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Portrait Of An Actress, Vanity Fair, October 1997

Nicole Kidman wrapped up her starring role opposite George Clooney in The Peacemaker, this month’s high-visibility DreamWorks debut, only to turn—along with husband Tom Cruise—to a heavily veiled project with even higher stakes: Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick’s first movie in a decade. At a rendezvous with MICHAEL SHANYERSON in the London dusk, Kidman talks about playing with Clooney, working with Kubrick this past year, and the importance of in-laws


The time: seven P.M. on a Friday, late July. The place: a woodsy park 20 miles southwest of London. The entry path is deserted, disconcertingly so, since I've been left here with the promise that I'll be met by one of the world's most ravishing film actresses. Twenty minutes later a small, nondescript car pulls up to the path. The woman who extricates herself from the driver's side, unaccompanied, is as tall as reputed—five feet ten inches though in no other way consistent with her screen image. Her characters are chilly and brisk, alluring but distant. Nicole Kidman has sparkling, friendly eyes and offers a hearty handshake: she's an Aussie girl, unpretentious and ready for fun. Her characters rarely smile; offscreen Kidman is given to a musical, lingering laugh you want to provoke again and again. Most unexpectedly, as we set off into the park for a leisurely stroll. I can't help but notice that Kidman—coolly sensual leading lady, the thinking man’s fantasy figure—is a bit duckfooted in her old-fashioned black-and-white Converse sneakers. All in all, she's much less siren, more blithe spirit, than I expected. "You know, I almost died last night." she says cheerfully while I'm pondering this. “And it's all your fault!” From her tightly scheduled life, Kidman has wrung two days for Vanity Fair. Annie Leibovitz has spent the first day photographing her at Charleston, the farmhouse that belonged to Virginia Woolf's sister Vanessa Bell. Since Leibovitz also needed the afternoon of the next day to do a cover shot, the plan was for Kidman to fly home by helicopter, get a good night's sleep, and tuck the interview in on the morning of the second day. But after the chopper took off, the already bad weather grew worse; the pilot narrowly avoided a set of power lines and was forced to make an emergency landing in a remote area. Some startled farmer opened his door to a bedraggled international film star asking if she could please use the phone to call for a car. Kidman didn't get home until one A.M., so she slept in late to be ready for the cover shot—not that the woman has a discernible line on her peaches-and-cream complexion. Which is why, with the last light of the second day rapidly fading, we've embarked on our walk. And why it's all my fault. Though even now Kidman has barely managed to get away. “I said, ‘I really have to go because it's going to be dark, and it's a little dangerous in that park at night, frankly,’” Kidman says. “I asked them, ‘Is he a strong man? Has he done any self-defense?’” And again her musical laughter fills the air.


On September 26 one of the reasons Kidman's been so busy reaches the screen amid considerable curiosity. The Peacemaker, a nuclear thriller that also stars George Clooney, is the debut movie from DreamWorks, issuing forth after a three-year gestation during which the triumvirate of Steven Spielberg. David Geffen, and Jeffrey Katzenberg spent gobs of their own and others' money establishing the first new major Hollywood studio in decades, for features, animation, TV shows, music, and interactive. A lot of pride is on the line, which makes the casting choices for The Peacemaker that much more intriguing. Clooney and Kidman, though much admired their stars on the rise, are not yet members of that small, select club of Hollywood Bankables. The director, Mimi Leder, won an Emmy for her work on ER. But The Peacemaker is her first feature. Happily for DreamWorks, the film succeeds both as high-level entertainment and as a haunting reminder of how violence breeds terrorism. Based on reporting Vanity Fair contributing editors Andrew and Leslie Cockburn did for the magazine, it starts with a riveting nighttime heist, somewhere in the former Soviet Union, from a train carrying nuclear warheads, and roars on from there at a breathtaking clip. Kidman and Cooney are the U.S. military types who fly over to wrest the warheads from the Bosnian terrorists to whom they were sold. When a lone detonator gets smuggled into Manhattan, back they come on its trail. Kidman is the stern, by-the-book bureaucrat, Clooney the roguish colonel who's assigned to be her partner and who starts by making a fool of her at a department briefing. As their mutual loathing gives way to more complex emotions, the story, suspenseful enough as it is, begins to snap with subtle sexual tension. Clooney was more than happy, when Spielberg asked him, to sign on to The Peacemaker. He liked the script, and, needless to say, he was flattered. Spielberg, more to the point, co-produces ER. Leder seemed right not only because she'd worked with Clooney but also because she'd masterfully directed the jumpy, deliberately rough Steadicam sequences that follow ER's action for minutes at a time; the terrorist on busy New York streets, evading hundreds of cops as he heads toward the U .N. with a nuclear detonator in his backpack was perfect Steadicam material. “I was the one who then cast Nicole,” Leder says. “I knew that the character is smart and precise in the way she goes about finding who the terrorist is, and that's how I saw Nicole: smart and precise, both in the way she tackles a role and the way she lives her life.” Clooney had never worked with Kidman, and he worried about that. "The thing of it is that I was doing One Fine Day [the romantic comedy released last Christmas]. Five days later, I started The Peacemaker. So no rehearsal time! What we had to do was immediately, the two of us, just get along. Be friends!" To Clooney’s relief, Kidman made it easy. "She's none of the things a famous actress could be," he says. He noticed the laugh right off. And he saw that she was about "pure hard work." "I'd just worked with Michelle [Pfeiffer]. They're similar in that sense: never a false word out of their mouths. You never think they're acting! And you forget that, through everything, Nicole has to do an American accent." Clooney, who saw the finished film just a few days before we speak, is delighted—maybe more than he thought he'd be. "This movie kicks ass. And Nicole is just great. To play a government official and be a pretty girl, it's a tough sell. But she really does it." "If she'd been a bumbling fool, which is how these characters are usually drawn, it might have been difficult," Kidman says as we walk along. "But I quite liked that she was right most of the time." For that, having a woman director definitely helped. "[Leder] wanted both the female and male characters to be wrong sometimes and right sometimes. And it was a working relationship, not about some romance, and I liked that about it, too." But also, she later admits, "I was offered it right after I did The Portrait of a Lady, and that was the hardest film I ever made—emotionally—so this was my way of going to have some fun. I wanted not to have to work every day, and to be able to go out at night and dance, and go drinking with George. And that's what we did!"


The Portrait of a Lady is still a bit of a sore point. Kidman came to it fresh off her much-praised performance in To Die For, as a brutally ambitious weather girl. The stylish black comedy had ended her streak of mostly humdrum roles in big-budget Hollywood films (Billy Bathgate, Days of Thunder); it had forced critics to see her not just as Mrs. Tom Cruise. Under the guidance of The Portrait of a Lady's New Zealand—born director, Jane Campion, for whom Kidman had always wanted to work (and nearly had, in Campion's film-school short, at the tender age of 14, until exams intervened), Kidman plunged into the emotional abyss of her character, Isabel Archer, with fierce abandon. Throughout the shooting, she even wore a corset, to feel what Archer would have felt as she hewed to the 19th-century standard of an hourglass figure. Her performance stirred talk of an Oscar nomination, but the film was judged by most critics to be an absurdly mannered indulgence. "It was hard when people criticized it," Kidman says. "The film meant a lot. But as a person, it's good to go through, too, I suppose. You hope it's going to be wonderful and everyone will love it, and then that doesn't happen and . . . that's O.K. I still love the film, and am very proud of it." Does the criticism confound her? "It doesn't confound me. Sometimes I did feel, Oh, that hurt. But at the other end of the spectrum, in the theater you stand up there every night not knowing if they're going to clap or boo.... You can get booed off the stage! And that's the worst thing that can happen to you, but once you get through that, you realize this is all part of the process of being an actor."


Only in that spirit of artistic growth, I have to assume, have Kidman and Cruise spent most of the last year shooting the mysterious, much-anticipated film called Eyes Wide Shut for the legendary director Stanley Kubrick at Pinewood Studios, a short drive from where we're walking. Most movies wrap in two months; most movie stars sign contracts that enforce a strict end-of-shooting date, so they can get on to the next movie. For Eyes Wide Shut, both Cruise and Kidman signed open-ended contracts, agreeing to work until Kubrick, a notorious perfectionist, said he was done. Cruise, at between $15 and $20 million a film, is probably the world's most bankable star; Kidman's salary is modest by comparison but hardly shabby. The financial sacrifice they've made to devote almost a year to Kubrick is many times more than most of us will earn in a lifetime. "But you don't think that way artistically!" Kidman says as we turn onto another path. "I mean, if you do think artistically, which we do." Thinking artistically means that when you get a fax from the world's most reclusive director asking you to be in his first movie in a decade, you just say yes. "Well, we read the script," Kidman says, which Kubrick had written. "But I would have agreed to do it even if he hadn't shown it to me." Virtually every director for whom Kidman has worked admired Kubrick's work. She had seen and enjoyed 2001: A Space Odyssey, Lolita, Paths of Glory, and The Shining, among others. ("When I saw The Shining, I was making out with my boyfriend, though, so I don't remember a lot of the movie. I'd just been roller-skating." She was 14 at the time.) Dr. Strangelove was her favorite "I like black comedy; I suppose I like laughing and at the same time feeling unnerved, and it’s such a hard thing to do.” Commitments made. Cruise and Kidman met Kubrick for the first time over dinner at his house. "I was thinking, is he really going to want me in his film?" Kidman recalls. "He'll see me and say, ‘No way!’” But Kubrick and his wife were warm hosts; by the end of the evening, the director had sat Kidman down at his new Apple computer and was showing her its marvels.


Eyes Wide Shut is about sexual obsession and jealousy. Beyond that, no one outside the cast and crew appears to know a thing, thanks to the director’s insistence on a strict code of secrecy. Early on, a Scottish newspaper reported that Kidman plays a sex psychologist hooked on heroin who's being stalked. Kidman says that's “absolutely wrong,” but refuses to elaborate. Women in Kubrick's Films, when they appear at all, have been a motley lot— think of Shelley Duvall in The Shining, or the woman who gets raped in A Clockwork Orange, or Shelley Winters as the mother in Lolita and the director has been subject to charges of misogyny. But Kidman says her own character is, as far as she can tell, a fully rounded figure. The misogyny rap, she adds, is unfair. "I don't think there are many sympathetic male characters in his work, either," she observes of Kubrick. “He portrays humans without sugarcoating them.” As shooting got under way last fall, stories swirled that Kubrick was in despotic form—calling for 98 takes when 10 might do, running everybody ragged. Harvey Keitel, who was reportedly cast as the stalker, left the production soon after it began. Keitel, asked to explain the incident, issues a terse "No comment." but Kidman says he left amicably amid scheduling problems, to be replaced by Sydney Pollack. Though best known as a director and producer, Pollack has given some fine performances (Tootsie, The Player, Husbands and Wives). Also, Pollack and Kubrick had been close telephone friends for years. They'd never actually met. Kidman reports—that would be too normal—but were eager to do so, and Pollack was lured by the chance to see how Kubrick worked. Kubrick works with a small crew—"It's almost like making a student film," Kidman says—so the fact that shooting Eyes Wide Shut has gone on so long is not financially ruinous to his backer, Warner Bros., the way a full-blown Hollywood production would be. Still, one imagines its stars must now be on the verge of physical and mental exhaustion, prisoners of a madman as mind-warping as, say, L. Ron hubbard. But no. "He has asked for a lot of takes sometimes,” Kidman says. “He’ll light the scene, ask for takes, then do some lighting. I’ve got to say, though, the thing about working with him is that you know you’re working with someone who cares. He lives and breathes movies. And he makes so few that he enjoys the process that much more; he wants to exhaust all the possibilities. And the kind of actor that I am, I love that. I find it much harder to walk away with a director who says, ‘Hey, great, let’s move on.’” But Kubrick is no slave driver. The stars usually get a two-day weekend; Kidman who has less screen time in the film than Cruise, has been able to take occasional side trips. “I’ll be really sad when it ends, actually,” she says. “It’s been such a period of our lives.”


Indeed, the only inconvenience of working for Kubrick was easily enough remedied. Kidman and Cruise had been based, along with their two adopted children, Connor, two, and Isabella, four, in London since Cruise began filming Mission: Impossible. Unfortunately, the commute to Pinewood Studios was nearly an hour each way. Halfway through shooting Eyes Wide Shut, they moved into a house two minutes from the studio. The children have a nanny, but spend much of their days with their parents: one with Daddy in his trailer, the other with Mommy in hers. Usually the family eats lunch at home. We’re just getting to the children, having settled on a bench by the park’s central pond, when a trio of young towheaded boys approaches us, intently fixed on something in the water. “What are you looking for?” Kidman asks them. She has a nice way with children: interested, relaxed. “Perch,” says one of the boys. “We’re trying to catch it.” “We’ve got fishing line, but it’s at home,” another of the boys volunteers. “So you’re just chasing it,” Kidman confirms, as if that were the most logical plan in the world. "I grew up in a family of women," she says to me as the kids head perchward, "so it's so strange to have a boy. They're very different. But I love them."


As a woman in her 20s, Kidman stirred speculation with her decision to adopt rather than to bear children of her own. She's denied the obvious theories, giving her own simple explanation. "I'd always wanted to adopt a child," she says. "I'd sit around and say 'I want to adopt a child,' but never 'I want a baby in my tummy.' I would like to give birth to a child someday, but two kids are a lot ... a third would really he hard." Like any parent, Kidman is humbled on a daily basis by how vulnerable children are and what an awful power parents have. "They offer you unconditional love, and you can never jeopardize that. But you're aware all the time of the power you have to destroy their lives. I have such admiration for people who come out of a childhood in which they've been abused and make something of their lives." Tom Cruise, for one. Kidman looks startled. “I wasn't talking just about him, but . . . yes.” Cruise, who grew up with an abusive father, does have a great mother, Kidman says. "And if you have a mother who adores you, that can offset a lot of the other things that may happen." As a child Kidman herself got teased for her height, her freckles, and her curly red hair; she says that she was the last girl asked to dance at her school's first dance, and that finally a boy was dragged across the floor, kicking and screaming, to be her partner. Her mother would embarrass her further by steaming down to the school to take on her tormentors. "But the great thing my mother did," Kidman says, "was that she was always on my side." To ensure that the Cruise children get all the attention they need, there is a rule: only one parent works at a time, so that the other can stay home with the kids. The exception has been working together on a film, with children ensconced nearby. But that's still a stretch, so in the last year Cruise and Kidman have relied a lot on family to get by. Cruise's mother, Mary Lee, now happily remarried, has come with her husband to visit and help with the children. So have Tom's three sisters and their families. So, for that matter, have Nicole's parents, as well as her sister and her husband. It's odd to think of two such glamorous stars as knee-deep in in-laws, but that, Kidman says, is what their lives are about. "We have a spare bedroom in our house," she says, "and it hasn't been vacant in a year."


“Do you recognize this path?" I ask. The park is large, and it's getting rather dark. "Hey—trust me!" Kidman says with that musical laugh. "Now, what was I saying?" I've forgotten. "But I was on a roll!" Something about not being defined by her work alone ... "Oh, I'm just being facetious. I'm facetious all the time, you know. Yesterday we were in the helicopter, and the weather was getting really bad, and I asked the pilot, 'Hey, how're we doing?' And you expect the pilot to say, ‘Just fine, don't worry.’ But what he said was 'Not good.' I just started laughing. Nervously." Kidman likes danger—just on her own terms. She and Cruise still do aerobatics once in a while in Cruise's Aviat Pitts biplane. She still goes skydiving occasionally, too. "I've been out doing arabesques on the wing. It's silly, but fun. Wait, did we come down that trail? It isn't looking familiar. I have to say." Whenever Eyes Wide Shut does wrap—probably by early this month if not before—Kidman and Cruise will go hiking in Nepal. Not up Everest, she says, though both have just read Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer's best-selling account of a calamitous group ascent last year. But rigorous hiking nonetheless. Hiking, she says more than once, is a big part of their lives. The next work in Kidman's future, in fact, is a small Australian theater production of Strindberg's Miss Julie. "You don't get a chance always to do great dramatic roles. And it's Sydney, which is my home-town, so it feels safe," Kidman explains. She has been offered roles in New York theater, but thinks the pressure to please critics and backers is self-defeating. "I want to go back to Australia and explore that character in a free way, and not feel inhibited." This is a new phase indeed. In the past, Kidman grumbled about the "Tom-and-Nicole" perception. Despite her early success in Australian films (1989's Dead Calm, 1990's Flirting), she'd been linked professionally to Cruise since meeting him at age 22, when the two were in Days of Thunder, and her subsequent Hollywood career had been seen as a consequence more of her marriage than of her own means. Now that she has the critical respect she craved, she seems pleased not to have any movies to shoot immediately after Eyes Wide Shut. "I don't like to work as much as I used to," she says with the world-weariness of a woman who turned 30 in June. She wants to spend more time with her children. She wants to do one movie a year.


Overhead, tall, fragrant trees enclose us. "This is my favorite spot in the whole park," Kidman says. "So don't worry, I know where we are. Isn't this a wonderful smell, these trees?" In pitch-darkness, we arrive at last where we started. The entrance is dead quiet; no one is about. Suddenly, a figure leaps out at us from the bushes. Kidman screams; I'm rooted to my spot. With a guttural growl, the figure seizes Kidman, wrapping his arms around her. "Aaaaahhhh!" she screams. Now the marauder lurches toward me. He puts out a thick hand. "I'm Tom," he says with a laugh. "How ya doing?" "Tom!" Kidman squeals. "I didn't recognize you. You looked so weird! And here I'd just been telling Michael about all the drug dealers in the park!" Cruise flashes that famous grin. "She's been known to get lost on mountains." he says, indicating his wife, "and you're from New York—you don't know where you are—so I figured I'd better come over to see if she was O.K." Now it remains only to find a phone to call my driver. Cruise beckons me into his station wagon. Two minutes later, we're at a high wooden gate that swings open electronically. Set amid a wide, formal garden is a fine Tudor house. I follow Cruise and Kidman inside. To one side is a foyer table with a large shallow bowl that holds at least 20 pairs of sunglasses. Filling a set of recessed wooden shelves en route to the kitchen are dozens of high-energy health bars. The fridge, from which Cruise extracts a soda for me, is well stocked with nutritious liquids. Kidman calls my driver herself, Cruise and I chat as she does so, and for a minute we might all be neighbors on a Friday night, shooting the breeze. Then it's back into the station wagon and to the park, where my driver awaits. Cruise offers a vigorous handshake. Kidman waves good-bye cheerily. It's after 10. She needs some dinner, presumably, and then some sleep: Mr. Kubrick requires her presence at 5:45 A.M. "I don't get much sleep these days, about four hours a night," she says. "You get a little tired in the afternoon, but then you take a little nap. Very Napoleonic."



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