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‘It’s her! The sparkling diamond!” is the line of dialogue that introduces Nicole Kidman as the courtesan Satine in Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 musical Moulin Rouge! We first see the actress swinging on a trapeze high above a throng of top-hatted Frenchmen. It’s a dizzying height, and from her gravity-defying perch she sings “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” summoning images not only of Marilyn Monroe but also of Madonna, Rita Hayworth, and Ann-Margret.
It was a spectacular re-introduction of Nicole Kidman to the world, coming on the heels of Eyes Wide Shut, the last of three films she made with Tom Cruise and the swan song of their 11-year marriage (and also of director Stanley Kubrick’s august career; he died five days after Kidman and Cruise saw the completed film for the first time in a screening room in New York).
Luhrmann described Nicole’s performance in Moulin Rouge! as “a chrysalis experience—she went in as Mrs. Tom Cruise, but like Satine on the trapeze over the heads of clamoring men, she emerged as her own person. She was no longer with the king—she was Nicole Kidman, icon.”
Kidman had already shown her acting chops in earlier films. Indeed, the arc of her career has been one gravity-defying leap after another. Such directors as Stephen Daldry (The Hours) and Lee Daniels (The Paperboy) have described her choices as “brave,” and Kidman herself talks about her attraction to what she terms “rebel filmmaking.” In Gus Van Sant’s To Die For (1995), she played Suzanne Stone Maretto, the ambitious high-school teacher who seduces one of her students into murdering her husband. The following year, she paired up with director Jane Campion to play Isabel Archer in an adaptation of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. Six years later, she would win the Academy Award for portraying Bloomsbury writer Virginia Woolf in The Hours. In between: a high-strung wife in Alejandro Amenábar’s chilling 2001 ghost story, The Others, and the duplicitous Russian girl Nadia, who poses as a mail-order bride, in Jez Butterworth’s Birthday Girl.
All vastly different characters, with vastly different looks—you might say you could chart Nicole’s metamorphosis from tomboy to film star by her hairstyles: a red-haired, ringleted Aussie girl in Dead Calm; that perky blond flip in To Die For; a Rita Hayworth/Ann-Margret redhead in Moulin Rouge!; the mousy-haired Isabel Archer, who is transformed into a coiffed objet d’art in The Portrait of a Lady; a pale, elegant, marcelled woman in The Others (which first evoked comparisons of Kidman to Grace Kelly, unthinkable in early films such as Days of Thunder, Far and Away, and Dead Calm). In The Hours, she’s primly bunned; in Cold Mountain, her strawberry-blond curls befit a shy southern belle. In Jonathan Glazer’s Birth, one of her more controversial films, she is shorn. This vast array of hairstyles can be compared to Sir Laurence Olivier’s portmanteau of noses—the great thespian’s aids in creating a character. After all, as Kidman has said, “acting is about transformation.”
When she arrived to meet with V.F. in the sun-dappled garden of the Polo Lounge, at the fabled Beverly Hills Hotel, she wore a black jacket over a light-gray shell. I was put in mind of those shades of black, gray, and ivory in John Singer Sargent’s portraits—think Miss Eden or Madame X. Kidman answers to the more obvious notions of beauty—her slimness, her piercing blue eyes, her alabaster skin. Her hair was pulled back, showing off the polished, sculptural whiteness of her forehead.
To see Kidman in still photographs is to be reminded of the French Symbolist poet Charles Baudelaire’s question do dolls have souls? To see her in person is to discover she is a sharply intelligent woman. Once seated, I looked around for a place to stash my digital recorder. “Here,” she said, “try this,” as she gamely ripped the stitches out of her jacket pocket. When she speaks to you in that warm, inviting Australian accent, her humor—and a certain girlishness—reveals itself.
Before meeting her, I asked her longtime friend Jennifer Aniston to describe her. “She’s like a Thoroughbred. She’s statuesque. She’s gorgeous. She’s absolutely breathtakingly beautiful, and then on top of it she can pretty much act circles around everybody,” Aniston said. “But I just think how fun and girlie she is. You think of her as a very quiet, regal woman, and then when you meet her, she’s really just a fun, down-to-earth girl’s girl. That’s not something that’s expected.”
But it’s Kidman’s regal side that’s on display in Grace of Monaco, to be released next year, in which she plays the actress turned princess. With that in mind I brought along Life magazine’s collection of Howell Conant’s photographs of Grace Kelly in Remembering Grace. Kidman, a collector of still photography, swooned over the photographs. “She’s divine,” she said. “You can tell from these photos that [Conant] loved her. A lot of people were in love with Grace.” (Indeed, the photographer and his model did have a kind of chaste love affair, with the camera standing in as duenna. The only time Conant showed up in Monaco without his camera was when he attended her funeral.)
Having studied Kelly’s life in preparation for the role—Kidman is known for her deep research into the characters she plays—she said, “I have a sense of her, I think.” Curiously, this will be the third time in her career that she has played a character named “Grace” (after The Others and Lars Von Trier’s 2003 experimental film, Dogville). She even considered giving the name Grace to one of her two daughters with country-music star Keith Urban but changed her mind. (They are named Faith and Sunday.) “I’m glad I didn’t do it. The names we chose have huge meaning for us, though the little one’s already said she wants to be called Fifi,” Kidman said with a laugh.
I asked her if she thought Grace Kelly had felt trapped in her very public marriage to Prince Rainier of Monaco (played by Tim Roth in the movie) once she had given up her Hollywood career. After all, with Cruise, Kidman had also been married to a kind of royalty—Hollywood royalty—which catapulted her, at a very young age, into an extraordinary level of fame. “I think Grace Kelly had to realize that she was going to step into playing the greatest role of her life,” Kidman said. “And a princess is a particular part. So you give up an enormous amount for that. As the film sort of implies, she rose to the occasion in playing out what she saw as her destiny. And I think she made an enormous mark on the world—she tried to do good work, you know, but she loved acting. She won the Academy Award and basically left Hollywood at 25, so she left at the height of her career. When she got offered [Alfred Hitchcock’s] Marnie, she had two children and she wanted to go back and do it,” Kidman observed. “She could never have done Marnie, but she wanted to do it, and she wanted to come back and work.”
Did Rainier object to her taking on the dark role of a sexually repressed kleptomaniac or was she hurt by Hitchcock’s spurning of her invitation to attend the royal wedding in 1956? Whatever the reason, Kelly never acted in a movie again, dying an untimely death at age 52 in a car accident on the twisting corniche of Monaco.
Kidman wishes she had a photographer like Howell Conant in her own life. “I have a huge love of still photography, which is probably why I liked working with Irving Penn. I was lucky, because [Vogue editor] Anna Wintour put me with Penn before he passed away—maybe five years before—so I did two shoots with him, but I also just got to know him and adored him. In the same way as working with directors, I love working with the great photographers, because even if it’s fashion, they’re still seeking a truth. And sometimes you’ll get it and sometimes you won’t, and you’re chasing that, but when you get it, it’s the same high as when you’re doing a film. They create kinds of dreams—these dreamlike images. And if I can contribute, I love it. It’s quicker and it’s more finite than a film. But it’s still; there’s an intensity to it.”
Kidman started collecting black-and-white photographs “a long time ago, when they were so much cheaper—now you go and try to buy anything at auction and it’s so expensive.” She owns prints by Diane Arbus, whom she began collecting when preparing to play the trailblazing photographer in Steven Shainberg’s 2006 film, Fur—another one of her brave, shape-shifting roles.
We talked more about Grace Kelly’s decision to turn her back on Hollywood, which strikes a deep chord with Kidman. When she married Keith Urban, in 2006, she virtually fled Hollywood, and although she keeps a home in Los Angeles, she and Urban live mostly in Nashville—that is, when she’s not touring with him. She doesn’t miss Hollywood. “The whole business side of it—it’s too present. It doesn’t suit me,” she explained.
“When I married Keith, I moved to Nashville and went, O.K., I’m now willing to be in a different place because I want this, and I want it to work. There’s an enormous amount you have to give up if you want to have a family. You can have a certain career, but you can’t be living in Hollywood, [where] absolutely everything, everything revolves around it. That wasn’t my choice. I’d rather revolve around somebody else’s career and then still find my own.”
Living in Nashville means living with a different level of fame, where the music stars are the icons. Luhrmann recalled a visit there during which he encountered fans gawking at the couple and saw how relieved Nicole was to point out that they were Urban’s fans, not hers. “I love living in Nashville,” she said, “because I can kind of have a very odd, idiosyncratic kind of path. I have stepped away from the fame part of it. I didn’t find what I was looking for in fame. So I went, O.K., this is not for me. And it was such a blessing that I found somebody who said, ‘Well, are you willing to move to Tennessee?’ And I was ‘Oh, am I willing to move!’ People find it a little strange, I think, but I love living in the South. I think [Nashville] is now once again becoming the kind of center of so much. I mean, there’s Austin as well, but Nashville has a huge [music presence], even outside of country music. Jack White lives there, and the Black Keys and Kings of Leon, Paramore—so many bands are there now.”
When we were discussing the unreal level of fame she had endured during her marriage to Cruise, I mentioned how Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton had been affected by it. It was something Burton couldn’t handle well, but, for Elizabeth, who had grown up with it, it was second nature. By the time Kidman arrived in London, in 1996, to film Eyes Wide Shut, she was one of the most famous women in the world. By the time she left London, 15 months later, she was even more famous. The playwright David Hare, who adapted Michael Cunningham’s novel The Hours for the screen and in whose play The Blue Room Kidman would appear in London and on Broadway, recalled, “It was kind of lonely around her. She couldn’t walk down the street. She only arrived in a convoy of vehicles, with other vehicles to stop other vehicles from getting close. But at the center of it, she seemed to be completely calm, completely unaffected. She reminded me of Elizabeth Taylor in that way. And the audience is completely fascinated by her, in the same way that they were fascinated by Liz Taylor.”
“There is something about that sort of existence,” Kidman said, “that if you really focus on each other and you’re in that bubble, it’s very intoxicating, because it’s just the two of you. And there is only one other person that’s going through it. So it brings you very close, and it’s deeply romantic. I’m sure Brad and Angelina have that—because there’s nobody else that understands it except that person who’s sleeping right next to you.
“Having experienced extreme fame and now getting to a place where it’s not so dominating in my life,” she said, “I’m always surprised when I go somewhere and people know who I am. That’s an odd feeling. And then, when it’s seen through the eyes of my children, it jars me again, because they ask, ‘Why do they want a photo?’ and ‘Why is that person saying hello to you when you don’t know them?’ All of that stuff has to be explained to a five-year-old. So I see it through a different perspective.”
Kidman was 23 when she married Cruise. “I was so young. And so to step into the real part of my life, I feel like I’m in the place I’m meant to be, with the person I’m meant to be with. And, you know, with no disrespect to what I had with Tom, I’ve met my great love now. And I really did not know if that was going to happen. I wanted it, but I didn’t want it for a while, because I didn’t want to jump from one relationship to another. I had a lot of time alone, which was really, really good, because I was a child, really, when I got married. And I needed to grow up.”
Adding to Kidman’s current domestic happiness are her two daughters. Having children “gives you some glue, [so] you’re both kind of in there together and you’re having to work through raising them, which brings up an enormous amount of personal things in terms of history and your own life. Yet if you kind of move into each other, you discover and heal a lot of things in each other, too. Well that’s what I’ve found for us—very, very healing, when it’s gently, gently done.”
Although “there’s something about marriage, for me, that I can completely live there and exist and feel very, very peaceful,” Kidman said, she also admitted to struggling with “giving my life to my lover and my children” and “giving my life to my artistic desires. So that’s always going to be my struggle, because I’m passionate, so I want to be able to give completely to both, and that doesn’t work always. So it’s a push-pull. It’s uncharted. My husband and I are in uncharted territory because we’re trying to find artistic expression but also we’re incredibly connected as a family—we’re very, very tight, very, very close, and I have a very, very primal protection of my family. And I’m in a place where I don’t have to work and could [imagine] never working again, but I still want to find things that define me artistically, and that teach me, or move me, or pull me into an uncomfortable place, or I discover something. So the curiosity is still there.”
The conversation turned to directors who have played a crucial part in Kidman’s life, and with whom she has formed lasting friendships, beginning with Luhrmann, who spoke at her wedding and was with her on the set of Australia when she found out she was pregnant. With their three collaborations, they’ve become a sort of Cukor-and-Hepburn team.
“There are certain people in the world that just know you,” Nicole said. “Baz just knows me, from the first time we met. I will do anything for him. He knows that. . . . He basically turned me around by giving me Moulin Rouge!—it just kind of shocked me that he cast me in the role. Because there was singing and dancing, it was all so different from what anyone else had ever considered me for. He just completely believed I could do it. I’d always wanted to do something romantic, and then to do it—to make a tragically romantic wild musical—was just, like, wow. He also, you know, dressed me up in all those corsets and diamonds and hung me from roofs—crazy stuff!”
Luhrmann described Kidman and her family as “refreshingly Australian, which means they don’t take themselves too seriously, and they can be very, very funny, flippant, and fun.” He described her intelligence as being “in the family—her father’s very highly regarded in what he does [medical research]; her mother is observant, very cultured, very dry, and very to the point. It’s how you’d imagine highly educated Bostonian families. Her sister as well. But Nicole is extraordinary—she’s physically extraordinary. She has an extraordinary sense of grace, and of herself and her work. She plays the extraordinary woman. She could play the girl next door, but she’s not the girl next door, because if Nicole Kidman is living next door, then you’re living on a pretty extraordinary street.”
Kidman invited her father, Antony David Kidman, a distinguished biochemist and psychologist, onto the set of Moulin Rouge! when they were shooting in Sydney, where her parents still live. “I was flying above 200 men with top hats and canes, and it kind of felt like, Wow, I’ve made it, Dad! It’s kind of glorious to have your father pop down and see that image, right? I was so cognizant at the time: This is probably not going to happen again in my career, so just drink it in.”
Besides Moulin Rouge! and the epic sweep of Australia (co-starring fellow Australian Hugh Jackman), Kidman and Luhrmann made a much-talked-about commercial for Chanel No. 5, a kind of trailer for a movie that was never made, with Kidman, impossibly glamorous, as the most famous woman in the world. “We based it a bit on the character she’s playing in Grace of Monaco,” he said. “What if Grace had run away from her life, run away from the spotlight, and found this lover, and they spend three golden days together? It’s a little bit Roman Holiday, it’s a little bit Grace of Monaco,” but it also recalls some of the thrilling images of Moulin Rouge!, as Kidman escapes through city traffic in a shimmering feathered gown, and as she and her lover are perched above a nighttime cityscape, the streets below lit up like an ocean liner. You never even see the perfume, just “No. 5” on a pendant hanging against the bare skin of her back as she walks the red carpet back into her life.
“It was never about ‘How do you nail someone to the floor to buy Chanel No. 5 in Wisconsin?’ Luhrmann explained. “It was about an iconic symbol, and how do we use Nicole? It was about the kind of woman who might wear that icon. She created that character and took it as seriously and worked on it as deeply as if we were working on the biggest and most important motion picture. It was such a divine experience.” (It’s also listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most expensive commercial ever made, at $33 million.)
The ad also recalls the glamorous perfume ads that Elizabeth Taylor did for Elizabeth Arden. It’s interesting how Taylor’s name keeps coming up in connection with Kidman. David Hare recalled, “There were gales of laughter that went up at the idea of Nicole Kidman playing Virginia Woolf. It was very similar to the sneering I remember when Liz Taylor announced she was going to play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? ‘How could Liz Taylor play in this great American masterpiece?’ And rather brilliant she was. You know, the snob always gets it wrong, and they got it wrong about Nicole and Virginia Woolf.”
“I probably felt the same thing Elizabeth Taylor felt—insecure,” admitted Kidman. “I didn’t think I could play Virginia Woolf. [Director] Stephen [Daldry] believed in me, and I’d done so much research, which is just part of who I am.” She trained herself to write with her right hand, to be more like Virginia Woolf. “But once you’re in it, then you’re in it, and it actually feels very natural.” She credits the costume designer Ann Roth with deep research as well: “Ann is one of the great costume designers—she’s just an unusual genius. She gave me the right shoes, and gave me a handkerchief in my pocket, and for some reason, all that behavior suddenly came together. Something happened and I just understood her. I was in her skin.”
One important difference, though, is that Virginia Woolf walked into the River Ouse only once, while Daldry had Kidman do it over and over again as electric fans whipped up the river’s waves. “Walking into the river with those stones in my pockets—I chose life. At the time, I was at a low point, and by playing her, it put me into a place of appreciating life.” Daldry remembered that Kidman was getting divorced from Cruise during filming. “She suffered a huge emotional trauma. She was going through a terrible time and of course it’s very challenging when you’re going through such difficult times” to find yourself acting out a nervous breakdown.
David Hare’s The Blue Room was a re-interpretation of Arthur Schnitzler’s famous early-20th-century Reigen (Round Dance), about a series of love affairs that move up the social caste system until they come full circle. Kidman had spoken to Hare about wanting to go onstage, which, as he remembered, he “did not take entirely seriously, because she was at the height of her fame, and it seemed very unlikely. Basically, she had to learn how to act from the stage, and talk about the can-do spirit! She served her apprenticeship in front of thousands of people. She went into this completely unarmed with technique, and by the time she finished in London, she had her formal technique. She’s a very, very fast learner.”
Her performance caused a stir at the time because Kidman had a brief nude scene onstage. “She’s very game, Nicole—she’s up for anything,” Hare said. “What’s extraordinary about Nicole, given her huge prestige in the industry, she’s somebody that completely puts herself in your hands, and she’s a delight because it’s so rare to work with somebody who doesn’t have the usual defenses. She’s not worried about how it’s going to be perceived. I don’t think Nicole gives a damn about the public—I think she does what she wants to do, what she needs to do.”
It was in fact Daldry’s memory of her performance in The Blue Room that convinced him he could cast Nicole as Virginia Woolf. “She has this extraordinary instinctiveness, almost animal quality—and it’s refined,” he said.
Lee Daniels, who directed Nicole in The Paperboy, described the actress as being “like a unicorn. A kind of strange, magical quality. Mutable.” Nicole was not Daniels’s first choice to play the flirty, louche, insouciant Charlotte, enamored of a death-row prisoner, because he “always thought of her as this Grace Kelly kind of person, even before I met her—and here she is, how many years later, actually playing her in a movie.” But as Charlotte, Nicole was able to express both sides of her personality—“She’s both tough and porcelain.”
It turned out to be a dynamic experience for Daniels, who thought it compared to directing Bette Davis. “Nicole likes to take on roles that trouble her, that disturb her, that are challenges.” He knew he had the right actress when he told Kidman that to understand the character she would have to do her own makeup. “And she did it. There’s a scene where she’s combing her wig, and she turns her head in a certain way, and it just knocked me out.”
Her first day on the set of The Paperboy “was so wild. And I love that … for me, that’s like rebel filmmaking. On the fly, grabbing what you can and abandoning yourself to it,” Kidman recalled. Hare is a huge fan of her performance in that 2012 movie. “I can’t think of any other leading actor right now who would be that uninhibited in an American film,” he said. “I think The Paperboy is the most overlooked performance by a major actor in years. I just don’t know any other leading actress who could convince you of the damage that has been done to them and the hurt that they feel, and with such naked pain. And also be funny as well! This is a great actress who gives a great performance, and how that film has disappeared, I have absolutely no idea.”
For Kidman the key to a great performance is a relationship with the director that involves trust, abandonment, and loyalty. “I love Lee’s work,” she said. “I think when you go into the orbit of a director, they bring certain things out in you. The greatest thing you can offer is abandonment, in terms of a performance, and also deep loyalty. Because when there is enormous loyalty to them, then it’s a very safe place. It’s like, O.K., so she’ll stand by me no matter what, no matter if the film even succeeds or fails. We’re in it together, and this is ours, together, forever. Which is why I probably stay very, very close to a lot of the directors that I’ve worked with, whether the outcome is successful or not. Because I get deeply sort of connected and close to them. Jane [Campion], Alejandro [Amenábar], Stephen [Daldry], Lars [von Trier]—all of them. That’s important to me, and the longevity of it.”
Then there’s the deep commitment to her family. Perhaps it’s hard to imagine Nicole Kidman traveling with husband and two kids on a tour bus, but that’s exactly what she does much of the time these days. “I’ve been to Alabama and Indianapolis, and St. Louis, Detroit—yeah, we go all over!” she said. Her only complaint is that it’s hard to sleep on the bus “because the roads—oh, they really need to fix the roads! They’re so bad. California, Sacramento, on the way back to Los Angeles—no money is being spent on the roads!”
We talked about the Grand Ole Opry, and Kidman pointed out that Urban is the only Australian to be made a member so far. “He’s deeply imbedded in that culture. He was raised on it since he was four or five, so his knowledge of [the music] is so deep. He’s like a jukebox. You can ask him any country song. I mean, he knows all of them, and he can play pretty much anything. I’ve subsequently gained a lot of knowledge through him, even though I knew nothing, nothing. I mean, I knew Willie Nelson. The Judds. Yeah, that was my country music—but I certainly know a lot more now and I have a great appreciation for it and where it comes from. Oh, and bluegrass—I have a massive love of bluegrass!”
“When she met Keith,” Luhrmann recalled, “they had a rocky start. He’s the complete opposite of her in every way. He’s laid-back, with that grounded music. When I first heard about her moving to Nashville, I thought, Gosh, that’s going to be a challenge, to make that work, but she’s done it. They have the two-sides-of-the-coin of life, because being famous and being an icon are very different things. It’s like carrying a lighthouse with you, but going to that place in the South and being with Keith, that’s where the light can be switched off.” It’s where Nicole can be a human being, and have her privacy. “I’ve never seen her happier,” says Luhrmann. “It’s the perfect dream—she’s an icon with a picket fence.”
In 2015 she’ll appear in Paddington, about the lovable bear in the English children’s books, but she’ll be playing a villainous taxidermist. “I’m about to go down to the museum and do a taxidermy class on Saturday night. And I love animals! I also have to throw knives, so I’ll be doing that in the backyard. I’ve got a guy coming over to teach me how to throw a knife. I want to be able to just do it with a bit of a flourish. I believe this is my path, so I’ll go down in fire if I have to.”
I told Kidman the story of Bob Dylan being booed off the stage in Manchester, England, when he showed up for his second set with the Hawks and plugged in his electric guitar, signaling his switch from folk to rock. He responded to the outraged yells of the crowd by telling guitarist Robbie Robertson to play louder.
Nicole laughed. “I remember Keith telling me the story,” she said, “because we both go, ‘Oh, that’s right. It’s such a metaphor for artistic endeavors, you know?’ ‘Play louder’—that’s my mantra!”
(Nicole Kidman photographed by Patrick Demarchelier)