Since her divorce, Nicole Kidman has blossomed into the most talented and versatile actress of her generation. On the eve of her latest film, Birth, she explains why splitting up with Tom Cruise was the turning point in her career
Nicole Kidman is perhaps unique in Hollywood. She has the sort of untouchable star quality patented in the 1930s by Carole Lombard and Norma Shearer, the physique of a Norman Parkinson model, and the artistic aspirations of Anna Magnani or Lotte Lenya. She can wear a prosthetic nose, get raped in a Brechtian set or kiss a 10-year-old boy on the lips, and she will still be on the cover of Vogue . In person, she is quite remarkably beautiful. An erstwhile freckled redhead, Kidman is now of a single creamy hue, from her flawless face to her vanilla hair, which has been swept back and made to tumble, as though carelessly, past her shoulders. She is so long, and so lean, that she seems almost to be a trick of perspective. When I meet her, she is draped over an anonymous hotel sofa in a paper-thin designer pea-coat and knee-length skirt, her middle as concave as a Fifties mannequin's, her glossy legs stretching endlessly out towards crocodile heels.
Kidman has gone, in recent years, from playing the infanticidal mother in The Others to playing a suicidal Virginia Woolf in The Hours , from a brutalised slave in Dogville to a love-haunted widow in her new film, Birth . Is there something about the damaged qualities of these characters that appeals to her?
'Ah, I don't know,' she sighs, closing her eyes and stroking her forehead with the palm of her hand. (When I saw her do this in Eyes Wide Shut, I thought it was overacting. Now I see that it comes naturally.) 'I don't know,' she repeats, 'I suppose I run away from too much analysis. I certainly don't go and choose damaged people. They're people I respond to, at this stage.'
As you might expect of an Australian who has spent the last 14 years in Los Angeles, her voice has a soft antipodean lilt, with slightly Americanised vowels. Onscreen, she's as good at playing English women as she is at playing Americans, and her natural accent is somewhere between the two - her own, but distinctly unemphatic, with an evenness that suggests it may be lying fallow, in anticipation of the next cinematic incarnation.
The directors she's worked with routinely comment on her flexibility. Stephen Daldry, who directed her in The Hours , has referred to her as 'a transforming actress'. Jonathan Glazer, who directed Birth , has gone so far as to call her 'malleable', as if she were nothing without a director's modelling hand. Kidman responds by telling me she thinks 'cinema is a director's medium, so you're saying, "What do you want?" Being an actor is about adapting - physically and emotionally,' she adds. 'If that means you have to look great for it and they can make you look great, then thank you. And if you have to have everything washed away, then I'm willing to do that too.'
What some might call flexible, others might call erratic - a risk Kidman takes with her unpredictable choices. But at her best, Kidman is a blonde cut out for Hitchcock. She can be haunted, in an aristocratic, everyday sort of way, the kind of haunting that never interferes with one's chignon but shows, for that very reason, the way the surface of things can crack. In The Others , she plays a very proper wife and mother trying to hold it together against such terrible odds she doesn't realise she's already lost it. In Birth she is a well-off 35-year-old in mourning, an emotion that becomes more crazed as time wears on. The film was booed at the Venice Film Festival, for a scene in which Kidman and a little boy who claims to be her reincarnated husband share a bath. But the movie is not about sex, it's about the figments of one's most tortured imagination, and in that sense it also owes a great deal to Hitchcock. Like James Stewart in Vertigo , Kidman is not really in love with the person before her, she is in love with the person he represents. 'This is a film about love,' Kidman says now. 'What is a great love? Is there a love of our life? Do you ever recover from the loss of somebody that was so important to you?'
NICOLE KIDMAN met Tom Cruise on the set of Days of Thunder , a Tony Scott film about stock car racing in which they were co-stars. She had grown up in Sydney (though she was born in Hawaii) and had been acting in TV series since the age of 16. The Australian thriller Dead Calm brought her international attention in 1989, and she made Days of Thunder in Hollywood in 1990. Within a year, she and Cruise were married; she was 22.
Kidman has always been very close to her family; her father is a biochemist and a clinical psychologist, and her mother is a nurse who was active in the women's movement. She and her sister Antonia were brought up as Catholics, under her mother's motto: 'Don't let anyone break your spirit.' When she got married, she tells me, that was what was most important to her. She and Cruise adopted two babies - Isabella and Connor, now 12 and 10 - and she put her career second. Then she met Stanley Kubrick.
'He taught me to believe in myself artistically,' she says. 'I spent my twenties raising my children, and wanting to, and being married. That was my driving force. And then he said to me, "No, you have to respect your talent, and give it some space, and give it some time." Which was a lovely thing to be given. And my children were a little older then.'
Kidman has said that working with Kubrick on Eyes Wide Shut - a land mark film, his last, and the only film since their first in which Kidman and Cruise co-starred, 'resonated through our lives and marriage. Stanley breaks you down.' Now she says that in the roles she took on after her divorce - two of which have been Oscar-nominated, one of which won, 'Suddenly I was able to have the time to put some of the things that were going on inside me_' and then thinks better of continuing. She eventually responds on a practical level. 'It was by chance that The Hours came along. Was I in a place where I could say, I'm going to go to England and make this? Yes. Could I do that earlier, when I was married? No, I couldn't travel like that. We had a thing where we couldn't be separated for more than two weeks. So that made a lot of work just not possible. Which was fine by me.'
She pauses, and croaks a little. 'I'm going to need some water,' she says.
For better or worse, Kidman's reputation in the gossip columns has varied as many times as her choice of roles. She has gone from being seen as a star's appendage in 1990 (when Tom Cruise was thought to have 'made her') to being famous as an Oscar-winning triumph in 2003 (when Tom Cruise was thought to have held her back). In between, she has been an ice queen (after To Die For ), a vulnerable victim (after her divorce), and a girl about town. She has been linked with practically every co-star anyone could think of, plus Lenny Kravitz.
Glazer thinks she 'seems to find a role that speaks to her at different times in her life', though he adds that, 'Some of the roles she's chosen are more honest than others.' When he cast her in Birth , his favourite of her performances was as the murderously ambitious TV star Suzanne Stone Maretto in To Die For . 'You're not anyone in America unless you're on TV,' her character affirms, before hatching a plot that would make Machiavelli wince. Kidman had been married to Tom Cruise for five years by then. It wasn't her first Hollywood film, but it was her breakthrough, a complicated part she played with manipulative gusto, and which she felt she was 'destined' for. 'I guess,' Glazer reflects, 'in a funny way that's who she was then.'
'I've been through a lot in my life,' Kidman often says, and tells me she believes that the best performances 'come from your experiences, and the things you've been through and so therefore you're more willing to expose yourself. As you get older you have more to give.'
'The thing to understand,' says David Hare, who wrote The Blue Room and the screenplay for The Hours , 'is that she's intensely practical. She deliberately chooses roles or undertakings which involve an autodidactic element - "I'll learn about Virginia Woolf, I'll learn how to act on stage, I'll learn to sing". She likes anything which involves acquiring new skills and knowledge.' In order to play Woolf, she learned to write right-handed. She took up smoking for The Human Stain , learnt Russian for Birthday Girl and the cello for her forthcoming Sydney Pollack movie, The Interpreter .
Does she think she's hard on herself?
'Yeah,' she says. 'Hard on myself in the sense that_ when I'm lying on my death bed, I wanna have some peace.' Where does that instinct come from? I ask. 'God knows,' she laughs, 'A lot of religion as a child, and a strong, strong, strong imagination that can sometimes be_' - she trails off - 'dominating.'
KIDMAN LIKES to write. She writes short stories, some of which she hopes to publish one day, and she likes to read - the poetry of Anne Carson, an erudite, experimental writer, and Philip Larkin. 'I have a great respect for words, and the meaning of words, and the way in which we have to be very careful_ um, with what we say.' Writing, she says, 'is something that helps to keep me together'.
From time to time, Kidman will imply some kind of intimate intricacy, then shake her head with a half-smile and a miniature exhalation, as if it were all about to be too much. One doesn't expect revelations from her - the cover story in the current Harper's Bazaar features, by way of intensely personal detail, the fact that she enjoys the smell of fresh flowers - but given her frequently haunted screen presence, you can't help but imagine a hint of torment. Jonathan Glazer, who says he didn't get to know Kidman all that well during the filming of Birth , despite finding her gregarious and 'bubbly', suggests that, 'She's very hard to read - and there's something fascinating about watching that, trying to decode someone. There's a complexity there, and a very powerful inner life going on.' David Hare tells me that, 'Anyone who knows anything at all is very protective of her for all the obvious reasons.'
'It's all going to fall apart,' she has been saying recently, and 'it won't last much longer'. What does she mean? 'I don't know,' she breathes, and looks at the floor. 'I act, I don't know how I do it, and I'm not sure if I can keep doing it. You know, you're never sure whether it's going to be there again.'
Is she superstitious? 'I have moments where I've said, don't tread on that crack in the pavement, don't have a black cat walk in front of you. Deep down am I superstitious? No. Do I believe in trying to be as kind as possible and as compassionate as possible because ultimately you're alone with yourself and your own conscience, and you want that to be as clear as possible? That's not superstition. You have to just try and stay pure and know what you value.'
'And what do you value?'
'I think the connections with the people in my life.'
A PR, who I now realise has been standing behind me throughout the interview, leans in and tells me I have a minute left. Randomly, I ask Kidman what's the maddest thing about her family. She laughs. 'My dad tap dances!' Then she thinks again. 'My kids aren't that mad - within a mad, mad world they're pretty together. I'm working hard on it. But we're all pretty mad.' She smiles. 'Beautifully mad, I would hope.'
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