|Nicole Kidman United
Magazines - Vogue
| Vogue December 2006
One Fine Day. Nicole Kidman: Brilliant, beautiful, passionate ... and a country wife in Nashville. Who'd have thought it? Eve MacSweeney reports.
Photographed by Mario Testino
It never rains in Nashville, except when it pours. Today, the drizzly after math of an overnight deluge has put something of a damper on Nicole Kidman's plans to meet at a bucolic spot in her new hometown. A damper but not a deterrent. As any observer of life knows, Kidman is not someone who will let a little stormy weather throw her off stride. And so, rolling up in her black sports car with tinted windows, she jumps out wearing sensible walking shoes and brandishing an umbrella like a latter-day, strawberry-blonde Mary Poppins, game for anything.
Walking is something Kidman like to do. Her father, a former marathon runner, made a habit of taking Nicole and her sister "out and about" in the Sydney hills, which this place reminds her of and which is just one of the reasons Kidman feels so at home here. As we strike out from the car park, rounding a corner of a trail to lovely views of forest and water, Kidman shows off the landscape with almost proprietary pride, pointing out a tree where a barn owl roosts and a misty lake where swans sail and beavers beaver away. "It's very tranquil," she says contentedly. "I come here most days. Sometimes I'll do a little meditation here in the morning."
Actresses are all about incarnation, but this new identity as Nashville Nicole had taken no one by surprise more than Kidman herself. "I sat outside on our verandah reading my book yesterday, and I thought, I never imagined I'd end up here," she says. It's just two months after her Sydney wedding to country singer and fellow antipodean Keith Urban, and here's Nicole, on the cusp of 40, having finally put to rest the aftershock of finding herself the ex-Mrs. Tom Cruise, literally pinching herself at the turn her life has taken. Sadly, a few weeks later, Nicole's new life as a country-music wife would take on more nuanced shades when Urban, right before a scheduled national tour, fell off the wagon and checked himself into a rehab facility. But today, she's radiating happiness.
"This is my home now," she says as if enjoying the taste of the words. "This is the most time I've spent anywhere in years. I wanted to be earthed, and I didn't feel earthed for so long, maybe not since I was a child. It feels like I can feel my skin." She grabs at her arms as though she might be dreaming. "I don't feel like I'm floating around, which was how it had been for many years, probably because I wasn't that happy. So now it's the first time that I'm sort of breathing in everything and saying - "She gasps by way of illustration. " I feel such gratitude for being alive, rather than just taking that for granted."
She may feel rooted to the ground, but Kidman looks anything but = reed-thin, unusually tall and pale, with piercing cornflower-blue eyes, like a Pre-Raphaelite wraith made flesh, in a diaphanous blue-and-white blouse and skinny jeans. You imagine a puff of wind might send her up into the sky with her umbrella, except that she breaks frequently into full-throated, almost inelegant laughter, which undercuts her ethereal quality and brings a lightness to her conversation, even when she's discussing life-changing events. By now, she's searched out a shelter with a couple of rickety chairs where we can take refuge from the rain. She picks the less comfortable one for herself and starts to soliloquize with disarming candour about the hard-earned wisdom of the past two decades.
"It's very hard when you are in your 20s to cultivate a relationship," she reflects. "You get advice 'Don't get married when you're 22.' and you just think, They don't know what they're talking about! But now I look back and think, Oh, there's probably some truth to that. You don't realize that yo are sort of unformed, trying to find out what you believe in and who you are. And for me, I'm much more about the other person ... Not giving up who you are, I think that's the big lesson, and having the guts to speak up at times when you don't want to, or you're scared to. But life has got all those twists and turns. You've just got to hold on tight and off you go."
She laughs at her 20/20 hindsight but is emphatic - almost fierce - about the fact that she looks back on her marriage to Cruise "never with regret. Honestly, I would have stayed married for the rest of my life. It's not like I regret who I was in that marriage; I don't at all. It was eleven years of my life. It wasn't 50 years; it turned out to be eleven." When it was over, she says, "I needed to go on carefully and delicately find my sense of confidence again, because it just wasn't there. There was nothing to draw on. I had a well of emotions, but they were not able to give me any strength.
During the five or so years between the end of her first marriage and the prospect of her second - she met Urban at an Australian awards dinner at the beginning of last year - "I think I was asleep," Kidman muses. "I'm not one to jump into things. I was very wary, and damaged. I was working a lot to hide a lot of things, and my love affairs - because I just didn't really want anybody around me - were with my films. I had the fortunate situation that I could go and just lose myself in those. I'm a big believer in the power of love, and it wasn't that I'd given up hope, I was just ... asleep. But now I feel like I've woken up again. Rather than living through characters, I've learned to be myself."
Part of being herself these days is doing things like taking a Thai cooking class on Saturdays, dropping in to Nashville music shows with Urban (recently Oasis, Sheryl Crow, Australian guitarist Tommy Emmanuel), taking road trips together (the Rocky Mountains, the Cotswolds), reading (currently J.M. Coetzee's Slow Man and Charles Frazier's Thirteen Moons), writing (she's working on 'poetic and nonlinear' ideas, which she may turn into a collection of short stories), and cutting back on her professional commitments. Although to an outside eye her dance card looks pretty full, Kidman says she has worked only three months in the last year. "I'm still drawn to playing women who are complicated, and beautiful in their complication," she says. "My motivation now is very much about if the character intrigues me and if the director intrigues me, and if I have the desire to throw myself into that. When you hit a certain age, you start to go, Oh, there are so many other glorious things in the world."
Of course, this apparent nonchalance lasts only until Kidman does take on a project, and then she becomes almost preternaturally engaged in her work. Steven Shainberg says that when he was shooting Fur, a just-released, impressionistic movie in which Kidman plays the late photographer Diane Arbus, "the cinematographer turned to me at one point and said, "I've never seen an actor who's better between "Action" and "Cut".' Something real and immediate and visceral and alive is taking place in front of the camera."
Kidman's technique is first to prepare for a part on her own, putting together what she calls her "emotional and technical homework," sometimes with an acting coach. On set, she says, "I don't like to get to know the crew too well, because - especially if you're shy, as I am - you'll either dig in and protect yourself or you will alter how you are, and that's so dangerous. You need to feel very connected to the director and the actors and focus on that and not much else. Then you feel you're un-judged, which is why making films now is very, very difficult, because there's so much judgment involved."
To create her characters, says Kidman, she tires to "feel them rather than know them." Diane Arbus, who chased down deep truths in herself and others, took and artistic journey fraught with psychological risk. She left the safe haven of her high-bourgeois origins (the fur of the title refers in part to her family's business as furriers and owners of a New York Department store), and the fashion-photography work she had been doing with her husband, to seek out as photographic subjects real people who were sometimes on the fringes of normal life - nudists, transvestites, freak-show performers - whom she called life's aristocrats." Her enterprise could stand in some ways as a parallel to the acting process as Kidman experiences it, and the actress declares an affinity with Arbus's emotional openness. "I've been described as raw," she says. "That's how my husband describes me now. He says, "I want to protect your rawness.'"
Hugh Jackman, opposite whom she sings and dances in penguin feathers in the new animated feature Happy Feet, puts it another way. "She seems to me to be someone who bungee-jumps when she acts," he says. "She completely dives off and is really ready to go for it. Most of the time she flies, and even if she doesn't, she's always given her everything."
Kidman is philosophical about the fact that some of her projects will find more favour than others. "I think what I've got to do is stay committed to making these abstract films that work for some people and don't work for others. And with that comes flak, and with that also comes some praise. But I'm glad I'm walking that line. People try to steer you off it, but if I'm ever not staying on that kind of precarious cliff, I will be disappointed in myself."
Besides the Arbus movie, a provocatively strange film by the director of the provocatively strange Secretary, Kidman's recent jumps off the cliff include Noah Baumbach's follow-up to The Squid and the Whale, in which she plays one of two sisters opposite Jennifer Jason Leigh (Baumbach's off-screen wife), and Oliver Hirshbiegel's upcoming The Invasion, playing a psychiatrist trying to save the world from an alien epidemic. "I've never done a science-fiction film before," she says, "and the idea of doing it in the hands of a very raw German director seemed interesting to me."
Kidman reserves some of her greatest enthusiasm for a Baz Luhrmann movie she will shoot this spring in Northwest Australia's rugged Kimberley region, which Luhrmann describes as "a sweeping, romantic epic, which uses landscape to express the inner emotional life of the two main characters. It's like a grand Western except," he jokes, "it's a Northern." Kidman will play an aristocratic Englishwoman in the thirties who goes to Australia in search of her philandering ranch-owning husband. Along the way she meets a "revolting, low-class Humphrey Bogart-type cattle drover," played by Jackman (who, Luhrmann notes, is poised to occupy the current "vacant space for a true classic male movie star - and boy, does he wear those moleskins well!"), and an African Queen scenario ensues. Who can wait?
When Luhrmann, who famously teamed up with Kidman on Moulin Rouge!, thinks about her particular skills, he describes them as an "unusual package. Nicole Kidman is a fabulous actor - terrific realization of character - however, she's also a card-carrying, old-fashioned movie star who can fill an iconic role and take the audience on a journey of passion and emotion." The latter quality means she can carry a movie when she chooses, while the former allows her not to overwhelm a small film. Noah Baumbach describes the way, when they worked together, Kidman became "completely integrated" in the production. "She brings all these exciting qualities that she has as an actress and a movie star, but they don't fight the movie. I think that's what separates her from a lot of other movie stars. It's very rare, particularly given the culture of celebrity we have right now."
Kidman appears to have worked out a straightforward relationship with her fame. "I love to watch Nicole's sense of really being comfortable in her skin," says Jackman, who has been friends with her for six or seven years. "It's true the world over, but in Australia she's such a big deal, you can't imagine. And Australians are not historically used to the star system - sometimes there's a bit of a chip on the shoulder. Nicole never apologizes for who she is. It's not like she downplays it and is incredibly self-deprecating; she's always totally natural and still seems to make people feel at ease. People ask me what her wedding was like, and I say, 'Next to mine, it was the best wedding I've ever been to." IT's easy to underestimate how hard it would be for two Australians at their level of business to maintain an atmosphere that was just incredibly natural, incredibly loving, and incredibly genuine. It felt like a real Ozzie wedding."
If Kidman in person exudes a mixture of fragility and strength, her new husband also has his fragile side, having battle drugs and alcohol in the past. It would be naive not to realize the possibility that such a history can come back to haunt one - there were even reports, which Kidman has denied, of a pre-nup concerning Urban's possible lapse from sobriety - but she was clearly blindsided by this happening so soon. Doubtless now more that ever, she feels very protective of her marriage and the life she has made with Urban. Give or take a slip on his part, "I think Keith and I are at a time in our lives where our priorities are pretty aligned with what we want and where we want to end up," she says. "We want to keep a very quiet, simple life down here in Tennessee, and then go and do our thing, which is, thank God, in different fields, and come back to each other. We spend an enormous amount of time together, and we're determined to do that. I've spent too much time away from my family, and I just have no desire to live like that." Nashville, for the most part, has respected their privacy, showing them an interest that is friendly rather than intrusive - leave that to the paparazzi who fly in from London and L.A. to gatecrash their private life, "which is a little bit of a nightmare," Kidman remarks dryly.
Isabella and Connor, the children she adopted with Cruise, go back and forth between the Kidman-Urban and the Cruise-Holmes households. "They're very rich kids now in terms of their psyches and the way in which they view the world," she says. "They're adaptable because their whole life is travel." She and Cruise have an arrangement not to talk about the children - "Our agreement is that they'll discuss their lives when they're in their 20s, or when they need to, without us being their voices" - but she can't resist indulging in a little motherly pride. "My daughter is just lovely. It touches me because she's been through so much as a thirteen-year-old girl, and she's forgiving. She's going into the age where children can be quite tricky, and I know she has a lot going on in her head. But she's resonant and deep. That makes me proud.
"I'd like to be a mother again, " she continues. "I always thought I'd eventually live on a Fijian island. I love the idea of being in a sarong, with hair down to my bum and kids following me around and hanging out ... nieces, nephews, cousin's children, my children. A whole array of little people." Before she retreats across the sea, however, there are a few pressing events to attend to. She's about to leave for London, where she is playing Mrs. Coulter - " a villain, which I haven't done for a while" - in the first part of Chris Weitz's adaptation of the Philip Pulman children's trilogy His Dark Materials, and plans to rifle through the Vintage store Virginia. "The twenties and thirties are my favourite eras," she says. "I tend to wear twenties dresses, even out here, because it's so hot." She's planning a couple of exploratory trips in her capacity as a UN goodwill ambassador working for women's rights, one to Kosovo and another to India. "It's groundwork," she explains. "I'm just compiling my own sense of these countries and what's going on there. Getting my hands dirty." She talks of the heartbreak of going to a Romanian orphanage during the seven-and-a-half filming of Cold Mountain, where she helped out by simply holding a baby for an hour at a time. She still funds the orphanage. "If there's anything you can do to try and relieve the pain people walk around with ..." she says, her words trailing off. And of course there's Urban's rehabilitation program, during which she has resolved to support him.
Kidman's questing and emphatic nature brings complex - and sometimes dark - materials to her work, in which exploration is far more important than finding answers. She maintains an enigmatic quality that directors love. For his vision of Arbus, Shainberg says, he required "an actor who could always have a mysterious, complicated, unknowable internal life in front of the camera. And with Kidman, you always don't know. You always are questioning. You always are unsure of exactly what's going on inside her. And that's endlessly interesting." It's a quality she welcomes in herself. Americans might be surprised to learn that throughout her period of recovery after the breakup of her marriage to Cruise, she didn't turn to therapy. "Your life can have mystery," she says. :I don't really want to understand it all; that's fine by me. I can go to my deathbed and not have a complete understanding of myself."
There's also no whiff of anxiety coming from her about turning 40 in such a notoriously unforgiving profession. "Aging hurts us," she acknowledges, "but I hope that there's a group of us that is changing that. The stories of women in their 40s, fascinating women in their 50s and 60s, are not something we sweep under the carpet anymore, because there's actually that demographic of people now that will go and see films about women over 40." She cites Meryl Streep, "sublime in Prada," and Madonna - "strong and fascinating and selling tickets and albums." She's like to see Lauren Bacall win an Oscar and Shirley MacLaine get the AFI Life Achievement Award. "That would make me very happy," she says. "I mean, look at her! She's fabulous."
Most striking of all about Kidman is her utter lack of jadedness. Having embraced "love,pain, and the whole crazy thing," as her husband would have it, she is all about new beginnings, not endings, opening herself up to the world and her experience. "She's at a place in her career where some others might find it difficult to go to a new level, but if there was ever someone fit to defy that, it's Nicole,: says Luhrmann. "She's a poster woman for the idea of reinvention and the rediscovery of life."
There's no one who wouldn't wish Kidman well in getting through the turbulent side of her fairy-tale romance with Urban. As we take a last lap on the woods, Kidman tries to spot the owl for me, "a good omen," she says. She's talked a lot about her family, "the people who know me so well, and that have kept me sane, " and proceeds to talk about the death of her 90-year-old grandmother last year, before Kidman had embarked on this new chapter. "She was a big presence in my life, she says. "I couldn't get there in time, but she spoke to me over the phone just before she died. She said, Nicky, be happy.' She just kept whispering that."
Kidman is clearly trying to take her at her word.
Transcript by foxy. May have/will have errors.