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Nicole Kidman on the Secrets of Her Career (and More ‘Big Little Lies’)

If you don’t like sharing a meal, stay away from Nicole Kidman. “She’s the kind of person, when you’re at dinner with her, she goes, ‘What’s that?! And she’ll have a few mouthfuls,’” says her friend Hugh Jackman, recalling how she was once very eager to try his tiramisu. Then there was the time he and Kidman were on vacation together and she eyed his mug of cappuccino. “I said to her, ‘I think you’re having a little bit of FOMO,’ and she goes, ‘Yeah, I just want a sip. What is that drink? Can I taste it?’ It gives you a little insight into who she is.”

For more than three decades, Kidman has been nibbling, devouring, gnawing — and savoring — her way through some of the most complex roles in Hollywood. Her menu of projects touches on every genre imaginable, and then some. She could easily program a festival of her own films: auteur-driven dramas (“Eyes Wide Shut,” “Birth”), art-house period pictures (“The Hours,” “The Portrait of a Lady,” “Cold Mountain”), elevated horror flicks (“The Others”), satire (“To Die For”), popcorn hits (“Days of Thunder,” “Batman Forever”), an Adam Sandler movie (“Just Go With It”) and the best original musical of the last 20 years (“Moulin Rouge!”). In 2017, Kidman headlined four movies and two TV series, and she picked up an Emmy for HBO’s “Big Little Lies,” getting her halfway to an EGOT, with only a Tony and a Grammy out of her reach. But give her time.

This year, Kidman returns with three more films. That’s one of the reasons why Variety has chosen her as our Show Woman of the Year. “Thank you — oh, my God!” Kidman says during a recent conversation at the Beverly Hills Hotel as she waves her palms in the air. “I’m doing my jazz hands.” Kidman lives in Nashville with her husband Keith Urban and their two kids, but she’s spent a lot of time this fall in Los Angeles with her dual awards-season offerings. She stars in Focus Features’ “Boy Erased,” where she plays the Baptist mother of a teenager who is forced into gay conversion therapy, and Annapurna’s “Destroyer,” portraying a tough detective investigating a homicide. In December, she dips her toe into the DC Comics universe with “Aquaman” as the matriarch Queen Atlanna, who looks like one of the sisters from “The Little Mermaid.”

Kidman says it’s easier to play fictional characters than real people. For her Oscar-winning role in “The Hours,” she had to ease up on an accent that precisely mirrored Virginia Woolf’s voice, because director Stephen Daldry thought audiences wouldn’t understand it. She’s now preparing to play Gretchen Carlson in a movie about Roger Ailes, but she hasn’t met with the former Fox News anchor, who sued her boss for sexual harassment. “I’ve been quietly doing my research,” Kidman says. “Even though it’s a very small role, you have to do the work. I’ve read her book. I’ve watched a lot of footage.”

Kidman still gets nervous on the first day of shooting, and she doesn’t think of herself as a movie star, despite being a modern-day Grace Kelly. “I’m not quite sure what it is,” she says. She describes provocateur Lars von Trier as possibly the strangest director she’s worked with, which isn’t a bad thing. “I’m strange,” she says. “So what other people go is totally strange, I don’t find strange.” When they made 2003’s “Dogville,” he had an unusual way of entering a room that didn’t involve using the door. “I was sitting there, and Lars was literally at the window of the hotel, outside. And then he’s climbing in. That’s sort of weird. And then driving around in his camper van, because he doesn’t fly. Or hiking in the forest in the dead of winter in the snow, and that’s rehearsal.”

She lobbied hard to land one of her breakout roles, as an aspiring TV reporter in “To Die For.” Director Gus Van Sant recalls meeting 25 actresses for the part, including Ellen DeGeneres, Meg Ryan and Patricia Arquette. “Nicole was told to call me and talk me into it,” Van Sant says. “And she did. She called me and said, ‘I know I’m not your first choice, but I got to tell you, I’m destined to play this part.’ Then she explained to me how excited she was. By the end, I called the producer and said, ‘Yeah, Nicole should play the role.’”

Kidman has never followed a rule book when selecting projects. “Could you ever plan this?” she says, speaking about the choices she’s made. “This is a completely free-fall career.” She explains that when she started out, moving to the United States from Australia in the early ’90s, she’d eagerly accept offers. “I think what happens, there’s only a handful of actors that can choose their whole career, every job,” Kidman says. “If you’re in it for the long run, you want to work and you want to act and you want to connect and tell stories. That’s going to lead you on many different paths. That’s how I’ve approached it.” But, at 51, she’s realizing that her opportunities are finite: “Now that I’m older, time is more precious. There isn’t an endless amount of time.”

Kidman has leveraged her A-list status in Hollywood to launch a production company, Blossom Films, and to demand gender parity. She vowed a few years ago, inspired by the conversation about women in Hollywood, to work with at least one female director every 18 months. “I’ve actually so far exceeded it,” she says, naming recent collaborations with Sofia Coppola (“The Beguiled”), Jane Campion (“Top of the Lake”), Karyn Kusama (“Destroyer”), Andrea Arnold (the second season of “Big Little Lies”) and an upcoming miniseries with Susanne Bier (HBO’s “The Undoing”). “So there’s five in two and a half years,” Kidman says. She’s noticed there’s still a lack of women in all jobs on movie sets. “I’ve only worked with two DPs,” she says. “That’s not good enough.”

Kidman has been encouraged by the changes she’s seen in Hollywood over the past year, as the #MeToo movement has inspired meaningful new conversations. But she doesn’t think those in power should be lulled by a false sense of progress. “I think it’s still going to be a long road,” Kidman says. “Things don’t change overnight. We all know that, and it’s important to keep reiterating that, because what happens is people go, ‘Oh, well. That’s done.’ This is serious stuff that needs to be dealt with for years and years to actually really shift it.”

“I always make choices for love, and everything kind of had to fall in place around that.”
Nicole Kidman

One of Kidman’s more frequent employers was Harvey Weinstein, who produced “The Hours,” “Cold Mountain,” “Lion” and several other films on her résumé. He is now standing trial in New York on sexual assault charges, and dozens of high-profile women have accused him of raping or abusing them. Kidman wasn’t one of them. “I knew very little,” she says of her exchanges with Weinstein, which she describes as “intermittent” between projects. Kidman recalls how Weinstein would try to control her publicity commitments. “He would get angry. My recollection of Harvey was never anything other than ‘Nicole, do this.’ I purposely kept my distance.”

With all her film roles, the part that she feels has made the biggest impact is that of Celeste Wright in HBO’s “Big Little Lies,” which she produced with Reese Witherspoon. “That’s the character people talk to me about more than anything else,” Kidman says. “It’s probably the most commercial thing I’ve done in my whole career.” The show reminded her that she’s not a good judge of her own work. “When I saw the therapy scene, which people really responded to, I thought I was terrible,” Kidman says. “And everyone was like, ‘No, no!’ I think it was because I felt too exposed and vulnerable. It was probably too much for me to see.”

On the night of this year’s Golden Globes, after winning the trophy for best TV limited series, Kidman and Witherspoon received an email from Meryl Streep. “She goes, ‘I suppose now I have to join you.’ And we were like, ‘What?’ The two of us were just shocked.” Streep signed on without a script. “She hadn’t even read it,” Kidman says. “That’s how much she wanted to support us.”

Streep plays Kidman’s mother-in-law in the upcoming season of “Big Little Lies,” so the two actresses share many scenes. “I was terrified,” Kidman says. “You’re acting opposite the great one. I get nervous anyway — but to be opposite her and not want her to think, ‘Who is this amateur?’ And also, we want to deliver a series for her that she’s great in. Reese and I were like, ‘We want this for her and for the other women.’ They have much stronger roles in the second one.” Would she be open to doing a third season? “I think it would be hard to get the whole group together,” Kidman says. “But we would love to do it.”

Nicole Kidman has always led a life marked by a certain duality. She was born in Hawaii, to parents who were there studying on student visas. Her family moved back to Sydney when she was 4. Growing up, she used to sit with an American flag in one hand and an Australian flag in the other. “I had American citizenship and Australian citizenship,” Kidman says. “I was both.” She learned from her mother, a staunch feminist, not to put her dreams on hold. “My mom became a nurse,” Kidman says. “She wanted to be a doctor, but they didn’t have the money, and she didn’t have the confidence and the opportunity. She would have been a great doctor.”

Nicole Kidman Variety Cover Story
CREDIT: Nino Muñoz for Variety

Kidman started taking acting classes in high school and landing stage and TV roles in her late teens. Playing a neurosurgeon who falls for a race car driver in 1990’s “Days of Thunder,” opposite her ex-husband Tom Cruise, introduced her to U.S. audiences. “I moved here because I fell in love and got married,” Kidman says. “I always make choices for love, and everything kind of had to fall in place around that.” In retrospect, her life with the biggest movie star on the planet didn’t make her feel like she was living under a magnifying glass. “If I look back, it actually didn’t seem like a lot of interest,” she says. “We didn’t have social media then. We didn’t have paparazzi like now. You had definite control of it.”

Jackman tells a story about how she’s always been a daredevil in her personal life. “Did you know she can jump out of a plane at 10,000 feet?” he says. “I think one day she did it like six times. She and Tom used to do it. She loved it.” Not always. Kidman says she was struck with terror as she plummeted to Earth. “That’s the crux of my personality,” she says. “Standing there, just going, ‘I want to,’ and then ‘Oh, no, no, no’ and just jumping anyway.”

Kidman is still taking big plunges in her career. Even by her own standards, “Destroyer” is a departure, a gritty crime thriller revolving around a protagonist with demons. Kidman cried the first time she read the script. “They were considering someone else for the role,” she says. “Then the other actress didn’t want to do it. I was like, ‘I want to.’” Kusama provided her with reference points for portraying Erin Bell. “I sent her videos of coyotes running through the streets of Los Angeles,” the director says. “She talked a lot about shame, what it does to your body and mind. I realized a couple of things. One, she was going to fully embody the character in another physicality. And I knew she was going to bring a humanity to the character.”

Kidman pushed herself to get into Erin’s mind-set. For starters, she went to a shooting range in Tennessee and trained with a military veteran to learn how to handle assault rifles and other guns. “All of the weapons, I can load them, I can fire them, I know them,” Kidman says. “I trained for about a month, but every day. It was cold, and I was tired, and I would just train. And my hands cramped, because I don’t have big hands and I don’t have strong hands. It was awful.”

She developed a limp and wore prosthetics on her face, including on the bridge of her nose, but she doesn’t want to detail all of that. Kidman thinks it will take the audience out of the movie. She admits that the trauma of the role weighed on her. “I was very, deeply depressed,” she says. “It was the point where my husband was like, ‘When the hell is this going to end?’” When Urban saw a finished cut of the movie, “he was weirded out,” Kidman says. “Wouldn’t you be weirded out if you were married to one person, and they show up looking like that?”

Kidman goes from a Baptist mother in “Boy Erased” (with Lucas Hedges) to a comic book queen in “Aquaman.”
Courtesy of Focus Features/Warner Bros

Kidman plays a far different role in “Boy Erased,” as a mom who drives her son (played by Lucas Hedges) to a gay conversion therapy center at the urging of her husband (Russell Crowe). She discovered a way to empathize with her character, even though she found the notion of trying to “cure” a gay person despicable. “I hate that she did that,” Kidman says. “But at the same time, she didn’t do it out of maliciousness. She thought that this was going to help him.”

With “Aquaman,” Kidman returns to the comic book genre for the first time since 1995’s “Batman Forever.” She accepted the challenge because she wanted to work with director James Wan. She gets giddy when describing her latex costume: “It was covered in what looks like scales, but it’s not scales.” She’s hesitant to reveal too much about her character, outside of one pivotal scene. “I ate a goldfish in the movie,” she says with a smile. “My kids were thrilled.” She pauses to clarify that, despite her Method acting tendencies, it wasn’t a real goldfish. “It was fun, and I love my hair — that long, cascading, to-my-bum hair.”

Kidman hasn’t paid attention to online chatter that she’s too young to play the mother of Aquaman actor Jason Momoa, who is 39. “In the context of the superhero world, it all evens out,” she says. “Atlanna doesn’t really age.”

Kidman enjoys her life in Nashville, a world away from the pressures of Hollywood. She and Urban recently ventured out to see “A Quiet Place” (which made them go home and hug their kids) and “A Star Is Born” (which made them sob). Although she tries not to re-watch too many of her own films, she recently caught “Australia” on TV with her family. “I love that movie,” she says, referencing the mixed reception when it first came out. “I think what happened with that, there was an expectation for it to be a particular type of story.” But her kids gave her the thumbs-up. “They were, like, spellbound by it. That was really nice.”

As she looks ahead, Kidman wants to keep surprising herself — and audiences. “I like not predicting myself,” she says. “I like not knowing where I’m going to go next, or what’s going to happen.”

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