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Kidman opts for the unexpected in her film roles, December 2nd 2004

Surprises out of Nicole Kidman have become, well, no surprise.

But the world-renowned Australian actress can still throw you, even when she isn't apparently even trying. Like during a recent conversation with Kidman, when a question about how she's balancing out her post-"The Hours" Oscar movie career between commercial and artier projects elicited this response:

"I'd love to have a baby," she blurted, accompanied by big giggles. "It's always good to have a baby in the house."

OK. But as interested as we are in the personal stuff (and as long as we're at it, despite thousands of conflicting tabloid reports, there's no special guy to help with the effort at the moment), it's really the wildly eclectic movie career that we were asking about.

And that's where Kidman is again inciting attention. In her new movie "Birth," she plays a woman, Anna, who 10 years after her husband Sean's sudden death is finally ready to remarry and move on with her life. Then a boy, also named Sean ("Godsend's" Cameron Bright), shows up, claiming to be her lost love reincarnated. Wishful obsession, and an audience-upsetting bath scene, ensue.

"Birth" caps a year's worth of interesting releases - "The Human Stain," "Cold Mountain," "Dogville" and "The Stepford Wives" have also come out since last fall - that saw the newly minted Academy Award winner stretching herself in a variety of new directions. The films have received mixed reactions, but for an actress previously thought of as mainly a pretty face, they've also cemented a reputation for being a serious fearless artist.

"I pass on most mainstream films," said Kidman, 37, who was ironically wearing her hair in long, golden locks for the very mainstream, big-screen version of the '60s sitcom "Bewitched" that she's currently shooting with Will Ferrell. "It comes from being a strange child, I think - just having a slightly different view of the world. I know my existence within my head when I was little, and a lot of the same obsessions or ideas or things are still being sort of dealt with now."

It doesn't get any more obsessive than "Birth."

"It's rare that you get a character where it's such a psychological study of what it feels like to be still in love," she explained. "And how do you get away from that? You see this very, very vulnerable woman who's trying to exist in the world but is still so attached to the moments in her past, so much so that you could almost wonder if Sean the child is a figment of her imagination. Because it's so important that he somehow comes back.

"That's what I think is fascinating about this story and the way it's so delicately handled."

Especially so, when it came to young Bright. Ten at the time of filming, he was never given a full script, and the more mature implications of his character's behavior were not discussed with him.


"We were very protective, absolutely," said Kidman, whose own son, Connor, is 10 (she and Cruise also share custody of 12-year-old daughter Isabella). "Taking care of him required lots of thought and interaction and discussion between Jonathan and I and everybody about how to keep this child in the state of mind that this is a job, you come in and you play for a little while, and then you go. That's just how you have to deal with all children on sets."

Not that he was all that curious.

"No, he's 10," she answered when asked if Bright ever took her aside for an, um, discussion. "He'd take me aside and want to play GameBoy. And I have a 10-year-old, so I know very much the state of mind of a 10-year-old boy. They're very much about when are we gonna get pizza and can we go to the ballgame."

As for the notorious scene in which Sean takes a bath with Anna, Kidman explained that there was never a risk of either actor seeing the other naked.

"(Glazer) cuts away before you see anything," she noted. "And I wasn't there off-camera sitting in a bath for him. We shot him just standing there, and when I was doing my stuff he wasn't off-camera for me a lot of the time. That's a way in which you protect a child. There's a big responsibility with that, and I believe in taking that responsibility."

Nevertheless, the scene caused some outrage at the Venice Film Festival, where "Birth" premiered late last summer. So did a remark, taken out of context, that "Birth" and "Dogville" co-star Lauren Bacall made when asked, during a press conference, what it was like to work with a legend like Kidman. Living legend Bacall joked that her friend was too young to be considered in such terms, and the press and Internet ran with tales of a rift.

"I was like, 'If you ever said that, Lauren, of course, I totally agree,' " Kidman said of the nonincident. "But we're very very close, and she was very upset by that. She's a really, really close confidante of mine -- and friend. And she gives me guidance, tells me what I should and shouldn't be doing. And she's usually right. I sometimes listen and sometimes don't," Kidman added, laughing.

"We're friends," Bacall recently said. "We've become friends, which I think is a very nice little perk I have there. She's a great girl and very talented, and we get along extremely well."


All sensationalism aside, Kidman brings an all-out dedication to her film work, a quality that has endeared her to top directors ranging from the late Stanley Kubrick ("Eyes Wide Shut") to Baz Luhrmann ("Moulin Rouge!") to Gus Van Sant (whose "To Die For" was one of the first films to highlight the acting talent behind her cover-girl beauty).

"She does her big-studio movies and her movie-star ones," Glazer noted. "But people don't talk enough about what a great character actor Nicole is. That aspect of her is what attracts filmmakers to her. She is a great muse because she embodies what you want from her. She totally takes it on board and is completely nonpolitical in that way. She's just into the work."

Next up is a series of those Hollywood things: The Sydney Pollack-directed political thriller "The Interpreter," with Sean Penn, has already been shot, and following a break after "Bewitched" wraps, she's putting in three singing-and-dancing weeks on the musical remake of "The Producers."

Back to our original question about balancing the commercial and arty stuff...

"How do I balance it? Because psychologically I wouldn't be able to stay in that state of mind," Kidman said, referring to the emotionally draining likes of "Dogville" and "Birth." "It's intense, and the intensity of it needs to be broken every now and then, even though that's where my heart is."

As for non-work-related heart matters, Kidman admitted that she would like to remarry but doesn't consider it a priority at the moment.

"I would get married again if I felt I wanted to spend the rest of my life with that person," she said. "I don't want to go through another divorce."

These days, the Honolulu-born Kidman gets her emotional satisfaction from long visits with the folks in Australia.

"I just take my kids, and we stay in our beach cottage. I just cook and be with my family; not do much, actually. Swim in the ocean, just kind of hang out. Take care of my niece, take her to ballet class."

And even though she's the face of the multimillion-dollar, Karl Lagerfeld-engineered Chanel No. 5 campaign that's currently splashing across the world's media, Kidman claimed that, often, her personal life revolves around quiet nights at home with the kids.

"In our house, at night -- and it's a terrible thing, but yes, I'm in bed at 9 o'clock sometimes -- we have our bedrooms next to each other's, and we're all in our beds reading our books," she said with a laugh. "But I think that's really sort of sweet, that's part of our family life."

Cozy. And perhaps a little surprising. But even though she may not be as outrageous as might once have been thought, Kidman still hopes to do work that stirs people up.

"I think this film will get controversy because the subject matter disturbs people, even though it's actually not that at all," she said of "Birth." "It's not sexual, it's not about being attracted to a child -- it's far deeper than that. But people don't like to feel uncomfortable, even though I think it's important that we feel uncomfortable at different times. We can't always be given everything sugarcoated."

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