At 51, Nicole Kidman is riding high professionally and personally.
In an exclusive interview with The Australian Women’s Weekly, Juliet Rieden talks to the Aussie icon about the turning points in her life and career and asks closest friends what makes Nicole tick.
Ask Nicole Kidman’s friends to describe her in just three words and a fascinating picture starts to build.
She’s “mischievous, curious and compassionate. Funny as hell, brave, smart and intensely loyal.”
She’s “daring, dedicated, original, intelligent and a courageous risk-taker.”
She’s “honest, loving and quirky…charming, radiant, playful.”
She “loves to party” and, jokes the diminutive Naomi Watts, she’s “tall!”
It’s an impressive wordstorm of epithets that offers a telling glimpse of the real Nicole; the intense, passionate and fun-loving woman behind the red-carpet glamour and the insane background babble of frustratingly inaccurate tabloid gossip.
Most of those I spoke to are Aussies who have known Nicole since the early days through the best and worst of times: actors Russell Crowe, Naomi Watts, Deborra-lee Furness and Hugh Jackman; film makers Jane Campion, Baz Luhrmann and Catherine Martin and writer Kathy Lette.
And then there’s international friends who Nicole has worked with along the way and stayed close to like British director Stephen Daldry, her “work husband” US producer Per Saari and her co-star and collaborator in Big Little Lies Reese Witherspoon.
What’s conspicuous is that everyone is eager to talk about Nicole and all have their own special moments to impart – which we’ll come to later.
When I ask Nicole if she recognises herself in here, there’s a sharp intake of breath. “I hope so. They’re fantastic words,” she sighs. “I try to live that way.”
In an industry known for its fickleness, friendship has been a crucial touchstone to Nicole Kidman, so it’s no wonder this interesting group know her so well.
These are the people she turns to when she longs to talk, when she throws herself into wild celebration and when she needs to cry.
“I tend to have friends in my life from so long [ago]. They’re so much a part of the fabric of who I am,” she explains.
“It’s really, really special. They’re people I can call up and just – like with Jane Campion, go on a hike or a walk and just talk… and the minute I’m with people like that, we go deep.”
One of her oldest friends is actor Naomi Watts and when they get together Naomi says they literally pick up where they left off.
“Nicole is one of the greatest listeners, has the most solid practical advice and she’s always available when the chips are down.”
I’m talking to Nicole on the day after a tense evening of emotion and triumph.
“I feel a bit worse for wear but it was a really good night,” she says laughing. Nicole has just arrived back in New York where she is filming TV mini-series The Undoing with Hugh Grant, one of a catalogue of diverse projects this year. But yesterday, in Las Vegas, was all about husband Keith Urban.
In what looked like a complete shock to the couple, Keith took out the top award of Entertainer of the Year at the Academy of Country Music (ACM) Awards to add to his Country Music Awards (CMA) Entertainer of the Year win back in November.
“We were like, oh my God, this is crazy,” says Nicole. “We didn’t expect it at all, because it’s so rare to win both the CMA and the ACM. The whole auditorium was cheering, which was gorgeous. It’s so loud, it was deafening.”
As they celebrated no-one could take their eyes off Keith and Nicole; utterly love-struck, giggling, hugging and kissing. Even though they’ve been married for 13 years and have two daughters together – 10-year-old Sunday Rose and eight-year-old Faith Margaret – they looked like newlyweds.
Dame Quentin Bryce – a personal fan of Nicole’s – recalls when the couple first met and that electricity sparked.
“It was 2005 when I opened the G’Day LA festival,” she tells me.
“It kicked off with a glamorous black-tie dinner. Nicole looked fabulous in a stunning short black cocktail dress. Pacing back and forth backstage she told me she was feeling very nervous about speaking…I was invited to present an award to Keith Urban. He impressed me with the way he spoke so lovingly about his mother. And it was an auspicious occasion for him – he was introduced to Nicole, and as they say….the rest is history.”
It took four months for Keith to pluck up the courage to call Nicole which he’s tried to defend since, but for Nicole the attraction was instant.
“I’ve always said it was like I came home. It was like every part of him was familiar, even though I’d never met him before. I’ve had other people say that they’ve had that same feeling with their partners, where you just go, oh okay, now I’m finally with the person who feels like we fit,” she tells me.
They married the following year in a beautiful ceremony in Sydney and while their relationship has had some tough times, it’s clear their love is elemental and powerful.
“You have to remember we met later in life,” says Nicole.
“I think there’s something really special about that because when you meet, we were both at a place where we really were desperate to find that person but we’d also reached that place of going, gosh, I wonder if it’s ever going to happen. So, to then have that happen later in life and be given the chance to have children as well, because a lot of times that isn’t possible, that’s just enormous – I think we’re always very kind to each other. There’s love but it’s also kind.”
Mention of children brings me to one of those cherished friend moments, a time that Baz Luhrmann – and Nicole – will never forget. It was 2008 and Baz was directing Nicole and Hugh Jackman in his movie Australia. Baz sets the scene…
“We had rebuilt the sacred boab tree in the middle of a large plane of desert, all in a studio back in Sydney. Nicole wanted to tell me something and so we went for a walk, but you couldn’t see off the sides of the set, so it looked like we were walking in a real desert. We sat beneath the boab tree, and she whispered to me that she was pregnant. I knew what it meant for her to have another child and so we both had a little bit of a whimper, and a hug, and I remember walking back to the crew, thinking how surreal it had felt that we were alone in the middle of our built outback.”
In her first marriage to Tom Cruise, Nicole had been unable to conceive and the couple adopted Isabella and Connor. So to finally be pregnant was a dream come true.
“I had spent my whole life trying to get pregnant so on that film at that time with Baz there, that was monumental for me,” she says.
“Then I remember just having the most dreadful morning sickness and I wasn’t telling anyone that I was pregnant, so I kept on having to run to a room [saying] ‘Just give me a moment!’ He was so protective, and Baz has always been so protective of me. He’s seen me through so many different things.”
TRUST & DANGER
It’s a beautiful anecdote which also underlines the intimacy between Nicole and her directors.
Those I speak to talk about how rare Nicole’s talent is, how she throws herself into her roles without fear in a way that’s thrilling to be around and that through this an unbreakable bond is formed. For Nicole there is no other way to work.
“I think I just form very close relationships,” she explains. “You’re baring the deepest, darkest, most raw parts of yourself to a director in particular and so that requires an enormous amount of trust, but it also requires friendship and out of it comes deep friendship.”
British Director Stephen Daldry shocked the industry when he hired Nicole to play literary giant Virginia Woolf in his profound movie The Hours in 2002. Virginia fans thought the glamorous Hollywood starlet was wrong for the role, but Stephen had just seen Nicole wow the London theatre scene with her sensual performance in The Blue Room.
“Nicole works very intuitively and there’s a rawness to her and I don’t mean that in an unsophisticated way, quite the reverse, she’s very sophisticated,” he explains.
“At that time there was something so unusual about the way she performed …she’s like a racehorse – and the natural combination of a racehorse with Virginia Woolf felt correct.”
Nicole immersed herself in the role.
“And then in the midst of doing the film she went through this incredible divorce with Tom [Cruise] and that volatility and the vulnerability, the emotional openness was a huge bonus to playing Virginia,” adds Stephen.
The divorce came out of nowhere for Nicole and her pained response was to pour her emotion into her work.
“That’s part of the journey of an actor and Stephen was able to shape that because I wasn’t able to,” she recalls.
“For me, it wasn’t, oh my gosh I can put all of this emotion into Virginia. In a weird way Stephen gave me the solace and the ability to go, okay. I held on to him very tightly. I was deeply attached to him and he was able to pull me through it. The work was able to be the recipient of that, but it was very much him and I think a lot of performances that I give are because of the way in which I attach to the director.”
Stephen was blown away.
“She was throwing everything into the part and what was brilliant for me was that she was throwing her trust at me. She was the most fantastic collaborator. It was a truly thinking, working relationship and a very close one and I loved it. It was wonderful.”
It resulted in Nicole’s only Oscar to date and while she later described the award as “an epiphany” for her professionally, she also said that when she was up on stage holding the golden statuette, “I was the loneliest I’d ever been”.
When filming finished, Nicole turned to her friends and especially acting couple Deborra-lee Furness and her husband Hugh Jackman for support.
“When I got divorced Hugh and Deb were so much a part of my healing. They were some of my best friends through that period,” she says.
Deborra-lee had been there when Nicole had first started dating Tom Cruise, when they were co-stars on Days of Thunder, Nicole’s explosive Hollywood debut. Back then – in 1990 – Nicole was part of an Aussie exodus to Tinseltown, a sort of bratpack of talent who were enthusiastic, poor and up for a party.
Deborra-lee Furness and her friend actor and singer Tom Burlinson were at the heart of it. They were sharing a flat in Los Angeles and Nicole was frequently couch surfing.
“Every budding actor/writer/director giving Hollywood a shot would pass through our house at some stage, either for a party or to sleep on the couch. It was dubbed the gum leaf party house,” remembers Deborra-lee.
“Nicole and I met through Tom Burlinson, who she was dating when she about 17. She slept on the couch and partied,” Deb adds.
“I do remember Tom Cruise ringing the house when she landed the role [in Days of Thunder]. Nic was always very cool and took it all in her stride.”
When a few years later Deborra-lee met Hugh Jackman, it was Nicole who welcomed him into the fold.
“I was struck by the warmth of Nic when I first met her,” says Hugh. “She was very good friend and a flatmate of Deb’s, so when I met her as the new boyfriend of Deb she instantly treated me like I was the extended family… that was really relieving and striking and that warmth and loyalty has been something that has defined her I think,” he muses.
When I ask Nicole about those years she laughs. “I remember when Deb met Hugh, it was like oh yeah, this is the one! And look at them now; that successful marriage, my gosh! He just loves her and I was like, yes, he loves you. He completely and utterly loves you…and today I am deeply close to them both.”
I wonder if Deb has seen Nicole change much over the years.
“I think Nicole’s essence is exactly as when I first met that young, creative, ambitious 17-year-old. She has the same passion and drive and still loves her work as an actress and continues to challenge and push herself,” she says.
“Nicole was and is one of the most courageous actors I know. She has just become more of what she was when she was young … she has grown in confidence and wisdom and remains curious and playful.”
She and Stephen Daldry have also remained close, although geography keeps them apart and while they haven’t worked together since he says he would love to change that.
“If it was up to me I’d cast her in everything. She’s always going for danger-rich innovation and people and projects that are going to push her in directions that are unknown to her and I think that’s an astonishing bravery.
“It’s the reason why she has kept her freshness, because she has never taken the safe steps. She’s constantly evolving as an actress. She’s always exercising the muscle of her imagination. She’s one of the leading actors of the world right now.”
“It’s the reason why she has kept her freshness, because she has never taken the safe steps. She’s constantly evolving as an actress. She’s always exercising the muscle of her imagination. She’s one of the leading actors of the world right now.”
Another friend, actor Russell Crowe, who co-starred with Nicole last year in Boy Erased, says Nicole’s acting is totally instinctual.
“Like all great actors Nicole listens while she plays so she is available to take on any change in nuance in the course of a scene. Between action and cut, you get to live in a seamless world without fences or barriers.”
Nicole and Russell go way back to a party at Nicole’s place in Sydney when she was in her late teens. Both have talked about it before and every time the story is slightly different with more embellishment.
This time Russell tells me: “The place was jam packed. You literally couldn’t move. We found ourselves back to back in the middle of the room and at some point we turned around and had a conversation. Well… I say ‘we’ but in reality Nicky did all the talking because I was dumbstruck by her beauty and the life force pouring out of those glittering eyes. I’m not joking,” he pleads.
“I was literally dumbstruck. She still does it to me now. We might be somewhere at a function and I see her from across the room and she still has that radiance.”
When I tell Nicole what Russell has said, she is touched.
“He was so well-known as being a great actor. Oh my God, that’s Russell Crowe! Is what I thought..I remember the party,” she goes on.
“It was our party. We’d thrown it. It was a wild Darlinghurst party. I’m mostly proud that I’ve thrown some wild parties,” she chuckles.
The noun that keeps cropping up in connection with Nicole is “courage”. Her career is a jumble of vastly different projects, some huge hits, some artistic failures, some blockbusters, many art house passion projects with tiny audiences; and it’s this willingness to push boundaries, to allow failure, that makes Nicole so appealing to directors.
“I don’t see it as courage. I just see it as trying things,” she says simply.
When she was making the dazzling musical Moulin Rouge! Nicole broke her ribs twice, but it was all in a day’s work.
“She jumps in and takes on things that would normally scare the living daylights out of the rest of us,” says Catherine Martin, wife of director Baz Luhrmann and the film’s Oscar winning costume designer.
“I’m sure she was terrified but she just basically takes things head on and is able to overcome all kinds of issues whether they be physical things like her ribs being broken and dancing through it, to that psychological fear of not being a circus performer and being put on a swing and really, really going for it. To me that’s what makes her incredible.”
I wonder if this tenacity is something she gleaned from her parents – nursing instructor Janelle and biochemist and clinical psychologist Antony. She concedes that perhaps it came from her late father but then reconsiders.
“Mum has been a huge shaper of that, too. My mother is very much the one who’s always saying, just get on with it. She’s so pragmatic and has a very high IQ. And also has not accomplished what she should have because she came from a generation of women who didn’t have the opportunity, which is probably why I really am passionately involved in the feminist movement still.”
Nicole struck on acting young.
“I either wanted to be a ballet dancer, a lawyer or an actress and then at about 12 it was, no, I just want to act,” she says.
“So much of the way in which I entered acting was through books. I would read characters and I would feel one and I would fall in love and yearn.”
Director Jane Campion spotted Nicole’s talent immediately.
“I clearly remember first seeing Nic at her Sydney teen drama group. The drama teacher was up on the stage coaching another very shy 13-year-old to let go recklessly, to go to the depth of her character. The girl head down and hand in pocket listened seriously but the reckless abandon was not right then available. Nicole on the other hand was listening, watching with that splendid focus dying to explode. It has to be said she was also totally beautiful.”
Nicole melts when I ask her if she recalls that passion and it’s almost as if she is back on that stage nearly four decades ago.
“It was always like my sun and moon. It was the place I could go where I could be soothed. It was a place where I could escape and it was also a place where I could explore. I think particularly when you’re a teenager, it’s so valuable having something like that. I’m glad Jane said that I was reckless. I hope I’m still reckless.”
WATCH BELOW: Nicole Kidman eats bugs on camera. Story continues after video.
It was a combination of that recklessness, Nicole’s love of books and a feisty dose of women power that resulted in the daring Emmy-winning drama series Big Little Lies making it to our living rooms.
Nicole seized on the book by Aussie author Liane Moriarty, which is a complex tale of female friendship and domestic violence, and was determined to bring it to life through her own production company Blossom Films. Nicole arranged to meet Liane in a Sydney café in 2014 and it was a day that changed the author’s life.
“I found her to be warm, funny and charming,” says Liane. “I’m sure she is used to dealing with people being star-struck and tongue-tied, and she was so good at making me relax and feel at ease. I never expected a movie star to be so down to earth. But after I left the café, I remember thinking, ‘Well that was fun’ but I honestly thought that would be the end of it.
“I was cynical … I remember I said to her, ‘I’ve had books optioned before so I know not to get too excited’ and she said, ‘No, no, if we option it, get excited.’ I still didn’t believe her but when they started casting I thought, ‘Wow, they’re actually going to do this.’ I remember at the premiere Nicole said to me, ‘I told you to get excited.'”
Nicole threw everything at the project but behind her bravado she confesses she was nervous. Persuading TV networks to embrace a show about women was tough even with the star power she had gathered which included Reese Witherspoon as a co-star and co-producer.
So, when together they made it and won eight Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe, she was gobsmacked. The second series, based on a new novella by Liane, opens on Foxtel next month and Nicole is rightly proud of the work.
Liane says Nicole has been intensely involved in the new series. “She’s someone who picks up the phone and calls rather than texts – that’s an unusual and lovely trait in the modern age.”
Liane rather cheekily suggested that Nicole ask Meryl Streep to join the show. The idea was to have Meryl play Nicole’s character Celeste’s mother-in-law. But as it turns out Nicole says roping in Meryl “was surprisingly easy…she’d seen the series. She was like, ‘I’m in’. She was so quick, which is not her style. Meryl gets offered everything so for her to do that was an incredible trust in us and belief in us.”
The camaraderie on the series has resulted in deep bonds of friendship, especially between Nicole and Reese. The actors first met in 2002.
“It was the year she was nominated for Moulin Rouge! and I met her backstage at the Oscars. She looked so much like a movie star and I was star-struck,” says Reese.
Nicole says the second series is even more female-centric than the first which has been fantastic.
“There’s all those women in lead characters and we’re all there all the time, it’s so fun. But it’s also hard because these women are reeling from an event; a secret that they’re having to keep.”
At the end of the day the stars would kick back together.
“Nicole, Meryl, Zoe [Travis], Shailene [Woodley], Laura [Dern] and I would go to dinner at the local pizza place and share stories about our careers,” Reese says.
“Between all of us and the years of experience as women working in our industry, sharing our triumphs and travails was enormously comforting to know we had shared so many similar experiences.”
I sense that Reese and Nicole share a mischievous sense of humour and ask Reese what makes her friend laugh. “I like to shock her by telling dirty jokes just to see her reaction,” she quips.
Nicole’s daughters Sunday and Faith have tiny cameo roles in Big Little Lies 2. “They were in the school scenes,” says Nicole.
The girls are inquisitive about both parents’ professions but it’s not necessarily a sign of things to come.
“They’re kids. I love that energy that children have where they just want to play soccer and play violin and try their hand at this and that. They’re just dabbling in so many different things. Primarily, they want to be with us so the idea of working and being with us is really fun.”
Parenthood is an absolute joy for Nicole.
“I just love them,” she says with a tear in her eye.
“I love being around them, I love talking to them, I love taking care of them, I love how they smell and play. All that is unbelievably powerful for me….My biggest thing is I wish I’d had more children. I would have loved that and I’ve got the incredible gratefulness that I’ve even got what I’ve got but yes, if I could look at it again and if I look back, I’d be like, no no, no, Nicole, you’re going to want six kids.”
LOVE & LOSS
For the past 20 years Nicole has been a regular visitor to Sydney Children’s Hospital in Randwick.
She usually goes to the oncology wards and Intensive Care Unit, where the most seriously ill children are cared for.
“The kids love meeting her, and parents get a boost from sitting and talking to her. Having such a well-known visitor on the wards also lifts the spirits of our staff,” says the hospital’s Head of Marketing Vanessa Johnston. Now she goes with Keith, often under the radar.
“I know what it’s like to have a family hit with illness or an accident or a devastating disease. It’s so difficult and painful and so I just want to be able to give whatever I can give to them, hold them, touch them, talk to them,” explains Nicole.
“You step into a very delicate place when you do that and I’m still learning how to do that. A lot of times they go, this isn’t going to do anything – us showing up and talking or doing a song, how’s that going to help, but it’s just the communicating and being there… I know that, having been through it when my father died, and just the people who came out of the woodwork to support me and my mother.”
Antony died from a heart attack three years ago. He was just 75 and it was a huge shock. “My mother’s heart is still broken with the loss of my father. They were married 50 years.”
Sudden loss has plagued Nicole. Stanley Kubrick, the director of Eyes Wide Shut, the last movie Tom Cruise and Nicole worked on together died in 1999 before the movie came out. They had worked together for 400 days, the longest continuous film shoot ever.
“When Stanley died it was so sudden and unexpected and I was so close to him. Then my father was so sudden and unexpected. And then Robert, the man who did my hair for 20 years, one day just never showed up, suddenly he was gone. So, I’ve had that experience which is traumatic, when it’s so sudden and they’re taken. There’s no goodbyes, there’s nothing.”
Nicole says she still cries for her father.
“And I yearn for him. Grief is meant to be over in a year and that hasn’t happened for me. I don’t know if that ever goes or it just becomes a part of you; you live with the loss.”
With her film schedule Nicole’s time is spread pretty thin but the one thing she refuses to give up is time at home in Australia.
“We come back always at Christmas. It’s because of my mum and also I just think, Keith and I, that’s who we are. We lived so much of our childhood there – he was obviously in Queensland and I’m a NSW girl – but there’s the smells, the tastes, the humour, we’re Aussies, right!”