NICOLE KIDMAN may be the world’s most in-demand actress, but at home in Sydney with her family, it takes a curry and a lift home to really impress, as she tells Julia Llewellyn Smith
Nicole Kidman is telling me how she doesn’t like being called a film star. ‘The movie-star thing makes you feel isolate, like you’re separate, and I like to be a part of a group,’ she explains. ‘As a kid I was very introverted and the idea of being a part of something was what was so appealing about acting.’
Dislike it she may, but there’s no denying Nicole’s status as a bona-fide A-lister for
30 years now, ever since she starred with her future husband Tom Cruise in the action drama Days of Thunder. Since then the work and the plaudits have barely stopped. She and Cruise created a furore playing the sexually adventurous couple in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. After they divorced in 2001, she went on to embrace a wide variety of roles from the ill-fated courtesan Satine in Moulin Rouge! to Virginia Woolf in The Hours, a performance that won her the 2003 Best Actress Oscar.
Today, aged 54, she’s arguably bigger than ever, having produced and starred in two of the most successful television hits of the past couple of years: Big Little Lies and The Undoing. Yet as we talk – first briefly on Zoom, where I only manage to glimpse her fine, pale features and golden curls, then, after a technical glitch, on the phone – what’s surprising about Nicole is how far she is from any A-lister, ice-queen stereotype. Talking with disarming honesty about how the pandemic has shaken up her life, she comes across as both touchingly vulnerable and extremely relatable.
She’s in Sydney, where she grew up (she was born in Hawaii) and where her mother and sister’s family are based, which had just gone back into lockdown after a sharp rise in Covid cases. She’s worried about her husband, country musician Keith Urban, 53, who can no longer tour, and her mother, Janelle, 81, who’s been unwell, reportedly from a heart complaint. Nicole is shattered after the experience of making her latest TV show Nine Perfect Strangers to super-strict Covid guidelines.
‘Looking back, I don’t know how we did it. You go, “Wow, that feels like a dream.” My thing is, when do we come out of all this? I don’t like that feeling,’ she says forcefully.
Still, the next minute she’s cackling heartily as she recalls the only time in her life she checked in to a wellness retreat. ‘I lasted three days!’ she exclaims. ‘I liked the meditation and the massages but I didn’t like being hungry and tired. It was too boot-campy, too tough for me.’
We’re talking about retreats in the context of Nine Perfect Strangers, which is based on the novel by her close friend, Aussie author Liane Moriarty, about – well, nine perfect strangers booked into a retreat in Australia’s ravishing Byron Bay, hoping not just to lose a few pounds but to come to terms with their various traumas and heartbreaks under the guidance of Nicole as the creepy yet mesmeric guru Masha.
‘I love Masha!’ Nicole exclaims. ‘There’s Melissa McCarthy’s character [Frances, a writer whose career hits the skids], going, “I’m done. I’m washed up. It’s over for me.” But Masha’s like, “No, this is the beginning!”’
After all, hard as it is to believe, Nicole experienced exactly those it’s-all-over emotions on turning 40, when the plum roles of which she’d had the pick for so long started to dry up. ‘I was frustrated – as so many women are in different careers – at the idea of being told, “Well, that’s it: you’ve passed through that period where it’s all going to be fine, and now you’re in your 40s we’re not interested as much as in your storytelling or your ideas or in who you are as a woman or a person.”‘
But at that time, Nicole’s life also took a wonderful, unexpected turn. Having thought she’d never have biological children (she’d lost a baby with Cruise after a dangerous ectopic pregnancy and the pair went on to adopt Isabella, now 28, and Connor, 26), when she met and married fellow Aussie Keith in 2006 then aged 39, she assumed they’d have a child-free life together.
‘Our chance of having a baby was one per cent,’ she recalls. ‘But my husband said, “Well, at least we’ve got a chance.” I thought, “One per cent isn’t a chance!” But he was right.’ Sunday was born when Nicole was 41, and her sister Faith arrived two years later, via surrogate. ‘Their coming into my life was the flipside of losing someone – seeing that pregnancy test and wondering, “What is this new person going to be like?” It’s an amazing thing.’
Nicole wondered if she should just quit acting altogether. ‘Giving birth was like the end of the chapter for me. I thought, “Oh well, this is where I go now.”’ But her mum Janelle, a former nurse (Nicole’s dad Antony was a distinguished psychologist) was having none of it. ‘She would say, “Nicole, you’re an artist, and you shouldn’t just leave that behind. You should keep something because at some point you may want to go back there again.”’
Nicole was also inspired by her sister Antonia, who’s three years her junior. ‘She had raised six kids but after the last one she said, “I don’t want this to be the end”, and went and got a law degree. Now her youngest is eight – and she’s practising family law. She was looking down the barrel of fear but now I’ve seen her expand and she loves her work. I thought, “How many other women feel that?” Either they’re frustrated because they want something more or they’re frustrated because there aren’t the opportunities for them in the workforce. So I’m trying to change that path not only by doing it myself and showing it’s possible, but by telling women’s stories.’
Doing it herself consisted of setting up her own production company Blossom Films, to make the kind of shows Nicole knew women wanted to see and that she could star in. In 2017 came Big Little Lies, based on another Moriarty novel and made with her friend and co-star Reese Witherspoon’s company Hello Sunshine. The mega-hit series is about a group of women in a wealthy California neighbourhood who try to cover up a murder.
Any entertainment executives who had formerly dismissed women’s stories as fluffy and inconsequential ate their words after watching Nicole’s dizzying performance as photo-perfect, abused wife Celeste who, rather than being portrayed as a passive victim, came across as a highly complex character. Nor could they dismiss the viewing figures, with around ten million people worldwide estimated to watch each episode of the second season live, while millions more streamed them later. Not to mention the four Golden Globes, eight Emmys and two Screen Actors Guild awards the show accumulated – with Nicole being crowned outstanding actor at all three ceremonies.
Nicole followed up season two of Big Little Lies with the lockdown hit The Undoing, the unbearably twisty miniseries about a high-flying couple (her husband was played by Hugh Grant) caught up in a murder. The show was TV channel HBO’s most watched last year and Nicole’s pride in her female co-stars is touching.
‘You go, “You take it!”, watching Elle Fanning [from The Undoing] producing her shows and creating this extraordinary path and [Big Little Lies’] Zoe Kravitz saying, “I want to be a director.” It’s all these women who a lot of time would be told, “That’s not going to happen for you. Be grateful and don’t dare dream or hope for anything more.” But at some point, you think: “Hold on a second. It’s OK to dream.”’
There’s an intense curiosity to Nicole, which feeds her acting: for example, finding out my daughters are just a bit older than hers, she starts peppering me with questions about handling teenagers, clearly eager to absorb as much knowledge as possible. Her empathy is almost spookily acute too: currently, her heart’s breaking at how the pandemic is affecting families separated from loved ones, especially true in Australia where ultra-strict border controls mean most people haven’t left their country in nearly two years. ‘It’s causing an enormous amount of pain and stress,’ she sighs.
She’s speaking from experience: last autumn Nicole filmed The Northman, a Viking saga co-starring her Big Little Lies ‘husband’ Alexander Skarsgard, in Belfast. ‘I was pretty frightened about it. I was leaving a country that had very little coronavirus and going into a place where at that time it was climbing rapidly.’ As always, Sunday and Faith accompanied her. ‘They sit on set. They’re involved in a lot of things. They know pretty much about every show I’m in – they inform me on what they think. They’re opinionated,’ Nicole says with a wry giggle.
Yet Nicole was desperately worried about her mum. ‘She can’t travel any more due to her age and a lot of big health things happening to her and I knew if anything went wrong I couldn’t get to her. I just love my mum and I want to be around her and see her. I don’t want to deny her access to her grandchildren, so now I’m trying to base myself from here as much as I can, so I can care for her.’
Nicole’s anxiety is understandable when she relates how many people she’s lost suddenly. ‘I saw my father just go in 20 minutes [aged 75 of a heart attack], and he was healthy. Stanley, my make-up artist, who was a huge part of my life, went suddenly, my friend Robert McCann, my brother-in-law. That sudden loss of life somehow changes your psyche – you don’t know if ultimately you’ll be here tomorrow, and it takes a lot to move through it.’
Nicole won’t say how long it’s been since she last saw Connor and Isabella, who were both living in the UK but are now ‘somewhere else’. Reportedly there had been an estrangement because of their commitment to their father’s religion Scientology, but earlier this year Isabella was noted ‘liking’ one of Nicole’s Instagram posts, while Nicole said: ‘They have made choices to be Scientologists and as a mother, it’s my job to love them.’
All four children, she explains, have banned her from discussing them in public. ‘Especially the 13-year-old. The ten-year-old is still OK, I think.’ Nicole’s more forthcoming about her relationship with Keith, with whom she has a reassuring amount in common. ‘Both our reference points are the same – in music, in food. Our parents were both married for 50 years. Our age is the same, which is kind of lovely.’
Like many people in a happy second marriage, Nicole needed a period being single to really understand how strong she could be as an individual. ‘I like sharing my life. I’ve always been like that. At 14 I had a boyfriend because I didn’t want to be alone.’ Yet after she split from Cruise [in 2001], she says, ‘I went through a period where I was forced into being alone. But that was almost like a portal to go through, where you don’t just jump from one thing to another, you’re actually there, living it. And I came out of it much more available [mentally, to meet someone].’
At moments like this, Nicole’s sensitivity shines through. But the next minute she’s giggling, like any of your girlfriends on a night out, as the conversation turns to how mothers always claim not to have favourite children, when the reality is there’s almost always a favourite – only that status changes day by day, or even hour by hour.
‘There are so many different family members here and my mother always has a favourite. The other day I said, “Where am I on the list?” and she goes, “Oh no, you’re up there right now, but you’re definitely not the top.”’ Nicole guffaws, then adds triumphantly. ‘But I may be top next week! I had Mum over and made her some curry and drove her home. So I might have risen a couple of notches.’ And once more, that irrepressible Aussie cackle explodes.
The first three episodes of Nine Perfect Strangers are on Amazon Prime Video, with new episodes launching weekly