Nicole Kidman didn’t have to search far to find a visceral connection to the character she plays in Rabbit Hole, a woman rendered utterly devastated by the accidental death of her young child. She had given birth to daughter Sunday Rose while the film was being developed from David Lindsay-Abaire’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play and knew the timing was right precisely because of how much the material scared her.
Kidman spoke candidly with Movieline about the intensely emotional experience of shooting Rabbit Hole, which features some of the most affecting work of her career, and also discussed how she worked “a bit method” with her co-stars, how husband Keith Urban helped at the end of each day, and why Becca Corbett was the kind of character so rarely offered to her that she had to develop Rabbit Hole herself. (The actress optioned the play herself and produced the film independently; it was picked up by Lionsgate at this year’s Toronto Film Festival.)
With Oscar season looming, Kidman also took us back to her 2003 Best Actress win for The Hours, telling us who she forgot to thank, what the Academy Awards mean to her, and how winning Hollywood’s top prize nearly eight years ago prompted her to reassess her love life.
Rabbit Hole is such a devastating film to watch. How affecting was it for you personally, to delve so deeply into a character filled with the pain of the loss of her child?
It was strange because when I read the play I immediately wept. It was so voluble to me, all of the emotions, because I had Sunday two months prior when I played her and I was able to just access all of that immediately. When I first optioned the play, though, I had not given birth. I wasn’t even pregnant. I wasn’t thinking about getting pregnant, so it was not something I was terrified of as much then because Bella and Connor [Kidman’s children with Tom Cruise] are both much older — Bella’s just now 18 and Connor’s 16 — and this film is obviously about losing a young child, so it was more removed for me. Then when we finally got financing for it I was like, “Oh my God, I’ve just had my baby! How do I go into this place and make this film, now?”
But that’s what we do as actors, and I kind of had to shake myself and say, “You know, now is the time to do it because you’re going to understand it and you’ll have it right there. It’ll be so ripe.” And it was. And it was disturbing, it definitely was disturbing. It wasn’t a joyful time at all but I felt like the work required that and I felt that the material warranted it.
I spoke with Miles Teller about his experience filming Rabbit Hole with you and Aaron Eckhart. He told me that despite the intimacy of your scenes, you two deliberately kept a distance from each other and didn’t get to know each other or rehearse extensively. Why was that on-set distance essential to have between you two on and off-set for the benefit of the performances?
Because he was a new actor and because of the relationship between he and I in the film, which required that there couldn’t be a comfortable ease between us. I wanted him to be nervous. I wanted him to stay in that place of not quite knowing what to say or do. With somebody like Aaron, who’s so experienced, he and I had a whole different way of working. But with someone that’s inexperienced there are certain things you can do that can help the performance. That’s probably a bit method, which I use a bit of, and I have a mix of things that I do. It’s how I act, so he was on the receiving end of that. But I think it was good, because his performance in the film is so — I mean, you can see him blush, you can see him quiver. You see it all, and it’s not acting.
I imagine plenty of seasoned tween TV actors went out for the role of Jason. As a producer what did you see in Miles, who hadn’t acted in a film prior, that made him your guy?
He has this gravity to him even though he’s a kid. I could feel it. He also has some scars on his neck — which come from an accident that he would tell you about — but I think the reason he has those has given him the ability to do this performance. And he’s just… I don’t know. I can’t describe the quality of it. He won’t give a performance like this again, because he’s now not new, and he was new then. He was still very vulnerable; as much as he’s a bigger guy, he’s very vulnerable.
When, during the process of filming, did you make a conscious break from being a producer on the film and being an actor?
When we were filming, I didn’t want to be involved in anything other than acting for John [Cameron Mitchell] and letting John handle the different actors. In terms of the money and the schedule and those things, I was involved in those, and at nighttime I was involved in a lot more of those decisions. But during the day I tried not to tip anything in that direction and really give John full power over the whole set.
So you go through a full day of shooting deeply rooted in this character; at the end of the day, how do you turn it off? Or do you turn it off?
I think I am, and then I have moments when I see the effects of it. It’s not like I’ll go home and I’ll be devastated, but there would be moments where I woke up at night and I’d be crying. Of course, with something like this, it’s going to penetrate my psyche in a way that I’m not even realizing. So it’s more like I’m sensitive, deeply vulnerable and sensitive through the shooting. Luckily I have a partner that’s very understanding of that, and I had a director that was very… I could have a long leash in terms of emotions, and if I needed to be held or if I needed to be left alone, John was very sensitive to all of that and attuned. I suppose it was the same with Aaron, and with all of us. He was very much there for us.
John had only directed two films before Rabbit Hole, Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus…
Isn’t it great that he could do Hedwig and then do this? I just love that.
Since he’s an actor as well, how unique was your relationship with him during production?
Very intimate. Deeply intimate, which was needed. I feel very close to him still. And I think he’s going to make some great films because he doesn’t work often, he’s very picky, he only chooses something that comes from deep within him, be it something like Hedwig or Shortbus. And I love that he exists in this day and age of filmmaking, because they’re getting fewer and fewer.
You’ve talked about how having a support system at home helps you in your work. Considering the subject matter of this film, did you find that you’d discuss things with your husband, Keith, or was talking about the specifics of the work something you avoided while you were in it?
I suppose I didn’t speak about it too much. But a lot of it was just exhaustive. When I’m doing a film — and I suppose this is for all actors — because you work really long hours the time at home is almost about replenishing so that you can then go back. And I didn’t have a lot of conversation in me. That requires support, that requires understanding, because when you come home and you’re not that talkative… I just wanted to have a bath with Sunday and have some dinner with Keith, and the two of us would kind of just watch TV. Just keep it simple. He was wonderful if I woke up or something at night. He was very tender and lovely to me, and I think that really helps because it’s comforting to have that.
That kind of comfort is something your character, Becca, doesn’t have. She goes through a number of emotions in the wake of her child’s death — rage, bitterness, guilt — as does Aaron’s character, but it’s really about the two of them dealing with their grief separately, rather than together. How rare is it to find characters like this?
I don’t get offered these kinds of roles, so that’s probably why I developed it and was drawn to it. It’s not something I get offered.
Why do you think that is? Do you think these kinds of roles just aren’t written very often?
Maybe, except there are many great roles this year that are very complicated. I think I just don’t get to see them. [Laughs] So I was just glad that we actually got the money to make this, because I think Becca is such a rich, complicated woman.
What was it about Becca that spoke to you most?
I love her — I feel so much for her. And as much as she’s abrasive at times and brittle, she’s in enormous distress. I hope that that bleeds through in the performance; it was something I was constantly saying to John. “Are you sure you can feel me through this? Can you feel?” And he’d be like, “Yeah. Yeah, I can.” Because so much of this film is about not showing it, and the grief manifesting in behavior that’s just illogical. But I think David Lindsay-Abaire did a magnificent job of balancing her pain with her protection, and her barriers, and then the people who trigger that. Her mother is the trigger for so much, which tends to be very real. When I read it I thought, “This is so real.”
And sitting in the kitchen at the end of the film, when they’ve both gone down different paths yet both of them have managed to come back and be there that morning, and it’s like, “What do we do now?” I know that. Even the final image for me was one of the reasons to make the film. I just love that. Sitting there, two people who have been together for a long period of time and have now been dealt something absolutely devastating but they’re still trying to stay together.
What sort of discussions did you have with Aaron about your characters and their interactions, their relationship, and those tense confrontation scenes?
We didn’t discuss those, we just did them. We didn’t rehearse them, either. We had about a week prior to shooting where we just sat around and talked and shared stories, and went through a back story for our marriage and when we met. That’s really necessary to me; I don’t know if it was totally necessary for Aaron, but he was up for it. We mapped it all out so that there was the history. And then physically we got used to touching each other — because we were living in this house that we were shooting in, we were very close, in close confinement. You couldn’t get away from each other, which was great for the film. But I think we both came having done our preparation, so it was more like John going, “Hold on to all this. Get easy with each other, but then let’s just wait ‘til we have a camera.”
I love shooting like that, because then it’s absolutely just coming out of you and there are no plans, no results, no trying to hit something. Even with the blocking, they shot it in a particular way where we didn’t have to hit marks all the time. I like doing things differently a lot, so if I feel it I don’t want to be trapped into some previous blocking. And that’s a great way to work because the two of us have to listen to each other all the time so that we’re responding to what’s happening in the moment.
That’s a much more liberating way to work as an actor. Was the shoot as improvisational in terms of dialogue?
No. Sometimes we’d improvise the end of scenes but basically it was written. What you see, David had written. And that’s just good that you feel it has that kind of improvisational feeling because that means it seems very real.
Since it’s that time of year and you’re already garnering critics’ award nominations for Rabbit Hole, let’s talk Oscars. I went back and watched your Oscar speech from the year you won Best Actress for The Hours.
Do you remember the feeling of living through that moment?
Vaguely. It’s kind of like a bit off in a dream. I wouldn’t have a clue what I said; I’ve never watched it. I know that I left people out. My dad, who was there. I just didn’t even thank him and he was sitting in the front row. It’s just… [Sighs] And I loved my dad!
It was a very sweet speech. At the end of it, you dedicated it to your daughter Bella and to your mother. Given the connection that having Sunday Rose had with your performance, would you like her to look back on Rabbit Hole years from now in a similar way?
No, I wouldn’t want her to. In some ways I feel like she might think it was strange, so I don’t want her to associate [herself] with this film. I’ll make a film for her, but this is not her film. I want to go and make a beautiful, yummy film for her. [Laughs]
How has the significance of the Academy Awards changed to you throughout your career, especially after winning an Oscar?
They’re just as exciting — if not more so — as you get older because there’s a sense of what it means, actually. Particularly in a lifetime of work, the pursuit of excellence is something that’s important. And I think once you’ve got things to compare it to in terms of work that hasn’t reached where you want it to reach or hasn’t been acknowledged, and, you know, have certainly had failures… That contrast puts everything into a much sweeter spot.
And also, when I won the Oscar it was a very strange time for me. I was alone. I had the Oscar, but I didn’t really have a life. So that was strange, and it was actually that which propelled me into going, “My God, I actually have to find who I am and what I am and what I actually want for the next 50 or 60 years of my life, if I live that long.”
And how did you do that?
I started to really open myself up to finding someone to share my life with, which I think I’d been pretty close to prior to that.