'The world's number one? No way', telegraph online, October 2nd 2004
Nicole Kidman talks to David Gritten about the Cinderella life of a film star and Lauren Bacall's forthright assertion
'It's an odd thing about Nicole Kidman: she is widely regarded as the English-speaking world's hottest film star and leading actress, yet without her celebrity, she could have tackled the same roles in her recent career and been a global art-house icon instead.
People would talk of her in the same admiring tones as, say, Gong Li or Juliette Binoche, but Kidman's stardom has a dazzling effect; most people are as intrigued by gossip about her private life as by her acting.
Her famous divorce from Tom Cruise is still chewed over publicly; developments about her love life (and even the lack of it) are a gift to the media.
In fact, she is a rarity: a star actress with an artist's sensibility. Like most of her peers, she claims that she constantly pursues the most intriguing work with the most creative directors.
"You have to be true and authentic to your characters and also to your directors," she says. "You have to be open to whatever they want." What sets Kidman apart is that she means it.
Consider the directors for whom she has worked in these past five years. They include a true visionary (Stanley Kubrick, Eyes Wide Shut); high-budget auteurs (Baz Luhrmann, Moulin Rouge; Anthony Minghella, Cold Mountain); European originals (Alejandro Amenábar, The Others; Lars von Trier, Dogville); and talented British newcomers (Jonathan Glazer, Birth; Stephen Daldry, The Hours). She works almost continuously.
It's a formidable list, and Kidman isn't letting up. Strolling into a hotel suite at the Venice Film Festival in a denim jacket, white jeans and tennis shoes, she reveals non-specific plans to work again with von Trier.
She "would love to work with Spike Jonze, so I could say the words of a Charlie Kaufman script". Meanwhile, she has concrete plans: "I'm going to do a film with Wong Kar-Wai next," she announces calmly.
That's a bolt from the blue. One can only speculate what Kidman might be up to with the Hong Kong maestro who made In the Mood For Love, Happy Together and this year's controversial epic 2046. How did they hook up?
"I've always admired him, and we had a mutual friend," she says guardedly. So what's the new film about?
"Who knows? I may never come back from Shanghai, which is where we'll shoot it. Gong Li's in it. There's no title, and no script yet. There is a subject, but I'm not saying what. We've met and talked. He has a strong sense of where he wants to take me."
It's this kind of startling development that makes Kidman's career more interesting to track than those of, say, Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock.
Yet she isn't some rigorous art-house saint. She isn't above taking a job for money - at least, one assumes that was why she appeared in the train wreck that was the recent Stepford Wives remake. And not all her choices pay off.
Robert Benton's film of Philip Roth's novel The Human Stain met with indifference, and Kidman was widely judged to be miscast.
Still, any actress mainly concerned with commercial gain would not sign on for Dogville, or even The Others. The same is true of her new film Birth, directed by Glazer.
She plays Anna, a wealthy Manhattanite widow still grieving for her husband after a decade. At the point she feels ready to move on and re-marry, a 10-year-old boy enters her life, claiming to be her dead husband.
Despite a fine supporting cast (Lauren Bacall as her sardonic mother, Danny Huston as her patient fiancé, and Anne Heche), Birth hardly panders to mass tastes; tough and sophisticated, it deals with raw emotion, pain and loss.
In one provocative scene, the boy gets into Kidman's bathtub, staring at her insolently like a possessive spouse. It can be hard to take. The day after Kidman and I talked, some journalists in Venice booed it at a screening.
What led her to take the role? "I told Jonathan it affected me, that I really felt for this woman, this character, and I'd love to be a part of his film."
This is the point where professional questions can cross a line into personal intrusion. Still, I comment that the character of Anna must have touched something in her. Was it grief, or loss, or what?
She plays a straight bat: "All of those things. I think it was the inner life of her. She says very little and thinks so much. Anna is extremely vulnerable and needs this child to be her husband."
Something about this observation seems to move her; as she says the word "vulnerable", there is briefly a touch of wetness around Kidman's eyes. She has said that she regards acting as a dangerous game, and still believes it.
"It is, because you deal with emotions. It's like putting a boxer in a ring and you say, I want you to box really hard, kill someone almost, then step out of the ring and don't use your hands.
"You say to an actor, you have to keep every emotion raw and available. Now we're going to put you back into life, and say no, be very disciplined and adult."
She laughs: "You're constantly trying to balance it. But in the weirdest way I feel that being an actor has saved me because it's given me an outlet to pour things into and express myself. At the same time, I wouldn't wish it upon my child…"
Hold on – is she saying that she works so much because emoting as fictional characters on film feels more comfortable than her real life?
She partially deflects the question: "I don't see it as work. If I had to sit in an office or in front of a computer and work nine to five, that's work for me. [Doing interviews] is work for me. On the set, that's the thing I love, I cherish."
Yet she wouldn't wish it on her child? Apparently not. As she sees it, not even the alleged glamour of her work compensates. "To anyone who's been through it and seen it, it's not that glamorous. Yes, you get a night of walking around in a beautiful dress and then you go home.
"Even the night you win an Academy Award, you go back, sit in your hotel room and think, who can I call now? It's very strange. I've had it at Cannes: one minute you're surrounded by people, then you go home, unzip the dress, step out of it, and it's like, Cinderella went to the ball. It really is that extreme."
She's not complaining. Kidman retains a down-to-earth attitude to her acting. "I wouldn't have a clue which is my best side." As for notions that she's some kind of legend, she agrees with Bacall's now famous (and surely kindly intended) assertion that she's still a beginner.
"The world's number one actress?" Kidman says incredulously. "I don't accept it. I don't know how the hell this happened. There's no rhyme or reason to it. There's no strategy, no master plan." She laughs.
"So it's all going to fall apart at some stage. And you can all watch it happen."
'Birth' is released on November 5.
"I want to walk through life with grace and dignity and generosity and never take it all for granted."
Why? / Who?
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