When I'm doing my research for this interview with Nicole Kidman, the image that keeps coming to mind is that of an alabaster doll with a machine gun. Is this unfair? A case of Venus-envy? A clichéd response to the phenomenon of a woman with ambition? Or just another extreme response to a woman who can inspire several emotions, but never indifference. Something to do with the almost shocking contrast between the guarded restraint of her pale-skinned beauty and the pulsing determination that must have been necessary to propel her first into being half of Hollywood’s number one power couple with Tom Cruise, and then, once the marriage ended, on to Oscar-winning form as an actress.
For the Oscar she played Virginia Woolf in The Hours (2002), who once told other women writers that they needed to kill their inner self- sacrificing female,'The Angel in the House', to write well and truthfully. You suspect Kidman has followed the same approach to acting – even though her success as an actress has inevitably meant embracing the role of sex symbol, the sense of steel below that endlessly photographed surface makes her definitively more jungle cat than kitten. That frisson of danger she brings with her has accented some of her most successful roles: as the murder- inspiring weathergirl in Gus Van Sant's To Die For (1995), the repressive mother in The Others (2001), and – in a very different way – as the beautiful fugitive Grace in Dogville (2003). Put her career under a microscope, and at one level, especially by A-list standards, this makes her one of our most interesting movie stars, who for every bum film (Bewitched, The Invasion, Australia) has worked on a project that explores both difficult and fascinating emotional territory.
Yet interesting often isn't enough in a mercurial world where you're only as good as your most recent box-office takings – and in 2008 her career seemed to hit a low when Forbesmagazine listed her as Hollywood’s most overpaid star (in a survey which calculated the amount an actor earned compared to the amount of money the film made –it's difficult to know whether the blow was softened by the fact that Tom Cruise came third). Even when things are going well, the flipside to the adulation she inspires is extreme hostility – when I told people I was interviewing her, the question that came back most often was 'Does her face move?', while some Facebook groups 'devoted' to her include 'Nicole Kidman looks like an Alien with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome' or 'Nicole Kidman is Satan' (when I look there's nothing similar for Julia Roberts or Jennifer Aniston). No one has a simple relationship with celebrity, but hers seems to be one of the more volatile: the ice-storm of jibes suggests that for better or worse it can't be easy being Kidman. The alabaster doll is now superceded by another image: a woman who even at the peak of success always seems to be alone.
Maybe that has changed in recent years. After his much publicised spell in rehab in October 2006, her husband of four years, Keith Urban, remains a strong presence at her side, saying last November on 'The Oprah Winfrey Show' that Kidman had 'saved' his life. As well as her two adopted teenage children, she now has a two-year-old daughter, Sunday (Baz Luhrmann recalls that, when she told him she was pregnant on the set of Australia, 'she burst into tears, of course, and I was so moved by it'). She is also tackling every mother's worst fear in her performance as Becca, a grieving parent (along with Aaron Eckhart as the father) in her latest film, Rabbit Hole, which she also produced. 'There were times when I woke in the night and was having nightmares and I was really shaken by it,' she told 'MTV News' about the filming, but the result has given rise to whispers that maybe she'll win another Oscar this year.
Trying to have a 'real' conversation with a titanic star like Kidman is never going to be a simple proposition. And for me the subject matter of her film makes it even more tricky, since my youngest sister –like Becca's son – died after being hit by a car. For me, what's so brave about David Lindsay-Abaire's script (originally a Pulitzer Prize winning play) is that it shows Becca going out of her way to befriend the most difficult character to relate to in this scenario – the driver. It's just one aspect of a refreshingly unclichéd portrait of family bereavement.
As someone whose family has gone through a similar scenario, one thing I loved about the film was the way it showed that grief comes out so differently in different people. Did you bring your own experiences to bear on this?
I've lost people. My parents are still alive, I haven't had that yet, but I've still had moments of huge loss. I think divorce can give you that sense of losing that person. When it's done in a very quick way it can leave you raw [a statement which makes you realise the emotional steel needed for her to throw that joyous, hands-in- the-air pose outside court after her divorce from Tom Cruise was completed]. I'm reluctant to imprint my own life on this character because I feel like it almost undermines her. But I certainly had ways in – I think once you have a child, that emotional tie is so profound. Particularly when you birth a child – oh my God. The power of that! The love that flows from you.
How was your birth?
I spent so long wanting to give birth. So to finally have that, it wouldn't have mattered if it was a 40-hour labour. She was the result of many, many failed attempts, so she's so wanted. That's probably why I have access to that enormous love, so the idea of losing that is absolutely terrifying. But it happens, and I want to be able to tell that story because in some way it reaches people who have gone through that.
Throughout your career you've explored some pretty dark emotional areas – in Dead Calm, The Others, Margot at the Wedding. Does it scare you doing these kind of projects?
As actors, that's what we do – we go into places that we're really scared of. When you're at drama school and working on Chekhov or Shakespeare, you're dealing with very extreme situations, sometimes very dark, and I'm not saying: "Oh no, I'm not going to do that." In the industry now there just aren't the roles that are dealing with the big scenes of life. There are a a lot of popcorn movies out there.
You’re at a happy stage personally right now – after testing times things seem to be going well with Keith Urban. But the description of 'smug marrieds' is always misleading: marriage is something that shifts and changes all the time. Can you describe to me where you think you are emotionally at the moment?
I think I'm in a place of gratitude. When you're in your forties you contrast your life against what it was like in your twenties – I was far more turbulent in my twenties. I always wanted to experience things, I was reaching, I was curious. I'm still curious, but I'm also far more at peace with the way my life's playing out. I feel I'm so much more patient now as a mother, as a wife. But I still have fire in me. That hasn't burned out yet. [Laughs]
The critic David Thomson, talking about your performance in Australia, wrote: 'Kidman, I think, sometimes feels more at ease if she looks sensational.' How do you react to that?
I think I've had probably everything [negative] written about me. Basically it's not about dresses; I want to act. Baz and I, we were attempting to do something. If it didn't come across properly I feel bad for that because I wanted it to be extraordinary. But I loved making the film. It’s a bummer.
Maybe the problem is that a lot of people are much more happy with you looking amazing in a stunning dress than in seeing you look less than physically perfect. Have you found this more and more of a pressure the more successful you've become?
The reason I produced this film [Rabbit Hole] was because I wanted to play this role. I think if a director and a producer separate to me had had this film they wouldn't have offered it. When I read this I thought: Please just let me be a real woman. The only way to do that was to produce the material. I'm begging for more roles that are like that. I get offered parts that are more austere and glamorous, which I suppose doesn't interest me as much any more. I think in my twenties it was fun to get dressed up and I loved all that. I was talking to Amy Adams. She was fantastic because we were doing a round-table interview together and she said: 'When I signed on [to be an actress] I had no idea that it meant I was going to be a model.'
It's almost a cliché to say that your career got a lot more interesting after your divorce from Tom Cruise. How would you characterise your relationship with him now?
We don't have that much to do with each other, we're both happily married. The only thing is our children – we deal with each other when we have to on that, but it's been quite good that we're able to be very separate. It's allowed my marriage now to become what it needs to be. I'm a completely different woman now.'
Sean Penn, your co-star in The Interpreter said: 'I always feel with her that, as intimate a relationship as she may have with creative triumphs, personal ones, and so on, she has a very intense relationship with disappointment. So there is a kind of caution about what will be her own will ultimately.' Is that fair?
In terms of life maybe, not so much in my career. Because I'm used to those [kinds of setbacks]. That's what a career is. There's a recovery from things that probably is slow, which is not a good thing. I wish it was quicker. But yes. I suppose I stay bruised, a little damaged. But you know, I'm working on that. That's a weird thing to have said about you. It comes from feeling things intensely.'
What do you want to be remembered for – your intellect or your beauty?
Intellect, of course. [Laughs] But actually, more importantly, I'd love to have a couple of great performances that really had an enormous impact in a huge body of work.