The uncommon Depth of Nicole Kidman

Three decades in Hollywood and the Oscar-winning actor says her immersion into characters still isn’t easy. “I haven’t been taught it… [acting] does take a toll on my health, and it takes a toll on my spirit. I’m always trying to dig in. The unfortunate part of it is that the feelings are intense.

By guest author Elisa Lipsky-Karasz from Wall Street Journal Magazine

It was the calm after the storm one spring morning in Nashville, Tennessee. Overnight, a tornado had torn through the city’s east side and out through the surrounding towns. In between reports on the advance of Covid-19, still seemingly a continent away, the TV news kept flashing to an “I Believe in Nashville” mural that remained standing next to stairs now leading to nowhere. But it was sunny and bright, with a light breeze that seemed to ask, “Who, me?”

Meanwhile, not too far south of the tornado’s path, Nicole Kidman had risen at her usual 6 a.m., put on a black sweater with a cameo bow at the neck, a long black skirt with high, lacy slits and dainty Mary Jane kitten heels and, after making oatmeal for her two youngest daughters, Sunday and Faith, headed to a photo shoot. Throughout her four-decade-long career, Kidman has demonstrated an impressive array of dramatic abilities—including an Oscar-winning turn as Virginia Woolf in 2002’s The Hours and her Golden Globe–winning role on HBO’s hit series Big Little Lies as battered, conflicted wife Celeste Wright—but making a late entrance is not one of them.

All captions courtesy by Wall Street Journal Magazine

“I was raised with that work ethic: Be on time, show up, don’t mess up,” says Kidman, 52, curling into a sofa in her skirt as comfortably as if she were dressed in sweats. Tornadoes are part of life in Nashville, where she has been based for almost 15 years, since her 2006 marriage to country singer and guitarist Keith Urban, who grew up in her native Australia. “Keith was in one, years ago, where he had to hit the floor.”

Urban, she says, is her “mellow muso,” using Australian slang for musician—the one guy she’d call in any crisis. “He’s pretty much the flip side of neurotic.” After a chance meeting at an industry event, she says she fell for him when he took her for a ride on his Harley-Davidson to Woodstock, New York, topped off with a picnic in the woods. “I was a goner—I mean, c’mon.” They married less than a year later.

Their mutually supportive partnership is in many ways the opposite of volatile marriages she has participated in on-screen lately, in Big Little Lies and now HBO’s upcoming six-part series The Undoing, airing this fall. In the thriller, by screenwriter and producer David E. Kelley and based on the 2014 novel You Should Have Known, by Jean Hanff Korelitz, she morphs into Grace Fraser, a therapist with the kind of envy-inducing New York life that almost seems fantastical: opulent townhouse, private school for her son, effortlessly toned bod, center of the mommy in-crowd, work that fulfills her and a doctor husband who fulfills her. But when the mother of her son’s classmate is brutally murdered, and Grace’s husband disappears, she cycles through stress, bewilderment, terror and an unyielding sense of self-determination.

On-screen and on the red carpet, Kidman often evokes the icy poise of an Alfred Hitchcock heroine, as if Grace Kelly, Tippi Hedren and Kim Novak melded themselves into a single, contemporary iteration. But Kidman has a verve that matches her naturally wild curls—including stuffing them under a baseball cap so she could go check out the recent film Parasite with a friend at Nashville’s Belcourt Theatre. With her dancer’s frame, she’s limber, elastic, sometimes goofy. She’s funny. “Which always surprises people, for some reason,” she says. “Why?”

Thirty years after she charmed everyone in Hollywood in 1990’s Days of Thunder, not only is Kidman busy, she is busier than ever. In the next year or so, coronavirus-related delays notwithstanding, she has several acting and producing projects coming up. Two are being made under her Blossom Films banner, where she has forged a strong alliance with Liane Moriarty, the Sydney-based author of the book Big Little Lies. (The projects include adaptations of Moriarty’s novels Truly Madly Guilty and Nine Perfect Strangers.) Collectively, Kidman’s films have generated nearly $5 billion at the global box office.

“She’s probably working harder now than when she was trying to make it,” says Richard Plepler, the former chairman and CEO of HBO, who now runs his own company, Eden Productions.

The relentless pace of Kidman’s output in recent years suggests a kind of grit and savvy that are rare even in Hollywood. “The desire to work ebbs and flows,” she says, shooing away any ideas about her ambition. She’s always been agnostic about form, jumping from big-screen hit to theater run to odd indie to musical. “My taste is really out there,” adds Kidman, whose choices over the last decade have included the schlocky 2018 DC Comics hit Aquaman, and the poignant play-turned-film Rabbit Hole, which was Blossom’s first production in 2010. “There’s no sense. I’m a complete random nonconformist,” she says. “People are like, ‘What are you doing?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’ I’ll very much go on the record saying I have no idea what I’m doing.”

She stands by choices such as the epic Baz Luhrmann film Australia, which received mixed reviews. (“…epic piffle,” read one.) “I wish they’d re-release it, because I really love that film,” Kidman says. “I don’t think I’d want to make it again. But I’d want them to see it again because I think it was judged really harshly in a time when it wasn’t really seen for what it was.”

If anything, many of her choices seem guided by one principle: “It seemed like a fun thing to do,” which is what she says of launching Blossom, decided upon after meeting her now-partner Per Saari at an L.A. dinner party in the mid-2000s, when he was working for Robert Redford’s film and television company Wildwood Enterprises. The company—which is just the two of them, a creative executive and an assistant—has found traction recently in producing several shows in the limited-series format, with six to eight episodes, which has proved to be a sweet spot in the streaming era. After beginning her career in television miniseries and films, Kidman was an early convert to the current era of prestige TV, to strong results. (The second season of Big Little Lies in 2019, for example, garnered an average of 11.8 million viewers across all platforms, according to HBO, making it one of the network’s top three shows that year.) In June 2018, Blossom signed a first-look deal with Amazon Studios, and the partnership has projects in development such as Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion, in which Kidman plays a Gloria Steinem–like figure, and the thriller Pretty Things, an adaptation of Janelle Brown’s novel in which Kidman also stars.

Yet in this age of multihyphenates, Kidman is interested only in “storytelling,” as she calls it. “Yeah, I don’t have the energy to have a lifestyle brand,” she says. “I don’t think I have the right lifestyle to have a lifestyle brand because I am not sure what I’d be able to do, you know? I’m probably just a bit daydreamer-y. Keith will say, ‘What are you thinking?’ And I’ll say, ‘Oh, I just went away for an hour, I’m not sure where I went, but boy, it was a great journey.’ ”

While Kidman tends to emphasize her intuitive, freewheeling side, those who work with her describe a left-brain/right-brain approach, the ability to be analytic as well as creative. “[She is] absolutely strategic,” says Francesca Orsi, executive vice president of programming at HBO, who has worked closely with Kidman since the development of Big Little Lies. “She is a key voice in the process in the unfolding of the decision making—she’ll come in for meetings or call me on my cellphone with an idea. She is very spontaneous.”

Kidman also has the ability to throw her weight behind a project—for Big Little Lies, she helped recruit actor Alexander Skarsgård, while with The Undoing, she appealed to Hugh Grant and Donald Sutherland to co-star. For The Undoing, she helped brainstorm the selection of Susanne Bier, the much-honored Danish film director, whom Kidman admired for her work in her native language as well as her small-screen dramas, including 2016’s The Night Manager and Netflix’s 2018 movie Bird Box, which shattered streaming records by reaching 45 million member accounts globally in its first week of release.

Kelley brought Kidman The Undoing after working with her on the first season of Big Little Lies. “I could only see her in the role. The subtext Nicole so thrives and excels at was perfect for this character,” says Kelley. (For both series, Kidman also acted as executive producer via Blossom.)

Her instinctive approach to character is another hallmark of her performances. “Everything about Nicole is so secretive, as any true actor is about secrets—maintaining the secrets while you keep the audiences captivated. She is the ultimate master of that,” says Bier, The Undoing’s director. “You might want to put in a scene about saying goodbye [but] maybe this scene is really about sex. Nicole would totally communicate that while saying goodbye.”

Working with Bier fit in with Kidman’s 2017 pledge to partner with female directors every 18 months, a goal Kidman has exceeded. She says it comes naturally to her, pointing out that she first met director Jane Campion when Kidman was just getting her start at 14. (The two later made the film version of The Portrait of a Lady in 1996, when Kidman was nearly 30, and the TV series Top of the Lake: China Girl in 2017.)

“I know how to be with women,” Kidman says. “I was raised pretty much [by women], I had a wonderful father, but the sex in our family is female. I have a sister, I have daughters, I have a very strong mother, I have aunts.” (She and her sister, Antonia Kidman, a television journalist–turned-lawyer, share a secret language, recalls Grant, who met Kidman in the ’90s. “Acting with her was intimidating,” he says. “You never want to work with someone who is better than you.”) Kidman and Bier developed a strong rapport over the course of the four-month-long shoot, during which Bier directed all six hourlong episodes herself, an unusual practice for television. Kidman appears in nearly every scene.

“Nicole doesn’t understand the word slowly,” says Bier. “When you say action, she becomes a medium. It’s almost like Nicole disappears and Grace overtakes her. And then when you say cut, Nicole comes back. It’s a completely radical transformation.”

To embody her characters, Kidman says she uses various techniques, sometimes veering into Method-acting territory, as with 2018’s Destroyer, which follows an LAPD detective trying to piece her life back together. “Certain things penetrate psychologically in a really deep way. There is just no getting around that, and I wish there was,” she says. “I haven’t been taught it. I have tried to learn it. I don’t have the ability. It does take a toll on my health, and it takes a toll on my spirit,” says Kidman, who copes by writing down her experiences and practicing meditation, taught to her by her psychologist father. “I’m always trying to dig in. The unfortunate part of it is that the feelings are intense. I wish I could be the kind of person that’s like, eh,” she says, shrugging. “I have an unbelievably understanding husband and children—the little ones who are going like, ‘Why are you looking like that, Mummy?’ [But] their ability to understand artistically is very deep already.”

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She and Urban arrange their schedules around their two daughters, who are 11 and 9 (she also has two older children from her first marriage, to Tom Cruise). “I’ll pass on films,” says Kidman, who frequently selects projects in which she has a supporting role or that shoot on the East Coast during months when her younger daughters’ school is not in session. “We have a system worked out to keep the family together,” she says. “When Keith’s not touring, it’s much easier. He’ll be on tour next year, and then I just don’t work as much. Literally—it will become imbalanced, and we will change it. We don’t have the answers, but the one thing we do know is that we will not jeopardize us.”

Sometimes, this means bringing her girls to the set with her. Both had small parts in The Angry Birds Movie 2 and were extras in Big Little Lies. “They are kind of unusual in that they watch the filming, they are in the films. They have a great work ethic,” she says. The family attends church together (Kidman was raised Catholic), she and Urban take the girls to the Tennessee theme park Dollywood (Dolly Parton is a country-music-scene pal of Urban’s), and, just like so many other working parents, she’s on the clock to get home so that her husband can get to his job. She is a devotee of parenting books such as Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson’s The Whole-Brain Child and Lisa Damour’s Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood.

What would she say if one of her daughters wanted to be an actor? “I’d get out of their way,” she says.

Kidman herself began working professionally at 14, in regional theater and Australian films, which had the effect, she says, of making her self-sufficient since both parents were also working full time. She had a mischievous streak even then, sneaking out at night wearing punk boots and “white tutu things” from the local flea markets. “I could take the fly screen off the window and climb out and put it back on. And then I’d come home and I’d take the fly screen off again and climb back in the window. So bad,” she says, with a grin.

She was equally determined about her acting, leaving her high school in North Sydney to focus on it, then quickly winning roles in made-for-TV movies and limited series by the time she was in her late teens. But when Kidman was 17, her mother, now 80, was diagnosed with breast cancer and given a prognosis of a 40 to 50 percent chance of pulling through. Kidman, who was still living at home, put her burgeoning career on hold to help care for her mother. “It was very, very impactful on my psyche,” she says. “It was deeply upsetting to a daughter who loves her mother.” (Today, she and Urban help fundraise for the Stanford Women’s Cancer Center.)

By her early 20s, Kidman was back in action, shooting several films including the 1989 thriller Dead Calm, which brought her to the attention of screenwriter Robert Towne, who in turn introduced her to Cruise for the co-starring role in his then-upcoming film Days of Thunder, which Towne wrote. Cruise and Kidman married when she was just 23. They made two more films together, including 1999’s Eyes Wide Shut, director Stanley Kubrick’s last film, then divorced in 2001.

Kidman credits Kubrick with changing her life. “His ability to not give you answers, yet stoke a fire, [and] open up these things—his process was so deeply unusual, so that takes the wiring of what you learned you are meant to do,” she says. “And I would say something, as though, Oh, this is truth. And he would say, Oh, no it’s not. Every single thing would be turned around.

“I’m not a big believer in other people telling you artistically what’s good, what’s bad, what you should be doing, what you shouldn’t be doing. You’ve got to be accountable to yourself,” Kidman says. “My failures are going to be because I’ve made the choice.”

But any stumbling blocks have only confirmed for Kidman the importance of showing up—for her family, for her work and for each other. “I had no idea, when things have gone down, the people who have shown up for me. And you are down on your knees, you are like, ‘I’m so vulnerable and so lost right now, and I’m unbelievably grateful for what you have done; you have no idea what you have just done,’ ” she says. “And by gosh, I’m going to do that—if it’s not for you, it’s for somebody else. Because I know what it means.

“I try not to analyze things until the end,” Kidman says. “I’ll be on my deathbed going, What? Or my kids will be accountable: What were those choices your mother made?”

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