Following the sugary black comedy “The Stepford Wives” with the distinctly dark reincarnation fable “Birth,” Nicole Kidman is proving, for the umpteenth time, that she’s far from a one-trick-pony. As Anna, a young widow still grieving over her dead husband, Kidman expertly balances a cool exterior with swarming internal emotions (just watch the telling concert scene, and you’ll see what I mean).
Directed by second-timer Jonathan Glazer (“Sexy Beast”), “Birth” is already the center of much controversy. It opens with two juxtaposed images: a dying man (Anna’s husband Sean), and a newborn baby (potentially the man’s incarnate). The film begins in earnest ten years later, as Anna, recently engaged to Joseph (Danny Huston) is visited by a little boy (Cameron Bright). “You can’t marry Joseph,” the child, also named Sean, tells Anna bluntly. “Because I love you.”
“Birth” may take the popular older woman/younger man theme to an extreme, but it also candidly explores grief and love- two aspects Kidman discussed with press in New York City. Considering Kidman’s Oscar Winning turn in “The Hours” is one of my favorite film performances, ever (which I was dorky enough to tell her as we waited for the elevator), I was super-psyched to meet the actress, who, in person, is toweringly tall and surprisingly soft-spoken. Though hesitant when asked about her craft, Kidman seemed more than happy to talk about working with “Birth” colleagues Glazer and Lauren Bacall, whom she also costarred with in “Dogville.”
Here’s what else Kidman had to say:
Q: There is a suggestion that Anna essentially seduces herself - one can say relationship she has with the boy is one of self seduction…
NICOLE: I agree. That’s so well put because that’s what it is. There were times when we were discussing: does the boy even exist? It’s this time in her life where she needs this to happen. And she almost wills it to happen.
Q: Is it true that you heard about the project and went to Jonathan...
NICOLE: He thinks that. (Laughs). The script was sent to me. But either way, we ended up sitting in a lunch and connecting. So, yeah, I was sent it, and I read it, and I thought ‘oh, this is interesting.” Obviously, I wouldn’t have done the film if I didn’t think the director was going to deal with the project in a very gentle, delicate way. And I loved “Sexy Beast,” too.
Q: Has Anna never recovered? Did you build a background for her, or did you just take her right from the script?
NICOLE: I don’t discuss how I work, really. I do different things for different roles, and I think part of acting is about maintaining an element of mystery. I hate hearing stories about huge preparation and I’ve learnt my lesson, almost, in a weird way with that. It’s very private. To create a character is very personal and private. And to discuss that, it takes away from the allure of that.
Q: You learned your lesson?
NICOLE: Well, there were times when I have discussed things, and I always cringe now when I hear that because I think there’s too much information available. You know, you go and see a movie, you see a play, you see a piece of art. And you have your relationship with it based on that. Now we are so aware of so many things that go on- I hate the making of movies. I hate, you know, all of those things, because I don’t like to sit there and see it be, I suppose, deciphered and analyzed.
Q: Can’t viewers learn from that?
NICOLE: I think, if you want to learn, you go to acting school and you also watch performances. But, sure, there’s many different ways to learn.
Q: Your hair style was very spare, almost suggesting infancy. Was this your idea, or Jonathan’s?
NICOLE: No, Jonathan said to me, I think she should have short hair. But it was in relation to being a widow. I think it’s about being, not sort of adorned with things. It’s about being very spare in what we chose. You know, even the way I dress, everything is quite sparse.
Q: Anna isn’t really a heroine, compared to Anne Heche’s character, who is passionate and full of spirit, Anna’s somewhat cold- was this the result of her husband’s death, at one time was she something more?
NICOLE: It’s so much in the director’s hand. When you’re an actor, you’re not directing or writing, so you’re not sure how you’re being portrayed. But I know Jonathan said to me, I want to be able to capture thoughts. I need you to come to me, allowing things to just be, rather than having to make them happen. And I think that’s very much Anna, everyone’s doing all these things around her, trying to convince her to do this, and she’s got to marry Joseph, and she leads a good life. But she’s still a very damaged, distressed woman.
Q: Did you know anyone who was similarly grief-stricken?
NICOLE: I talked to people about grief. I had a friend, I had two friends, actually, who both had lost their fathers and their still incapable of moving away from that. It permeates your existence. And one particular friend, I can still see she’s in a state of grief, and it’s years down the track. And she just said to me: “you never recover.”
Q: Is this a film about how people deal with grief?
NICOLE: I think this movie’s about love, it’s about the way in which we are held, as the movie says, “under a spell,” which is interesting, even though your memory may not be the truth. Anna doesn’t even know what Sean was doing, but how much does she need to know? Her love for him, her desire for him to come back is so powerful.
Q: But should she know, how would it change things?
NICOLE: I don’t know. This is a film that is very much about- I don’t know, I don’t have the answers. I walked into this as an exploration, to me it’s- I find it very original. I saw it at the Venice film festival for the first time, and I was like “my god!” Because the pace of it’s unusual, the writing of it…Jonathan is an unusual man, and it very much comes from him. He worked on it for years, he chooses very carefully what he wants to say, and he’s very sure of what he wants to say as an artist. And I love that. And I wholly support it. But I don’t have the answers, because I didn’t write it, and I would grapple with him. As an actor, you’re very much a part of a story that’s being told, you’re not writing the script. The strangest thing is that- I had this experience with Lars Von Trier as well, because Dogville was out of his head. His obsessions, what he wanted to say. And suddenly I’m having to explain it all, and I’m thinking, I don’t even…
Q: In Queen Christina, Greta Garbo was told not to have any thoughts in her head, were you told to think things, did you think things? In the concert scene, for example, when it’s one long take of your face…
NICOLE: Jonathan just trusted me, that I would take a take and do something with it. Each take was very different, and I was existing in her head. Jonathan isn’t someone that likes things big, reactions big, so everything is always very interior, and I didn’t find that hard. But everything that goes through your head…if someone told me not to think anything, that would freeze me up. And he (Jonathan) either likes it or he doesn’t like it. I think we only ended up doing a few takes on that, but I was lucky to have the music.
Q: Was the music live?
NICOLE: Yeah. And I love that it’s a moment in a dark theater. There’s all these people around, yet it’s so private and so personal and so monumental in terms of what she’s now going to do.
Q: Your life is scrutinized by people. Does it stop you from being spontaneous?
NICOLE: My choices in films are spontaneous. People are always asking me, why did you chose that film at this stage in your career. Particularly with this film.
Q: How about running out for a slice of pizza? That could be spontaneous.
NICOLE: Well, my son loves Joe’s Pizza. He goes, at eleven o’clock at night, “Can I go get a slice?” and I’m like, “oh…all right, let’s go.”
Q: Is that because Spiderman works there?
NICOLE: No, he just thinks New York pizza’s the- I’ve been staying here for the last few years, so he’s pretty clued up to, as he says, “where there’s a good slice.” And there isn’t one in LA, he’s decided. (Laughs). So, yes, I do that sort of stuff.
Q: Did you ask Jonathan a lot of questions while “Birth” was in production?
NICOLE: We don’t talk about much, I’m not a big talker, there’s that thing where woman are supposed to talk about 5,000 words a day, I don’t even come close.
Q: 5,000 words?
NICOLE: The big difference between men and woman is that woman speak 5,000 words and men only speak 1500. Yeah. I think I’m about 1500, so I don’t know what’s with me!
Q: You don’t ask questions?
NICOLE: It’s so hard to explain how you work. It’s…
Q: Is that explaining how you work?
NICOLE: It is explaining how you work.
Q: When you work with someone like Lauren Bacall, Zoe Caldwell, what do you take away from that?
NICOLE: Lauren and I are very close. Lauren’s taken on a very maternal role in my life, she guides me, she gives me advice, she’s very strict. (Laughs). And she’s wise, she’s really wise. I really trust her, and admire her- she’s a survivor in this really crazy world.
Q: I’ve seen her speak in panel discussions, she’s very blunt, it seems.
NICOLE: (Laughs). She’s like that with me. My own mother’s like that as well, so I actually really cherish it. You don’t need all the sugar coating. As long as the person’s modest to you, or kind, then it’s really appreciated. I think she’s wonderful in the film too, she takes on this very strong matriarch role, even though she doesn’t have a huge amount of screen time, she’s really good.
Q: Are you working on “Bewitched” now?
NICOLE: I am, yeah. (Laughs).
Q: Must be a contrasting experience- can you do the nose?
NICOLE: Yeah, I hope so. No! (Laughs) It’s like when people say- I did a South African accent for Sydney Pollack in The Interpreter, and everyone says “will you do the south African accent?” Now everyone says, “Do the nose!” (laughs)
Q: What was it like, going home at night while you were playing Anna…
NICOLE: It was like being in limbo, doing this film. There’s a way in which it just affects you- weekends were more like, “I need Monday to come around.” So you exist in a limbo for a period of time.
Q: How long was the shoot?
NICOLE: It was nine weeks.
Q: Once you’d wrapped, was it hard for you to step back?
NICOLE: I’m pretty good at being able to move away from something, but you keep…too much talking… (Laughs). Sorry!
Q: Where will you be election night, and will you be watching TV?
NICOLE: My home. I will be watching the TV, yeah!
Q: Can you vote?
NICOLE: I can vote.
Q: Will you be voting?
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