NICOLE Kidman elegantly refuses to be drawn into a war of words over TV starlet Katie Holmes' very public whirlwind romance with Tom Cruise. The 26-year-old Holmes, who once gushed that her dream was to marry Cruise, made no secret of her priorities when she commented: "I know that what's really important is kids and family." Kidman, whose two children with Cruise are adopted, has also talked recently about her desire to give birth. "I want to have another child, but I am not doing it alone. I am very old-fashioned. While I respect women who do it alone, I want to share this with someone." And before I can ask, she assures me: "I have not found someone yet, but I certainly want to have my hand held during labour."
It is hard to believe that four years have passed since the fairytale romance between Tom and Nicole ended unhappily ever after. And it's perhaps even harder to believe that Kidman, the one-time ingénue brought into the Hollywood fold by Cruise, is perceived to have emerged as the stronger of the two. While Cruise has busied himself promoting his devout belief in Scientology to all and sundry - increasingly to the detriment of his reputation as the reserved man of movies when it came to talking about his personal life - Kidman, now 37, has thrown herself into her work. She has made nine films in four years - and filled her mantelpiece with awards, including the coveted Best Actress Oscar for The Hours.
Meanwhile, Cruise has suffered somewhat through middling movies like Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky, and was even snubbed last year by the Academy for The Last Samurai. Cynics can't help but comment on the convenient timing of his new relationship as both he and Holmes release new films (Batman Begins and War of the Worlds), but Kidman finally seems able to look back on her marriage to Cruise with a dignified perspective.
"I was so young when Tom and I got together, my own sense of self hadn't really been formed. Instead, it was formed around him." Kidman even goes so far as to say she willingly subsumed her own identity as an actress during their relationship: "I was married for most of my twenties and I didn't care as much about my career. There were other things to care about more, like my husband. But when that fell apart, my work filled a void." As she changed, so did her choices: "Since my divorce, I lean, consciously or not, toward characters who are strong women taking control of their destiny, both personal and professional."
The actress insists that despite this mature work ethic, the public still have a misconception of who she is: "People think I spend my life in a sexy dress going to premieres. I make two or so films a year and promote them." For the rest of the year, she says she lives a low-key life: "I have my kids and most of the time I am able to cut the showbiz thing off and enjoy that private family side."
So, while Cruise seems set to marry Holmes, Kidman is content to enjoy the single life - for now. As she recently confessed "I used to think that I would never get married again but now I think I might at some stage. There is no one now. I have an aversion to the idea of dating though. I prefer something more casual." Though linked to love rat Stephen Bing in the past (the one who demanded a paternity test when then girlfriend Elizabeth Hurley told him she was pregnant), Nicole insists that she is on her own.
Fresh from the release of The Interpreter earlier this year, an action-packed thriller with Sean Penn directed by Oscar winner Sydney Pollack, Kidman will this summer be busying herself promoting Bewitched, a retelling of the classic 1960s sitcom co-starring Will Ferrell. She will then turn her attentions to filming Fur, a decidedly offbeat look at famed American photographer Diane Arbus.
Such is Kidman's acting stature now, it is near impossible to think of another actress who could play three such different roles. That luminous white skin flushes up with embarrassment as she tells me: "I want to be bold in my decisions and look for roles that challenge me. I don't want to be thinking of whether the movie will make a lot of money or how are people going to receive this." So, how does she do that? "I try to think about what I would do if I was just starting out, what would my choice be if I was given the chance to choose."
Prodded for further insight into her decision-making process, all she will reveal is "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." She bristles when asked to give an example of such a mistake in her career, refusing to be drawn into too much negative self-analysis: "I do think it's unfortunate so much of filmmaking is deconstructed and so exposed. People talk about it and everything's understood." When pressed, she does admit: "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."
Kidman is much happier to talk candidly about Bewitched, and how quickly she came to understand that she was playing with a piece of Americana: "The show has a life far more than I knew about. Everybody is obsessed with Bewitched. I get asked so many questions about it. I'm glad. It's a lot of fun." Fans will be pleased that she has got the famous twitch down to a fine art. "I have to wiggle it a lot. And it took a lot of practice. Of the hundreds of people who worked on the film, only two other people could do it," she says proudly.
Of course, it helped that she had been a fan of the original series for 30 years: "I grew up watching the show. That's why I wanted to do it. It was on in Australia at 6 o'clock every week night for many, many years. I've seen almost every episode." Kidman giggles as she explains the complicated plot of the remake: "There are dual stories - we do the Bewitched show playing Samantha and Darren, but we are also the actors making the show. And I am really a witch!" The script is by director Nora Ephron, who also gave us Sleepless in Seattle and You've Got Mail.
Kidman, who had casting approval, was a big fan of funnyman Ferrell, star of Old School and Elf: "I know audiences love Will. He is one of the most genuine, lovely people and he deserves that affection. He is just a sweetheart." She still smiles remembering the fun they had making the movie and was impressed by his talent: "He is so funny. The hardest thing as an actor is to laugh, to make that sound real is hard, and he makes it easy."
Kidman has just enjoyed an unexpected break in her hectic schedule with the sudden shutdown of Eucalyptus, a historical drama, which would have paired her for the first time with fellow Aussie Russell Crowe. "That was something I was really desperate to make and I think it would have been a beautiful film. For me it was about my childhood, but the script wasn't there."
However, she remains determined to work in Australia again, and soon: "I feel that it's the right time to make another film there - I would love to be able to support the industry that way. I have an enormous love for the country." She relishes retreating to her homeland: "Australians in general with me are so good and warm and kind and give me an enormous amount of space. I am so grateful for that because there's nowhere else in the world that I feel that comfortable."
That short break aside - "I just had four months of doing nothing" - even Kidman admits she has worked almost non-stop since separating from Cruise. Right now, she is back in her adopted hometown of New York City, playing opposite Robert Downey Jr in Fur, directed by Steven Shainberg, who gave us the film Secretary with James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal. "This is a very small, very strange film. I read the script and thought it was an absolutely extraordinary description of the way this woman, Diane Arbus, moved into her creativity."
She sees shades of herself in Arbus. Kidman certainly appreciates the irony of playing her when she is so often at the mercy photographers: "While it is easy to complain about the press, I now just roll with the punches. I don't read it. You learn there are certain things you can't do - I would never go in a bikini or topless."
However, she insists she is not a workaholic: "I'm very good at daydreaming and doing nothing, literally existing in my head. I can go from incredibly focused to incredibly vague." But, she admits her love of acting can consume her: "It's about having something inside you that you need to express. I don't know any other way to explain it." And she is grateful for all the opportunities coming her way: "I've been in the place where you've been dying to express yourself or dying to just have some sort of outlet and you're not given the chance. So much of being an actor is being given a chance, because you're not the writer and you're not the director."
Now, Kidman is a person in her own right, one of the highest paid actresses in the world, with an Oscar on her mantelpiece. While she may dismiss talk of being on Hollywood's A-list, she admits to understanding it and, yes, even welcoming it: "The position of a so-called powerful actress is comforting for a single woman like me. It gives you a character of hardened steel," Kidman says, adding that has no regrets about who she is now and, just as importantly, who she was. "In life, there is great happiness and there is great sadness - a gamut of emotions. If you keep waiting to be happy, it's never going to happen. The wisdom of that comes, unfortunately, as you get older."
She is, she readily admits, flawed: "I'm nowhere near perfect and not ever trying to be. I'm emotional and highly-strung. If something upsets me, then it really upsets me. If it makes me angry, then I get really angry. But it's all very up-front. I can't hide it. I'm also loyal, and I hope I'm fun." And for all her would-be suitors, some encouraging words: "What I find most attractive in people are their imperfections. Happiness is not found through perfection or even in trying to achieve it. I like all of the flaws, and I like discovering all of the things that go into making up a complicated, interesting person who can keep me fascinated."
Bewitched is released August 19
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