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Miss interpretation, The Sunday Times Culture, April 10th 2005

Nicole Kidman, a giggler? Her latest role is as a UN translator, in a Sydney Pollack political thriller. But there’s much more to her than that cool exterior

The day I meet Nicole Kidman at her home in Sydney, it doesn’t escape either of us that Robert Mugabe has just won another disputed election in Zimbabwe. Kidman’s latest film, The Interpreter, centres on an apparent plot to kill an African dictator, who is remarkably similar to Mugabe, when he comes to deliver a speech at the United Nations.

“The film does seem very timely,” says Kidman, sitting on the couch beside me, her impossibly long legs curled underneath her. Kidman plays Silvia Broome, born in the imaginary southern African country of Matobo and working as an interpreter into its language, Ku, at the UN. One night, she overhears two people talking in Ku in the General Assembly chamber, threatening to kill the dictator, who, like Mugabe, had been a heroic freedom fighter before he was corrupted by power. What happens subsequently is the subject of the film, a thriller directed by Sydney Pollack, the veteran director of Three Days of the Condor, Tootsie, Absence of Malice and Out of Africa, and co-starring Sean Penn as a federal agent who is called on to protect Broome.

What makes the film even more noteworthy is its set: The Interpreter not only uses the UN as its principal setting, but, amazingly, it is the first film ever to be given permission to shoot inside the actual UN building in New York. It also espouses the essential purpose of the UN: that it is better to use diplomacy — words, The Interpreter, geddit? — to solve disputes between men and nations than to resort to violence.

“I really like what it stands for,” adds Kidman, her thick, blonde hair pulled back off her face, her skin almost translucent, her deep blue eyes catching the sun of a brilliant Sydney autumn day. “Silvia has experienced an enormous amount of violence in her life, but in the end she stays true to her convictions, of forgiveness and the power of words, of not seeking revenge. I find that very human.”

Pollack claims he didn’t have Mugabe specifically in mind when he started working on The Interpreter. “I remember when I was a kid in New York,” says the 70-year-old director, “and Castro first came to power. There was a ticker-tape parade in New York, and he went on television and everybody in America worshipped him. He was speaking English, and he was this great freedom fighter who had liberated his country. And, slowly, he’s become a guy you can’t write anything bad about, you can’t do this, you go to jail. That’s what happened with all these guys. What really fascinated me was what would happen if any of these dictators came face to face with who they were before they became corrupt.” That becomes the powerful climax of the film.

Initially, because Pollack had heard that the UN never gave permission for films to shoot inside the building — even Alfred Hitchcock had not been allowed to shoot the interior for North by Northwest — he had planned to make the film in Toronto. “I tried to talk myself into thinking we could make do with a ridiculous computer-generated version of the UN,” says the avuncular Pollack, who also appears in the film briefly as an actor. “But I just got pissed off with it, and although I thought it would be a wild-goose chase, I tried to figure out a way to get to Kofi Annan.”

He was eventually able to arrange a meeting with the UN secretary-general for himself and Kidman, who says she would probably not have made the film if they hadn’t been able to shoot in the real location.

“I was honest with him and said I wasn’t trying to make an overtly political film,” Pollack continues. “I told him it had political content, but it was a thriller, a Hollywood thriller, with movie stars and guns and good guys and bad guys and all that stuff. He knew my films, and I think he trusted I wasn’t going to make a film where people were ripping each other’s clothes off on the floor of the General Assembly.” Once the secretary-general had given his approval, Pollack moved the production to New York, where, he admits, he became completely fascinated by many different things about the UN. The film shot for five months, at night and at weekends, in both the General Assembly and the Security Council chambers, as well as elsewhere in the building. “I don’t know how to get it on film, to be honest with you, but it’s one of those places that makes you feel like what it was built to make you feel like,” he says. “The scale of it is so grand and intimidating — it’s like going into a great church where you feel religious, whether you are religious or not. Everything about it is huge, and I just found it awesome to walk around in it.”

Pollack had never directed Kidman before, but he was keen to work with her after producing two films she had starred in: Birthday Girl, directed by Jez Butterworth, and Cold Mountain, directed by Anthony Minghella, his producing partner. He also knew her from acting with her and Tom Cruise, her then husband, in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. And Kidman says the fact that Pollack was directing the film was the main reason she wanted to make it. “He’s really smart, and he’s got an elegance that comes through in the film, I think,” she says. “People have called The Interpreter old-fashioned, and I hope he takes that as a compliment, because there is a classicism to it. I also like it that he gives a woman something to say. He’s given a number of female movie stars really good roles. I love him for that.” Kidman also says she finds the dapper Pollack, “sexy as hell. You walk on the set and go, ‘Sydney, don ’t distract me!’” The feeling is mutual. Ask Pollack why he chose Kidman and he says: “She’s exotic, the opposite of what you would find in a home-grown American girl. I needed somebody who would have credibility as a linguist and someone who had travelled but was also comfortable in America. And she’s a first-rate actress; she doesn’t beat you up with her technique, she’s not a student of acting, it’s intuitive. She has this wild imagination, and she trusts it and goes with it. And I thought Sean Penn would be great with her, that he’d be abrasive with her, he’d rough her up a little, because she’s got this bit of distance, this kind of coolness, slightly removed. I don’t know what it is exactly, but there is always something very enigmatic about her.”

Indeed, there is a puzzling conundrum to Nicole Kidman. To the distant observer, she has always seemed the epitome of cool perfection; beautiful, of course, but oddly cold and unnervingly ambitious, the ultimate Hollywood ice princess. But close friends talk of someone who could not be more different from the marble-skinned mannequin who graces the world’s magazine covers and can look irritatingly immaculate on red carpets. To them she is just “Nic”, an intelligent and focused woman, but warm and affectionate, girlie and giggly, sexy and flirtatious, a funny and loyal friend.

I wasn’t sure which Kidman I would meet. It took only moments to find out. We had started by talking about Fur, the film she starts shooting in a few weeks in New York: an imaginative fantasy about three months in the life of the controversial photographer Diane Arbus, whom Kidman will play. I said I had heard it was likely to be pretty weird. “Oh, I hope so,” was her instantaneous reply. And we both started giggling. There is just something so immediately winning about her, honest and open, that once you meet her, it becomes even harder to understand why there is such a wide gulf between her daunting public image and the very human person sitting on the couch beside me.

In fact, entirely belying her cold public image, what really drives Kidman is a deep romanticism, fuelled by her teenage reading of novels such as Middlemarch and Wuthering Heights. Just imagine how intense and consuming it must have been for that young, daydreaming Australian girl to have been wooed by is very embarrassing, particularly when you’re very private.”

Although it is now four years since she and Cruise split up and subsequently divorced, it is obviously still painful for Kidman; at one moment, when she talks about the person she fell in love with, she can’t hide the tears that quickly well up in her eyes. And while Cruise has since had a relationship with Penelope Cruz, Kidman has clearly not found anyone she wants to share her life with, or even a few months, despite the media’s almost hysterical attempts to link her with any man she has dinner with — such as the producer Steve Bing, Liz Hurley’s ex, and even the Libyan president Colonel Gadaffi’s son, both of whom have been in Sydney in the past few weeks.

“I get quite wilful about having dinner with people,” says Kidman. “I really enjoy going out to dinner, and I enjoy being able to be friends with men — and I mean friends — where you don’t have to be lovers and you can go out to dinner and talk. It’s strange how that’s not fathomable to a lot of people.” And she says that however hard she is pushed, she has no intention of talking about any relationships she might have. “I will never — unless I have walked down the aisle and have a ring on my finger and I’m able to say, ‘This is my husband’ — be discussing anything,” she insists. “But I will certainly be going out to dinner. And I may well dance, too.”

She admits that there are times she gets frustrated with the attention. “But if there’s going to be a photograph, there’s going to be a photograph. I don’t have to explain it. I’m sure it makes a lot of men run away. In fact, right now, there’s nobody. It’s a pretty simple life. I’d love to say I’m cavorting off round the world doing all these things, but it would take a lot of energy, and maybe I don’t have that energy. But I know, in terms of what I’m doing, where I stand.”

Kidman also makes it clear that her children, Isabella, 12, and Conor, 10, both of whom she adopted with Cruise, will be party to any decision she makes about sharing her life with someone. “My children are very, very important to me,” she says. “And really, that’s all that matters — them and the relationship between the three of us. If there’s ever anyone who’ll be important in my life, my children know they will be deciding as well.”

Her children are with Cruise at the moment, but were in Sydney recently, and Kidman has obviously been enjoying the time she has been spending with them and her family. She should be shooting the Australian film Eucalyptus now, but in a huge blow to the local industry, the film, based on a bestselling novel, fell apart just days before it was due to go into production, after a row between Russell Crowe and the director, Jocelyn Moorhouse, over the script.

“I was really looking forward to doing it, because it was a very intimate portrait of a part of Australia that’s very dear to me,” she says. Still, the cancellation of the film did give her time to be with her family in Sydney, which is where she makes her home these days. Her parents and sister all live nearby.

“The sense of community for me here is very strong, and I can go down to Bondi Beach and nobody bothers me,” she says. “People are so easy with me. I’m down there with my nieces and my kids — five kids on the beach, from one to 12 — and there’s thousands of people on Bondi on a summer’s day, and it’s fabulous. I can just sit there and watch people come and go. The one thing I don’t do is take all my clothes off and stand there in a bikini. I can’t go topless on the beach.”

Because Kidman was due to be in production with Eucalyptus, the world premiere of The Interpreter was, unusually, held last Monday night at the Sydney Opera House. It was a big event for Sydney, a tribute to her local star power, and she was all over the papers the following day. This weekend, she is heading to Los Angeles to do press for The Interpreter, then to New York to start preparing for Fur, which begins shooting in early May.

Unlike any other A-list Hollywood star these days, Kidman seems to jump easily back and forth between big-budget studio films like The Interpreter, The Stepford Wives and the upcoming Bewitched, and independent films like Birth, Dogville, Fur and a film, tentatively entitled The Lady from Shanghai, which she is planning to make later this year with Wong Kar-Wei, the great Hong Kong director of In the Mood for Love and 2046. I had presumed this was a deliberate, calculated choice, doing one for the money, two for the show, as it were.

“No, it’s not a deliberate choice,” she says. “I make choices very quickly and spontaneously. My instinct is pretty quick, and if I listen to that, I’m usually satisfied. When I get swayed by other people’s opinions, that’s when I make a big mistake. Something like Fur I read and thought, this is an absolutely extraordinary description of the way this woman moved into her creativity at that particular time, in the 1950s. Whereas with The Interpreter, I just loved the idea of working with Sydney in this genre, and working with Sean; it just felt right. The same with Baz (Luhrmann) and Moulin Rouge!. There was no script — it was just like, ‘Well, I’ve known you for a long time, let’s do it.’”

I wonder whether her agents get exasperated that she seems to choose to make so many smaller, independent films. “I could certainly make them a lot more money than I do, but they almost encourage me because they don’t want to get all those phone calls when I’m unhappy,” she says. “Which they got on The Stepford Wives. That kind of experience just breaks my spirit. I would much prefer to be here, swimming in the ocean. With The Stepford Wives, we were attempting something, but it didn’t get there; it was supposed to be in the genre of Desperate Housewives. For me, film-making is really about adventures; it’s not about sitting in a studio in Los Angeles for two months. I’m most happy when I’m in Romania or Sweden or Shanghai, because then I feel like I’m living a life as well, moving into something I’ve never done, the unknown.

“But I still wonder where I fit into the world,” she muses. “I’m not quite sure. I have a very strange existence, in the sense that I travel a lot, I portray different people, I take on different psyches. I suppose that’s why I come back here, to Australia, because this is where I know what I came from. And so everything, the smells, everything ... it all makes me feel very safe.”

The Interpreter opens on Friday

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