This story first appeared in the Jan. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
It’s Jan. 10, just a few days before the Golden Globes, and Nicole Kidman has jetted in to L.A. after a whirlwind few weeks of travel. She was in Australia on vacation with husband Keith Urban and their two young daughters and then traveled 30 hours to Europe to shoot the final scenes for her upcoming Grace of Monaco, an art film by director Olivier Dahan (La Vie en Rose). She was flying so much, she actually got a nosebleed after one particularly long leg. But on this chilly California day, she looks no worse for wear and arrives on time for a photo shoot for this publication dressed in black leggings and a sequined sweater.
On the set, the ex-wife of Tom Cruise and Oscar winner whose paychecks have run as high as $20 million a movie dons some old Levi’s jeans and a T-shirt from L.A. vintage emporium What Goes Around Comes Around and decides she has to have them. (Not the sort of clothes one associates her with, making it all the more interesting.) The antennae of the stylist and assorted staffers go on high alert. This usually is when the awkward dance of clothes-being-taken-for-free-by-celebrities-under-the-guise-of-being-proffered occurs.
Instead, Kidman, 45 — a tasteful fashionista with the kind of willowy body that makes red-carpet designers giddy — whips out her credit card and hands it to the stylist. “Never would I take free clothes,” she says, turning up her famous nose. “That would be so … tacky. These people work so hard to make beautiful things — you have to appreciate that.”
Kidman, it turns out, is famous for paying her freight in fashion. And these days, in the world of independent film as well. Yes, she can afford to be indie, what with her reported worth of $300 million (some of it from the Cruise divorce, the rest her own earnings, supplemented by ads for Chanel No. 5 and Omega watches) and Urban’s estimated $3 million-to-$5 million paycheck for being a judge on this season’s American Idol (and his own $35 million fortune). But the actress isn’t slumming it, playing Hollywood faux-hemian. The star who made 2004’s The Stepford Wives for Paramount and 2005’s Bewitched for Sony seems to have found a new calling as studio jobs for everyone — and perhaps actresses over 40 in particular — wane. She joins other A-listers at Sundance this month, such as her friend Naomi Watts, Ashton Kutcher, Reese Witherspoon, Matthew McConaughey and Amanda Seyfried, who are coming to hawk small-budget movies, the type whose costs can equal the crafts-services bill on a studio set. At Park City, Kidman will be debuting the just-under-$12 million stylized horror movie Stoker.
“My heart is independent,” she says. “I come from Australia, I was trained in indie movies. It’s an unconscious decision — it’s who I am. As an actor, you live and die by your choices. I don’t associate with mainstream films anymore. I don’t do so well in them, either. I guess I have a foot in both worlds. I’ve been offered some studio films this year and turned them down. They just didn’t align with who I am.”
Indeed, some of Kidman’s more recent studio films seemed cursed: The bigger the budget, the harder it fell. The Golden Compass cost $180 million and was a critical and financial disaster; in 2007, The Invasion cost around $80 million and grossed a mere $15 million domestically. Critics might have questioned the material, but rarely did anyone question her talent.
Without a trace of irony, she continues, “I actually don’t even know what a movie star is now — what is a movie star?” she muses. “When the best female part of the year is Claire Danes in Homeland, you know the game’s changed. Maybe in the ’50s, there was a far more particular idea for a movie star. But now that’s all blurry — everything’s more fluid.”
Speaking of fluid, that brings us to The Paperboy. The Lee Daniels-directed movie, based on Pete Dexter‘s 1994 novel about reporters in the ’60s trying to spring a convict from jail, earned Kidman a fraction of what she’d get for a studio picture. And the $12.5 million indie includes an infamous urination scene where her character has to take the bite out of Zac Efron‘s jellyfish sting.
“I just don’t find urination shocking,” Kidman declares matter-of-factly. “I think I peed in the beginning of Eyes Wide Shut, too. But then, I don’t find a lot of things shocking! Violence is a lot more shocking than sex — sex is primal.” Clearly, her director felt the same way. “Lee had an obsession about shooting me from behind — he was obsessed with my ass! To me, that was so funny. He’s hilarious, I love him. I’m drawn to Lee for his wild nature. I felt shy singing in Moulin Rouge! But peeing — no, not shy.”
Possibly more shocking — to everyone but her — were her sex scenes with John Cusack‘s sleazy inmate: one in which they simulate oral sex and another where you can’t tell if it’s rough sex or rape.
“I knew Lee and Nicole were looking for a certain intensity,” recalls Cusack. “We shot the rough sex scene on day one, and I barely knew her. She never took a backwards step; working with her was working without a net. There’s a lot more shit in there that was cut out, believe me. I was afraid I was hurting her, but she was more fearless than me. We improvised the panty-ripping scene — it wasn’t in the script.”
When Daniels asked if she was getting hurt, she shrugged him off, wanting to keep working. “The next day,” he recalls, “Nic showed up with purple and blue bruises all over her legs! I said, ‘You crazy bitch — go put some makeup on your legs!'”
Indeed, in her series of indies, Kidman has gone to extremes to break out of what long has been a reserve associated with her. She was gang-raped in Dogville; she mourned and melted down as the parent of a dead toddler in Rabbit Hole; and smoked, seduced and aged her way through the HBO movie Hemingway & Gellhorn. Stoker, from Oldboy‘s Korean director Park Chan-wook, is a moody gothic art film/horror hybrid in which Kidman plays Mia Wasikowska‘s icy mother, who might or might not be a murderess.
“Her recent choices don’t surprise me,” says director Baz Luhrmann, who shifted her career with 2001’s Moulin Rouge! “You can identify careers where actors like Nicole find something that works for them and have simply mined that vein for a very lucrative and comfortable career — it’s no criticism — but Nicole goes out of her way to walk on the razor’s edge as an artist. I think she’d find it unnatural to be anything but exploratory, dangerous and challenging.”
One has to wonder whether this risk-taking actress found her groove after her 2001 divorce from the famous-for-control Cruise. During their marriage, she starred in Malice, Far and Away and Batman Forever; post-divorce, Birthday Girl and The Hours. It’s pointed out to her that a recent issue (Jan. 16) of THR contains an excerpt from Going Clear, the new book on Scientology by Pulitzer Prize winner Lawrence Wright, in which her divorce from Cruise is blamed on the “cult” religion and heavily referred to. “I’ll bet it is,” she says to a reporter before quickly looking at something else in the issue. “My eye is going to a dress here — that’s how interested I am in this.”
When pressed, she’ll say only: “I’ve chosen not to speak publicly about Scientology. I have two children [adopted with Cruise] who are Scientologists — Connor [the Red Dawn actor is now 17] and Isabella  — and I utterly respect their beliefs.” Vanity Fair‘s Scientology exposé and Wright’s book both claim the Church turned them against her, something she’ll neither confirm nor deny. It’s maybe the one place this very purposefully open actress won’t go.
On matters career, however, her closed book reopens. The Paperboy confirms her current willingness to go farther and farther out on a limb. She wasn’t even Daniels’ first choice to play the trashy ’60s Southern spitfire in a movie that mixes exposure and debasement with humor: Modern Family‘s Sofia Vergara was cast opposite Bradley Cooper, but, as Daniels says, “The money fell out, just like with most independent films, and we had to start over. I felt Nicole and I together would be explosive — I didn’t even have to talk to her, we read each other’s minds. We were like a couple making love except without the sex. She’s looking for total honesty in her work.”
But the pretty and spry Aussie, the daughter of a psychologist/biochemist and a nursing instructor, who began acting at age 14, did not start out this way; she was headed in a very different direction. “At school, I really wanted to be the girl next door. And then later on, I went, ‘Uh, maybe I’m not the girl next door.’ I have finally accepted that — embraced it, really — and that’s why I love being a character actor. By the time I got to Eyes Wide Shut, Stanley Kubrick told me, ‘You don’t look like a character actor — but you’re hired as a character actor.’ “
Of course, most character actors aren’t 5-foot-11, golden-haired beauties with crystal-blue eyes and perfect skin, nor do they end up with a pair of famous husbands, an Oscar and two other Oscar nominations — not to mention double SAG and Golden Globe noms this season.
“I try to go places I’m terrified of,” she says. “It makes you more compassionate. The journey of life is hard; you’re always waiting for the cannonball to come and hit you.”
Often, her choices are informed by wanting to work with strong-voiced directors. “I do develop very powerful relationships with most of my directors,” admits Kidman. “Gus Van Sant changed my career with To Die For. I’ll definitely work with Lars von Trier again. And [The Hours director] Stephen Daldry is like a soulmate. He was so kind to me when I was pregnant, even when I couldn’t do The Reader.”
Her next two films — both indie, natch — take her to more uncharted places. She already has shot The Railway Man, a World War II drama in which she plays Colin Firth‘s wife in a small supporting role. “It’s not the size of the role I care about, it’s the subject matter here: torture and the human soul.”
Sometime this year, she’ll go into production on Before I Go to Sleep, from the acclaimed novel by S.J. Watson about a British woman who wakes up every day with no memory of the day before. “I loved the novel,” she says. “I recently bought the rights to a few books I hope to produce films of. I may not star in them — I have two little daughters now [Sunday Rose, 4, and Faith Margaret, 2], which affects all my decisions.” The kids accompanied her to the south of France for six months for the Grace of Monaco shoot, and she went home every night to make them dinner.
So in her spare time, what precious little there is, Kidman doesn’t tweet and rarely goes on her Facebook page. She reads and watches Homeland, Modern Family and, of course, American Idol with her Idol judge husband either at their home in Sydney, their farm in Sutton Forest, Australia, or their house in Nashville.
“I’m just a nice Southern girl,” she says with, perhaps, a touch of tease. “It’s such an easy lifestyle. And it’s more diverse than you’d expect. There’s so much great music. The Black Keys go jogging past the restaurant Keith and I go to. We’ll hang out with Jack White in the studio. And there’s music in our house all the time — Keith plays harmonica, drums, banjo, piano and bass guitar. He has a strong will about his career, and so do I. We want each other to thrive and do what we love, and we never interfere in the other’s career choices.”
Looking at her résumé, which is 50-odd films deep, it would seem that there’s little new for Kidman to tackle. Which, in itself, is something of a challenge for someone so restlessly inquisitive. “I really want to do Chekhov in Russian,” she blurts out. And it seems she isn’t kidding. While studying the language for 2001’s Birthday Girl, she got obsessed with classic Russian literature.
OK, so Kidman acknowledges this might sound even a little more out there than anything she’s said so far. “I know my choices are erratic and unpredictable, and there’s no rhyme or reason. I want to be spontaneous. I love subtext. Subtext is what’s interesting — in Ibsen, in Chekhov, in all the great literature. The sound of Russian gives it such gravitas. It’s a very difficult language.”
If this doesn’t fit with her indie sensibility, nothing does.
“It’s always been my dream to perform Chekhov in Russian,” she concludes. Then, with a little twinkle in her eye, “And don’t be surprised when I do it.”
Very few would be.