The first thing you notice about her as you enter the carpeted, oak-panelled room teeming with people dressed in sharp formals, is her smile. Then her tall slender frame – dressed in a simple, elegant gown, as she manoeuvres her way through the crowd towards you. And her warm greeting: “How are you? Would you like some tea?”
“It’s her! The sparkling diamond!” was how Nicole Kidman was introduced as the courtesan Satine in the 2001 Baz Luhrmann musical Moulin Rouge! Porcelain beauty she may be, or may possess “that luminous thing”, as director John Cameron Mitchell (who directed her in the 2010 drama Rabbit Hole) said in a Vogue story this July. But what makes Kidman truly sparkle like a diamond is how effortlessly she makes you feel comfortable. She also seems eager to talk, to participate – her session at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit (HTLS) last week was ample proof of that.
Kidman, 48, was born in Hawaii in the US, to an Australian family of scientists and academicians, with no ties to film or acting whatsoever. Her family returned to Australia when she was four. “But even at that time, when I was four or five years old, I had this dream… of going to places far beyond Australia,” she says. She believes that it was this dream, and the drive to “work harder than anybody else” that made it possible for her to get where she is today. “I’d save my money during the week, and use that money to catch the bus by myself on a Saturday morning at 6am to go to drama school. At 13, my parents told me that ‘if you want to go, you have to get there yourself, we’re not driving you’.” And that’s what she did.
By the time she was 14, Kidman had already secured her first acting assignment after being spotted by casting directors at her drama school; she made her debut in an Australian Christmas film called Bush Christmas (1983). Because she started working so young, she “was taught to always be on time, always be prepared, and be grateful that I have a job”. That could be why, she says, she never let fame go to her head: “I have an incredibly strong work ethic. I struggle more with my own confidence than I do with an inflated ego”.
Watch: Nicole Kidman on the comparison between Bollywood and Hollywood
Barely six years into the scene, she was roped in by Australian filmmaker George Miller, of Mad Max fame, for Dead Calm (1989). The film brought her international recognition, leading to her Hollywood debut in the car racing film Days of Thunder (1990) with her then-boyfriend and soon to be-husband Tom Cruise. “I went from being a child in acting school to immediately working, which can be a bad thing for someone that young. But for me, because it was my absolute desire to be an actor, I just worked hard, trained and studied,” Kidman said at the HTLS session. “And that’s what landed me in Hollywood, although I never saw myself as just wanting to star in an American film. I wanted to be an international actor, to work in many countries, to play all kinds of roles and tell many different stories. That’s part of my drive: the idea of all of us getting closer through art.”
In the ’90s, Kidman starred in several big films that would bolster her reputation as an actress and a star. These included the superhero film Batman Forever (1995), the critically acclaimed To Die For (1995), for which she won her first Golden Globe, as well as the action-thriller The Peacemaker (1997) opposite George Clooney.
Kidman admits that her success wasn’t all just hard work: there was some luck involved too (“Being in the right place at the right time”), and the ability to overcome rejection. “When you get knocked back – and I’ve had a lot of knockbacks – how do you get back up again? I suppose that’s human tenacity, isn’t it? As an actor, you need tenacity because you get rejected. A lot! And it’s happening right there to you physically, emotionally. Each rejection is deeply personal.”
That is why, she says, “you need protectors, mentors” – something she stressed several times during her HTLS session as well as in this interview. “You need to find people in your life who can support you, guide you. And if you can find those people, I really think it makes the journey easier.”
For Kidman, the celebrated American filmmaker Stanley Kubrick was one of those people.
In many ways, the 1999 erotic thriller Eyes Wide Shut by Kubrick played an important role in Kidman’s life to come. The film came at a time when Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie weren’t the reigning king and queen of Hollywood, Cruise and Kidman were. They’d been married for almost a decade, had adopted a daughter and a son, and the ghost of Scientology had not yet begun to haunt Kidman. It was at this time that Kubrick cast the husband-wife power duo in his final film, which probed insecurities about fidelity, sex and marriage.
Kidman became close to the master filmmaker during filming, and she began looking up to Kubrick as a father figure. However, a few months before the release of the film, Kubrick died in his sleep at the age of 70, leaving Kidman “collapsing to the floor, screaming,” when she got the phone call about his death. “He took on a very paternal role for me. I would listen to him. We would argue. He would change my mind. He wouldn’t change his,” Kidman said at her HTLS session. “People say to me, ‘Oh, it must have been so difficult to do a film with Kubrick because he was crazy.’ I must be crazy because I didn’t find him crazy.”
Kubrick’s final film went on to become his highest-grossing one. It also turned out to be the last film in which Kidman starred alongside her husband Tom Cruise. They divorced a couple of years later.
While the film gave Kidman a mentor in Kubrick, it also gave her heartbreak in Cruise. Many believe that it was Eyes Wide Shut that pushed Cruise and Kidman to breaking point as a couple. The actress denied such popular perceptions in an essay about working with Kubrick that she wrote for The Hollywood Reporter: “People thought that making the film was the beginning of the end of my marriage. But I don’t really think it was. Tom and I were close then.”
What really led to the high-profile divorce was possibly, and quite probably as more evidence has emerged over the years, the Church of Scientology – of which Cruise is an ardent advocate. One of the most anticipated documentaries at this year’s Sundance Film Festival was Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief. In what has been called a scathing exposé on Scientology “that makes some startling accusations about its famous member, Tom Cruise,” the film alleges that “the Church of Scientology used a number of intimidation tactics to force Cruise to split from Nicole Kidman,” reported The Daily Beast.
Kidman has so far chosen to remain silent about the disruptive role that Scientology played in her life and her marriage, saying recently to E! News: “I have two children [her adopted children with Cruise] who are Scientologists – and I utterly respect their beliefs.” But she talks openly of her own faith. Born and raised a Catholic, she has a strong belief in God and “I always pray when I’m in trouble,” she told Brunch. “I take my children [her biological children with her second husband Keith Urban] to church and I am religious. But I am very open in my faith – I just believe in being compassionate, kind and good, and I try and live a moral life.”
For Kidman, while one landmark film may have proved strenuous for her relationship, another proved therapeutic for her life and career. In 2001, the year that Cruise and Kidman’s marriage fell apart, she starred in the grand Baz Luhrmann musical Moulin Rouge!. During her session at HTLS 2015, she looked back fondly at how “we stole a lot from Bollywood on Moulin Rouge!” She remembers Luhrmann screening Hindi films to prepare them for their roles, “and that was when I fell in love with them. We tried to do a little bit of it in the movie but it is very hard. It is an incredibly hard art form to emulate.”
She may seem chatty about it now, but at the time, the wounds from her divorce were still raw and she had found a closure of sorts in Moulin Rouge! In a 2013 Vanity Fair story, Luhrmann described her performance in his film as “a chrysalis experience – she went in as Mrs Tom Cruise, but like Satine on the trapeze over the heads of clamouring men, she emerged as her own person. She was no longer the king – she was Nicole Kidman, icon.”
Kidman went on to receive an Academy Award nomination for her role in Moulin Rouge!. She would clinch the award a year later for her role of English writer Virginia Woolf in the British American drama The Hours. A few years later, she would receive her third Oscar nomination for her role of a mother who loses her son to an accident in the heart-wrenching drama Rabbit Hole (2010). She also turned producer with this film. This year, she returned to the stage after 15 years with London’s West End production Photograph 51, in which she stars as the British scientist Rosalind Franklin.
For now, when she is not shooting a film or rehearsing for a play, Kidman likes to lead a quiet family life at her home in the American city of Nashville. She married Australian country singer Keith Urban in 2006, just a year after the two met at an event. “With no disrespect to what I had with Tom, I’ve met my great love now,” she said in a Vanity Fair interview. “I had a lot of time alone, which was really, really good, because I was a child, really, when I got married (she was 23 when she married Cruise). And I needed to grow up.”
Kidman now has two daughters with Urban and she loves her close, warm family life with them in Nashville. “I think I’m just very maternal. I like to sleep with my kids, take them to school, go and have dinner, go to the movies, play with them… and I don’t want that to happen in a public arena,” she says. “I like going to New York or London to see a play. But I also need somewhere where I can meditate, walk, sleep and have good food.” She likes to garden – she grows roses. “I may sound like an old woman, but I grow these roses, I watch them bloom, I watch them die, I smell them. They’re my pride and joy.” With so much to keep her occupied in Nashville, does she miss Hollywood when she’s away? “No! Not at all,” she exclaims.
Perhaps it is this need to escape from the fame and paparazzi that makes her keep a low social media presence, only occasionally putting out photos through her publicists on her official handle. “It’s a dilemma, isn’t it? In terms of how much do you share with the world and how much do you keep for yourself?,” she says. “The all-pervasive nature of technology worries me. The fact that, in some way, technology is drawing us away from human connect worries me. So many things heal through conversation. The power of the physical is a healing tool. The fact that that connect is going away frightens me.”
Which is perhaps why, when I ask her to choose one emotion that she relates to the most, without missing a beat, she replies, “Love!”. She elaborates, “You can choose so many different emotions, but the most powerful emotion you can choose to stay in is love.” Just like one of the best dialogues to come out of her film Moulin Rouge!: “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.” Kidman says she has a phrase for it, “It may sound corny – but I call it ‘to stay in the love’.”
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From HT Brunch, December 13
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