Love, grief, religion, parenting, eating insects and backpacking with cats. Elizabeth Day discovers you can ask Nicole Kidman about absolutely anything. Just don’t ever try to tell her what to do.
Nicole Kidman has a long history of not doing what is expected of her. Her earliest memory is of ‘eating snow’. She says this as though it is the most obvious earliest memory in the world and Ihave to ask her to expand. ‘It was of my parents throwing snowballs at each other in Washington and I must have been about two. I remember bending down with my mittens going, “I shouldn’t be doing this,” and eating the snow.’
Nicole is sitting in her home in distinctly un-snowy Nashville as she says this, speaking from the ranch she shares with her husband, the country musician Keith Urban, and their two daughters, Sunday, ten, and Faith, eight.
‘I used to eat ants as well,’ Nicole continues, ‘but ants don’t taste good.’
What do they taste like?
‘Just sort of off. Just acidic-y. Kind of weird. And I’ll eat anything. I’ve eaten almost anything. Witchetty grubs, worms and insects…’
It is not, I confess, exactly where I thought an interview with a Hollywood A-lister would lead me, but Nicole delights in confounding expectation.
‘I’ll immediately get prickly if someone says, “You have to do this”,’ she tells me. ‘I’m like, “Mmm. Not sure I have to do anything.”’
At 51, you can see this rebellious spirit quite clearly in the choices she’s made both professionally and personally. This is the woman who, aged 23, got married to one of the most famous men on the planet, Tom Cruise, adopted two children – now both in their 20s – then got divorced after ten years together.
At the time, there was much gloomy chatter about how Nicole’s career was inevitably on the slide. Instead, it marked the start of her resurgence: she went on to win a 2003 Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Virginia Woolf in The Hours, then took on a dizzying array of roles, from the doomed courtesan in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! to a small-town outsider in experimental director Lars von Trier’s Dogville.
But it was in her 40s that she truly hit her stride. Over the past few years, Nicole has not only turbo-boosted her career but has done so in an industry that more normally fetishises youth. In 2017, her riveting portrayal of Celeste – a wife trapped in a toxic and abusive relationship in the hit series Big Little Lies (which she also co-produced) – won her an Emmy and a Golden Globe. The same year, she scooped a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the Oscars for her role as a foster mother in the weepy adoption epic Lion and garnered much critical acclaim for her part in Jane Campion’s series Top of the Lake. Last year, aged 50, she took on knotty, complex female roles in two films. In Boy Erased, she was the Baptist mother of a teenager who is forced into gay conversion therapy, and in Destroyer she was a tough detective haunted by her past. In the latter, she was virtually unrecognisable on screen (one newspaper described her as having ‘sunken eyes and a haggard look’).
‘When it comes to performance I have no vanity at all,’ Nicole says. ‘Couldn’t care less.’
She says her 79-year-old mother Janelle is always on at her to ‘make an effort… My mum is like, “Do your hair, put on some make-up, stay in shape!” You know, she’s old school. My mum won’t FaceTime me without her make-up and her hair being done and I’m like, “Oh, come on!”’
Now, Nicole is about to return to the small screen, starring alongside Reese Witherspoon, Meryl Streep and Shailene Woodley in the second season of Big Little Lies. To say it is hotly anticipated is akin to describing the Pope as a little bit Catholic.
The first series finale attracted a whopping 1.9 million viewers when it aired, and millions more when it became available on streaming services. It was, in many ways, a watershed moment – not just for Nicole, who was a revelation in her role as an abused woman struggling to fall out of love with her abuser (played by Alexander Skarsgård) – but for the rest of us who were watching, too.
Big Little Lies showed five female leads, each of them flawed, vulnerable, funny, dark and at times unlikeable, ultimately rallying together in a final dramatic act of solidarity. It was produced by women and the original book was written by a woman – Liane Moriarty. It felt as if many of us had been longing for a glossy primetime show that demonstrated the power of female togetherness on both sides of the camera. When Big Little Lies dropped, it prompted water-cooler conversations across the globe.
‘Somehow we’ve all been pulled back into the vortex,’ says Nicole. ‘Because we were like, “We’re not going to do a sequel. No.” And then there’s a force that exists… an energy, almost, that pulled us all back.’
Playing Celeste has brought Nicole to a whole new audience. She says people in the street now ‘relate to me in a completely different way than they did five years ago – it’s just so much more intimate’.
They will tell her that they also experienced an abusive marriage or they will say ‘[Celeste] is my best friend… she tried to get out of her relationship.’ And, in fact, while I am writing up this interview, a work colleague emails me to say that she grew up in an abusive environment and that Nicole’s portrayal of domestic violence was ‘one of the most authentic depictions I’ve seen on screen’.
‘Celeste is so much a part of me now,’ Nicole says. ‘There’s no skimming the surface.’ She catches herself sounding too serious, then adds, ‘It’s still an entertaining show! You can laugh. It’s not, “Oh my God, I’m going to sign up now for seven hours.”
It was entertaining, too, to film. Nicole brought her daughters on set and they were extras in one of the playground scenes. ‘They’re not coddled on the set. And that’s good for them. It’s given them a stronger understanding of what I do; it’s made us all closer.’
This is the second time I’ve interviewed Nicole. On the first occasion, last year, she spoke movingly about how, during her marriage to Cruise, they had tried and failed to have biological children and had suffered a miscarriage and an ectopic pregnancy. She described ‘a huge, aching yearning [to have babies]. And the loss! The loss of a miscarriage is not talked about enough. That’s massive grief to certain women.’ Today, when I remind her of this, she says she remembers the conversation clearly and that it’s important to keep speaking publicly about such issues ‘so that then they’re not full of shame. I do believe we help carve paths that bring us together and you go, “Oh, OK, you’re going through this, too. There is hope.”’
By the time Nicole met Keith in 2005, she had put aside any hope of having a biological child. But as is so often the way, letting go of the dream made it come true. At the age of 40, she discovered she was pregnant. ‘A miracle,’ she says simply. During childbirth, ‘I was like, “Your only job, Keith, is to get me the epidural if I scream for it.” And I screamed for it. I was doing OK and then I went, “Oh boy!”’
Two years later, the couple had their second child, Faith, via surrogate. Nicole is keen not to discuss her children too much – the relationship with her elder kids, Isabelle and Connor, is said to be slightly strained by their decision to follow their father into Scientology – and she keeps her younger children out of her Instagram posts.
‘They will speak and that’s their prerogative in their lives,’ Nicole says. ‘And I do believe in respecting people’s privacy in a culture that has a voracious appetite now for oversharing.’
But Nicole’s instinct for motherhood goes beyond her own immediate family. She says she likes to nurture her on-set children, too. Celeste in Big Little Lies is the mother of twins – two child actors whom Nicole has grown close to in real life – and she says there’s a natural closeness to the off-screen friendships with the other women which is what makes it such a special show. At the end of most days’ filming in Monterey, California, the cast would go out for dinner and put the world to rights over several glasses of red wine. ‘And we’d talk about so many things,’ Nicole says, her voice gleeful. ‘I mean that was part of the real pull to do the second season, and I think that’s probably apparent in the show: the connection between us.’
Was it intimidating acting alongside Meryl Streep? ‘It is until you’re working with her,’ Nicole says. ‘Then you go, “Oh my gosh, she’s just an actor.” I mean, she has no airs and graces, she’s razor-sharp and smart and committed and she’s a fully realised woman.’
The storylines of season two are a closely guarded secret. All Nicole can say is that ‘the primary theme would be healing, ultimately. But it’s a tumultuous path… And then the way in which trauma permeates life.’
I tell her that the production notes I’ve been given state that Celeste ‘is trying to find the woman she once was’.
‘Huh,’ Nicole says when I read it out to her.
Oh, I reply, does she not agree? ‘Probably not.’ I laugh. ‘Oh God, I’m so wilful! No, I would suggest it’s more the woman that she wants to be. And I think a lot of that is shedding, probably – shedding patterns of behaviour.’
Shedding old behaviours and inventing new ones: that sounds very much like Nicole herself.
She was born in Hawaii where her Australian father Antony was pursuing graduate studies, but she was raised in Sydney, the elder of two daughters. Her mother was a nurse educator and a feminist campaigner who used to take her young children to protest meetings. Nicole’s father was an eminent clinical psychologist but she was never tempted to follow either of her parents into a scientific or medical career.
‘I remember being in the school plays when I was really little,’ she says. ‘I was in the nativity play as a sheep and when I bleated I got my first laugh and went, “This is for me.”’
She did a lot of youth theatre and started getting TV and film parts in Australia, until her breakout role in the 1989 thriller Dead Calm brought her to Hollywood’s attention.
Her father was a formative influence – ‘the true definition of a gentleman’, she says – and when he died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 75 in 2014, Nicole was ‘down on my knees [with grief]. It was unbearable.’ It was her faith, she says, that got her through.
‘I was raised Catholic. Very Catholic. I have a strong belief in God and when I’ve experienced enormous loss is when it comes in powerfully.’
She is a deep thinker, her sentences often looping back in on themselves as she tries to clarify a particular thought. ‘I wrestle with things,’ she says. ‘I’m not just like, “Oh, everything is perfect.” I wrestle and question and that’s just the nature of probably digging in and delving into things as well.’
She also struggles, as many women do, with saying no to people. ‘The hardest part is balancing, giving and going, “OK, yes, I can do that and I can do that, and I’ll show up for that and I hate to let you down and…” And that’s really hard right now because there are so many people wanting things. It does come back to responsibility to myself, which I usually put last. Because I’m quite capable of, you know, pushing through, until I collapse.’
Then what happens?
‘I get sick. I get overwrought and sick. And then you can’t do anything. You’ve got the flu, you’re in bed, and then everything falls apart.’
Is her husband good at spotting the signs? ‘Keith is very chilled. So yes, but you know, as any woman would say, he can tell me: “Listen baby, why not pull back on that?” And I’ll kind of nod and listen and then I won’t necessarily do what he says.
‘Probably a lot of men have this; they’re far better at just going, “Mmm, that’s enough now.” You know, being able to compartmentalise and sleep – “No, not going to worry about that now, just going to sleep, deal with that later.” Fantastic attribute, wish I had it. That’s what I mean by having a partner that’s really good.’
Despite rumours that resurface now and again about the state of their 13-year relationship, Nicole describes her marriage with Keith as ‘very, very, very deep and intimate and close. I love being around him.’ Then she adds, sweetly, ‘I hope he says the same about me!’
Does she find it odd that people are still obsessed with her first marriage to Cruise?
‘I’m not sure if they are. I mean, I get asked about it but it’s one of a hundred questions and now I’ve just gone, “It’s done. That was two decades ago, so there’s nothing more to be said.” It’s disrespectful to my husband now. It’s disrespectful to my ex-husband. I’ve always said: you don’t sit at a dinner party and discuss all your exes with your new partner there, who is then privy to all of it. It’s inappropriate.’
These days, she and Keith split their time between Nashville and an Australian farm where she keeps alpacas. ‘They’re a little fierce,’ she says. ‘They make noises, they spit and they can bite. We have chickens as well. Alpacas, ten fish and two cats called Ginger and Snow… I really am a cat person. I’ve just got one of those carriers. Have you seen those? Those backpacks that you can put them in?’
What, I say, a backpack for… cats?
‘Yeah, a cat carrier that’s a backpack and it has a window that they can peek out of and it’s got air and everything and they love it.’
Is she saying that she takes them on hikes?
‘Yeah. I was actually going to post a picture of it and then I thought, “Oh, I don’t want to do that.” But I may still because it is really cute. They hop in. They can’t wait to get in.’
From eating ants to backpacking with cats, Nicole Kidman truly is a woman of most unexpected depths.
Big Little Lies returns at 2am on Monday 10 June, repeated at 9pm that evening, exclusively on Sky Atlantic and Now TV, courtesy of HBO