Finely poised.” “Superb.” “Decisive.” “Commanding.” Those are the words British theatre critics are using to describe Nicole Kidman’s award-winning West End performance in the recent run of Anna Ziegler’s Photograph 51—but remove the context and they could easily be talking about
the actress herself.
I meet Kidman in London a week before the play is due to open and she’s terrified about her coming role. She has gone back to her roots, exercising a whole set of skills and muscles she’d forgotten she had. “When I said I’d do it, I actually didn’t realise how much fear I would have,” she says. “But I’m so glad I did, because it pushed me so far out of my comfort zone and made me find that place where there’s no way to go but forward. I have to go forward.”
Based on her impressive track record, she has absolutely no reason to second-guess herself. After all, she’s certainly no stranger to the stage—the Australian actress has been performing all her life. Kidman started taking ballet lessons at the age of three, acted in plays at school and enrolled in the Australian Theatre for Young People when she was a teenager. At 16, she landed her first lead roles in film, in 1983’s Bush Christmas and BMX Bandits. Five years later, she was in Hollywood, captivating audiences around the world with one blockbuster after another. Among her numerous accolades, she has won three Golden Globe Awards, a British Academy Film Award and an Academy Award.
After a tumultuous marriage to Tom Cruise played out under the full glare of the Hollywood lights, Kidman’s life became infinitely happier and calmer when she married country singer Keith Urban. “Time is precious,” she says. “I’m incredibly fortunate to have found a partner who I have enormous synergy and love with, and we’re raising our girls together with the same ideas and morals.”
Nowadays, her life revolves around her family. “I don’t ever make a decision by myself or just for myself,” she explains. “To do something like the play—it’s a family decision. Even the four-year-old gets a say in that. Time with them is the most important thing. I know it’s a cliché, but it does go by so quickly, which is devastating. That’s why I don’t want to miss any of it.” Because Kidman has two young children (she also has two older children she adopted during her first marriage to Cruise), being based in London for the play was a sacrifice, as her family is based in Nashville, where Urban’s career is flourishing.
“It’s hard being away, but we make it work. And I love making the world feel small,” she says. “Travelling frequently, and making films in different countries and playing different nationalities—I’m not sure what defines Hollywood now. I mean, I live in Nashville and I work globally. It’s not really set up like it used to be when I was in my 30s.”
It was her mother who pushed her to accept the role of Rosalind Franklin in Photograph 51. “I thought, ‘Oh, I can just stay home in Nashville.’ And she was like, ‘Do the play, Nicole,’” Kidman recalls. “At one point, I called her and said, ‘Are you crazy? This is so hard. I’m terrified. I so wish I hadn’t done this.’” But, true to form, Kidman powered through. The critical reception to her West End turn has been overwhelmingly positive. The Observer’s Susannah Clapp called it “dramatic amphetamine,” while Ben Brantley of The New York Times felt that Kidman had seldom been better cast. “Among movie stars of her generation, she stands out for the relentless determination she projects; she seduces audiences not by charm but by concentration,” he wrote. Proving that her early panic really was unfounded, Kidman was named Best Actress at the 2015 London Evening Standard Theatre Awards.
The role, which placed her as the brilliant scientist who helped discover the double-helix structure of DNA, is worlds apart from her last appearance on the West End. In 1998’s The Blue Room, she played five different women in a sexual daisy chain, a performance that London critic Charles Spencer famously called “pure theatrical Viagra.” The play required Kidman to have a brief nude scene—a flash of her bottom on a darkened stage—that caused tickets to sell like hotcakes. Her latest role couldn’t be more different; as Franklin, she is dressed in utilitarian brown shoes and a shirtwaister, her hair flattened and coiled into a sensible 1950s hairstyle.
“I think I’m just attracted to complicated women,” Kidman says. “I wanted to play Rosalind because I read the story and just loved her. I love the way she was very prickly, very fierce, but totally altruistic and dedicated. And she wasn’t obsessed with personal glory. She just quietly pursued her passion, which was science. I wanted her name to be talked about, and I wanted her to be acknowledged in history.”
IN HER OWN TIME
Raised in a female-centric family, she describes the women in her family as “survivors.” Kidman’s mum was a strong feminist who raised her daughters to feel like they could do anything in the world. In addition, her father, a scientist, always emphasised compassion and contributing to society.
Outside her craft, Kidman has been working as a goodwill ambassador for UN Women. For 12 years, she has been raising funds for the cause, flying around the world to try to change laws and give voiceless women a platform to be heard. “I think as long as we support each other, we can create a better world,” she says. “I suppose so much of it is just about putting warmth and compassion into the world regularly, and teaching others. As we say in our family, ‘Choose love,’ which sounds corny, but I think the basis of it is very true and beautiful.”
Kidman’s curiosity is what propels her to keep working. “It really is a blessing to have a chance to work with great minds, and to stretch my own intellect and my view of the world, and at times change my philosophies and ideas,” she says. “I love being able to do that even in this particular stage of my life. Life always has twists and turns, and as we all know, the journey is extremely unpredictable. There are huge highs and huge lows—that’s the nature of existing in the world.”
Kidman is speaking from experience. It was in 2001—the same year her marriage with Tom Cruise officially ended—that she wowed critics with her performance in Moulin Rouge, which earned her a Golden Globe and her first Academy Award nomination. The next year would find her taking home an Oscar for her portrayal of troubled writer Virginia Woolf in The Hours. Though it was a career highlight, Kidman has described that period of her life as “incredibly lonely.”
She wouldn’t change any of it for the world, though. “With the pain comes the joy,” she explains. “The only way you can know joy is when you’ve experienced the flipside. I’ve always believed in choosing love. To always be happy. My grandmother lived to see 90. Her last words to me were ‘Be happy, Nicky.’ It’s the simplest thing. Things can seem difficult at times, but whenever I think of her little voice saying that to me, I go, ‘That’s right,’ because ultimately, none of it matters. That feeling that I’m never going to come out of this dark hole is not true. Things move on. If I had learned that much earlier, I would’ve saved myself a lot of tears.”
The passage of time is something that Kidman has grown keenly aware of, especially after starting a family. “Once you have children, you realise how it all just goes so quickly,” she says. “It’s sad that it’s so quick. Obviously as you get older, that becomes apparent and you have the desire for things to slow down. A lot of people talk about the ‘slowing down’ of life. I really support that. Otherwise, we’re rushing through everything and not actually experiencing it.”
What would she do if she had one free minute, hour or day? “If I had one minute, I’d daydream or meditate. An hour free? I’d get down on the floor and play with my kids. A day? I love breakfast; it’s my favourite meal. So a long, leisurely breakfast is just beautiful to me. I’d read the papers and go for a swim if I was in Sydney. I love the beach, even though I’m incredibly pale. I put on these terribly long, unattractive rashies and people laugh at me. My kids laugh at me. But that’s what I would do. I love swimming and I just love being with Keith and the girls. That’s it.”