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'Why would a man want to be with me?', the Mail On Sunday (UK), July 24th 2005

In an astonishingly intimate interview, Nicole Kidman tells Rebecca Hardy: * How she struggled to cope after her divorce from Tom Cruise, refusing to get dressed and driving the children to school in her pyjamas * Why she's desperate to meet a 'normal' man and have his baby - but fears men just see her as a possession * How, at the age of 17, she nursed her mother through breast cancer, despite feeling rejected by the woman who refused to say 'I love you'

When Nicole Kidman's 11-year marriage to Tom Cruise ended in divorce, she was consumed by a paralysing sense of aloneness.

'I didn't get out of my pyjamas for several months. I would drive the children to school in my pyjamas. I'd cook porridge in my pyjamas. I just didn't feel like getting dressed,' she says. 'I didn't want to do my hair. I didn't want to put on any makeup. It was like, "Who cares?" No one cares whether you smell good, whether you look good, whether you're putting on that beautiful little black dress. Who's going to say, "Gosh, you look great. Come here. I want to kiss you."' It is now four years since Nicole emerged from her marriage and the bubble of Cruise's stardom to reveal herself to be an actress of breathtaking talent. She has since been nominated for an Oscar for her performance in Moulin Rouge (filmed during the death throes of her marriage) and secured an Academy Award for Best Actress for her brilliant portrayal of Virginia Woolf in The Hours (her only film in the year following her divorce).

She says she didn't want to make The Hours, that it would be too much to take on. She tried to get out of it, but wasn't able to. She wouldn't have accepted the role in Moulin Rouge either if she'd so much as thought for a second that it might contribute to the breakdown of her marriage.

'The first time I actually chose a film that I was really passionate about that didn't fit into our [Cruise and hers] schedule was Moulin Rouge,' says Nicole.

'I was offered a lot of stuff when I was married and I would turn it down because we were never separated for more than two weeks. So I'd choose everything in relation to that. All my choices were just based on keeping the family together. It was never about whether I wanted to do it or if it was a great job.

'I actually chose Moulin Rouge because of the director, Baz [Luhrmann]. I knew Baz so well and he said, "Nicole, you have to do this." It was the first time ever I chose to do something that was more than a sort of small film that could fit into a short period of time.

'Other times I would just work with him [Cruise] so I could be with him, and that was fine. I didn't need any more. I can't say if Moulin Rouge contributed to it [her divorce], but I wouldn't have taken it if I thought it would.' I am meeting Nicole in photographer Patrick Demarchelier's New York studio. He's kindly lent us his little office and a sofa smartened with a cream throw. Nicole is sitting beside me in jeans and a strappy aquamarine top. She's wearing flip-flops, too, but those are soon kicked off.

We're supposed to be talking about Bewitched, a comic, feel-good family film that doesn't pretend to have the heart and soul of films such as Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, Anthony Minghella's Cold Mountain, Jonathan Glazer's controversial Birth, or Stephen Daldry's The Hours.

The interview, though, quickly moves to the deeply personal. Nicole and I are the same age, both divorced, both single mothers with young children.

We share a mother's worries about children raised within the ruins of a failed marriage. I have a son who's nine years old. She has Connor, ten, and Bella, 12. She didn't want divorce for her children. I didn't want it for mine.

Nicole loves to act, says it's in her blood. But I sense she'd trade a mantelpiece full of Oscars for an enduring relationship. She tells me that she'd love to have another child. Bella and Connor were both adopted during her marriage to Cruise. Nicole, now 38, would love to give birth herself.

'I'd love to have more children - one more,' she says. 'I'd like to give birth to a baby. I'd really love to.

I don't know if that will happen, but I'd feel very, very, very blessed if that was given to me.

'I wouldn't want to give birth to a child without a dad, though,' she says. 'But why would a man want to be with me? I can't help but question people's motives, particularly men's. So many men want a possession or they want to be in a newspaper. Maybe that's misrepresenting some of the men I meet, but a lot of them are like that.

'I'd just like to meet a normal guy who's not interested in those things at all. That would be lovely. Then you can slip into a more anonymous life.

'I want someone who can become my favourite person besides my children - just to have someone who I'm excited to wake up to in the morning, someone who I'm excited to say goodnight to because I know I'll see them in the morning.

'But that someone would need a lot of strength to endure the attention of the first few years, and the chances of actually connecting with someone are slim.

'Hey, we've all got our thing - our thing that hurts us. I'm not the only one. I've got a lot of girlfriends who are lonely. We're all struggling. I don't know anyone who says, "No, I'm absolutely happy. Everything's absolutely perfect."' Nicole's makeup from the photo shoot is wearing off, revealing a remarkably pale, flawless skin. She's doesn't have the wrinkles of an almost fortysomething.

I suspect her face rarely sees the sun. Her strawberry blonde hair is scooped up and back, loose strands escaping the pins to frame her face. She is extraordinarily beautiful. It's a beauty you're very aware of when she walks into the room, but one that doesn't get in the way of her personality.

She smells fresh, flowery and clean. Everything about her is crease-free; fairytale princess perfect - except for the happy ever after.

Nicole and I share a favourite piece of dialogue from the film The Hours.

It's spoken by Meryl Streep's character and seems to strike a chord with many women of our age. It goes something like, "I used to wake up in the morning wondering if I'd be happy today. Now I know that was happiness."

'That's my favourite moment in the film,' says Nicole. 'It's so right.

It's beautiful dialogue. It's truth dialogue. I've had those moments where it's, "My God, this is so dark now. I don't know if I'm ever going to come through this." But I've never been medicated.

I've just gone into my shell and then, when I've been ready, come out again.' Nicole is normally a fiercely private woman. Even during this most candid of interviews, there are details of her life that remain off-limits.

She won't name the men she has dated or discuss Cruise's relationship with Katie Holmes. Similarly, she will only say of the arrangements she and Cruise have made with the children that they are 'home-schooled'. 'We've agreed not to say any more,' she says apologetically.

But she won't gloss over the loneliness she experiences as a single mother. She says there has been no soulmate since Cruise. Instead, female friendships have sustained her through these difficult years.

Cruise was both famous and intensely private. Nicole found it difficult to nurture friendships in such a marriage.

Now, she celebrates her girlfriends.

'We're all collectively going through the same thing,' she says. 'It's wonderful to be able to talk to other single mothers or women of a certain age.

Women, when they're past 35, are fantastic.

'All the other stuff gets shelved - from teenage stuff at school when girls are so mean to each other, to the twenties and the, "Oh, where is it all going?"

'You hit your thirties and you've all had so many things happen to you.

You're either married or you're not married. You're divorced. You've got kids.

The women you find in your thirties - or, if you're lucky, earlier - are there for the long haul.

'I think it helps to know other people are going through the same thing as you. Why pretend? Why not say, "Yeah, this isn't easy."' Nicole is a tactile, comforting woman, with a sweet compassion that defines her. She likes to give compliments, to connect. She reaches out to touch an arm or hand to reinforce a point. A gesture that says, 'I know we feel the same.' There's humour, too.

At times the most touching of confessions ends in a laugh. Such as, 'Can you imagine I actually lived in those pyjamas?' She starts to laugh, and soon we're both laughing.

Mostly, though, it's her luminous eyes that speak of a myriad emotions. At times, they're full of unshed tears. Then the tears are gone. Nicole likes to appear brave. 'Don't let anyone break your spirit,' her mother told her time and time again as a child. 'Be tough, strong, independent.' Nicole hikes, swims, flies planes and drinks beers with the 'old diggers' in her local bar, but she's soft as marshmallow, too. She writes short stories, reads Philip Larkin, thinks too much, worries too much, sees the best in people and then gets hurt.

She says she doesn't want to change, that to be made cynical by life would be a sad thing. She wakes up excited every morning and wants to keep things that way. 'When you're a single mother it's quite easy to get used to taking care of yourself, to waking up in the morning and saying: "I'm going to read the newspaper now and not talk for half an hour. The children are going to get their breakfast and we're all going to just sit here - and we don't have anyone else in our space,"' she says.

'You get easy with that, but, at the same time, you know you're missing out on those really delectable moments. You can feel an aloneness and it hurts you at odd moments.

'When you get the taste of being with someone again, you can get lured back into a relationship quite quickly. I think we all want someone. But it's nice to want it instead of need it. I think it's got to be about looking for someone to walk alongside rather than going, "Oh this is someone who can fix everything, who is the answer to everything." You've got to find those answers within yourself and that can be tough.' Nicole is an intense woman who feels passionately.

She's possessed of a strong imagination that she exorcises through her various roles. She also jots down her ideas, her dreams.

'I dream a lot - far too much,' she says. 'Sometimes you wake up and it was so real it stays with you through the day. Or you see someone that you had a dream about and you almost blush or feel far closer to them than you actually are.

'I have vivid dreams. I can get lost in colour. It's because I have a strong imagination and sensitivity.

I love air. I love temperatures. I love seasons. I love smells. I love touching things. I love the senses being awakened. Taking a walk in the cool autumn afternoon, or swimming in the ocean can make my week.

'Acting is my way of just exploring things. I know no other way. As a child I spent a lot of time pondering things, looking at the world and coming up with philosophies, ideas - time asking questions and trying to understand why we are here. What are these things that we feel? It's why I enjoy making films about different facets of love. Love motivates me.

'I say that unabashedly because it's the most powerful emotion we have.

It's the underlying emotion and everything else stems from that - the desire for it, the lust for it, the control of it.' Those who know Nicole are extremely protective of her. The no-nonsense Ray Winstone worked with her on Cold Mountain. When I spoke to him about her, it was clear she was one of those people he'd go to the four corners of the Earth for. He thought she was great fun, too.

Others, such as Nora Ephron, the writer of Bewitched, say she is accessible but very mysterious.

Nicole says she's just very shy.

'I don't offer myself up quickly,' she says. 'I used to think you had to apologise for that, but now I'm almost a little wary of people who tell you so much about themselves in the first week of knowing them.

'I like people it takes time to get to know. I trust that more because I think it's more real - you're then getting the truth of somebody, rather than a projected image of what they want you to think is real.

'It's also partly to do with being shy. It's a nightmare.

I'm so much better now. I used to be really bad.

When you're really shy you miss out on a lot of life.

'It's a debilitating thing. It stops you doing things that, deep down inside, you really want to do. It stops you speaking to people you really want to speak with or calling someone. And as an actor, it stops you doing things, too. You think, "Oh no. I won't try that because everyone will laugh at me. I'll just do what the director wants. I won't voice my own opinions."

'I've become so much better, but when I go to events I don't stay long. I walk past the paparazzi pretty quickly because the idea of them yelling at you or taking your photo almost hurts my feelings.' Nicole's mother, a nurse, constantly urges her to give up acting. She believes her daughter is too thinskinned, too sensitive. Tellingly, the night Nicole won her Oscar she ended up with her mother and daughter, Bella, in a hotel room eating burgers and chips.

'We went to the Vanity Fair party for five minutes,' says Nicole. 'But Bella was so little. It wasn't good for her so we just left. I don't like parties. I don't like all the noise and people coming at you.

'In this job you often feel like Cinderella. You've gone to the ball in the dress. It's like a spectacle and then you come home, take off the dress and you're adrift. It happens to me a lot.

'I wouldn't want my daughter to be an actor.

My mother didn't want me to. She still doesn't. She worries that I'm too sensitive. If I could do it again I'd be a writer or a director. There's something great about being a director. It's anonymous, yet you are still incredibly connected and you're able to tell your own story. To some people, as an actor, you're just a commodity and sometimes that point is brought home very painfully.

'Recently, I lost my closest friend very, very suddenly.

One minute he was fine and the next minute he passed away. The day I lost him I got a phone call saying, "You'd better show up for work. If you don't show up-" 'I realised there were people in my life who really do not care about me or the people that I love - at all.

'I thought, "Gosh, you really don't care if I'm healthy or not healthy - happy or not happy." You realise you're just money to them and that's a really frightening prospect - particularly because I'm still really quite naive and believe everybody deep down is compassionate and means what they say.

'I'd truly believed that, when the going got tough, those people would be there for me - and they weren't.

It's probably why my family are so important to me. You can be yourself with your family.' Nicole has always been very close to her family. She describes her sister, Antonia, who is three years younger, as 'my other half'. Her father is a biochemist and a clinical psychologist. Her mother was active in the women's movement. Nicole believes her early marriage to Tom Cruise - she was only 22 - was part rebellion against her mother's dogged focus upon independence and part a yearning to be loved.

'I loved my mother so intensely and so deeply,' says Nicole. 'When she left the house and hadn't come home by a certain time, I'd be panicked, up at night crying and waiting for her.

'I'd be terrified that she had died or had gone. I can start crying now when I remember the waiting for her to come home and then the hearing her come home and that feeling of relief.

'The way she pushed me to be independent did feel like a rejection, but at the same time it was so necessary because I was too much a child that needed the strength and power of that relationship to exist.

'She'd say, "Listen, I'm just not the kind of mother who's going to hug you. It's just not me so don't expect it." That would really hurt. She'd say, "I'm never going to say I love you. We don't say that in our family."

'So now I say it to all of my family, and don't care that my mum will never say it back - she just won't.' Nicole was only 17, and acting in a TV series, when she had to nurse her mother through breast cancer.

'She wanted me to look after her so I stayed at home for a year and took care of her. The cancer had spread to other parts of her body. Strangely enough, she rejected my father through some of that - I think she was embarrassed.

I saw the ramifications of the radiation and the chemotherapy on her body and on her spirit.

'It made me think a lot about death. Now I think that those moments leading up to your death are very, very important. During those moments you look back on your life and the way you've conducted yourself, which is very important to the way you are able to receive death.' The Australian thriller Dead Calm brought Nicole international attention in 1989 and she met Cruise on the set of Days of Thunder in 1990. Within a year they were married. 'I wanted a mate,' she says. 'I wanted the person you're going to go on your journey with - who's there by your side, who's your other half. I wanted that and I had that for a long period of time. I believe I can have it again - but it's rare, it's really rare.

'There are so few people of whom you think, "Oh, I want to grow old with you and, no matter what happens, I will be there with you by your side. If you're going to pledge that to somebody, you've really got to do it."

Nicole doesn't say Cruise betrayed her. They have both agreed not to discuss their marriage or divorce. The vehemence, though, with which she talks of honouring such a pledge and the pain that flits across her face, particularly those eyes, suggests that perhaps he did.

'I wouldn't say you ever recover from divorce,' she says in a whisper of a voice. 'It's not been easy - it's been really, really hard. You can become somebody different - formed in a different way - but you still have the scars.

You're always going to have those scars if you loved and it was a very deep love. It was, but that's just me. It's the only way I know how to love.

It was such an intense love that you go, "Oh, if I ever give that to somebody again, I'm going to be so very careful."

She asks me when I divorced. I tell her we separated in 1999. 'Have you found a special person?' she asks.

Maybe, not really, no, I say. Are you scared to love someone? I ask.

'Yeah,' she says. 'I think, "Is it going to be the right person? Is it going to be a person who's going to be careful with me and kind to me?"' Nicole says, immediately following her divorce, her children were her main priority. She was committed to The Hours, for which she was on location for three weeks, but, other than that, she spent time with Bella and Connor in Australia.

'For the first year so much of it was about the children.

I needed to get them through that period in their lives and it was important that they didn't feel like they were sharing me.

'Of course they suffered. But I believe every human being faces damage in their lives - it's just a question of when. A divorced child gets it very early. The worst time is saying goodbye. I just really dread it. You just can't quite believe it's happening to you.' Following The Hours in 2002 and Nicole's Oscar nomination for Moulin Rouge in the same year, film offers have followed thick and fast. Nicole says she hates the thought of working, and puts off arriving for a shoot to the last possible moment, but that once immersed in a role, there is a comfort of sorts.

'The thought of the intensity of going back to work terrifies me,' she says. 'Then, once I'm in it, I love it. I don't know if I've grown or changed since my divorce, or if it's just that suddenly I've had the chance to do the work that I might have done earlier if I hadn't been married.' Nicole is just about to finish filming her current movie, Fur, a biopic of photographer Diane Arbus, and take the children on a week's holiday to a tennis camp in Vermont. 'It's good for a boy. Five hours of tennis a day, putting him with a coach and exhausting him. He loves me to watch him. I have to sit there, watch and tell him how fantastic he is.' She is looking forward to her holiday with the children, after which they will be returning to Australia where, next year, she will make a second, as yet untitled Baz Luhrmann film co-starring Russell Crowe. She's energised by the thought of it, but still there's a sense of sadness about her. She tells me she'd love to be offered a role in an epic love story; something like Doctor Zhivago or Gone With the Wind. 'Whether I get the chance to do it - who knows?' she says. 'I've yearned for that sort of big love since I was a girl.' We've been talking now for twice the length of time that was set aside for this interview. I feel as if I've known Nicole for more than an afternoon when we leave.

Nicole says much the same.

There's just one more question I want to ask her.

Would she truly trade her success for lasting love?

'Yes,' she answers without hesitating. 'But I don't see it as trading. I see it as a different stage of life.'

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