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The Scotsman - 10th of January 2004

Family Matters by Garth Pearce

Nicole Kidman stands to meet me in her hotel suite, wearing a chic black dress with black knee-length boots. It makes her 5ft 11in slender frame look even taller and thinner, and her face, framed by the famous Titian-coloured hair, seem more pale. But her most striking feature is her eyes: blue, determined, with an ask-me-what-you-will expression. If there’s ever going to be a moment to put the past to rest, then this is it.

"I am looking to this New Year with great hope," she says. "I have worked very hard in the last year, and have tried to do a balancing act between being a good actress and a good mum. But I do want to start another kind of life soon. I know I can’t go on living like I do, year after year. There has to be some changes."

The first is a baby. "That," she says, "is my first priority. I have reached a point where I am really ready, both physically and mentally. For a woman, the passing years always seem a little unfair. The body clock is ticking. And there is, as yet, no potential father. So I am going to have to work on this, hopefully away from the public’s gaze. Can you imagine how difficult that is?"

Kidman, 36, has lived much of her life in the full floodlight of fame. She was unceremoniously and mysteriously dumped by her husband of ten years, Tom Cruise, and suffered the miscarriage of his baby in the wake of it. Each flirtation and romance since has been faithfully recorded in gossip columns. There have been rumours of ill health - just look at that thin body - and reports of personal despair. And through it all, she has mostly preferred silence over denial.

She has also delivered a succession of films, as if her life depended on it. It finally won her a best actress Oscar for The Hours, after being ignored for arguably better performances in The Others and Moulin Rouge.

Indeed, we are here in a smart London hotel to talk about three more new movies: Cold Mountain, the forthcoming The Human Stain and Dogville.

But it is Kidman’s lifestyle that has captured so many headlines - from what seems an unlikely current romance with 39-year-old singer Lenny Kravitz, to the legal action she took against the newspapers that kept repeating the unfounded allegation that she had an affair with her Cold Mountain co-star Jude Law.

"I am never going to be some little victim," she says, in her Aussie accent. "I do believe in putting the record straight. I could be on the phone every day, with some of the stuff I read. It’s only when it strays too far that I take action."

Kidman, then, has not established herself as the world’s number one female star by accident. She has been prepared to live dangerously and take career risks. At 17, she left her home in Australia to live with a Dutch boyfriend in Amsterdam. She returned to nurse her mother, Janelle, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer - she survived, celebrating her 40th wedding anniversary with Kidman’s father, Dr Anthony Kidman, at Christmas - and built a successful acting career in Australia before going to Hollywood as an unknown.

After her marriage to Cruise, with whom she co-starred in films such as Days of Thunder and Far and Away, Kidman adopted two children, Isabella, now 11, and Connor, eight. But this didn’t stop her going skydiving for fun in the mid-1990s. There was also a plunge into the unknown when she undertook an 18-month marathon filming session with husband Cruise and the late director Stanley Kubrick for Eyes Wide Shut, with its controversial sexual content.

Kidman went a step further after her divorce - although the film was said to have made a significant contribution to the break-up - with the play Blue Room, co-starring British actor Iain Glen and showing at the small-scale Donmar Warehouse in London. Kidman was naked on stage. "I am always trying to escape who I am, and that was typical," she tells me.

"I was taught at drama school to create a character from the inside. With Blue Room, Iain was saying, ‘Okay, we have got to get the shoes and the cane, and I am going to get this and that for this character.’ I had nothing. The director, Sam Mendes, eventually said to me before the dress rehearsal, ‘Nicole, you are going to have to put one of the costumes on.’ I was like, ‘No, I am still trying to find out how I walk and I am not there yet.’"

The subject of sex on-screen is high on the agenda. In Cold Mountain, she plays vicar’s daughter Ada, who is embroiled for much of the film in a long-distance love affair with Inman, Jude Law’s courageous Confederate soldier. While he fights in the American Civil War several hundred miles from his home town of Cold Mountain, North Carolina, he never stops dreaming of the day he will see Ada once more.

But Kidman’s virginal look is transformed for her new film, The Human Stain. She plays the oddly named Faunia in this screen version of the Philip Roth bestseller, and gets down and dirty in the process. She’s a sexual predator, complete with tops that fall off the shoulder, a pair of tattoos and a vindictive, violent husband (played by Ed Harris). The fact that her prey is a sacked college lecturer and widower, Coleman Silk, played by Sir Anthony Hopkins, who is twice her age, adds a certain frisson to the relationship.

After kissing some of Hollywood’s best-looking men on-screen, what were love scenes with Hopkins like? "I always do it in character," she replies. "I would never be able to even kiss anyone if I had to do the kiss as myself. I would be far too embarrassed. So I immerse myself into the character, and so the whole thing is as I imagine that character to be.

"With Faunia, I had to do a dance for him on my own and take my clothes off. I could never do that for any man in the privacy of my own bedroom. I just couldn’t."

It was one of the reasons why she took action over the rumours of romance between herself and 30-year-old Law, who at the time was still married to actress Sadie Frost. "I have a strong moral view on not having a relationship with a married man," she says. "He also has children. I did not want, in front of my children’s eyes, to be seen breaking up a marriage. It was a step too far to be accused of that."

The legal action came in the wake of more gossip - that, two years earlier, she and co-star Ewan McGregor were very close when filming Moulin Rouge, for which she was nominated for an Oscar. Again, it was unfounded. "The most important thing to me is to protect my son and daughter and their well-being," she says. "I knew that from the minute I had them. It has always been my desire to see them never to come to harm. I want to go and fight their battles for them. Actually, the more I do that, the more I am protecting them - and making it harder for them to become adult.

"They are going to have to endure life without me at times. And the children of actors give up a lot, because they learn that their parents are going to be emotionally committed to something else. So there are a lot of bad things about having a parent who is an actor. I ask them to travel the world and be close to my side, and they have to give up a lot."

But Kidman has been keeping a special memento for them from each of her movies. "I know that they will be able to look back at me at various stages of my life, so I have written them a letter to read in the future," she says. "They will be able to have an understanding of where they were at that time in my mind and what they meant to me in the film. It will hopefully take on a bigger meaning."

She and Cold Mountain co-star Renée Zellweger went a stage further while they worked together in the depths of a Romanian winter. They shared gossip of their own and wrote a diary. "But we soon realised that it was a bit too frank and that no one would be able to publish it," she smiles.

Could the super-slim Kidman ever emulate 34-year-old Zellweger, who has had to put on 20lbs in weight for her second film appearance as Bridget Jones? "It would be difficult," she says. "I have always had trouble putting on weight, yet I’ve wanted curves my whole life. I would like to be like Marilyn Monroe. I eat food all the time." She points towards a bowl of fruit, sitting on a table a yard to her right. "Look at that - I asked for croissants. They must think I don’t like food. This has always been my thing.

"I am always being told by my mum, ‘Put on weight - you are too skinny.’ But she knows it is not for want of trying. I just have trouble, because of my physical make-up. I was even more scrawny as a kid. But, let’s face it, my figure is more like a boy’s. I look like a boy-girl. If I had my own baby, I would have bigger boobs. That’s one of the many good things I can think of that would come out of it."

But it is unlikely that Kravitz, once married to actress Lisa Bonet and recently reported to be seeing an old flame, Brazilian artist Isis Arruda, will be the father. "I don’t think I have met the father yet," says Kidman. "But I do believe in love. I could still pledge my life to someone - absolutely.

"In love, you can choose to destroy it, have it destroyed or hold it high. If you can hold it high and keep it magical, then it can be sustained. It is only when you start to attack love and start questioning whether it is real that it becomes damaged. I loved the script for Cold Mountain for that very reason.

"Of all the parts I have played, this is the closest to my own personality. It is a great love between my character of Ada and Inman. Also, there is a wonderful kiss. It is like, ‘Oh, swoon.’ "The director, Anthony Minghella, played it beautifully. There was a most gorgeous love scene between Kristin (Scott Thomas) and Ralph (Fiennes) in Anthony’s The English Patient, so we were in good hands.

"Most first-time kisses are slightly awkward, and out of that awkwardness comes a beauty. So I am a sucker for romance. A total sucker."

Kidman is in yet another change of character in Dogville, which co-stars Paul Bettany. She plays Grace, a beautiful fugitive who finds herself in an isolated town while she is on the run from gangsters. With a bit of encouragement from Bettany’s character, Tom, the self-appointed town spokesman, the small community agrees to hide her. In return, Grace agrees to work for them. But as she does so, the locals start to take greater and greater advantage of her good nature. The reckoning is shocking. There is no let-up, either. Kidman has already finished two more films, a remake of The Stepford Wives, to be released in the summer, plus another love story, Birth. She starts yet one more in February, called The Interpreter, directed by veteran Sidney Pollack.

"I love what I do for a living," she says. "I always have and always will. But it is definitely time to do other things and create more time for myself. And I have never felt in a better frame of mind to do so."

- Cold Mountain is on general release; The Human Stain is out on 23 January and Dogville on 13 February

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