With Big Little Lies becoming a catalyst for the #MeToo movement, and her pledge to further the feminist cause in Hollywood, the actor, who has three new films out this winter, explains how she plans to let her work do the talking
Nicole Kidman photographed in London last month by Pal Hansen for the Observer New Review.
Nicole Kidman began this year, her 51st, accepting a Golden Globe award as best actress for her unforgettable role in the TV series Big Little Lies. In her speech she thanked her mother – a nurse who wished she’d been a doctor – for never setting limits on what her daughters could be, declaring: “My achievements are her achievements.” She also paid tribute to her friend Reese Witherspoon, with whom she had produced the series, and the actors they had starred with in it, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley, Zöe Kravitz. “Wow,” she said, “the power of women!”
It seemed like a good moment to be making that exclamation. The previous year, Hollywood had felt the reckoning of #MeToo and the Harvey Weinstein revelations and, looking back, Big Little Lies was very much a catalyst in that process. The series not only highlighted a liberating shift in female talent and finance, away from the studios and towards TV cable and streaming services, it also voiced, through Kidman’s character in particular, the unspoken domestic and sexual violence behind the glamour of west-coast lives. In her Golden Globes speech, Kidman was explicit about the way the series had helped to open up the issue of abuse. “I do believe, and I hope, we can elicit change through the stories we tell and the way we tell them,” she said. “Let’s keep the conversation alive.”
There are, as Kidman is discovering in the latest of several pivotal moments in her career, positive choices she can make to achieve that end. She made a public pledge to work with a female director at least every 18 months, to try to address the fact that only 4% of Hollywood movies are made by women. And she has looked for roles that might further stimulate debate.
As an actor, Kidman has often done interesting groups of films, as if keen to display her range of talent at any one time. In the year after she won her Oscar playing Virginia Woolf in The Hours, for example, she was in Lars von Trier’s troubling and experimental Dogville, the underrated adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain, and Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain. This winter is another case in point; she has three very distinct films opening in the same few months.
Sitting in a hotel room in Soho, London, a couple of weeks ago, fresh off a plane from her home in Nashville, Tennessee, Kidman fixed me with her spirited, never-quite-in-earnest stare and explained how much she still loves the actor’s privilege of “looking at the world from behind somebody else’s eyes”. The three pairs of eyes she has chosen to adopt most recently could hardly be at further extremes. In Boy Erased, Kidman plays the Arkansas wife of a fundamentalist Baptist minister (Russell Crowe), all blond bouffant hair and bake sales and rhinestone blouses. In Destroyer, meanwhile, Kidman becomes the most noir-ish of LA detectives, a part in which she existed in the same pair of greasy jeans for months on set and at home. “I smelt, I was disgusting. My kids ran away from me,” she says. The third movie is Aquaman, Kidman’s first comic book outing since 1995’s Batman Forever. It is the film her young daughters are most excited about, mostly for a latex costume she describes as “scales but not scales”.
If Kidman is proud of any achievement, it is that she has been successful enough – her films to date have taken an estimated $3.9bn (£3bn) – to retain the kinds of choices she enjoyed at drama school in Sydney, “where you played all the different roles and all the different ages”. That possibility was not a given for someone who first became famous as Mrs Tom Cruise. There have been times when “you constantly think, you know, where’s Nina in The Seagull?”
Two of the films about to be released – Aquaman is less ambitious entertainment – have led to talk of Kidman as a likely double Oscar nominee next year. Both explore something of the apocalyptic political moment in the United States and beyond.
Boy Erased tells the true story of Garrard Conley, the son of a Baptist minister in the American south, who at his parents’ insistence was sent to residential “gay conversion” therapy after coming out. Conley, played by Lucas Hedges, wrote his memoir to draw attention to the experience of a reported 700,000 Americans who have undergone such therapy – 20,000 of whom are currently in church-based programmes. Kidman plays Conley’s mother, Nancy, who initially goes along with her husband’s insistence that their son must disown his sexuality, before she sees the light.
Kidman spoke to the real-life Nancy – whose actual name is Martha – a few times. On their first meeting, the actor recalls, “she gave me a denim jacket she had made, covered in lace. She is an incredibly warm person.” When Martha watched the film at the Toronto film festival, she sobbed. Her husband, the preacher, did not attend with her. “It is all still very painful for them,” Kidman says. “And it’s good that the film refuses to have a Hollywood ending. There is movement. The mother has definitely been the one to build the bridges to her son.”
Living in Tennessee for the past dozen years, Kidman, I assume, has had the opportunity to study families like the Conleys at fairly close quarters. She agrees she has come across some parents like the Conleys, though she and her husband, the Australian country musician Keith Urban, live in Nashville, where it is obviously not as extreme, “and there are a ton of different religions”. The film, scripted and directed by Joel Edgerton (who also plays the creepy conversion therapist) gains strength from not simply denouncing all of the values that the Conley family hold dear. Nancy rejects her husband’s church but she does not lose her faith.
It struck me, watching Kidman’s performance, that the situation in which Nancy finds herself – married to a man in thrall to a cultish and patriarchal religion – had some parallels with her first marriage to Tom Cruise. The reasons for their divorce in 2001 have never been made entirely clear, but they appear to have included Kidman’s reluctance to go along with Cruise’s Scientology. Kidman remains guarded about her relationship with her two adopted children with Cruise, Isabella, 25, and Connor, 23, saying only that “they have made choices to be Scientologists and as a mother, it’s my job to love them”. But still, I wonder – with a little trepidation – whether this role, as a mother who finds religion so destructive of family life, spoke to some of that past?
Kidman smiles a bit wearily at the question. “I have a husband now,” she says. “I feel out of respect for him I don’t want to talk about that. It has been 20 years…”
The parallels can’t have been entirely lost on her though?
“I’m lucky,” she says, “I get to place my soul into roles that sometimes make statements and sometimes don’t. This film makes a statement, I think. My role in Aquaman – less so! But I have come to the point where I can say: ‘I am not going to keep discussing my ex.’ It’s nice for me to be able to say that, finally. Nobody would sit at a dinner party and answer questions about their ex while their current partner is sitting there. It is disrespectful to Keith and to Tom. I would rather be a respectful woman. I have read stuff I have said in the past and thought: ‘Bloody hell, Nicole! Keep your mouth shut!’”
That sounds like a good resolution, I say – but ideally not for the next 40 minutes or so.
She laughs. “No, don’t worry. I’ll keep talking.”
Having spent a few days reading about her, I say, tracing the ways that quotes from articles like this one can assume a weird life of their own on internet fan sites, I wonder how she avoids doing the same. She could go crazy in half an hour by Googling herself…
“We have periods at home where we don’t turn on the TV and try to have a detox from it all,” she says. “I can recommend that to anyone. Like everyone, I worry about all the anger that seems to be around. What do you do? In our case, we have some land and some animals. I left home yesterday and my children were up in the tree house, with eight friends over. We have a no-devices house. Their friends can’t bring devices over. The general rule is: play, hard core and outside.”
One of the reasons she and Urban were attracted to live in Tennessee, she says, is that it is very similar to Australia in some ways, “the pace of life, the landscape”. Though in the home of country music he is just as much a star as she is, people tend to respect – and protect – their privacy. Church is part of it too. “We go to Catholic church, or sometimes we will go to a gospel church for the music,” she says. “That singing and joy is so wonderful.”
Kidman grew up in a Catholic family. When she was about 14 her father, a biochemist and clinical psychologist, declared that he was an atheist. “He was a very gentle man,” she recalls, “with a really strong social conscience. He told me he would still live by the Ten Commandments, but he was an atheist. And I said: ‘No, I want you to believe in God!’ It was difficult for a child. I still go church. I love the ritual. But that’s me and my choice.”
If he did not share her faith, her father offered her and her sister other lessons. “One thing I loved,” she says, “is that he never, ever noticed anything we were wearing. I could literally come down and have dyed my hair pink and he wouldn’t comment. But he would always notice if you had told a funny story, or if you did something kind that helped someone out.” When she started earning her millions she would say to her dad “let’s go out and I’ll buy you a new car, or a nice watch”, but he never wanted to. Since he died, in 2014, of a heart attack, she has come to appreciate those lessons even more.
I wonder what her father would have made of her wardrobe and her look in Destroyer, the second film of Kidman’s latest Oscar possibilities. Nothing quite prepares you for her appearance in the opening of it – in her skanky leather jacket and jeans, hair dark and greasy, carrying a legacy of addiction and violence from undercover police work gone bad. For a few frames you have to look very hard to make sure it is her.
“When I look at it I’m not sure it is me either,” she says, not altogether joking.
She last had that estranging experience watching herself on screen when she made The Hours, channelling Virginia Woolf, and watching the world from behind a prosthetic nose. Her marriage to Cruise had just ended and she was in a state of unhinged depression – she said at the time that she truly believed Virginia Woolf had come into her life to save her. “I wasn’t really functioning. When I watched it a year and a half later, I could see how raw I had been, probably the worst place in my life.”
For Destroyer, she adopted some of those extremes on a more voluntary basis. Partly she took on the role because of that commitment to work with female directors. Karyn Kusama had made six low-budget independent films since her gritty and acclaimed debut, Girlfight, about a female boxer in 2000. “I wanted in part to go and support a female director, who is not 21, and has taken a few hits herself,” Kidman says.
The film has one or two jarring moments – sometimes the intensity of Kidman’s performance makes it feel like she has wandered in from another set to trash the place – but it is never less than a compulsive watch. “I was like a mule being dragged toward the character,” Kidman says, “because I could see what it involved and I was like, ‘Karyn, I’m really not sure I can do this’.”
Kusama, for her part, explains how working with Kidman was a kind of revelation in concentration and attention to detail. “Even when she told me she was terrified of the work we were doing,” she has said, “she never actually seemed afraid. If I had to walk through a haunted house, hers is a hand I’d welcome in my own.”
Kidman got very sick on set with flu, “which was really good for the film,” she says. She reportedly watched clips of coyotes to help her body language. Watching the result, you are reminded of some of the more telling things that Kidman’s collaborators have said about her. When David Hare saw her stage debut in his play The Blue Room at the Donmar Warehouse in London in 1998, he noted: “There was a famous saying about John Gielgud, that he acted from the neck up. Nicole acts all the way down.” Her director on Batman Forever, Joel Schumacher, made a related point: “Nicole is a great character actress,” he said, “with the body and face of a movie star.”
Erin Bell, Kidman’s detective character in Destroyer, is a woman I have never seen on screen before. Her presence nods to some of Clint Eastwood’s antiheroes, and the despairing 1970s complexities of Serpico or Chinatown. Erin Bell can hardly move her broken body any more but she can still fight.
Kidman spent weeks learning how to scrap and to carry guns; she can load semi-automatics on the run now. The role is a reminder of how unused audiences are to empathy with deeply flawed female leads, as opposed to male ones. You don’t like Erin Bell, but you do want her to survive.
Does Kidman still carry a bit of her shame and grime with her now the role is over?
“I hope not too much. We didn’t have much money so we did long hours and it was wet and cold and we were in the very worst neighbourhoods of LA. One time we got shut down because there was a real shooter on the set. Everyone was shouting ‘Get down! Stay down!’ and I’m lying there with a gun, thinking, well, if this guy is going to shoot anyone it’s me, the person lying down holding a big gun. It was quite intense.”
Speaking of her early life, Kidman once said she always wanted above all “to be reeling”, to be committed, all or nothing. She and Tom Cruise celebrated their early romance by skydiving. She has never lost that desire to find her limits, it seems.
She hopes at the very least that Destroyer will open up the idea of what is possible, or acceptable, for female leads. “There are,” she says, “suddenly a few more opportunities for female actors out there.”
A good deal of that possibility has, as she suggested in her Golden Globes speech, come about through the challenges from the box set and the miniseries to the Hollywood studio hierarchies. Four years ago, when Kidman and Reese Witherspoon first optioned Liane Moriarty’s novel Big Little Lies, Hollywood was a different place.
“When we proposed it, even getting it made felt like a coup,” Kidman says. “It was like, ‘Oh my God! They will actually let us do it!’” Even so, HBO managed their expectations. She and Witherspoon were told the series could only reach “a certain demographic”, which was a way of saying, only women watch dramas about women. “The first night it came out,” Kidman recalls, “we were a bit bummed, the reviews weren’t so great and the numbers were just OK. And we thought: ‘Oh they were right [about the limited audience].’ Which felt devastating. Because we had put our heart and soul into it.” But then something shifted. Along with The Handmaid’s Tale, which came out at about the same time, Big Little Lies seemed suddenly both overdue and urgent.
“We started our production well before #MeToo,” Kidman says. “And then it was percolating a bit when Big Little Lies first came out. That is why for that role of Celeste, there was a bigger response than anything I had done before.”
If you haven’t watched Kidman’s performance in the series, I urge you to. Her portrayal of the ways in which violence and victimhood can be normalised is never anything but believable. “Celeste’s is a very privileged life, which is important,” she says. “She is a woman who should have been able to leave, but we see why she stayed. It was that feeling: my children are having a good life, I can take this for their sake. I think the woman, or the victim in a domestic violence relationship, [often] thinks those things. And that started that whole conversation about hidden violence, behind closed doors.”
That conversation gained potency in the context of the testimonies about Harvey Weinstein and the other powerful figures in the entertainment industry who had allegedly used their position to harass and abuse women. Looking back, does she see a cause and effect in that sequence of events?
“I think it feels like a confluence of things,” she says. “I think it shows that there has been an awful lot of hidden violence against women, and that people have been sitting on these things. I have worked on UN violence programmes [she has been a UN goodwill ambassador since 2006] against women in other countries and I know the patterns…”
So it was not surprising to her that it was happening in Hollywood?
“Oh it was surprising, definitely, that it was happening right there. And perhaps more so for me, I think, in that I grew up protected from it. I had to navigate certain things. But I was married at 22. Really young. And before that I was a kid on set – from 14 on I had a parent or a chaperone with me, watching like a hawk. And in some ways, I was still a child when I came out of my marriage – the marriage I am going to shut up about! I didn’t have the full grownup approach to life when I came out of it. I was still very childlike. Which I was embarrassed by.”
She had worked with Weinstein’s studios half a dozen times over the years, on films including Cold Mountain and The Hours. When she read and heard the accounts of his behaviour, how did she feel?
“I always knew Harvey had a lot of anger,” she says. “But I would never have thought he was capable of the rest. My parts with Harvey were quite limited. I would work and I would go home, because again I have been in a marriage and with young children pretty much my whole adult life. I am unusual in that I have never really been a party girl. I have certainly got friends who have experienced this, not just in this industry but in all industries. But still it was a massive eye-opener.”
It is important, she believes, to keep the #MeToo stories front and centre. She has signed up to play Gretchen Carlson, the Fox News anchor, who exposed the sexual bullying of the late, disgraced CEO Roger Ailes. She believes too that, along with other powerful women in Hollywood, she can use her work to make her statements. On the night of the Golden Globes, after also winning the trophy for best TV limited series, Kidman and Witherspoon received an email from Meryl Streep, which read: “I suppose now I have to join you.” Streep signed up to the second series of Big Little Lies – due to appear next year, and in which she will play Kidman’s mother-in-law – without seeing a script.
Does Kidman think that a real change has occurred, a line has been drawn?
“I don’t know,” she says. “But I do know there is a huge strength in saying to women: I believe you. Just to hear that makes me cry. It is why an apology, a public apology, is worth so much to women who have been in this situation. Because that is what it means: I believe you.”
Aquaman is in cinemas 12 December, Destroyer 25 January 2019 and Boy Erased 8 February 2019