Watching Being the Ricardos, it's hard to believe anyone could question Nicole Kidman as the perfect Lucille Ball. From the very first frame we are in the presence of not just the very feisty and complex Lucille Ball, but her alter ego, the hilarious Lucy Ricardo, comedy queen of I Love Lucy, the most successful television sitcom of all time.
But when Aaron Sorkin announced his casting of Nicole as Ball and Javier Bardem as her off- and on-screen hubby Desi Arnaz/Ricky Ricardo, social media descended into a frustrating echo chamber of tumbling eye rolls. Nicole wasn't a physical comedienne, they said, Javier was Spanish, not Cuban, and not a musician (as bandleader, singer and bongo player Desi was). Never mind that both actors are multiple award winners with a breadth of work crossing all genres, some I Love Lucy fans knew better!
Well … it turns out they didn't, for the film is now creating a noisy Oscar buzz stretching from New York to London, LA to Sydney. And if those naysayers were expecting to see a catalogue of Lucy Ricardo's unforgettable slapstick recreated on the screen, they were also wrong, for the secret to this intriguing film written and directed by the masterful Sorkin – creator of The West Wing – is that it's not at all what you expect.
Being the Ricardos (on Amazon Prime) is about the very essence of comedy genius Lucille Ball: about her craft, her turbulent marriage, the pressure of living in the spotlight, of working with your spouse when you are the one who's the star, her daily battles with a deeply sexist industry, and her search for domesticity and the reassuring glow of a real home. "We're looking into Lucy's head," explains Sorkin, who sets the film during one production week of one episode of the show, when personal and professional crises threaten to destroy everything.
Through flashbacks we see the couple's whirlwind courtship and marriage, and then the creation of their brand. "Nicole is playing Lucille Ball. And Lucille Ball is, at times, playing Lucy Ricardo. It takes a great deal of subtlety. Nicole also has an imposing strength. Like Lucille, she owns the ground she stands on. At the same time, she is quite vulnerable," says Sorkin.
When I catch up with Nicole Kidman she is in the midst of premieres around the world, exhausted and a little like a rabbit in the headlights at the critical acclaim her performance is suddenly receiving. She was attracted to the part not so much because of Lucille, of whom she knew little, but because of Aaron Sorkin.
"I'd never worked with him before. I knew his work and have obviously been enamoured with it and I thought, 'What a fantastic opportunity.' And then [along came] Javier Bardem playing Desi. That is unheard of. You just don't get that combination of people and talent … the idea of the three of us doing it together was intoxicating."
From the get-go Sorkin was not interested in recreating the show, Nicole tells me, although there is a choice scene in which Lucy, barefoot treading red grapes in a vat, drops her earring and ends up diving in to retrieve it. For Lucy fans it's one of the character's most memorable pratfalls.
"Aaron said, 'Yeah, we're going to put a little bit of the I Love Lucy show in it, but it's not a remake.' He wanted to pull the veil back and show what was behind the scenes, but at the same time show a marriage, deal with some very topical relevant subjects, and show the humanity of these people, with all their flaws and their virtues. It's not a biopic; it's not like we're starting when she was born and then we're going all the way through to when she dies. He's interested in the drama of putting the show on in one week and then all of these big events being compressed into that week. That part, he took some dramatic license with – they all happened, just not all at once.
"It's so clever and as an actor it's very layered and deep. And it's funny. I don't get the chance to be funny very often, and he's [Aaron's] funny! I was watching the film with an audience and I heard people laugh. I went, 'Wow, that doesn't usually happen to me, to have people laugh.' So that was fun. It's nice making people laugh. I really like it!"
Aaron was clear that he didn't want Nicole and Javier to attempt to mimic Lucille and Desi, but for Nicole, nailing the different nuances of Lucille Ball and Lucy Ricardo was crucial to her portrayal. She knew she needed to present them as different women. "When I first signed on, I said to Aaron, 'Okay, let's get the prosthetics and the wigs.' And Aaron said, 'No, no, no — that's not what we're doing. You'll have the red hair, but I am not interested in creating a facsimile.' No prosthetic nose, no prosthetic chin. I begged: 'Maybe just a little nose?'
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"But he was interested in seeing Lucille's humanity and in the storytelling, not in a visual recreation. What we arrived at eventually is that when I'm Lucy Ricardo, I am as close to a carbon copy as possible. I studied the black-and-white footage endlessly. My make-up and clothing is just like hers. I learned every quirk, every hand gesture. But I always kept in mind that Lucille created Lucy. They are not the same person."
Nicole admits those subtleties didn't come easily and she struggled at first, fearful she couldn't pull it off. "And I don't mind saying that, because I think that's good for actors to hear," she shares. "I thought, 'Yikes! This is so far out of reach for me. I'm not sure I'm ever going to get there.' I had a dialect coach who was insanely patient and a movement coach, and they worked with me on slowly building the character."
Every day for hours she would try to nail Lucy Ricardo's distinctive voice. "When it happened, it was like a switch got flicked and suddenly I could do it. And then I got to the point when I didn't want to stop doing it. I still love making her sounds and pretending to be her because it's very, very freeing, being Lucy. She's a clown. She's a physical comedienne, but she's also vocally so free. She makes all those sounds, like waaa – these big bold sounds that are deeply infectious. Playing her makes you feel good." And just like that, Nicole has switched into Lucy Ricardo right in front of me!
Crucial to making the film was Lucille's daughter Lucie Arnaz who, after years of turning down requests from directors wanting to retell her parents' love story, finally agreed to let Aaron Sorkin and his team weigh in.
During filming Nicole invited Lucie onto the set, and she admits her heart was in her mouth. "I was standing there dressed up as her mother and I said, 'Lucie, this is so weird.' But she's got a great dry wit and was very funny about it. She gave Javier and I access to things that the public doesn't have access to – recordings, information. She was very generous.
"We were both subsequently really nervous for her to see the film, but I think what she sees is that we really show how much they [her parents] loved each other, and even though the relationship didn't work ultimately and they didn't die in each other's arms, they gave each other so much creatively, emotionally, as well as two children. That's a successful relationship.
"People say, 'Oh it's a tragic love story.' I say it's a love story. It's sad at the end because they can't give each other what they need to give each other, but there's incredible love there and I believe that existed all the way through [even though] they ended up marrying other people.
"When she finally saw the film Lucie wept, which I think is a huge offering, because you can't fake that. That's just true feeling, and it really hit me. Keith [Urban] was sitting next to her in the screening and he said, 'It was so weird because I felt like holding her.'"
It's tempting to imagine parallels between Lucille Ball's marriage to Desi and Nicole's to Keith Urban. Both women found love with musicians, their relationships passionate and often in the public eye. They both faced the challenge of being a leading lady on screen and mum to two children at home. But before I get carried away, Nicole steps in, saying she and Keith are a world apart from Lucille and Desi.
"It was very different for them because they were doing a show together. Sixty million households in America would watch this show, and that was when the population wasn't as big as it is now. It got to the point where the water use was affected when the show was on. That's crazy. People actually didn't go the bathroom because they were watching that half hour of television. There's been nothing like it; there probably never will be anything like it again. The pressure of that on a marriage, let alone on a woman, would have been extraordinary.
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"I live a portion of my life in the public eye. Only a small portion of it. I have my work, but my actual life is pretty private. I'm very fortunate that I have a family that is very tight. We're very close. I had a fantastic papa [in the late Dr Antony Kidman, the revered clinical psychologist] and I have a fantastic husband, and as much as we have all of this, Keith and I are pretty normal."
She's not being disingenuous; Nicole is acutely aware that "normal" is hardly how others see her life of red-carpet gowns, awards parties, fame and homes around the world. "They would probably say, 'What?'" she laughs.
No, what she's talking about here is a state of being. It's fair to say Nicole's life hasn't all been roses around the door. Her first marriage to Tom Cruise didn't go to plan and tragedy struck when she lost her father in 2014. And while in the business Nicole is lauded for her intense work ethic and incisive acting abilities, not every film has been a triumph.
So, successfully navigating what life throws at her has a lot to do with how she and Keith live their lives, she explains. They have consciously built a bubble that is her family's private sanctuary, a cherished place where they get to flourish together behind closed doors.
"The things that are important to us are pretty simple," she explains. "What we value is like everybody else. We are very protective of our life together, with strong boundaries around it. I find there's a strong understanding of that, too, from people. They understand that we're just a mum and dad as well, trying to raise two little girls, trying to do it right, trying to be good sons and daughters ourselves. It's our life in the end. We exist together and I never forget how special that is, to have somebody to share it with. That is the most important thing, obviously, for me. And I think that should be apparent to people."
Of course, alongside her family life Nicole also loves to work, and at 54 years old she's one of the most prolific actors in the business. "Yes, I do also have a strong artistic creative pull and I'm fortunate enough to have people in my life who understand that and support it, just as I offer that in support as well [for Keith as a musician]," she says.
In Keith, whom she famously met at the G'Day LA event in Hollywood back in 2005, Nicole knows she hit the jackpot. "He's a great guy. He really is. And pretty much everyone who knows him will tell you that, and I think Australia knows that too. Last night I was sitting at a party and someone said to me, 'Can I just tell you something? Your husband is the loveliest man I've ever met.' I'm like, 'Yeah, he is!' It's rare, to be told that." Her face lights up at the memory.
When you see Nicole and Keith together the power of their relationship is patently obvious, and she is regularly asked what that's all about. "We don't have a secret. We're just into each other," she quips without a skerrick of artifice. "It's the truth. Everyone has their own way of having a relationship and you don't want to be the people who say, 'Oh you should do this, oh try this.' We're not teaching anyone, we're not doing any of that. We've got our own thing going and we're just into each other.
"You don't want to be the couple who say, 'Oh aren't we perfect?' No. We're very fortunate we met later in life and we happened to have the ability to be totally into each other.
"I really like him as much as I love him, and it's that simple. Everybody else can do their thing. We try to stay very humble with it because it is sacred stuff and there's a little bit of magic involved."
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One of the things that got in the way of Lucille Ball's marriage was her craving for a regular domestic family home, something she never had in her own childhood. I wonder if Nicole and Keith feel they have found that home in Nashville, or if we can hope they might return to their roots in Australia?
"Home is where my husband and my daughters are," she explains. "I have my mum and my sister and my nieces and nephews, they're my family, but my home, creating my home, is where Keith and the girls are, so we can then blossom out of that. It doesn't matter where we are geographically. We always say, 'Oh we're home', and we hold on tight.
"Of course we're intrinsically Australian. I was raised in Australia – born in Hawaii but raised in Australia – so my childhood is Australiana. That's what I have. That's what I'm made of. That's beautiful. I don't know Christmas to be with snow. That's not Christmas for me. Christmas is sweating and trying to pretend that it's not really hot, opening presents. And Christmas Eve is running round in my nightie on the lawn in the blazing sun. Tinsel on the tree. Great memories."
Nicole and Keith have a pact to keep their daughters, Sunday Rose and Faith Margaret, out of the spotlight so that they can build their own special family memories. And since they were born in 2008 and 2010, the girls have spent time in the United States and most Christmases with family in Australia. So do they feel Australian or American?
"I don't know. You'd have to ask them. They've put us on lockdown as to what we're allowed to talk about, which is pretty much nothing to do with them now. We're on gag orders."
Nicole is laughing, but I sense that she's deeply proud of their daughters' strong sense of self. "When they're of age, if they ever decide to share anything, you absolutely have the right to ask them that. I'll give you my blessing right now," she continues. "My job is to create a fortress to protect them so that they can evolve and become the people they want to be. Then they will decide how much they share, how much they give, who they want to be, what they want to do."
Recently they were lucky enough to see family and especially Nicole's beloved mum Janelle, who is now in her 80s, in Australia while Nicole was working. "We were fortunate to be able to come back and be there through most of the pandemic, and that was very much driven by wanting to be near my mama and near my sister Antonia, who now lives in Sydney as well, my nieces and nephews, whom I'm very close to. We're a very, very close family."
The death of her father may have left a gap in the here and now, but he is ever-present for Nicole. "My papa was a good, good man. He was generous, kind, socially conscious. I never heard my father swear and I never heard my father say a bad word about anyone. He was deeply compassionate. He was deeply giving of his time and he was a fantastic father to daughters.
"I stood at his funeral and said, 'I am one of the lucky ones. I had a great father.' It's an important thing to say as a woman, to be able to say, 'I had a great father.' Wow! Hopefully that inspires other men to be great fathers because it's really recognised when you're a daughter. You notice it … And my daughters have a great father. Yes, they do. I tell them every day."
I reveal to Nicole that recent 'news' has suggested she and Keith are looking to adopt more children. She chuckles and a wry smile comes over her face. "No, we're not looking to adopt. Sunday and Faith are enough.
"Would I have loved to have had more kids? Sure. I love kids. I've got a lot of nieces and nephews. I have a lot of godchildren. I'm happy to put some of that maternal energy into other people. I don't need to [adopt more]. Be happy with what you have. I'm extremely focused on raising a 10- going-on-11-year-old and a 13-year-old right now. I'm very, very grateful to have them."
And will they ever move back to our shores to make a permanent home here with the rest of the Kidman clan? "Part of our lives is we travel. That's who we are. I have a musician husband. He tours. We're not the people who get to go, 'Oh we live here now forever.' That's not our existence. We don't get that. Yes, there are times when you go, 'Gosh, I'd love to just put my roots down', but at the same time I'm an actor and he's a musician – we're a travelling circus of a family. That means we see the world and we're world citizens and that's a glorious thing. That's not a negative, that's a positive … But we're Aussie. We are, of course!"
Stream Being The Ricardos on Amazon Prime, live and on demand with a 30-day free trial.
You can read this story and many others in the January issue of The Australian Women's Weekly - on sale now.