"It's not a business for me," says the Oscar-winning actress Nicole Kidman as we sit down at The London West Hollywood to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast. "I want the films to make money — if they cost a lot of money, I don't want people to lose — but I've got to keep my artistic spirit, and I've got to approach it not from a strategic business place, because that just makes me feel not good. So I ask other people to take care of that side of it ... but let us make it."
Born in Honolulu but raised mostly in Australia, the 49-year-old actress's most recent film, Lion — for which she has received Critics' Choice, Golden Globe and SAG nominations, and is a slam-dunk to receive an Oscar nom, too — is one that wouldn't have looked obvious on paper to most actresses: Its director was a first-time feature filmmaker, it had only a small budget, its first hour was in Hindi and it required her, in a supporting part (as the adoptive mother of an Indian boy), to act opposite a young non-actor who doesn't speak English. But, for Kidman, it was a no-brainer. "The message of this film, about unconditional love, is very powerful to me and very important," she says.
Kidman was a shy kid with a stutter, but she still pursued the performing arts at the age of 8, because, she says, "I suppose I just wasn't comfortable in my own skin, and the idea of living in somebody else's life" appealed to her. By 17, she was already well known Down Under, thanks to a starring role on a Disney Channel show, and soon thereafter parts in several productions from Byron Kennedy and George Miller's company, including their miniseries Vietnam (1987) and Bangkok Hilton (1989) and the 1989 film Dead Calm. Then, in 1990, Kidman went to America, starred in Days of Thunder and married its male lead, Tom Cruise. "I fell in love," she says. "I wasn't an American star, I was an actress who was married to the biggest star in the world." Their subsequent marriage made her a household name and face, but did nothing for her career; instead, it caused her to take her eye off her work. "I was moved off my passion," she explains. "I'm not good at balance."
"I hadn't had great roles," Kidman says, until Gus Van Sant's 1995 film To Die For, with its sort of "satirical humor that's very Australian." That same year, she played the female lead in Batman Forever, and firmly established herself as an actress equally at home in movies big and small. She says the main thing that attracts her to a film is something about it that is "unexpected," adding, "Whatever is the norm, I'm better in not the norm." That would help to explain Kidman and Cruise's third and final film together (they'd also done 1992's Far and Away), 1999's Eyes Wide Shut, for Stanley Kubrick, whom she regards as "the greatest filmmaker, the professor of film," and for whom she and Cruise spent two years in England making a film in which they had to be very physically and emotionally vulnerable together. Kubrick first showed them the film, which ultimately proved critically divisive, the night before he died.
In 1998, Kidman played multiple characters on the London stage in a highly acclaimed production of David Hare's The Blue Room, which paved the way for many of the great opportunities that she would get and seize after she and Cruise separated and divorced in 2001. "Stephen Daldry [who would direct her in 2002's The Hours] came and saw that, Baz Luhrmann [who would direct her in 2001's Moulin Rouge!] came and saw that, and out of The Blue Room and all of those characters I played, I suddenly was given these chances." She sang her way to her first Oscar nom for Moulin Rouge!; for her portrayal of Virginia Woolf in The Hours, she won the best actress Oscar, in the words of Denzel Washington, "by a nose"; and she went on a run of other great performances — in love story Cold Mountain (2003), avant-garde Dogville (2003), mystery Birth (2004), biopic Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (2006) and dramedy Margot at the Wedding (2007).
Kidman has had her share of misses, too, including 2004's The Stepford Wives, 2005's Bewitched, 2007's The Invasion and The Golden Compass, 2008's Australia and 2009's Nine. But she righted her ship with 2010's Rabbit Hole, which she also produced, and which resulted in her third best actress Oscar nom; the 2012 HBO TV movie Hemingway & Gelhorn, for which she received Emmy and Golden Globe noms ("I just go where the great storytelling is ... I don't care what the medium is"); and now Lion. Kidman was drawn to Lion because she, like her character, is the mother of adopted children; because she was impressed by the vision of Garth Davis, its rookie director, who had previously co-directed the TV series Top of the Lake with Jane Campion; and because it would shoot largely in Australia. The actress found the preproduction period on this film to be particularly invaluable, as she used it to get to know the real woman she was to portray and then to develop a rapport with the young Indian boys who were to play her sons.
Kidman next will be seen onscreen in the seven-hour HBO TV miniseries Big Little Lies, which she produced with and in which she stars opposite Reese Witherspoon, which premieres Feb. 19. And, as she lines up other films and TV projects, Kidman also hopes to return to the stage, noting that she "would love" to bring to New York the play Photograph 51, in which she starred, to great acclaim, this fall. In the meantime, though, she's having to clear a lot of nights on her calendar, since a lot of groups want her to attend their awards ceremonies as a nominee. Chances are Oscar night, Feb. 26, will be among them.