Between now and the end of 2019, we will be seeing a lot of Nicole Kidman. Theres her return to the superhero genre as the ass-kicking Atlanna in Warner Bros. holiday-season blockbuster, Aquaman. There are the roles in the buzzy Oscar movies Boy Erased and Destroyer, which are currently in limited release. And then there is the adaptation of the best-selling book The Goldfinch (due out in October); Jay Roachs Roger Ailes project that is currently filming, in which shell portray Gretchen Carlson; and, of course, the second season of HBOs Big Little Lies hitting in June, in which Kidman reprises her Emmy-winning role of Celeste Wright, the perfectly coiffed upper-middle-class mom.
Its a busy time for Kidman, and not one she would have predicted prior to the debut of the adaptation of Liane Moriartys Big Little Lies in 2017. Before she and Reese Witherspoon channeled their frustrations about the lack of meaty roles for women into the limited-series production, Kidman felt “discarded” by Hollywood. After all, the four-time Oscar nominee (and one-time winner for 2002s The Hours) was approaching the cursed-by-Hollywood-standards age of 50.
“It was like, Well, youve kind of had your day in the sun. Youve kind of shown us everything, and thats it,” Kidman said during a recent interview in the midst of all the promotional work for her films.
Big Little Lies changed things. The soapy cable phenomenon proved that examining the interior lives of women in their forties and fifties was compelling to audiences, and it gave Kidman the courage to take more ownership of her career.
“It gave me the chance to produce more. It gave me the chance to be considered for more roles. Suddenly, directors were like, Maybe she can do that,” said Kidman, before admitting shes too dreamy to put forth an analytical assessment of her career trajectory. “Keith [Urban, her husband] always says, Youre so raw. You just kind of do—and I [do] just float around. But my passion [for acting] has never waned.”
This becomes clear when Kidman talks about her recent films. For Boy Erased, director Joel Edgerton, a fellow Australian, asked Kidman to play the role of Nancy Eamons, who goes along with her Baptist preacher husbands conversion plans for their gay son—until she no longer can. The film is based on the true story by Garrard Conley, and Kidman spent a good deal of her promotional tour with Conleys mother, Martha. “I just love her, and I love the message of that film, and I want that film to be seen. I want that film to be absorbed,” said Kidman.
For Destroyer, Kidman traded in her coiffed blonde hair for a ratty, lived-in leather jacket, a pair of dark jeans that hang off her lithe frame, and an outlook as black as tar. After a daily, roughly hour-long makeup job that turned her flawless skin into a freckled mess of scars, and her striking face into a pinched, angry, and rather dangerous glare—complete with prosthetic eye bags and a broken nose—Kidman hurled herself into the role of Erin Bell, a bad cop and even worse mother.
“[The part] scared me in the sense that I wanted it to be really real,” said Kidman. “I didnt want it to be a performance. I wanted it to pulsate, as a woman who had destroyed herself.”
Before she got there, she had to convince director Karyn Kusama she was right for the job. “I had to ask for it, and beg for it, and say, Please consider that I maybe can go there,” Kidman said. “Karyn took a massive risk.”
Kusama (Girlfight) admits that Nicole Kidmans name was nowhere near her list of possible stars for the role. But Kidman got an early glimpse of the script, written by Kusamas husband, Phil Hay, and his writing partner, Matt Manfredi, and made a convincing case to Kusama.
“There was something about her willingness to put herself out there and advocate for herself that I found inspiring, refreshing, and very different for a movie star,” said Kusama. “We talked a lot about shame, and how shame over the years starts to affect your body and your mind. She was imagining the character from the inside out. Stress, sleeplessness, staring at the ceiling in the middle of the night—what does that do to your personhood? It was a fascinating rumination about how she would get there. And something about it was so curious and reckless and free.”
To prep for the part, Kidman and her genteel hands learned how to load and reload semi-automatic weapons, pistols, and 9-mm guns. She figured out how to enter a room like an undercover detective: eyes constantly moving, knowing every exit. And she mastered an aggrieved shuffle step that radiates pain. The result is yet another reminder to Hollywood that there are no bounds to where Kidman is willing to go as an actress.
When Kusama reflects upon Kidmans career, she says that during her own travels through the Hollywood system, when she sits down for meetings with executives, the two movies most often brought up as ones they wish they could remake are Gus Van Sants dark 1995 comedy To Die For, and Alejandro Amenábars 2001 elevated horror film The Others, two disparate Kidman vehicles that, to Kusama, show how tapped in she is to the collective consciousness.
“Nicole has this uncanny ability to just hook into what people are really feeling,” said Kusama. “Thats what Big Little Lies was, this notion of the perfect woman that is seething and suffering inside. In general terms, when you look at her career, its hard to deny the daring that she brings to her work. Not just year after year, but decade after decade.”
As far as this decade goes, Kidman is reveling in her newfound status as a bit of a power broker.
“Boy, that feels good when you can go, I have a little bit of control over my destiny,” Kidman said. “I have a bit of power that I can now help other people [create stories] with. I can go, Hey, yeah. We can actually get this made. We may not get a lot of money to get it made, but I can actually option your book . . . Im going to get it made, and thats going to happen.”
Right now, Kidman is pumped about her new projects, including a first-look deal at Amazon, where she is making the adaptation of Janice Y.K. Lees The Expatriates. Shes also re-teaming with Witherspoon on another Moriarty title: Truly Madly Guilty. And then for her current production, the Roger Ailes biopic, shes starring opposite John Lithgow as Ailes and a star-studded cast.
“Working now with Jay Roach, Im just discovering him, and Charlize Theron is fantastic,” Kidman said. “Im sitting in the makeup truck, and we are talking and Im learning about her, and Im like, This is cool. And then I get to be with Margot Robbie, whos like the next generation of incredible talent, and Connie Britton is a great friend of mine, and shes in the film, too. Its all really inspiring.”
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Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Nicole SperlingNicole Sperling is a Hollywood Correspondent for Vanity Fair.