Saturday, June 25, 2005

Elle January 03 - Nicole Kidman

The new Nicole on being married, being alone, and being Virginia Woolf.

She's outside, over there, sitting at a corner booth in the garden of Hollywood's Hotel Bel-Air, head tilted, cheek in hand, fast asleep. She snoozes gently, dressed in a white gauzy short-sleeved top and skirt, her wild strawberry-blond curls topknotted, exposing a slender neck. Her tea has oversteeped in the late-afternoon sun. Notice the bruises up and down the inside of her arm, marring her pale skin - black, blue, purple, yellow.

At once Nicole Kidman's head springs up, and a blush bursts into her cheeks. Caught, she laughs and says by way of greeting, "Hello, I'm exhausted!" We've met before. She was bruised and weary then, too. It was the last month of shooting on the set of Moulin Rouge in her native Sydney, Australia, and the year-long musical production had taken a physical toll that included two broken ribs and a nasty knee injury. But Kidman was a happy trouper, looking forward to going home to Los Angeles to be with her children, Isabella and Connor, and her husband, Tom Cruise - much has happened since.

Nearly two years, six films, and one divorce later, the actress has flown in from Romania, where she's been shooting the adaptation of Charles Frazier's Civil War epic Cold Mountain. "Look at my bruises," Kidman says, holding both arms out. "I have them on my legs, too." She pulls her skirt up high, revealing a fat-free thigh covered with marks. "Bad, huh? I was building a fence with Renee Zellweger, and we were lifting these huge logs. The men couldn't lift them." She smiles proudly.

Kidman has become Hollywood's new Lit Girl. In addition to Cold Mountain, she has two other film adaptations coming out - Philip Roth's The Human Stain and Michael Cunningham's The Hours, in which she plays Virginia Woolf opposite Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore. Directed by Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot), The Hours depicts three days in the lives of three separate women living in three separate eras, whose only commonality is emotional bankruptcy and a profound relationship to Woolf's novel Mrs. Dalloway.

Woolf is a subject every actress would kill to take on, but few could pull off: Deconstructing the feminist novelist's intellectual, psychological, and sexual complexities would have even a psychiatrist popping Prozac. But given the opportunity, Kidman, who was going through a tough period of her own - the end of her marriage and a miscarriage - was undaunted. "I studied Virginia Woolf intensively, and I fell in love with her," she says. "I absorbed Virginia at a time in my life when I was ready to absorb her." As happens with the characters in the novel and the film, Woolf became Kidman's great escape and inspiration.

"I love that passage in Mrs. Dalloway, 'Her whole life in a single day, and in that day, her whole life . . .'" Kidman has a faraway look in her eyes. "It's so true - the minutiae, the tiny things that we wrestle with, the major things. They can occur right in one day. And for Virginia to be able to take the little things and see their weight and see how enormous they are is extraordinary." But in 1941, overwhelmed by her mental illness, Woolf stuffed rocks inside her coat pockets, walked into a river, and drowned herself. It's the opening scene of the film, and Kidman, truly unrecognizable in a prosthetic nose and graying brown wig, walks into the water and off with the movie.

At thirty-five, Kidman has become one of the few actresses of her generation worthy of Meryl Streephood. In her last four releases alone - Moulin Rouge, The Others, Birthday Girl, The Hours - she's adopted three different accents and four aesthetics and inner lives as disparate from each other as they are from her own. Kidman might not be having the time of her life, but she's having the time of her career. If there's a silver lining within her very public divorce, it's the spotlight it threw on her work. Marrying Tom Cruise made Kidman a star by virtue of his stardom. Before that, she was headed for a solid, respectable career as an actress in the same boat as, say, her fellow Aussie Judy Davis. Catapulting onto the Cruise ship presented Kidman with bigger opportunities, but also stuck her in his wake. Starring in films like Malice, My Life, To Die For, The Peacemaker, and Eyes Wide Shut, Kidman was considered a good actress with okay box office.

While Cruise's stardom was built on his grinning, winning, running-for-public-office persona, Kidman always seemed reticent to cultivate popularity. Head down, she was usually holding Tom's hand, walking two steps behind. There was no getting a bead on her. "People mistook her allure and beauty for aloofness," says her Batman Forever director, Joel Schumacher. "But Nicole is down-to-earth, very silly. She's a downtown girl in an uptown body." Adds Robert Benton, who directed Kidman in 1991's Billy Bathgate and the upcoming The Human Stain, "Being married to the biggest star going distorted everyone's perception of her. The world was never really looking at her as her own person. Now that veil's been drawn back."

"I think the interpretation of my being chilly is because I'm quiet and shy," says Kidman, who at times still breaks into the stutter she overcame as a child. She can make it through an acceptance speech (she won several awards for Moulin Rouge, including a Golden Globe), but she's not one to handcuff the orchestra so she can carry on and on. When it came time for her curtain calls in the Broadway production of The Blue Room, "I had to be taught how to take a bow," she says. "Sam Mendes [the director] told me, 'Nicole, you are apologizing in your bow. You bow like you're ashamed."

Once she gets to know someone, Kidman says, "I'm gregarious. But up until that point it's about being rejected. And also, when you're in a bubble with somebody, you kind of become . . ." She stops. "Like, that's what your life is about. So it's very hard to . . ." Stops again. "You don't step over boundaries and stuff like that." A furrowing of the brow. "Know what I mean?"

Yes and no. One can only imagine what life would be like married to Tom Cruise. "I stepped into a big world when I was twenty-two," she continues. "I knew nothing else. And I was very protective of that and extremely protective of [Tom] and our privacy. Therefore, it was about just protecting the intimacy of that. He has an abundance of talent. And I revered him on a pedestal. Absolutely revered him and what he was doing."

Everything about her life had been so charmed and certain that when the news came that their ten-year marriage was over, "I was shocked," Kidman says. If she wasn't, I tell her, she should get an Oscar for her portrayal of ignorant bliss while I was on the set of Moulin Rouge the month before the relationship collapsed. "Oh, no! I can't act to that degree!" she says. "Everything was - as far as I thought - fine. But for me to go into it any more . . ." She stops. Yet again.

While Cruise stepped out with his Vanilla Sky co-star Penelope Cruz, Kidman stepped out alone. "She revealed her true 'the show must go on' spirit," says director Baz Luhrmann, who cast Kidman as the singing, dancing, dying courtesan Satine in Moulin Rouge. "Two weeks after they separated she was standing in front of her fans at Bloomingdale's promoting the film. It was one of those Marilyn Monroe moments. The crowd went wild. "The divorce cast Kidman in a new light. The public response buoyed her. With each appearance she seemed lighter, brighter.

"It's like Sleeping Beauty," Luhrmann says. "You feel that she's awoken, not from something terrible, but you feel she's in full bloom. You look at Nicole and see this woman in full possession of her power as an actress, her sexuality, and her sense of self. And it came out of the chrysalis of that experience."

Gaslights throughout the garden have begun f9lling in for the sleepy setting sun. "Two Catholic girls, sitting drinking wine - uh-oh, danger!" Kidman says, blue eyes twinkling. "Let's get some cigarettes!" And before you can say Hail Mary, we're smoking, too. ("I like that mischievous, pixieish thing that she has," says her Dead Calm co-star Sam Neill, an old friend. "You know how some people, when you're around them, they make you feel more alive? That is her great gift. There's an old Australian expression - 'You wouldn't be dead for quids." It means no money on earth could substitute for the joy of life. She loves being alive.")

Like every good Catholic girl, when Kidman was growing up, she was in heaven when a bad boy was around. "Motorbikes," she says, confessing her weakness. "My boyfriend had a motorbike, and he's pick me up from my all-girls school in my uniform - a tie, blazer, skirt, knee socks - and my mother would scream. I still have that uniform.

"I was in love with Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club - the boy on the bike with the diamond earring and the checkered past. What was the song?" She begins to hum and, remembering the words, sings, "Don't you forget about me . . .' Simple Minds!" A sigh. "Breakfast Club was aces, man, we loved it. Judd Nelson, man. Oh yum."

Game for girlish fun, Kidman agrees to say whatever first comes to mind when hearing the names of some of her dreamy co-stars. Ben Chaplin: "Quirky, darling, and really underrated." Viggo Mortensen: "Sexy and poetic." Ewan McGregor: "Just one of the dearest, most gorgeous men to walk the earth." Jude Law: "The most open spirit, giving, Jude glows." Russell Crowe: "My best friend. Loyal, loyal. Fiercely loyal. And strong. A deep friendship for the rest of our lives. I'll be there for him for everything. It's nice to have him in the world. He's always been kind to me."

Tom Cruise: "Great actor."

Okay, so she never made a movie with Russell Crowe, but they came close to co-starring in In the Cut, which Kidman opted to produce instead, and now co-stars Meg Ryan and Mark Ruffalo. Contrary to ongoing reports, the two Australians aren't seeing each other romantically, although it would be fun if they were. So, now that that's clear, how's the real dating going? "It's not!" She shrieks, laughing. "So tragic. My friends are like, 'Hurry up, already!' But it's important to take the time. Not push it. I'm just quietly healing. I don't take things lightly."

Not long after I saw her at the Hotel Bel-Air, Kidman calls from home on a Saturday night. She's readying to go back to Romania and Cold Mountain, which will hopefully wrap before Christmas. Then she'll be busy promoting The Human Stain and the Lars von Trier project Dogville, in which she plays a woman on the run. It's telling that the last four roles she's worked on - the above three plus The Hours - are all women grieving in some way. If her choices reflected her own emotional state, she must be feeling more lighthearted now: She recently signed to star in a dark comedic remake of the 1975 cult classic The Stepford Wives, with a script by the wickedly funny Paul Rudnick (In & Out). "That just shows how cool she really is," Schumacher says. "She can go to the darkest places and turn around and do a really broad comedy."

The sound of a little girl's voice can be heard entering the room. "Hey, Boo-boo. What do you have?" Kidman says to her daughter, Isabella, now ten (her son, Connor, is eight). "Oh, beautiful! Bella's drawn a picture of me, and it says, 'I love you, Bella.' That's beautiful." The sound of a kiss. "She's the dearest girl in the world. Boo-boo, I'm going to sleep with this under my pillow tonight."

Tell Kidman you have one last question, and she interrupts with one of her own: "Am I going to have another baby? I don't know. I don't know anything anymore. I'm so naïve now. Now I say constantly, 'I have no idea.'" Suggest to her that there's a sort of relief in not knowing what will happen in life, and she replies, "I don't feel relief, or that I actually would have chosen this. But there's something about being a woman having to stand on your own two feet alone . . . I was so fearful of something bad happening. But I do have relief now, knowing that I can survive."