In her newly released film, Nicole Kidman again displays a rare ability to lose herself in a character. Leslie Felperin meets the Oscar-winning actress.
London: In Birth, the tall, sleek actress in the Chanel denim coat I've come to meet plays a grieving woman named Anna, who is pining for a husband who died 10 years before.
One day, just before she's about to be remarried, a 10-year-old boy tells her he is the reincarnation of her late husband. Before long she believes him.
The set-up may seem strange, but Kidman's quiet, poised performance makes it entirely convincing.
The story is almost a fairy tale, but it is played out in realistic Upper West Side drawing rooms, with all the trappings of modern wealth. Can Kidman imagine something like this happening in real life?
"It doesn't matter what I think," she says with insistence. "Unless I write it and direct it myself, I'm in a film because I want to be there and portray a character authentically and truthfully.
"But it's not my creation in terms of the written word or the way in which it's filmed. I'm almost there as a conduit and to augment, hopefully, and bring something to life. But it's not my point of view. So, as Nicole, what does it matter what I think?"
Meet Nicole Kidman, Miss Tabula Rasa. At her best, for example in Birth, Kidman dissolves into a role. Strikingly good-looking and anonymous at the same time, there is a blank, glassy quality about her that makes it easier for us to project onto her our desires.
At one point in Birth, the camera tracks in on her face in a theatre and holds it for two and a half minutes, just drinking in the flickering weather of her face, although she's hardly moving a muscle. It's less acting and more conjuring.
Maybe it's this slipperiness, this refusal to be pinned down, that gets people's backs up: there's something about Kidman that breeds resentment in those who've never met her and fierce loyalty from those who have. There were snide comments when she took home the Oscar for best actress for The Hours, about her "winning by a nose".
She no doubt married Tom Cruise for love, but the match worked for her career and against it, prompting unfair accusations of nepotism to account for her rapid rise to the top, although she's held the position with ease since they divorced in 2001.
She's now one of Hollywood's highest-paid actresses and is said to be making in the region of $17.5 million for mainstream movies like the upcoming Bewitched). She is, officially, Australia's richest woman under 40.
Besides mainstream money-spinning films, Kidman has won plenty of kudos and respect for doing risky, small-scale projects - with small-scale pay packets - starting with Gus Van Sant's ruthlessly black comedy To Die For and startling doubters with her portrayal of Isabel Archer in Jane Campion's The Portrait of a Lady.
Scheduling conflicts meant she had to back out of playing the lead role in Campion's In the Cut, a part later taken by Meg Ryan, though Kidman has a producer's credit on the movie. Lars von Trier's Dogville, with its bare-bones set and shocking content, took Kidman further out on a limb. Grace in Dogville is a classic Kidman part - an enigmatic stranger who becomes a town slave, masochistically adapting and suffering for people's collective needs.
I've yet to meet a single person who's worked with Kidman who has a bad word to say about her. Birth director Jonathan Glazer concedes: "I was not convinced before I met her, before we began talking about this project. But as soon as I met her, she just knew what we were going for. She really digs down deep inside. She's impeccable."
I ask Kidman what made her choose this role. "It's strange, because it's more like it chooses you, which sounds ridiculous," she says.
"But with someone like Jonathan I had to sit down with him and discuss it. And he said, 'I've written this for you', which is what happened with Lars. We sat and talked about the character and the piece and we clicked. It was one of those things that, if we hadn't clicked, then we wouldn't have made the movie together, but we did."
What was right about the role of Anna at that point in her life?
"With Anna I think it was more the chance to be able to portray someone on screen who has an enormous inner life, is living in a lot of memories and is in mourning and grief and existing in the world, but is also existing in another place. And the duality of that I found fascinating and I understood in a way."
What time is she in now, in terms of the roles she chooses? "Now I'm about to do Bewitched, so I don't know what that says. I'm hoping for a little magic, I guess," she laughs.
A glutton for punishment, Kidman is planning in the new year to work with Wong Kar Wai, who took a staggering four years to finish his latest film, 2046. How much time is Kidman going to block off for the project?
"Who knows?" she laughs.
"I mean, for me I've always just gone where I feel I should go. Certain filmmakers, like Lars, can do something in six weeks. Others are different. I think we get too stuck on the business side of this thing sometimes and everything has to be structured. I know it's about money and I know people invest their money and there's a lot at stake, but sometimes if you are in a position where you can just go and play a little... I mean that's what it's about."
She plans to relax once Bewitched wraps. "I'm taking the first part of next year off... I have all sorts of plans for things I want to do with my kids."
Although Kidman laughs and answers every question gracefully, she has a delicate way of side-stepping anything too personal, even when one asks why did she chose a particular role.
"Your choices are personal and you're very exposed, but I don't think the detail helps anyone. You know what I mean? Who wants to read about me wittering on about my life?
"I do think it's unfortunate... so much of filmmaking is so deconstructed and so exposed. People talk about it and everything's understood. That's what happens in those Making Of films. I hate them! (They) take away the magic and the mystery and the reason for letting it exist on celluloid."
It's touching that Kidman remains in thrall to movies as a spectator. "I try to see them in the theatre. I like being with a group of people watching a film. I fall asleep if I have to watch it on video or DVD. Really, I don't like it."
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