On Tuesday, Nicole Kidman was in Paris playing Grace Kelly in the upcoming biopic “Grace of Monaco.” Hours later she was on a stage in New York, being feted by the New York Film Festival in a Gala career retrospective and conversation. "Life's a dream," she marveled.
Kidman may be one of the biggest stars in the world, but celeb factor aside, it’s sometimes easy to forget that she’s a tremendous actor with an affinity for taking on difficult and challenging roles that other A-listers might normally turn down. What these roles could mean to her career doesn't even occur to Kidman, which may be best represented, at least recently, by her outrageous and oversexed turn as a seductive vamp in Lee Daniels' pulpy and swampy thriller "The Paperboy." At Wednesday night's New York Film Festival Gala tribute, the Film Society put on a dazzling sizzle reel of the Australian actress’ work that only served to remind just how bold some of her choices have been and how electric she can be in them. Think of Grace in "Dogville" who, in the film's climax tells her ruthless gangster father to burn down the small town she just left and to ensure the children are killed first. Or Suzanne Stone, the chilling, sociopathic would-be news anchor in "To Die For."
Auteurs understand that the Academy Award-winning actress is much more than just a marquee name. She's worked with Stanley Kubrick, Lars von Trier, Gus Van Sant, Jane Campion, Baz Luhrmann, and Jonathan Glazer in "Birth" — a hauntingly good psychological thriller that NYFF program director Richard Peña called one of the most underrated films of the last twenty years (we can’t agree more).
An unnerving drama about a woman who becomes convinced that a 10-year-old boy is the reincarnation of her dead husband, Kidman said that movie was overlooked and made headlines for all the wrong reasons. “It created a lot of controversy because of a bathtub scene [with me] and a 10-year-old boy. But I never saw the film that way,” she said. “It’s fascinating when choose roles how you perceive them and how they’re perceived on the outside.”
Having also delivered fantastic performances with Alejandro Amenábar ("The Others") and John Cameron Mitchell ("Rabbit Hole" for which she earned her third Oscar nomination), when asked what she looked for in director she said, a filmmaker that she feels connected to, but not necessarily safe with. Someone who can trigger emotions in her she may not be aware she’s possessing at the moment.
“It's a relationship. It's like a love affair in a way because you have to be completely devoted to someone in that time,” she said. “The one thread runs through them: they're obsessives, usually.” Having worked with the late Stanley Kubrick on “Eyes Wide Shut” (his last picture, completed just before his sudden death), Peña was curious what it was like working with that elusive American master.
“Everyone said to me, ‘Oh my god, he’s crazy and reclusive,' ” she said. “I saw Stanley as normal so I don’t know what that says about me. But I didn’t feel like the way he approached the world was odd. He was a great teacher, I found him to be a philosopher. I found him to have some unusual traits, but he was extraordinary and not at all crazy.”
When Kidman first met Kubrick she was nervous and worried the film she and Cruise were going to make (“Eyes Wide Shut”) would never actually happen because of the filmmaker’s notorious habit of investing years into a picture’s development, but never actually making it. Rehearsals went on for six months, but eventually it was bliss for her. "And we weren't even rehearsing, we were just sort of hanging out and talking,” she explained. “But for me, this is how I work, so I thought, 'This is fantastic.' It was the same with the film. I didn’t care if this went on for two, three, four years, because it was like being around a professor of life, not just cinema.”
In retrospect, Kidman said the first time she met him she thought he was frail. “And if I were more intuitive I would have realized that he was not well.”
"That was one of the worst things that happened in my film career life," she said of Kubrick's unexpected death the night after the film was screened for Cruise and Kidman. The actress said she had meant to call him to congratulate him that evening, but it was getting late, so she decided to wait until the morning. She then awoke to a fateful call to tell her that Kubrick had passed away that night in his sleep. "It's one of my great regrets that I didn’t call him that night," she said.Kidman also recalled working with the notoriously difficult and provocative Lars von Trier, who has a penchant of putting his female leads through the emotional ringer. "I'm obviously drawn to difficult people," she said half-joking when asked about working with von Trier. "He had just had that big blow out with Bjork [on the set of 'Dancer In The Dark,' the musician actually vanished during filming for three days], and it was like, 'Ok, I’m going off to troll land to Sweden to make a film, in a dark place.' "
Kidman said one of her characteristics — generally when she’s found the right role, but one that scares her — is having last minute buyer’s remorse. She said that she begged Stephen Daldry to not cast her as Virgina Woolf in “The Hours” and admitted that she became nervous before filming on “Dogville” started and she tried to drop out just before shooting started.
"I called him and said, 'mmm, I've thought about this and no, it's not for me,' " she laughed recalling her foolishness. "And within a 45-minute conversation, I was getting on a plane so he's very persuasive."
When she arrived, instead of rehearsing, von Trier insisted that he and Kidman go hiking in the snowy mountains. "I'm like, 'Well this sounds dodgy,' " she laughed recalling the thought, but eventually went with him on this climb, just the two of them. "And the stuff he said to me on that walk, 'Oh my god,' I thought, 'Wow, we're really in for a ride now.' I'll never tell what he said because I'm still good friends with Lars and I still will go back and work with him at some point. But I knew I was in for a hell of a trip after that walk."
The actress said great directors tend to be difficult at times, but as a society we shouldn’t try and tame artists. “We shouldn't homogenize our art,” she said. “I've never been in a film that was universally lauded so I don't know that feeling. But I know the feeling of polarizing films, that make people angry and uncomfortable and I'm very comfortable with that."
Clearly Kidman takes her work seriously. When asked characteristic she disliked the most in a director she didn't hesitate. "Mediocrity," she said and then went on to explain the time she had worked on a film where the director would lazily roll onto set the next morning and didn't know what they would be shooting that day. Kidman clearly likes to give herself over and put great trust in her collaborators. "It's a great privilege to spend other people's money to make a movie," she said. "And the way to honor that is to work your ass off. So, as I said, I like obsessives. I'm willing to walk the walk with that person."
“The Paperboy” opens in limited release this weekend. The New York Film Festival continues through October 14th.