Aussie Does It
Nicole Kidman, Earth Mother, Managing a Continental Drift

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 23, 2008


She's changed, or something. That's her story now. She uses Lululemon words, like calm and universe.

She tells Oprah (and everyone else) about going skinny-dipping in a pool beneath some Australian waterfall last year with a half-dozen other women, and how they all got pregnant within weeks of that magical bath. She got pregnant, too, and drifted out of the public sphere for a little while on a fecund ray of sunshine. She tells Elle magazine about the enormous zucchini she grows in her Tennessee garden, on some secluded acreage in the hills an hour out of Nashville -- a humid paradise where she lives with her freshly rehabbed country pop-star husband, Keith Urban, the father of her baby daughter.

She gave birth in July at the age of 41, in a roomful of other women, and Keith. The way she describes it, it sounds less like a maternity ward and more like the epilogue of a Margaret Atwood novel, about a woman who escapes. She beatifically names the baby Sunday Rose Kidman Urban. It becomes clear right away that Nicole Kidman knows nothing of post-pregnancy flab.

She's added new glow to her old glow, and managed to lose some of that Stepford frozen-robot face. (What was she doing to her face? No -- you ask her.)

A Big Deal

The new movie is ludicrously huge. It's meant to be. It's called "Australia." It took 10 months to film.

Half of Hollywood is expecting a $120 million Vegemite bomb to go off this Wednesday when it opens; the other half believes in "Australia" deeply, almost weirdly. The thing is, no one has actually seen it. The director -- the hopeless romantic Baz Luhrmann -- is a notorious fussbudget, still fiddling with the final cut.

We are summoned to the Beverly Hills Hotel to speak about all of this with Kidman, alone, for precisely one hour (no more, no less) on a Monday afternoon in October -- even though she hasn't seen the movie yet either. "It's not my preference," she will say. "To sit here and talk with you about a movie this way, without really knowing. It would help, right? But I have ultimate faith in Baz."

("Don't fall for it," a shrewd friend admonished us before we went. Regarding Kidman. Regarding hype.)

We pull up to the big pink hotel with the city's tallest palm trees swaying in the hot, earthquake-weather vibes. We walk into what appears to be a fully staffed yet completely empty joint. Pretty soon we will totally, totally fall for it.


'Kissing and Galloping'

A cheerful Twentieth Century Fox publicist pops in a super-secret DVD and hits Play.

It's 11 minutes or so of "Australia," delivered fresh from the actual Australia. The footage is from random scenes, personally cobbled together by Baz. (Everyone calls him Baz, rhymes with jazz.)

There's no dialogue, only an overdub of music that Baz picked off his playlist: There is the theme from "Gone With the Wind," followed by Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's wistful Polynesian "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," followed by a lot of didgeridoo. It's Baz's first movie since "Moulin Rouge," the 2001 musical that also starred and more or less reinvented Nicole Kidman. Though it is not a musical, "Australia" evinces some of the "Moulin Rouge" meticulousness and theatricality, only it's more broadly epic, seemingly inspired by stuff like "Out of Africa" and "Oklahoma!" or "The African Queen" and an Indiana Jones movie, and what else? Everything else.

Right exactly on time, there's a soft knock on the door and Kidman enters and the publicist leaves.

"Oh, really? You saw part of it?" Kidman asks. "I haven't even seen that. How come I haven't seen that? What's in it?"

Lady, you're in it.

"What else?"

Well, it's a blur. Baz has described it as his single-handed attempt to revive "a moribund genre," the epic romance. There's lots of kissing. (Kissing Hugh Jackman. Hugh-completely-jacked, man, in the role of "the Drover," rockin' a tight henley undershirt, except when he's peeling it off.) There's kissing, and galloping, and sweating, and bombs exploding, and cattle stampeding, and people running for their lives. There are kangaroos, aborigines, and "Wizard of Oz" clips of Judy Garland clicking her ruby slippers.

She reacts in mock surprise, as though this is news: "Kissing and galloping! Oh, my. You could put all that on a poster, couldn't you? 'There's kissing and galloping and sweating and' -- what else did you have in there? That sounds like a movie I might like to go see."

She's wearing a tight black sweater with the sleeves pushed up to her elbows, tight midnight-blue jeans and a chic version of combat boots. Up close, with only a little makeup on, she's Google Maps: freckled points of interest on translucent skin that shows off the circulatory traffic patterns. Her strawberry blond hair is almost gray-white where it rims her forehead and temples, with the rest piled atop and spilling down in peachy ringlets.

She orders a decaf cappuccino and curls into the couch. She flew in from London (from the set of "Nine," a movie version of the Tony-winning 1980s musical), made a stop in Tennessee and came to Los Angeles.

In a few hours she's supposed to give a speech at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards. She'll get gussied up (tight deep-green Prada cocktail dress with a jade necklace and shimmery pink pumps) and the hair will be made impossibly straight, presto-magico.

" 'Women in Hollywood,' what does that mean anymore?" she asks in her soft Australian lilt, mulling over the speech she has to give, but has yet to finish writing. "There is no Hollywood, really, right? It's this place you sometimes go to, but we don't even make movies here, mostly." (Tens of thousands of women in L.A. who are working their butts off in the film industry might beg to differ, but we get her drift.)

At least, Hollywood is a place Kidman sometimes goes. Poor Sunday Rose is still adjusting to the lifestyle. "She was really screamy when we got here. She was a bit jet-lagged. She's usually so quiet, but" --

The baby is . . . here? Where?

"Mmm-hmmm, she's upstairs, I hope she's calming down. Otherwise, you could have --" Kidman starts to say, and then of course, no, you could not have.

No media will get to goo-goo-gaw-gaw at this baby for a long time. As soon as she gave birth this past summer, Kidman says, her joy came with worry, about Sunday Rose in the celebrity world. We have a copy of the fluffy fashion section from yesterday's Los Angeles Times, with a picture of a seventh-months-pregnant Nicole that accompanies an article headlined "Expecting Sexy."

"They printed a picture of me?" she asks. It's odd how she does this, how she wants to make you think that she is unaware that there are pictures and pictures and pictures of her like this, everywhere. "Look at that, it's me. With my little baby and she's inside of me. This was in Las Vegas. They printed this," she says. "Awww."

The reverse of this sweetness is that Kidman is fiercely protective of her brood, which includes her daughter and son, Isabella and Connor, whom she and Tom Cruise adopted as babies during their 10-year marriage. She didn't sell Sunday Rose's baby photos to magazines, even for charity. She mentions that Isabella, 15, loves to babysit (having done the same big-sister duty for Cruise and Katie Holmes's muchly photographed daughter, Suri). "Bella's really great with Sunday Rose."

To be closer to her older children and keep the family together, Kidman and Urban recently bought another house in L.A. "It's strange, but in a great way, to have teenagers. For a period of time it's secretive and then it's not. They get to this age where they start to open up, and it's really nice. And they keep me informed about things I would not know about otherwise."

What sort of things?

"Music and things in culture and, well, Bella and Keith really like the same music, which is interesting to me, and --" she says and then catches herself. "But anyway, we won't discuss my kids, because they don't like it. They read these things and they're like, 'Shut up!' "

You embarrass them?

"No, not that, really. It's just that they work so hard to stay private," she says.

Same goes for all the tricky subjects: The rehab stints Urban did soon after she married him in 2006. ("We got through it.") Her old life, married to Cruise. ("A great father.") Whatever went down years ago with the Church of Scientology. (She has said before that she gave up on it even before the marriage to Cruise was over, respectfully backed away from it and eventually reconnected to the Catholicism she grew up with, and has never said a disparaging word about Thetans or Xenu, though imagine what she must have seen.)

"So, 'Australia,' " she says, steering it back to the talk of movies, although in the case of this movie, it's just another big mystery -- why she did it, what's in it, who will go see it.

'I Love Perfectionism'

Kidman participates in strange movies, and willfully so. She has said over and over that for her it's about the director -- it has been ever since the two years she and Cruise spent locked in the codependent perfectionism of Stanley Kubrick, for 1999's impressively imploded "Eyes Wide Shut." Kidman's movies since are either high-budget forays or low-budget passion projects, and not in between.

Moviegoers often give her the overall meh, but film students afford her the compliment of deep scrutiny.

David Thomson, one of the best film writers and scholars alive (author of "The Whole Equation," "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film" and the just-released "Have You Seen . . . ?"), wrote a 267-page assessment of her career in his poetic 2006 book "Nicole Kidman." Some saw it as a mash note from a crazy old man, but it's difficult to find anything better written about what it means to be modern movie star. She learned how to be famous, and then she learned how to be interesting.

In concept, and sometimes in execution, Kidman's choices can be seen as an unflinching act of courage and artistry -- if you squint. When, for example, a director wants her to do a graphic sex scene, she'll do it. She'll do rape, abuse, deep pain. In "Fur," as an imaginary version of Diane Arbus, she erotically shaved all the fake body hair off a hirsute Robert Downey Jr. She'll do furious masturbation ("Margot at the Wedding"), she'll do nude, she'll verge on pedophilia. (That last one was in 2004's "Birth" -- some say it was her best movie, only who ever saw it?) Generally, she'll rip her heart out in take after take. She did get an Oscar, after all. (In 2003, for playing Virginia Woolf in "The Hours." Her cruelest detractors say the prosthetic nose won.)

But she won't do any of these things without the right story, the right script and the right director.

"If it's small or big, it doesn't matter," she says. "I'm just not interested in a laissez-faire, oh-we'll-just-see-how-it-comes-out moviemaking process. People think there aren't people like that making movies, but there absolutely are," she says. "Every time I worked for someone like that, it fell apart. I do better with an obsessive-compulsive personality. I love perfectionism. . . . And if I can continue the Oz metaphor from ['Australia'], there are very few Wizards of Oz out there. You pull back the curtain on the ideas that people say they all have, the films they all keep saying they're going to make . . . and it's not really there a lot of times. . . . The great directors are the ones who are never finished with it, and the film winds up being dragged out of their hands, wrenched really. That's my kind of director."

A Different Focus

Talking of craft this way is fine, unless you're a bean counter. This year Forbes magazine ranked Kidman as its No. 1 overpaid actor, based on the math alone. She earns anywhere from $15 million to $20 million for the big-budget stuff. "The Invasion" (a sci-fi retread for the 9/11 age) was released last summer and cost $80 million to build, and took in only $15 million in domestic box office gross. "The Golden Compass" reportedly cost $180 million (yow!) and didn't recoup even half that in tickets. The "Bewitched" remake in 2005 did flat business, too, costing $85 million and grossing $62 million domestic. (Recent success: "Happy Feet" in 2006, a penguin cartoon she helped voice, grossed $198 million.)

"My hunch, and I may be wrong, is that the public is not crazy about her anymore. She's getting old and she can't do anything about that," says Thomson, but don't read this as a slam. He sees it as the beginning of Kidman as golden-era Katharine Hepburn.

"Nicole unmistakably proved herself over several films as someone who is open. She delivered some extraordinary work that shows just how wide-ranging an actress she is. The smaller films, that's what I want to see more of," Thomson says. "But she has a lot of overhead, I imagine, and she has to do these bigger pictures and maintain it all. My sense is she's a very complicated, perhaps chilly person who wants to present as a warm person. But it's the complicated person who is so much more interesting [on film]."

(For the record, Kidman did speak briefly by phone to Thomson while he was writing "Nicole Kidman." But once the book came out, he never heard from her again. One of her Australian publicists said Kidman had been "misled" by granting Thomson an interview.)

"I don't know if I'm entering a new phase or not," Kidman says, rubbing her forehead. (Reader, look! It moves. She has wrinkles. Hooray.) "But I do feel like I'm at the beginning of something. I'm purposely saying I have no idea what's next. It's a great place to be in. It used to be a terrifying place for me to be in, and now I'm more terrified if I have three movies lined up. My focus is different. At the same time I hope it doesn't mean my artistic life is, um, over."

About the Homeland

This is a long way of saying there's lot riding on "Australia."

Baz Luhrmann calls us a week ago to rave about his friend Nicole -- her performance! Her strength! Her journey! Yes, yes.

He is on his way to catch a flight from New York to Sydney. When he lands in Sydney, he will have exactly seven hours to tweak it once more and hand it in. (One rumor going around: There is no ending. Another rumor: There are six different endings and the studio keeps changing its mind.) "I'll tell you, I'm in the car and we've driven by eight billboards promoting 'Australia,' " he says, sounding frantic.

It's about their homeland, after all. She was born in Hawaii, she lived in Washington as a toddler (she remembers eating snow there), and her parents returned to Australia in the early '70s, where she was raised. Notice that so very many actors now seem to be Australian: Jackman, Naomi Watts, Cate Blanchett, Russell Crowe (who originally signed up to do Jackman's role in "Australia," then backed out) and the late Heath Ledger. Kidman met Keith Urban, also Australian, at an L.A. party to promote tourism Down Under.

Baz is Australian, too, and he's not only trying to make a love story and a hit picture, he's trying to, as Kidman puts it, "put a whole country in there." Since Kidman hit Hollywood nearly 20 years ago, she's played an Australian only once.

Even now, she plays the outsider: Lady Sarah Ashley, a neglected wife who comes from England to the Northern Territory in 1939 to sell off a cattle ranch and confront her cheating husband, only to find he's been murdered. Instead she falls headlong into an adventure, and an epic appreciation of the lonely continent. She becomes attached to an aboriginal child, gets droved by Jackman's Drover, and swept up in World War II. The land "consumes her, and she becomes part of the place," Kidman says.

What's it like to have a big movie like this coming out, critics ready to pounce?

"Does it keep me up at night? No," she says. "Do I care deeply, do I not want to see the people who are involved in it fail? Yes, of course. I would love it to be a success. Will I be able to step foot in Australia after this? I hope so."

She cracks herself up. "But, you know, my country will survive whether this film is good or not."

She goes on: "At this age, I have things pretty much in perspective. Nothing is ever as good as it seems, and nothing is ever as bad. Which seems a very simple thing to say, but it's the truth, that's what it is. I passionately work hard on a film and then I let it go. I just have to. . . . I'm committed to my art form as a lifetime journey. That's where it stands. I also have my kids and my life and my whole other thing that gives me a purpose and a reason to be around."

She's found a whole new continent she likes: America. The one between Los Angeles and New York, which she admits she'd hardly ever seen before. She's a fan of riding around in her husband's luxury tour bus, to his concert dates at state fairs and speedways. She likes to sneak away and go to people's garage sales. "All I need is a hat, and I go," she says. She bought little ceramic candle holders at one sale, she says, and embroidered Christmas stockings at another, "when it wasn't anywhere near Christmastime. I love it."

According to Nicole Kidman, the people at these garage sales almost never know she's Nicole Kidman, which is the highest sort of compliment, in her world.

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