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A star is reborn, scotsman online, October 17th 2004

A throng of Italian autograph hunters has gathered outside the imposing iron gates of the Venetian hotel. They are waiting patiently for a glimpse of Nicole Kidman, which - given the black Mercedes with tinted windows that purrs in the driveway ready to whisk her away - may be brief at best. Of the numerous Hollywood A-list stars who attended this year’s Venice film festival, including her ex-husband Tom Cruise, it was Kidman who drew the biggest crowds and generated the most headlines. From exaggerated reports of critics booing her new film, Birth, to her co-star Lauren Bacall ticking off a journalist for referring to Kidman as a "legend", anything remotely connected to Australia’s own first lady made front-page news.

It all points to what a huge star Kidman has become in the wake of her split from Cruise in 2001. When she famously joked to David Letterman that finally she could wear high heels, inferring that she no longer had to take into consideration the feelings of her short-stop spouse, no one expected her to stand tall over Hollywood. But that’s what she has done, on her own terms and with considerable chutzpah. No longer is she saddled with playing second fiddle to Cruise on such meat-headed films as Days of Thunder and Far and Away. Now, having sought out an impressive list of auteur directors to work with, Kidman has delved into her dark side to play a series of damaged, deranged or disturbed characters.

How many other Hollywood starlets would have dared to appear in Lars von Trier’s Dogville as a village sex-slave, complete with dog-collar and chain? Or would have stood neck-deep in a fast-flowing river to enact Virginia Woolf’s suicide, as she did for The Hours, the film that won her a Best Actress Oscar at the second time of asking? "I don’t see it as risky," she will tell me later. "That means at some stage I’m going to crash and burn, because I really don’t see it as risky. My make-up is not able to define what’s a commercial hit movie or what’s not... I think when you work with someone who has only made mediocre movies, that’s the risk!"

Up on the first floor of the hotel, I see her marching down the corridor. At 5ft 10in - no heels today, just white deck shoes - Kidman cuts a striking figure. Now 37, she is still as luminous as she was 15 years ago, when performances in the sea-bound thriller Dead Calm and the mini-series Bangkok Hilton brought her to Hollywood’s attention. Her face is startlingly familiar. That flawless alabaster skin, the less-than-Hollywood-perfect upturned button nose, the burning blue eyes and the signature strawberry-blonde curls of hair, worn up today. She has a classical beauty that made her casting in period pieces such as Cold Mountain and Portrait of a Lady so effortless.

As she breezes past me, with deportment so finely tuned she could carry a book on her head, I’m guided into a staid conference room to first meet Jonathan Glazer, the British director of Birth. Claiming he doesn’t want to gush about Kidman, he nevertheless proceeds to do so. "She was dedicated, and there was nothing she wouldn’t try," he says. "She never complained. She was the perfect muse. She was very malleable." He pauses, as if aware that calling a multi-million-dollar actress malleable isn’t exactly politic, and adds hastily, "Although she’s no puppet. She’s her own woman. Of course she is, but she’s interested in exploration."

While she may not earn as much as Julia Roberts or Cameron Diaz, Kidman must surely be Hollywood’s most daring and versatile female lead. From kicking up her heels in Moulin Rouge! - the source of her first Oscar nomination - to scaring us witless in The Others, it would seem that the only thing she can’t do is play safe. Her misjudged work as a janitor (as if) in The Human Stain and her awkward turn in The Stepford Wives remake have not dulled the public’s enthusiasm. Even the recent revelation that she’s the richest woman under 40 in Australia, with a fortune in excess of 100 million, cannot dent her popularity - back home, she’s still dubbed ‘Our Nicole’.

When she finally glides into the room, ‘their’ Nicole perches herself delicately on the chair nearest the door. She’s here to talk up Birth, in which she plays Anna, a wealthy New Yorker who believes her dead husband is reincarnated as a ten-year-old boy. Given her own private and public rebirth, is that how she related to the subject matter? "I don’t know," she sighs. "There are times when you start to unravel things and understand things more. You start to say, ‘Well, this is who I am.’ Half the time, I don’t have a clue who I am. Then other days it seems incredibly clear."

The role is another brave exploration by Kidman - this time into the nature of grief. She says she didn’t want weekends to come during the shoot. "Weekends, if you’re so into a role, are awful. They’re like limbo. You’re not able to really step out of it. There are certain films where you can’t wait for the weekend, but for this one, I had to exist in this state of being. I’d basically lie around and wait for it to pass. I’d be with my kids, and they’d be like, ‘Mommy, Mommy...’ You’re still functioning, but, in the same way that Anna exists in her mind a lot, you’ve constantly got all these other things in your head."

When she impersonates her children - 12-year-old Isabella and nine-year-old Conor, both of whom she adopted with Cruise - her voice drops its Antipodean twang and registers a more Stateside brogue. "Actually," she adds, "they’re more like, ‘Hey, dude!’" She takes them on regular trips back to her parents’ home in Sydney. "It’s not something I ever discuss, in terms of my custody," she warns. "But they come back a lot. They’re half-Australian. I don’t think you’re defined by your accent. You’re defined by who you are, not the sounds you make." She has recently purchased a property back home, but pleads for the location to be left undisclosed "because it’s my secret".

It’s becoming clear that Kidman is not in a particularly forthcoming mood. Take her current romantic situation. "If you discuss your love-life too much, it just damages it," she states defiantly, as if to move me away from prodding too deeply. Given how much it has been speculated upon since her divorce from Cruise, it’s an understandable reaction. Linked to a string of actors, from friend Russell Crowe to Adrien Brody and former co-stars Paul Bettany and Ewan McGregor, she enjoyed a brief flirtation with musician Lenny Kravitz and was even said to be dating Robbie Williams. More recently, she has been linked with Italian racing tycoon Flavio Briatore and Kiwi multi-millionaire Eric Watson. Does she think she’ll love again? "Of course you can love more than once," she fires back. "And there are so many different types of love."

I ask what personal experiences she drew on for Birth. "I don’t answer questions like those," she says, politely but firmly. "On other films I’ve made, I’ve spoken freely about all sorts of things, and I feel like it de-mystifies the process. So I’m really trying a lot now not to delve too deeply into my own personal experiences in relation to a character. I mean, obviously it’s deeply personal."

This silence even extends to what songs she listened to on her iPod to help get her in the mood for playing Anna, and how she protected Glazer against the studio. "I don’t think the details of that are necessary," comes the frustrating reply. "When you pledge loyalty to the director - and I pride myself on being loyal - that means you’ll fight anyone to try to help the person you believe in."

Much of the film’s controversy is based around a scene where Kidman shares a bath with the young Sean (Cameron Bright). The scene is as cunningly edited as the moment where the two appear to share a kiss, and Kidman is at pains to point out there is no impropriety involved. "This film was never about sex. When everyone sees it, those rumours aren’t going to exist. In the wrong hands, I wouldn’t have made this film - with a director who could’ve made it into something exploitative and distasteful. But Jonathan never set out to do that. It’s about souls meeting. It wasn’t like I thought, ‘I want to make a film where I kiss a ten-year-old boy.’ I wanted to make a film where you’re trying to understand love."

She has spent her life trying to understand what she has called "an addictive emotion". "I gave up my whole life in Australia for love," she says, reflecting upon her departure for Hollywood when she married Cruise on Christmas Eve, 1990. Kidman was only 22 then, although not exactly inexperienced in the ways of the world. She had been a celebrity in Australia for five years, after a role as a schoolgirl protester in TV mini-series Vietnam had turned her into an overnight star. Voted actress of the year, she quit North Sydney High, an all-girls school where she had honed her love of drama, before graduating. She still remembers getting star-struck. "I was taken to the set of The Year of Living Dangerously, and I remember seeing Mel Gibson from afar, and I thought, ‘He looked at me!’ It’s important to remember where you’ve come from, so you never get trapped in the world that you exist in."

Despite Kidman’s love for acting and mime, as well as ballet, her family background was more based in the sciences. Her father, Anthony, is a biochemist and clinical psychologist; her mother, Janelle, a nurse-educator who edits books. After Kidman was born in Hawaii, and before her parents moved back to their native Sydney, she spent her first three years in Washington DC, where her father pursued his well-regarded research into breast cancer. Her mother would later successfully fight the disease herself.

With family dinner-table discussion revolving around the current events of the day, Kidman was raised to listen to strong political beliefs. Her mother was an early leader of the Australian women’s movement and would force Nicole and her younger sister, Antonia, to hand out pamphlets - much to their embarrassment. Yet it meant that she has never felt "intimidated" by a man. "My father was gentle but strong, a good role model," she says. "So I’ve always liked men. I wasn’t brought up to hate them. But I never thought that because I was a woman I wouldn’t be able to achieve something."

It was in her turn as a career-obsessed TV weathergirl in Gus Van Sant’s 1995 satire To Die For that Kidman started to win audiences over. For the first time she proved there was an edge to her talent, and that she wanted to take risks. But although she produced In The Cut for Jane Campion, she has no desire to further any behind-the-camera activities. "I’m terrible at making decisions, and being a director you have to make many, many decisions. I much prefer to be in a position of not having to make them," she says. "I produced In The Cut because it was a book I read years ago. I just used my own money, bought the rights, and took it to Jane."

Kidman’s dance card is full for the foreseeable. Next year will see the release of The Interpreter, an espionage thriller with Sean Penn; a big-screen version of the TV sitcom Bewitched, with Kidman as the spell-casting Samantha ("I need a little help with the nose," she giggles), and a cameo in the remake of Mel Brooks’ The Producers. There’s even talk of a mouth-watering collaboration with Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai, who made the beautiful In The Mood For Love. He is well-known for offering little guidance to his actors; just the sort of challenge the reborn Kidman relishes.

She says she still loves being an actor - "That’s my commitment and my passion" - but finds it emotionally draining. "In 20 years I can pretty much say I don’t think I’ll be doing this. I think this life is a burn-out life. You give so much of yourself that ultimately you say, ‘I will have to step away at one stage. It can’t be what I’m going to do forever.’ Probably when I fall in love, that’s when I’ll stop doing as much of this, because I’ll want to settle down again. I went through a period where I wasn’t able to move around and explore as much, so now I’m living that out."

How does she see herself now? "As somebody who is discovering, exploring, hopefully an adventurer," she replies. "I would like to be described as a slightly free spirit." She realises what she has said and corrects herself. "No, not slightly." But while motherhood and her career place some restrictions on her, she is already enjoying freedom of artistic expression. And that is going to be tough to give up. n

Birth opens on November 5

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