Nicole Kidman hardly needs any introduction. After establishing herself as a serious star in To Die For, she has conquered Hollywood by playing everything from Satine in Moulin Rouge to Virginia Woolf in The Hours. In her newest movie Birth she plays Anna, a widow whose life is irrevocably changed by the sudden appearance of a small boy who claims to be the reincarnation of her late husband. The demands of the role are steep and Kidman rises to the challenge with flourish, sinking her teeth into the role of Anna, displaying her uncanny ability to let small movements and expressions reveal big and complex emotions. Onscreen Kidman is a stunning presence, yet off-screen she is an enigma; beautiful, graceful and self-possessed, yet often closed-off and reticent to reveal too much. She was, however, surprisingly open with us, giving us a glimpse of what it was like making this film, working with Lauren Bacall and letting us in on her favorite evening activity.
Kidman was initially intrigued by the script to Birth and agreed to do it when she found out Jonathon Glazer was directing it because she knew he would handle the material in an unique, non-exploitative way, besides that, Kidman “loved Sexy Beast.”
On the set, Jonathon was completely in control. He wanted Anna to be in morning both internally and externally, thus her short hair, spare wardrobe and short, clipped speech. “He’s very sure of what he wants to do as an artist,” says Kidman, likening him to Lars Van Trier who directed her in the controversial Dogville. In both those movies she was “so much in the directors hands, you’re not sure how you’ll be portrayed” this is both freeing, “you’re allowed to just be,” but also frustrating. Kidman is remarkably candid, recalling how she often wanted to question both Van Trier and Glazer. “I grabbled with him,” she admits of Glazer, but points out “as an actor you’re part of a story being told, you’re not writing the script.” In the end she had to trust his vision.
Unsurprisingly, Glazer trusted his star. He allowed the character of Anna to “exist in my head” explains Kidman; he trusted that Kidman could portray the conflicting emotions and desires of Anna with skill and nuance. “Jonathon doesn’t like big reactions so everything was small and personal” recalls Kidman. Indeed, the character of Anna was so all-consuming that Kidman was unable to separate herself from the role, even for the weekend, and during the nine-week shoot she existed in a kind of limbo between character and person.
And that is about as much as she’ll say about her ‘method.’ Kidman is vehemently closed-mouthed about her acting process, saying “I never discuss how I work, you do different things with different roles” and asserting “It’s very private, creating a character.” “I’ve learnt my lesson” she remarks ruefully, “there are times when I have discussed (the process) and I cringe now.” She believes all this focus on “how the film gets made” detracts from the magic, from the spell of the movie itself.
“This movie is about love, about being held under the spell of a person” Kidman asserts. And the spiritual overtones of Birth fascinated Kidman who ponders the unresolved question of the young boy’s identity by musing on Freud’s conception of ‘the love object’ as being an aspect of one’s self, and wondering is Anna is then, essentially seducing herself. “Does the boy even exist?” wonders Kidman or is his appearance something Anna herself “needed to happen.” “She’s a damaged woman” remarks Kidman, but she makes no further excuses for Anna’s actions. This film is essentially about grief and what it drives people to do and to prepare, Kidman spoke to two friends who had lost their fathers, recalling how, even years after the event, they were both still deeply wounded. “It permeates your existence” recalls Kidman.
Adding some gravity and wisdom to the set was Lauren Bacall who, despite rumors of on-set strife, Kidman has only fond words for. “Lauren and I are very close,” Kidman asserts. So close that “she’s taken on a very maternal role. She’s very strict and wise…..she’s straightforward like my mother and I cherish that.” Moreover, Kidman muses, “I trust her, she’s a survivor in this crazy world.” Besides that, “she’s wonderful in the film.”
Despite the intensity of the role, Kidman was able to re-enter her life, explaining “I’m pretty good at being able to move away from things,” but also admitting that “you keep certain things.” Her next film is “Bewitched,” which Kidman amusedly recalls as “a very contrasting experience.” “My choice in films are spontaneous” laughs Kidman, “people are always asking me ‘why did you choose that?’”
Kidman owes no one an explanation for her gutsy and eclectic role choices; they allow her to prove her skill as an actress time and time again. Yet despite the fame and fortune, despite the accolades, Kidman is decidedly down-to-earth. Wander down to Joe’s Pizza in the West Village at 11:00 at night and you just might find her treating her son to a late night slice. “He’s an expert on New York Pizza” laughs Kidman, “it’s definitely one thing that LA doesn’t have.” You won’t find a more damning indictment of Hollywood from a more fetching mouth.
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