Nicole Kidman: can-do spirit in a brilliant career

Nicole Kidman

There is a line in Photograph 51, the play which has just opened in London with Nicole Kidman as the scientist Rosalind Franklin, which could sum up the star’s attitude, according to its director, Michael Grandage.

“Her character responds to a question about the stresses of life with the answer ‘you’ve just got to get on with it, haven’t you?’ and that could be Nicole’s response to the way her job impacts on her life, she just gets on with it.”

Kidman is one of the movies’ megastars – Oscar-winning, legions of fans, worth a reported £150m – but Grandage says: “I don’t think she sees herself as that, which is why she has such a healthy outlook on life and the industry as a whole. Others, rightly, see her as a big star but she doesn’t do status and is happiest when she’s working in a totally collaborative way. She navigates the day-to-day issues rather brilliantly and is always respectful of the public and their demands on her time.”

Grandage and Kidman had talked about working together in the theatre for some time. She was very clear that she wanted to do a new play, and that she wanted a strong female role, the director says. “When the script was sent to me, it excited me as a director and I passed it straight on to Nicole. It was written by a woman about a woman and it had something important to say. I knew she would respond positively to all of those things – and she did.”

The reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, Ben Brantley, in the New York Times, says Kidman is “pretty close to perfection”.

The actor’s return to the London stage comes 17 years after her first appearance, in the play The Blue Room, directed by Sam Mendes at the Donmar Warehouse. She was a huge starthen and her appearance was greeted with a froth of excitement. But while she had made some quirkier films amid the big budget movies, such as the Gus Van Sant film To Die For, her fame was still very much attached to her husband at the time, Tom Cruise. If people were expecting her to fail, she proved them wrong. In the Guardian, the critic Michael Billington described Kidman as a superb character actor, adding: “She is not just a star, she genuinely delivers the goods.”

In 2013, David Hare, whose reworking of an Arthur Schnitzler play became The Blue Room, told Vanity Fair that Kidman had talked to him about wanting to go on stage, which he “did not take entirely seriously, because she was at the height of her fame and it seemed very unlikely”. Hare added: “Basically, she had to learn how to act from the stage and talk about the can-do spirit! She served her apprenticeship in front of thousands of people. She went into this completely unarmed with technique, and by the time she finished in London she had her formal technique. She’s a very, very, fast learner.”

Kidman has said she always wanted to be an actor. Born in Hawaii – her father was a scientist and her mother a nursing teacher – Kidman grew up in Australia, the land of her parents. She had a clear love of storytelling as a child; with her pale skin, she was stopped from going out in the Australian sun during part of the day and would stay inside reading. She joined a local acting school and, at the age of 14, landed the lead role in an Australian film, Bush Christmas, then in the film BMX Bandits. Roles in television series followed.

The 1989 thriller Dead Calm was her breakthrough role. Her next film, Days of Thunder, was where she met Cruise; they acted together again in the romance Far and Away, which attracted attention because the leads were married, but otherwise was fairly widely panned.

Kidman worked steadily throughout the 90s, mixing big films, such as Batman Forever, with interesting choices, including Jane Campion’s 1996 film Portrait of a Lady. At the end of the decade, Kidman and Cruise were working together again, on Stanley Kubrick’s erotic final film Eyes Wide Shut – again audiences were fascinated in the dynamics of Hollywood’s most famous real-life couple. When the pair split in 2001, newspaper stories blamed Kubrick’s punishing shoot, which involved exhausting physical and emotional work, for pushing them to breaking point. Kidman later said that was not true.

Emerging from the shadow of Cruise’s mega stardom, Kidman’s own career seemed to bloom. She sang and danced as the courtesan Satine in Moulin Rouge! and won a Golden Globe. Baz Luhrmann, its director, described it as being like “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 with the king, she was Nicole Kidman, icon”.

Her next film, The Hours, in which she played Virginia Woolf, won her an Oscar and a Golden Globe. Over the next few years, she worked prolifically on an eclectic range of projects – the commercial, such as The Stepford Wives and Bewitched; the literary, incuding the adaptations of The Human Stain and Cold Mountain; and the epic, such as Luhrmann’s Australia.

There were more daring choices. She starred in Dogville, by the mischievous and provocative Danish auteur Lars Von Trier, and in Birth, in which she played a grieving widow who believes her husband has come back in the form of a 10-year-old boy, which was notable for the single two-minute close-up shot of her face. “I suppose I kind of have this very spontaneous, nonstrategic [side], which is why I’ve had such a winding career,” she has said. “Even at my height, I wasn’t looking to maintain that. I was always looking for what I feel now – where do I want to go?”

A run of appearances by the actor in the past few years have been similarly haphazard, though intriguing – she was the peroxided convict-groupie in Lee Daniels’ Paperboy engaging in some hilariously extreme scenes, and played Grace Kelly, as well as the archaeologist Gertrude Bell in Werner Herzog’s film; there was also the psychological thriller Before I Go to Sleep.

“I’m grateful for the longevity,” she said in an interview this year. “I feel unbelievably fortunate. I don’t like people complaining or not being grateful. I had a strong work ethic when I started out and it’s never left me. I’d be aghast if someone said my work ethic is bad or my attitude is bad. I’d be ashamed.”

Grandage, who has been working with Kidman once more, on his forthcoming film Genius, about the literary editor Max Perkins, says: “She’s forensic with the text and always offers up many ways to play a scene. Rehearsals are a real excavation of character and she comes to the process with lines learned and ideas already flowing.”

Kidman is enormously generous to other actors, he says, with rehearsals being a collaboration. “She puts a great deal of trust in her director both on a film set and in a rehearsal room but she’s so prepared she also has a great deal to fall back on. Above all, she has great instinct.”

Kim Farrant, who directed Kidman in her film Strangerland, which opened at Sundance this year, agrees. “She is incredibly hardworking and she knew her character back to front. She always came armed with fantastic, challenging, questions for me – we’d have these robust discussions both in rehearsal and on set, and sometimes on the phone, where she was really thinking, living, breathing everything that character was going through.”

Farrant said she was a little surprised that Kidman wanted to do a small, indie, Australian film. “She was really captivated by the writing but also really wanted to explore her own vulnerability through a character. The character has such an interesting sexual odyssey and I think Nicole saw an opportunity to explore a three-dimensional female character.

“Because it was about the art and the story, I didn’t feel it was like movie star and first-time director, it was two artists collaborating on telling the best possible story and letting the story be bigger than either of them.”

She says Kidman will always spot a false note. “Anything that wasn’t believable she would really jump on and make sure we didn’t go down that path.”

Jez Butterworth, who directed Kidman in the 2001 drama Birthday Girl, says: “If you get to take six with Nicole it means there’s something wrong with the scene. It’s not that she won’t devotedly try to help you out with your bullshit, it’s that she just can’t deliver it. As soon as you change the line or the action to something simple and true, she gets it in one take and usually it’s her idea. She can boil half a page of earnest crap down into a single gesture or just a look. She is incapable of being inauthentic.”

Recent interviews with Kidman have made much of her apparently happy, settled, home life. She lives with her husband, the country singer Keith Urban, in Nashville, away from the Hollywood dazzle, with their two young daughters (she also has two children from her first marriage). A Vogue article in August painted a life outside work of golf, gardening and lots of family time.

Her public image is of willowy ice queen, but friends have described Kidman as fun and girly. Farrant describes her as “very passionate”. She adds: “She’s strong, very deeply feeling. She’s also really funny. She’s determined and hardworking, on herself as well as on her projects. She is self enquiring, she is willing to look at herself and her own behaviour in order to be more self aware, to be able to access these emotions, sensations, traits which she needs to[for] her characters.”

Grandage remembers his first meeting with Kidman, more than two years ago, when she came to talk to him about Genius, and he was struck by her sense of humour and focus. “I was impressed by the research she had done and by her passion for the role.”

Kidman could have her pick of big budget dramas, so why would she do small indies, work with first-time directors, spend months on the stage? “She likes to push herself out of her comfort zone, which is probably the reason she takes such diverse roles,” says Grandage. “She seems to want to learn new things as she grows older and that’s rare in a lot of people.”

Potted profile

Born: 1967, in Hawaii

Career: Began in the 1983 Australian films Bush Christmas and BMX Bandits, followed by parts in TV movies. She attracted the attention of Hollywood after the 1989 film Dead Calm. Films including To Die For, The Portrait of A Lady, and Eyes Wide Shut followed. Kidman won a Golden Globe for Moulin Rouge! and an Oscar for The Hours. Her other films include The Others, Margot at the Wedding, Rabbit Hole, and The Railway Man. In the theatre, she was in The Blue Room in 1998, which transferred to Broadway, and Photograph 51 in September 2015.

High point: Gloriously swinging on a trapeze in a sparkly corset in Moulin Rouge! while masking private heartbreak. The role would set her up for the decade in which she would win an Oscar, work prolifically and find a happy home life.

Low point: The film The Stepford Wives, which received largely negative reviews and performed poorly at the box office.

She says: “What’s never changed is my desire to work with great directors and to find projects that push me out of my comfort zone and keep me alive. I still don’t think I’ve done my best work.”

They say: “She’s both serious actor and knockout movie star.” Baz Luhrmann

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Emine Saner, for theguardian.com on Friday 18th September 2015 17.33 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010