A spectacularly sunny day in London's Hyde Park. Schoolboys in blue blazers and rep ties stroll the fiercely manicured lawns. An old woman feeds bread crumbs to a flock of overly friendly pigeons. In the distance, a red double-decker bus putters past Queen's Gate. The scene is so serenely civilized, so veddy English, you half expect Mary Poppins to come floating down from the chim-chim-in-eys. But a tempest is brewing in a corner of this British Isles idyll - a tempest with bright red hair and sky blue eyes.
"Bulls...!" storms Nicole Kidman. "This is bulls...!" The 28-year-old actress is poised on a lawn chair near the park's Round Pond, tearing through a bundle of gossip clippings - lurid little snippets about her marriage, her sex life, her husband's sex life-that a visiting journalist was thoughtful enough to bring along. She picks an item out of the pile more or less at random. "Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman phoned up the Mulholland Drive Cafe the other night and ordered four chicken potpies to be delivered to their hotel room," she reads aloud. "Oh, c'mon! I don't even like chicken!"
After nearly five years of celebrity marriage, Kidman is still getting used to being half of Hollywood's most gossiped-about couple. Almost every aspect of her so-called private life - her adopted children (Conor Anthony Kidman, 4 months, and Isabella Jane, 2), her husband's belief in Scientology, her alleged affinity for poulet en croute - gets covered in the tabloids. For the most part, she's remarkably affable about it, utterly at home in the goldfish bowl. But it's still possible to ruffle her gills. "After a while it just gets boring," she says. "You get asked the same things over and over. Just once I'd love to be asked about my work. You know, my future projects, something like that."
Kidman's future projects, as it happens, include the biggest, most notable films of her career - like the reported $100 million Batman Forever (opening June 16), in which she plays a psychiatrist who makes Val Kilmer's Caped Crusader hot under the cowl. After that, she stars as a murderous weathercaster in Gus Van Sant's comedy thriller To Die For (opening in September), the surprise hit last month at Cannes. And soon she'll start filming Jane Campion's adaptation of Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady, playing Isabel Archer, a role coveted by just about every under-30 actress in Hollywood.
It's a cannily planned trio of films that should finally let Kidman carve out a professional identity all her own, independent of her megastar husband. "We were naive at first," she says. "We thought, oh, you can just do tons of work and nobody ever will judge you. Little did we know that there was this thing out there. The Mrs. Tom Cruise thing."
"We were naive about it," agrees Cruise. "Every little step Nic takes is much bigger news because she's with me. People judge her because of it. It adds a lot of pressure. I guess that's the downside of being married to Tom Cruise."
Of course, Kidman's career didn't begin with Cruise. Back in her native Australia, she'd already made a name for herself by her teens. Her first break came in 1983 when she was cast as a freckle-faced kid in Bush Christmas, a holiday TV movie that still airs down under every December (making Kidman a sort of outback Cindy Lou Who). She began acting even earlier, starting ballet at age 3 and mime classes at 8. But her first public performance was on the streets of Sydney, handing out political pamphlets for her parents, Janelle and Antony.
"My father was involved in the labor movement, and my mother was a feminist," she explains. "And we lived in a conservative neighborhood, so I'd get teased at school. Particularly because of the feminist stuff. That was considered really daggy - that's Australian for uncool."
Kidman's ahead-of-her-time mom wouldn't even let her daughter have a Barbie doll. "She thought it was sexist," Kidman says, rolling her eyes. "A male fantasy figure. So I stole one."
Things got even daggier when Kidman hit 13 and shot up to a startling 5 foot 9. Fair-skinned and carrot-topped, she spent most of her time indoors, working backstage at Sydney's Phillip Street Theatre. But film work started pouring in so quickly that she soon dropped out of high school to pursue acting full-time. After Bush Christmas, director John Duigan cast her in more Australian TV movies, including a hit mini-series called Vietnam ("It was interesting," she remembers. "We had to go, 'All the way with LBJ!'").
A few years later, at age 18, she was cast again in Duigan's acclaimed boarding school comedy, Flirting, as a take-charge girls' dorm proctor.
"I told her it was the last time she could play a schoolgirl," Duigan says. "I first met her at an audition when she was 14. She was several inches taller than the other girls and had this great shock of red hair. But she was remarkably poised and very smart. She got to the kernel of things without pussyfooting around. She was a good mate. Still is."
It was Phillip Noyce's 1989 thriller Dead Calm that got Kidman noticed in Hollywood. Playing a woman trapped on a yacht with a raving psycho, she managed to turn in a strong performance even while shooting Billy Zane with a harpoon gun. It led to her first big U.S. project, the Tom Cruise flick Days of Thunder, in which she played, a bit improbably, a neuorologist who falls for a race-car driver. "I wish I had a better role," she says. "It was kind of one-dimensional." Her costar has a slightly different take. "My first reaction to meeting Nic was pure lust," Cruise says. "It was totally physical."
On Dec. 24, 1990, the two wed in Telluride, Colo., in a ceremony so secret not even the National Enquirer's helicopter could find it. Perhaps because it was shrouded in so much mystery, the wedding became a beacon for outrageous gossip. One rumor had a phalanx of Cruise's Scientologist pals acting as the marriage was an elaborate publicity cover-up. Kidman won't talk about her husband's Scientology interests, but she certainly isn't shy about discussing his other proclivities.
"Honestly, wholeheartedly, looking you straight in the eye-it's not true," she says, getting a bit worked up. "It's utterly ridiculous, a total rumor. I suppose because I'm married to somebody very famous, our love life is under great speculation by many, many people at their dinner tables every night. But it gets invasive. Both of us are private people. We don't feel comfortable discussing what we do in bed at midnight-even though it is pretty damn good." She catches her breath and calms down.
"Look, Tom and I are heterosexual, we're together, we're in love. It's weird even to have to answer that question."
From the outside looking in, at least, the two do seem almost bizarrely compatible. Both Cruise and Kidman prefer to live on the road, with homes in L.A. and Australia (they're renting in London for the summer so Tom can finish Mission: Impossible and Nicole can prep for Portrait of a Lady). Both enjoy jumping out of airplanes ("We love to sky-dive," Kidman reports. "It's a great rush"). And both possess famously ingratiating personalities. "I really didn't want to like Tom when I heard she was marrying him," admits Duigan. "But he's quite charming. They're fun together. No question about it."
Not surprisingly, since she became Mrs. C, Kidman's career has taken on a much higher profile - but it's still been something of a mixed bag. Her first post-wedding film was 1991's Billy Bathgate, a prestige project that let her work with Dustin Hoffman ("Like every acting lesson you've ever had rolled into one," she describes the experience) but bombed at the box office. Then came 1992's Far and Away, her second turn costarring with Cruise in a big-budget Hollywood film. "In retrospect, I probably shouldn't have done a movie with him so quickly," she says. "I probably should have done more by myself to be seen independently." She displayed terrifying independence in 1993's Malice, playing a femme fatale so bitchy she made Linda Fiorentino look like Donna Reed. That same year she costarred with ex-Batdude Michael Keaton in Ron Howard's My Life, where she learned at least one of the Dark Knight's superhero secrets: "You've got to have great lips," she says. "Michael and Val both have great lips."
But with Batman Forever, Kidman is finally entering her husband's territory - Hollywood's megabuck league - and it could boost her star status several notches higher. Her character: Dr. Chase Meridian, a criminal psychiatrist who's itching to analyze more than Batman's dreams. "She's constantly trying to seduce him," Kidman says. "She wears black slinky dresses, has perfect hair, perfect red lips, and talks in a deep, husky voice. It's definitely a heightened reality. Really over-the-top."
"I know, I know, she doesn't look anything like a criminal psychiatrist," concedes Forever director Joel Schumacher. "But it's my Gotham City and I can do what I want." And he wanted Kidman. "I've had my eye on her since Dead Calm," he says. "You meet a lot of beautiful people in this business, but there's something almost luminous about her. I wish I had a clause in my contract that said Nicole Kidman had to be in every one of my movies."
Actually, she almost didn't make it into this one. Originally, Rene Russo was cast for the part, but when Kilmer replaced Keaton at Bat, the fortyish Russo was reportedly deemed too old to play the love interest (Schumacher insists the problem was a "scheduling conflict"). In any event, Kidman plunged into the part, training with a coach to prepare for her fight scenes and even studying a few Batman graphic novels. "Jim Carrey gave me some stuff," she says. "It's amazing, with the weird angles and strange sort of writing. There are some incredibly strong images."
Preparing for To Die For required a slightly different reading list. Based on Joyce Maynard's novel (turned into a drippingly satirical screenplay by Buck Henry), the pitch-black comedy has Kidman playing a apacious small-town TV personality who'll do anything to get ahead - including persuading her teenage lover (Joaquin Phoenix - River's brother) to kill her husband (Matt Dillon). To get into the spirit of the role, Kidman sequestered herself in an inn in Santa Barbara for three days, glued to the tube, soaking up trashy talk shows. She also began speaking exclusively with an American accent. "I don't like the feeling that when the camera starts rolling, you're suddenly performing," she says.
"So I spoke in my American accent from the minute we started rehearsal to the minute we finished the movie. You didn't have to call me by my character's name or anything - it's just that I walked and talked differently. I perceived things more intensely." To maintain that intensity, Kidman banned her husband from the set. "It's too hard," she says. "You're creating a character, so you can't have this person who knows you inside out watching. Also, he's a very forceful presence on a set, and it's distracting to people."
The Kidman Method apparently works: Her performance in To Die For is the sharpest and funniest of her career - no small vindication considering that at first the film's producers didn't think she could handle the comedy. "Gus Van Sant had to convince them," she says. "He knew I understood the part. He doesn't think like other people." More vindication was served up at Cannes, where To Die For was the hot ticket. Suddenly, Columbia was taking a renewed interest in the film (at one point, it looked as if the studio planned to dump it in just a few cities before shuttling it to video-ville). And most everyone at Cannes was taking a renewed interest in Kidman.
"I went alone, without Tom, 'cause he's still working on his movie," she says dryly. "And then one of the news shows had a story on me called 'Trouble in Paradise.'"
"Tom and I came here last night," Kidman says the next day, as she neatly knocks a six ball into a corner pocket. "He was really on. He gave a Color of Money-caliber performance. People were actually cheering." The place is a dark, paneled pub off King's Road in Chelsea, with an English-style pool table (smaller pockets, harder to play) tucked into a back corner. The Cruise-Kidmans have made this spot a regular stop while staying in England. And apparently last night's festivities did get a tad raucous; according to some regulars, Cruise's bodyguard "accidentally" smashed a paparazzo's camera. Today, the pub is quieter, though Kidman's arrival hardly goes unnoticed. Sashaying through the door in a huggy jump-suit, moving like Ann-Margret in Sigourney Weaver's body, she has nearly every man in the joint biting his knuckles. A few brave fans approach to offer unsolicited pool tips ("You've got to touch the balls very lightly, Nicole..."). The bartender keeps the Foster's flowing. "In Australia, we call this skolling a beer," Kidman says, chugalugging a mug. She picks up her cue. "Now remember, you promised to write that I win."
All things considered, this is about as mellow a public appearance as Kidman can make these days. "I spent some time with Nicole and Tom in Paris last year," says Duigan. "It was like being in a Godard movie from the '60s. The minute they got into a car, all these paparazzi were buzzing around like mosquitoes." Schumacher has witnessed similar scenes. "The two can't go out for a hamburger without getting photographed. I take my hat off to her. It's a lot to handle for a young woman."
Kidman seems to be getting the hang of it, though. "I don't think it's light to sit around and say, 'Oh, I don't like being famous,'" she says, sinking another ball. "I find that indulgent. You've got to be willing to sign autographs and chat with people or you'll be miserable. People who fight it end up flipping out. It's one of the things my husband has done really well. He's been famous for well over a decade, and he's totally sane."
On the other hand, she continues, "you've got to draw the line somewhere. You've got to have some level of privacy." Particularly when it comes to their kids. "You become ferocious in your protection," she says. "Like a mother tiger." This much she will reveal: The two parents are currently negotiating whether to allow toy guns in the house - shades of Barbie dolls past. "I say no guns. He says, 'How you gonna stop it?'"
At the pool table, Kidman is contemplating her last shot. She leans over the table, lining the eight ball in her sights. A small cluster of fans hangs close by, following her with big eyes. The pressure is building. Finally, she makes her move.
As promised, she wins.
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