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Nicole, December 2003

FOR NICOLE KIDMAN, turning real world torments into on screen triumphs is all in a days work. By Christopher Bagley

Lately, Nicole Kidman has been thinking a lot about Fiji.

On one of that country’s little islands, a few hours by plane from her hometown of Sydney, there’s a beach where she likes to go at sundown to lie in the water, on her back, alone. If she stretches her limbs "like a starfish, arms out," and keeps her ears below the surface, she can float for awhile and look at the darkening sky, hearing nothing except muffled underwater sounds.

So far, Kidman has found time for these seaside meditations only during family holidays; she’ll be on that beach again this year at Christmastime. But the way she’s feeling right now, the actress is considering permanently "going troppo," as they say in Australia- ditching mainland life for a Gauguin-esque utopia of fresh papayas and barefoot children. And possibly doing it soon.

"It’s almost like there’s a clock ticking," Kidman says. "I can feel that my life is not going to stay like this. The ability to keep doing what I’m doing, and the desire to do it- there’s an end to that. There’s a time in your life when you walk away and you just say, It’s not necessary anymore."

Everyone has had a South Pacific fantasy at one time or another; Kidman is one of the few people in the world who could easily make hers come true. What’s telling, however, is what she has been doing instead. She spent most of last winter in dark, icy Romania, and the previous one in darker, icier Sweden- which was "devastating, and perfect," she says. Perfect because she’d been brutally depressed in the aftermath of her divorce from Tom Cruise, and she craved an environment that would suit her state of mind.

"I’m embarrassed to go on and on about it because it’s like, oh, cut it out, girl," Kidman says, emphasizing that she’s not fishing for sympathy. "But until I got to Sweden I was not in any way, shape or form capable of making a movie. I really did not have any desire to do anything, to be perfectly honest. Which is a very, very frightening place to exist in. Particularly when you’ve had a capacity for joy and then you just can’t see anything ahead of you." If Kidman was looking to explore the depths of misery- humanity’s, or her own- she could hardly have chosen a better vehicle than Dogville, one of two upcoming releases in which she stars. Directed by Lars von Trier, whose earlier efforts, Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, elicited hosannas from some critics and accusations of misogyny from others, the film is a hauntingly stylized parable of cruelty and vengeance in a Depression-era Rocky Mountain village. Kidman was so eager to work with von Trier that she signed up for Dogville even before there was a script, so she was a bit surprised to learn that it would be shot entirely on a barren soundstage. And that her character, a sweet-natured fugitive named Grace, spends much of the film shackled in an iron neck brace- the better for villagers to humiliate and rape her.

The shoot wasn’t made any cheerier by the fact that von Trier began resenting his star before production began. Kidman’s arrival in Stockholm had been delayed by more than a year because she just wasn’t emotionally prepared, she says. (She did manage to come up with her Oscar-winning performance in The Hours during that period, though she pulled out of In the Cut, among other projects.) Worse yet, von Trier recalls, she arrived in a private jet. "We Scandinavians automatically look down on people that are rich, famous or good-looking," the director says. "Nic is all of those things. So you don’t necessarily think she’ll be talented also."

One of the first things the director did when Kidman arrived in Stockholm was to reveal the weighty metal contraption she’d soon have locked around her neck. He was smiling at the time.

"I just thought, I don’t know how I’m going to do this," Kidman says, "and I basically decided, Well, I have to be completely trusting of a man who doesn’t initially elicit trust." Early in the shoot, the two went for a lengthy walk in the forest, where Kidman tried to overcome von Trier’s skepticism and assured him she’d devote herself to the role. Over the next seven weeks, she did, and in a somewhat benevolent version of the Stockholm Syndrome (that just happened to take place in Stockholm), Kidman became "obsessed" with von Trier, whom she came to view as a "great philosopher." "I’m so glad I trusted him," says Kidman. "I will always trust him. And I love him, actually."

The feeling seems to be mutual. "I can’t imagine any other actress with a career like hers who would do a film like this," von Trier says.

A few months after leaving Sweden, Kidman took off for the wilds of northern Romania to join director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient) on the set of Cold Mountain. An epic Civil War drama based on the Charles Frazier novel, Cold Mountain would seem to have promised a more uplifting experience than Dogville; at least it called for Kidman to learn a lilting Southern accent and to don hoop skirts. (She plays a landowner’s daughter trying to save her North Carolina farm from ruin while her onetime lover, a wounded Confederate soldier, finds his way back to her.) But fortunately for Kidman, the conditions on-set were wretched indeed. "There were bears walking down the street, and wild dogs at night barking, and then there was the harshness and cruelness of the very cold winter," she remembers. "Emotionally it was very difficult to endure, which was apropos, considering the story was about endurance." All in all, she says, the shoot was probably the "most painful, and most joyful"of her career.

According to Minghella, who says he would "lie down on the ground" for a chance to work with Kidman again, it was sometimes difficult to distinguish the actress from the woman she played. "She has this uncanny ability to be completely suffused with the energy of the scene," he says. "You can almost identify which scene you’re about to shoot just by looking at her face when she arrives on the set."

By now, you’ve probably figured out that Nicole Kidman isn’t in the acting business just for the fun of it. Maybe fun is what first drew her in (there weren’t many other reasons to star in BMX Bandits, which she did at age 16), but right now she says her work, and the opportunity for self-examination it provides, "is something I need. It’s like air that I need to breathe. It fills a void."

For a long time, while Kidman and Cruise were Hollywood’s golden couple, Kidman was perceived as someone who lived by the rules, rather cannily: She married the world’s top movie star, she looked damn good in couture, and she always seemed to have a smile and a charming thing to say. Gradually, however, a certain appetite for risk emerged, along with some clear signs that even if Kidman had the raw materials to become the next America’s Sweetheart, she just wasn’t interested in the title. After all, we haven’t seen Reese Witherspoon undressing on stage (as Kidman did in The Blue Room), or making a kinky film with Stanley Kubrick (Eyes Wide Shut), or even staying out late (Page Six).

Since her divorce, Kidman has seemed even more willing to flout convention, whether in her choice of roles or her choice of men.

Around Oscar time last spring, when asked why she was still single, Kidman replied that she was "waiting for someone to come rock my world." Now that she’s embarked on a romance with the lizard-skin-suited rocker Lenny Kravitz, it seems that her wait is over. Right?

"I don’t think I will ever put myself up for scrutiny, in terms of a personal relationship, ever again," she says. "It’s too delicate, too ephemeral, too painful when it fails. So to have it on display terrifies me." Still, Kidman hints that she has now reached a stage in her love life that she doubted she’d ever reach again. "The idea of being able to give somebody something again, that’s a nice thing," she says. "Being able to give a part of yourself again is a nice thing."

With Cruise, meanwhile, Kidman seems to have developed a kind of deep-yet-distant rapport that’s based on the fact that they share the care of two children and a very intense history, if little else. "The other day," Kidman says, "I said to him, ‘We spent 11 years together,’ and he said, ‘Twelve.’ I said, ‘That’s right, 12.’ So to walk away from that, and to deny that it was the most important thing in my life to date, would be ridiculous. So I suppose you say, ‘I’m going to cherish and remember these things, and this person can still be in my life, though he will never be the most important person, and I’m not living for this person anymore.’" Another person Kidman isn’t living for- and probably never was, although they’re close friends- is Jude Law, her Cold Mountain costar. The two were rumored to be having a secret on-set affair, which the tabloids blamed for the breakup of Law’s marriage, but Kidman recently won lawsuits against two British newspapers that reported on the liaison. Why did she bother suing this time, when similar reports have appeared about alleged involvements with other male costars, including Dogville’s Paul Bettany? "Paul Bettany wasn’t married," she says curtly. "So they can say whatever they want. Jude Law was married with three children. There’s a big difference."

Kidman says the main reason she couldn’t ignore those particular articles- ;and why she won’t give the media more fodder than they already have about her love life- is her children. Daughter Isabella and son Connor are now 10 and 8- old enough to read US Weekly. "It’s very important that they see that anything you’re doing is done with some sort of dignity," Kidman says. "I think for children to see their mother behave in a way that’s [undignified]... particularly when I’m so much on display, that would be embarrassing. Embarrassing for them and embarrassing for me."

Meanwhile, as they get older, Kidman’s children are becoming increasingly aware of both the pros and the cons of their family pedigree. A few weeks ago, when Isabella signed up for a class in New York, Kidman initially insisted she use a pseudonym, due to concerns about security and privacy. Isabella balked. "I want to use my [real] last name!" she said, and her mother relented. "That was a complete eye-opener for me," Kidman says. "For her to be enrolled somewhere and have people saying, ‘What’s your name?’ and having to say something else...That’s wrong."

The struggle between self-protection and self-expression has been one of the defining dilemmas of Kidman’s own existence lately. Now arguably the world’s most sought-after movie actress, she realizes it’s a dangerously short hop from adulation to isolation, and from isolation to insanity: "You keep saying, ‘No, don’t put me in a position where I can’t just stand in line with a group of people at a movie theater and just strike up a conversation with someone. Please don’t put me in the bubble.’"

But hasn’t she been living in it for more than a decade?

"It happens, and you have to fight through it," she says. She’s been making an extra effort to have genuine interactions with the dozens of new people she meets every day. "It’s very hard to remember faces, but you’ve got to. Otherwise you go crazy."

Unlike her ex-husband, she also tends to go out- a lot. When you’ve reached a certain level of fame, she says, "sitting at home is a very easy thing to do. So you make yourself go out and talk to people. You try to exist in the world." And when all that fails, there’s someone she can always count on for a few well-placed blows to her ego: "I have a very strong mother whose tongue can be quite harsh. But at the bottom of it is an enormous amount of love."

Although Kidman says her mother, Janelle, is mercifully unimpressed by her status as a Hollywood icon and fashion star, she does credit Janelle with inspiring her interest in clothes, which continues to lead her to make some unpredictable choices. (She has just agreed to star in a new commercial for Chanel No. 5, directed by Moulin Rouge’s Baz Luhrmann.) Once, when Kidman was 16 and vacationing with her mother in Amsterdam, they came across a stunning Forties bridal gown at an outdoor market. "We both said, ‘Aaaaahh,’" Kidman remembers. "So I did the terrible thing of buying a wedding dress before there was a person to be married to." She wore it seven years later, on the day she married Tom Cruise. "Not such a good omen!" she says, laughing. "Don’t do it! That’s my advice to people."

The fact that Kidman can even make such a joke would seem to indicate that she’s finally emerging from the winter of her discontent, from whatever it was that drove her to wallow in the world’s coldest climes. Does she now feel, for lack of a better word, happy?

"‘Blessed’ would be more the word," she says. "I feel blessed. Because I was picked up from a place that I thought I was never going to come out of. I found the ability to survive, which sounds ridiculous. But finding that within yourself, knowing that you can survive- there’s something so comforting about that. To know you have the strength to be there for yourself and not have to actually lean on somebody else. And I suppose part of that is grappling with being incredibly lonely, with being able to say, I’ve been deeply depressed and at the same time I’ve managed to come through it."

Incidentally, we are unable to say for sure whether Kidman is smiling winsomely or glowing radiantly as she says these things. Due to last-minute scheduling difficulties, we had to conduct this interview over the telephone. Still, she assures us she’s calling not from some arctic tundra but from a soundstage in Queens, where she’s shooting one of the final scenes of an actual comedy: Frank Oz’s The Stepford Wives. A remake of the camp Seventies thriller about a group of men who turn their wives into robotically perfect specimens of docile femininity, the film is giving Kidman a chance to laugh, she says, partly at herself.

"I’m in a fairy gown at the moment," she reports, "and very blond hair, speaking in a monotone voice and behaving like a robot. And I’m kind of having fun."

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