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After drifting, Nicole Kidman has learned to live for the moment, November 2004

Nicole Kidman doesn't get Nicole Kidman.

She doesn't get the whole Oscar-winner, one-of-the-most-powerful-women-in-Hollywood, red-carpet-designer-gown-wearer, multi-million-dollar-paycheck-earner, having-your-pick-of-the-best-scripts-in-town, veto-power-over-directors, living-in-the-fishbowl movie-star thing.

In fact, the painfully shy, soft-spoken actress doesn't understand why anyone would want to pay good money to see one of her movies.

"I'm always shocked when people go to see my movies," the tall, natural redhead-turned blond actress said in a near-whisper while resting in her Los Angeles hotel suite. "I still don't understand how any of this happened. This is not something I ever sought. I never went after the brass ring. I just wanted to be a working actress."

As actresses go, Kidman is working a lot these days. After a self-imposed hiatus from films following her 2001 split from husband Tom Cruise, the 37-year-old Kidman has returned with a vengeance.

After winning the Academy Award less than two years ago for her portrayal of tortured writer Virginia Woolf in The Hours she has appeared in no less than five films -Dogville, The Human Stain, Cold Mountain, The Stepford Wives and Birth - and already has signed for her next five, including a movie version of the TV series Bewitched.

In Birth which opens Friday, Kidman plays a New York City woman who meets a 10-year-old boy who claims to be the reincarnation of her dead husband. It is just the type of low-budget, heavy drama that a Hollywood power player at the top of her game should not be seeking out, but Kidman can't help herself.

"People tell me that I could be earning so much more money, and I could be doing so many more big movies, but I'm not interested in that kind of a career. I don't care about being on top. I don't care about getting the best table in restaurants or being invited to all the premieres.

"If what you want out of your life is to tell interesting stories, then you must seek those stories out. Sometimes, those stories come in small packages."

Director Jonathan Glazer, the latest beneficiary of Kidman's love of small films, said he didn't approach the actress for the starring role in Birth. She approached him.

"A friend of hers gave her a copy of the script and she called me," the director said. "Honestly, I hadn't even thought about her. Yes, she's the best actress in the world, but she's also one of the biggest celebrities in the world. The celebrity aspect of her worried me. I couldn't imagine how I was going to create a character as anonymously as I want when I've got an actress whose face is on the cover of every magazine in the world.

"But what is most misunderstood about this woman, and what makes her endlessly fascinating, is that she is also a great character actor.

"She's a big star, and she's got to do her occasional big-studio movies, but her heart is in these smaller movies. Celebrity is not what drives her. Inhabiting a character is what moves her. She has a compulsion to do what she does."

Born in Honolulu, Kidman was transplanted almost immediately to Washington, D.C., when her father, a biochemist and clinical psychologist working on his doctorate at the University of Hawaii, moved his family to the nation's capital to continue his studies. Four years later, the family moved again, this time to Australia.

Although most people think of her as a native Aussie, the American-born Kidman holds dual citizenship.

People who meet Kidman can't help but to marvel at her remarkably flawless skin. Interestingly, the actress credits her fair complexion with guiding her toward a career in film.

"I think my skin had a huge impact on my career," she said. "I was a kid who couldn't go out in the sun. I would get horribly burned.

"So, instead of going to the beach and having that whole kind of beach culture, I stayed home and read books. By staying indoors all the time, I developed my imagination. And when you are left with your imagination, you create a whole array of characters. There is no doubt in my mind that reading and living in that literary world pushed me toward acting."

Kidman, who was 5-foot-10 at the age of 12, started her professional acting career at 15, and made American audiences stand up and take notice in the 1989 thriller Dead Calm. That led to her casting as a doctor in the Tom Cruise racing movie Days of Thunder.

They fell in love on that set and married soon after. The marriage lasted 10 years and, with the exception of a celebrated performance in the 1995 Gus Van Sant-directed film To Die For Kidman's career failed to reach the potential promised in Dead Calm.

The actress will not dispute that assessment of her career during her marriage.

"I fell in love and got distracted," she says in her customary forthrightness. "I didn't care about my career."

In an interview two years ago, she explained that the passion normally devoted to her career suddenly switched to her new husband and their two adopted children.

"I don't know how to share that with a career," she said at the time. "You can have one, and then dabble with the other, but it is very hard to be completely committed and passionate about your art if you are completely committed and passionate about your relationship. In my case, I would always choose the relationship because, ultimately, that is my real life."

In this latest interview, she said that the decade standing in the shadow cast by her husband's spotlight was not always pleasant.

"It was a weird time," she said. "You don't choose the people you fall in love with. I was an odd choice to be thrust into the spotlight like that, and I was probably an odd choice for him to share the spotlight with."

When Cruise walked out of their Pacific Palisades home (no reason has ever been given for the split), Kidman went into seclusion, later suffering a miscarriage.

Family members and friends stayed with her until they felt that she needed to work. The script for The Hours was too tempting to pass up, they told her.

They were right, of course, and Kidman rode her return all the way to the Oscars.

"I honestly believed that no one would be interested in me now that I was alone," she said in 2002. "My identity and the way in which I existed in the world was with him, with Thomas. That's all I knew since I was 21. I wasn't defined as anyone on my own."

Her performance in The Hours helped to define her in Hollywood, and Oscar night made it official.

"I remember feeling elated, but I don't really remember anything that happened that night," she said of the awards ceremony.

"My mother and daughter accompanied me that night. My daughter was so sweet. She said she wanted to be there if I lose. She didn't say if I win, only if I lose.

"I do remember being nervous and sweaty when I got up on stage to accept the award, mainly because I had not prepared anything to say. I suppose I was playing a psychological game with myself, telling myself that I wasn't going to win so why bother writing an acceptance speech?"

Kidman said the Oscar win didn't hit her for about a year. Finally, after being introduced at every public gathering as "Oscar winner Nicole Kidman," she accepted that it had really happened.

"That's when I got embarrassed. I was afraid that every time I walked on a set after that, people were going to expect me to be really good."

The actress said she likes the choices she's making now, although she acknowledges that The Stepford Wives was a misstep caused by listening to people around her who convinced her that a star of her magnitude should do more big studio films.

"Clearly, that was something that I shouldn't have done. I usually don't do films just because I'm supposed to do them. And I hope I don't make a decision like that again. I need to be in movies that mean something to me."

As for her personal life, she said it has taken a little more time to heal than her career.

"I was drifting, but I'm fine now," she said, a weak smile crossing her face. "I've come to realize that life is what it is, the blessings as well as the problems. That's life, and I'm learning to appreciate the moment. Otherwise, you're always waiting for that moment to start.

"There are times when I'm lonely," she added, "but there are good times, too. If I'm not willing to put a smile on my face, then that's my problem."

It seems as though Nicole Kidman is starting to get Nicole Kidman.
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