The Inside Story Of Nicole Kidman’s Comeback Year That Wasn’t
We talked to Nicole Kidman about her huge year in Hollywood.
More articles have been written than I can even count about Nicole Kidman’s jam-packed ‘comeback’ year in Hollywood. But, look, when you’re faced with a year that began with the Oscar-nominated Lion and has ended with the much buzzed-about Yorgos Lanthimos film, the extreme The Killing Of A Sacred Deer — what else do you ask her about?
For a start, she’s been part of two of the most beguiling stories about women on television this year, HBO’s smash-hit Big Little Lies (on which Kidman served as both a star and an executive producer) and Jane Campion’s wild follow-up to her Top Of The Lake series, China Girl. She’s also starred in Sofia Coppola’s return to the screen, a remake of the 1971 film The Beguiled.
I think, for Australians, Kidman holds a touch extra mystery too. She’s one of the few local talents to parlay their acting prowess into a mega-illustrious career in the US. She is the star of the hideous but memorable Baz Luhrmann epic Australia. She still retains her rich Aussie accent, even after years of living overseas. She’s Our Nicole!
“Now, I’ve not heard of Junkee,” she tells me straight up, sounding a little nervous. “Is that terrible?”
It doesn’t surprise me that Nicole Kidman doesn’t know what Junkee is, and when I explain to her what our deal is she replies earnestly, “Cool! Good on you. Glad I can be supporting you.” I let out my nervous You’re Talking To Nicole Bloody Kidman breath, because it instantly seems like Kidman is just an excellent human.
Riding The (Deliberately Calculated) High
If it feels like Kidman has been particularly present in the entertainment news cycle this year, it’s because she has. Not only has she premiered nearly half a dozen films or TV series, everyone has a take on where she’s been, why she’s back and if she’s any good.
The best one came from BuzzFeed’s Anne Helen Peterson, who asked, “How many times does Nicole Kidman have to prove herself?”. Peterson wrote, “While male actors coast on the brilliance of a single performance for years, female stars have to reapply for greatness on a yearly basis, fighting the industry-wide impulse for gossip about their personal lives and their appearances to subsume substantial conversation about their ability.”
In fact, Kidman is the first star I’ve spoken to who is able to be so serious and insightful about their own work, without seeming totally inane and self-flattering. “It’s been wonderful, actually,” she says. “I’m just creatively committed to longevity, and I’ve had enormous ups and down, and ridden highs and lows and that’s just the nature of a creative life, I think.”
I say that, at the moment, she certainly seems to be on a high. “Yeah, I’m riding it out! And right now it’s a really wonderful time and a lot of it is to do with the directors. I mean I’d love to say, as an actor, that I’m in the driver’s seat, but I’m not. I’m only as good as the directors that I work with.”
Kidman has been fortunate to work with some “amazing” (her words) names this past year: Jane Campion and Jean-Marc Vallee on TV, and Lanthimos, Coppola and Garth Davis on film. But for my part it feels like Kidman’s fortune is largely because of her exceptional taste.
Take Lanthimos, for example: a Greek director who made waves in 2015 with the release of his first English-language film, The Lobster — an excessively strange film where, if you don’t find your soulmate or life partner within the allotted time, you’re turned into the animal of your choosing. I’d read that Kidman had sort of harassed Lanthimos via text for a role in his next feature. When I ask Kidman about it, she bristles good-naturedly. “No,” she corrects me, “I texted him.”
“And we’d actually had a meal together and then we’d talked and we’d circled another project, and then he actually sent me a text and said, ‘There’s this script that I have now. Would you be interested?’ and I said ‘Sure’. And he sent it to me and I read it and said ‘Yep, I’m in.’.
“I’m such a fan-girl.”
“That’s to do with how I approach my work, I suppose,” she says. “I find certain directors that I become a fan of — I’m such a fan-girl — and I’m like “Ok! I want to work with you.” Even if it’s a small role I’ll do it.” She pauses, then jokes, “But this was a big role!”
The Killing Of A Sacred Deer is a big film full stop, though it appears quite small in scope. It’s even weirder and wackier than The Lobster, and with a distinctly unpleasant (but engrossing) undertone. I call it wild, and Kidman replies, “Oh my god, it’s so out there.”
“It was a shock. It’s disturbing,” she tells me when I ask how it was to read the distinctive script — which won the screenplay award at the 2017 Cannes — for the very first time. “I had to read it again. And I loved the way the dialogue has this very strange rhythm to it, and I thought, ‘What a great thing to do!’”
“I was in the middle of doing Big Little Lies, which is obviously very, very different, so part of my desire as an actor and a person is always to seek out new things and different territories and explore different places creatively, and this definitely fell into that.”
Women’s Stories On Screen
I’ll admit Big Little Lies is one of the main things I’m desperate to discuss with Kidman. The series, which was a runaway success on HBO (and likely an unexpected one, considering the industry’s general attitude toward female-centred TV) was maybe the best thing I watched on TV in 2017.
“Oh my god — crazy!” Kidman exclaims when I ask about the response to the show. “So far beyond what we expected. I mean, we thought, We’re going to do our best, and let’s hope that people tune in but it’ll be a particular demographic. And for it to have reached — I mean I’ve got a 17-year-old niece who is like, “This is the best show ever”. You know?
“And for her friends to love it and to be talking about it at school, and then for my mother’s friends to be talking about it, and then for my husband’s friends to be talking about it? I mean that just runs the gamut; that’s fantastic. It’s fantastic for women, it’s fantastic for the show, it’s fantastic for the culture, and it creates more opportunities for more shows like this, and for strong roles for women, so you can see that they can be successful.”
We discuss what drew Kidman to the story, which comes from Australian author Liane Moriarty’s bestselling novel of the same title. “The strength of the female roles,” she replies immediately. “And that there was a number of them. It wasn’t just one protagonist; it was five.
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“There were very strong storylines and Liane is so brilliant at balancing humour and creating a reality with these underlying topical issues that are so, so relevant and important to now. You know, she’s a mother of two, she’s married, and so she’s able to dig in and write from a particular place where there’s a truth to her writing, but it’s also enveloped in such entertainment. It’s such an unusual, brilliant thing to be able to pull off, and we were just lucky that she let us option the book.”
Kidman, who optioned the book along with her co-star and co-executive producer Reese Witherspoon, plays perhaps the toughest role of all: the delicate but resilient Celeste, wife of serial abuser Perry (played by an absolutely monstrous Alexander Skarsgard).
“I felt very vulnerable — very, at times, humiliated. And not because of what the director did to me but because of the place I was putting myself. Yet, trying to dig in and make the marriage and the coupling very, very real and not, I suppose, a stereotype. To be able to do that and honour that was what was important.”
Celeste’s storyline is certainly the part of the series that has resonated with most viewers. Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz commented on her performance, “If HBO edited Nicole Kidman’s therapy scenes from Big Little Lies together and released them as a separate feature, she’d win an Oscar.”
Kidman herself is passionate about the role and what it represents. “To have people respond to both Alex and myself and the portrayals of both of our characters, it was really interesting to watch.
“It’s really, as I said in my Emmy’s speech, domestic abuse is insidious and it exists in ways when you’re not even away that it is abuse, because there’s so much denial and so much shame. And so therefore for people to understand Celeste, I think is helpful to unveiling and unravelling other people in that position, or friends of those people. And it’s started a huge conversation, which I’m glad has happened.”
“Australians Need To Grow Up Hearing Australians Speak”
Though Kidman works primarily overseas, this past year she’s been back in Australia three times: first to film Lion, then Top Of The Lake: China Girl, and finally DC’s gritty Aquaman, in which she stars alongside Jason Momoa’s Arthur Curry as Queen Atlanna.
I find her work on Top Of The Lake especially interesting, playing the complicated and sort of unlikeable Julia opposite Ewen Leslie and Alice Englort — who is also creator Jane Campion’s daughter, and whom Kidman has known “since she was born”. The role is very definitely prickly, but it seems Kidman has no fear when it comes to choosing difficult or chewy roles to play.
I ask her if it’s nerve-wracking to work on a risky production or role and she says, “I should probably say yes, but I think my whole career has been so risky, and I live in that place of taking enormous risks that sometimes pay off and sometimes don’t. But that’s just where I’m at.
“I’ve always been that kind of person. I grew up with parents — particularly a mother — that approached the world in a far more provocative way. She challenges things, she questions things, she wants to understand. She was a strong feminist in the ‘60s and ‘70s where she was really standing up for her rights. So I was raised and wired in that sort of way.”
“My whole career has been so risky. I live in that place of taking enormous risks that sometimes pay off and sometimes don’t.”
When I ask what made her sign on for the challenge of Top Of The Lake, she says, “Jane. Jane is one of my closest, closest friends, who I love and would walk through fire for. And I said to her, when she said she was embarking on the next season, I said, ‘Oh, I’d love to be in it.’ And she went, ‘Well! I have a role…’
“And then I came out and we rehearsed, and I just feel so comfortable with her. I think so much of acting is feeling safe and comfortable and I feel so safe with her, I’ll do anything with her.”
This feels pretty prescient considering the current climate in Hollywood, where trust and power structures are being questioned and upended. Kidman says that, for her, Top Of The Lake was “a fantastic weaving of stories and friendships, of them being creatively realised”.
We end the interview gabbing about the Australian film industry, about which Kidman still raves, even though she’s based herself in Hollywood for so many years. “The Australian film industry, I always say, birthed me, and gave me all the opportunities I’ve been given,” she says.
“I’m always hoping to be able to give that to the industry, because it’s such a beautiful industry. And as Gillian Armstrong said recently in one of her speeches: Australians need to grow up hearing Australians speak, and seeing their culture reflected.”
Matilda Dixon-Smith is a freelance writer, editor and theatre-maker, and a card-carrying feminist. She also tweets intermittently and with very little skill from @mdixonsmith.