’m also anxious to keep taking more risks in my work than ever. I’ve always had the kind of attitude where I tell myself, ‘Why not?’ when it comes to working with new directors and wanting to explore different kinds of stories and characters…”
“Emotionally, I still feel so open and curious and want to always be jumping off the cliff with the abandonment of a 21-year-old. I’ve fallen off that cliff a few times. But my husband reminds me I’m not a people pleaser because I say what I think and I don’t choose roles that are going to please, and that’s just the way I was raised – to stand up for what you believe and not fit in.”
That attitude certainly applies to her latest film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, in which she plays the wife of a surgeon (Colin Farrell) and watches as a strange 16-year-old boy enters their lives and exerts a mysterious hold on their family. Lanthimos (Dogtooth, The Lobster) is notorious for his profoundly disturbing narrative journeys and Kidman was anxious to enter his bizarre universe.
“At this stage in my life I want to stay very bold and open, and try things and support filmmakers that I believe in… Yorgos [Lanthimos] is one of those directors who has a very unique filmmaking style and… I’m totally up for taking risks…and supporting people who are trying different things.
“When I was younger, I would try to fit into a formula, but that never worked for me. I was being advised to do big American movies, and as soon as I freed myself artistically to follow filmmakers and storytellers, I found my passion.”
Certainly, the limited series format of Big Little Lies enabled Kidman to create and develop a character with exceptional depth and gravitas in what was effectively a seven-hour feature film edited and formatted into seven distinct televised episodes. The series not only captured a massive audience but it triggered a swath of articles and commentaries about the ongoing process whereby major movie stars are increasingly drawn to cutting-edge TV/streaming productions while the major studios are abandoning dramas in favour of comic book blockbusters.
“I cannot believe how it entered the zeitgeist. It’s really been a huge eye-opener for me on the power of television, the power of that particular story and how it connected. It was glorious, actually,” says Kidman. “While it was on, the way people were coming up, saying: ‘What happens next?’ They were obsessed. It was beautiful. I was very much part of people’s lives.”
An outspoken advocate for women’s rights and in particular a vociferous proponent of equal pay for women in Hollywood, Kidman applied her feminist mindset in co-producing Big Little Lies together with good friend Reese Witherspoon.
Based on the eponymous best-seller by Australian author Liane Moriarty, Big Little Lies made TV history in that it was the first series of its scope ever to feature five talented actresses – Kidman, Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, and rising star Zoe Kravitz – in the main starring roles.
“There are five great roles here [for women]. It’s very, very rare. I like working with women, but first of all I like to find the right stories. For years I’ve worked to support women in all fields. And I believe in sisterhood. I learned so much from having a feminist mother who in the ’60s fought for our rights and has always been involved in social work… We are sisters in the world and we have to support each other.”
As Celeste, a mother of twin boys married to Perry (Alexander Skarsgard, who would win a Best Supporting Actor Emmy for his work), an abusive, jet-setting businessman, Kidman invested herself fully in a highly compelling and shattering role. While shooting Big Little Lies, Kidman realised that the role was far more physically and psychologically demanding than she expected.
“It was deeply disturbing playing her,” says Kidman. “It’s a complicated character and I definitely felt the weight of it… A lot of times I can move away from the character very easily. This (one) I found a lot harder to move away from… It’s a very volatile relationship. They inflict pain on each other and there is an enormous amount of danger. At the end of a day’s shooting I’d go home and sit in the bath and cry.”
Celeste and Perry’s underlying relationship is fraught with psychodrama and that was part of what drew the fearless Aussie actress to the role in the first place:
“We wanted it to be complicated. We didn’t want it to be black and white, because so many of these relationships are very complicated… There’s an addictive quality for them, and the way in which they’re both culpable and the way in which they can’t get away from each other because there is love there. Deep love. And they have two children, which made it even more difficult (for her) to see a way out.”
Audience reaction to her portrait of a woman who finds it difficult to escape a horrifically abusive relationship was as intense as it was personal. Kidman was particularly impressed by her first taste of the power of a small-screen drama like Lies to reach viewers in a more intimate fashion than anything she had previously done in film.
“People would want to reach out and touch me. I got so many emails and people talking to me about it, which I like because it’s a really complicated relationship. I obviously understand it, so I’m able to talk about it in complex detail. It’s so based in shame, and the desire to protect her husband and family.
“Before playing Celeste I read a lot and did as much as I could to inform myself about domestic violence. It’s a subject that I already had some knowledge about because I have been working for years with UN Women, The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, which also deals with violence.”
Kidman spoke to several battered wives prior to the filming. and in the course of those conversations came away with a heightened appreciation of her marriage to singer Keith Urban.
“Keith and I always say that we are just so lucky to have each other. In this world, to be able to come back to that love and that strength is so nourishing and powerful.
“I always say this and I’m not tired of repeating it: without Keith I would not be able to do the work that I’m doing. Our marriage is so strong that it feels therapeutic; there’s this wonderful bond between us. When something positive happens to me, we both feel overjoyed, and vice versa. I still can’t believe how we found each other. Keith is my rock.”
Married to Urban for the past 11 years, Kidman is as devoted to their happiness as she is to looking after their two daughters, Sunday, 8, and Faith, 6. They live in Nashville, which is mecca to her husband, one of the giants in the country and western musical world. Together they have managed to find a pleasant rhythm to their private and professional lives.
“As an actress (you’re always) trying to balance motherhood with the work you want to do,” says Kidman. “I’m fortunate in the sense that I’m married to a musician, so our schedules are able to be juggled. I keep it simple in that regard.”
She adds: “I’ve worked a lot, (but) I don’t have to work. I work because it is still my passion… I would also like to continue collaborating with women I admire, as I recently did with Sofia Coppola for The Beguiled and with Jane Campion for Top of the Lake 2.”
Does success still matter as much to Kidman today as it did earlier in her illustrious career? She looks at success in existential terms.
“What is success, really? As a young girl it meant coming to America, acting on Broadway. Then, over the years, success became synonymous with love, because it doesn’t always last. Keith and I keep saying to each other: we are so lucky to have each other, to have the same need to be protective and supportive of each other. When you have gone through so many things over the years and your parents are aging, the strength of your relationship and your family is your success!”