Nicole Kidman: Actress of the Year–Playing Three Eccentric, Vastly Different Mothers

Though she has been performing for close to four decades (she made her screen debut in 1983, age 16), Nicole Kidman says she has never lost her passion for her art. Known for her courageous choice of roles, she does not distinguish between lead and secondary parts: “I always tell young actors it’s a gift to be given any role. Even if it is a small role, do your best, because you never know where it’s going to take you, or what you are going to get from it.”

This season alone, Kidman, one of Hollywood’s busiest actresses, can be seen in three vastly different films: the family drama Boy Erased; the action thriller Destroyer, and Marvel’s superhero picture Aquaman. She sees this diversity of roles as “an extraordinary gift given to me as an actor, because I have been through many times when I didn’t have the opportunity to play roles that were satiating and strong and interesting.”

She can’t talk much about Aquaman, in which she plays Queen Atlanna, due to the studio’s restrictive policy: “I am only in a small part, and I hate to give anything away, because we are not allowed to, they have a huge lockdown at DC, and you sign all these papers.” But she is more than happy to discuss her two other roles.


Like other actresses her age (she’s 51), such as Julia Roberts and Cate Blanchett, Kidman has been playing a wide range of maternal roles.  She was recently nominated for the Supporting Actress Oscar for Lion, and likely would score another supporting nomination for the fact-based Boy Erased, in which she plays the loving mother of a gay son (Lucas Hedges), forced to be sent to a therapeutic conversion camp. Boy Erased was an easy choice, as Joel Edgerton, the writer-director, is Australian, like her.  “He told me it’s a small role, and I immediately said, yes. Even if it was a one-day part I would have done it, because I believed in the liberal message of the film. I just wanted to be a part of it, because I thought it was an important thing to put into the world.”


It’s not a black and white film, and there are no villains.  My character, Nancy, thought she was doing the right thing by sending her boy to a camp, she felt it was the most loving thing she could do for her child, because she wasn’t educated in terms of what it meant to be gay. That’s why the scene when Nancy finally says, ‘I feel so ashamed’, is so powerful.” The real-life mother (Martha), upon which the role is based, said she would spend the rest of her life apologizing, but Kidman reassured her, “it’s admirable what you did, you were willing to change so that the family would stay together.” “It’s an amazing brave journey for her, because in her community, she was turning against a lot of people, and she was being judged for that choice.  I really love when she expresses her beliefs–‘God loves my son, and I love my son, and God loves me–in such simple and succinct way.”


Destroyer, however, was a totally different experience.  “It was such a stretch for me, so divergent from anything I had done,” Kidman says of the action thriller in which she plays a  flawed undercover cop, Erin Bell. She grabbed the role: “I never had it before and I will probably never have it again. It’s a once in a lifetime situation.  I was fascinated by a female-centric movie about a cop’s odyssey that’s very classical in its structure.  The way it’s constructed is modern, but it’s almost like a Greek tragedy about a mother trying to find atonement for what she has done. Erin has destroyed people and she’s destroyed herself– that’s how I would interpret the title.”

There is authenticity to Erin, she has grown up in the desert, and got an enormous amount of self-loathing. She doesn’t take care of herself and has done drugs and is an alcoholic and has basically ravaged her body and mind. I had to  carry the weight of her shame and distress and disturbance.”  I was in every frame of the movie, and there was absolutely no faking anything.”


She’s grateful to her director for “holding so many shots just on my face to show my thinking and my intensity.” The only way to portray the part compellingly was to draw on feeling “coming from within.”  She elaborates: “It was a commitment I was willing to make for the part, and also for Karyn, because of my commitment to female directors and low-budget edgy films.”


While trying to immerse herself in every role, there are differences in preparation and residual feelings after the process is over. She admits, “I would take Erin home and I am lucky because my husband is so understanding of the artistic process and gives me so much space. My children were shocked, particularly with the way I looked.” But there are advantages to exposing her two daughters with to the variety of her parts: “They are 10 and 7 now, so they are used to having an actress mother and they are used to seeing me explore things. I actually answer many questions for them and subsequently, their imaginations are very, very ripe.”


But there’s no denying the “sense of relief” when it was done. She admits that, “if I had known what I was going into, I may have gone, ‘ooo,’ this is too heavy.” “It’s nice having a foot in both, because it’s what I have always done as an actor, walk this unusual line of making small independent performance-based films and trying my hand at something bigger and mainstream.” The balance between roles was crucial: “I had to play Queen Atlanna after doing Erin Bell, I needed that lightness for my own sanity.”



When Erin finds out she is pregnant, she is high doing coke.  And for the relationship with the child to start that way is so riddled with shame and pain.  I’s a very complicated character and I was always trying to find the real mother in her so that you understand what she is fighting for, what she is blocking, why she is so shut down.  It’s not that Erin didn’t have real feelings, but because she has made so many bad choices.”


I had to stay in character, I couldn’t be trotting on the set. I had to do what I did on “The Hours,” in which she played Virginia Wolff, for which she won the 2003 Best Actress Oscar.  “I said to myself, ‘Okay, there’s no performance here, you just have to be!’ That’s a commitment I was willing to make. I knew this film is going to cost me and my family, but that’s the artistic path.


Erin never looks in the mirror, and so I rarely looked in the mirror. What happens to her is played out in her body and in her face and I just wanted to imbue it from within.


She relied on a stunt coordinator who set her up with a trainer named Daryl. “He taught me how to fight, how to use weapons, how to be someone that is always looking to protect herself and others.”  Kidman did a month of hardcore training: “I live in Tennessee, so I was able to go down and put the long, arduous time in at the gun range. I was lucky to be able to train with military men who were very tough on me. I didn’t know how to use the weapons in the film, but now I know.  The first time I fired the AR-15, I was jarred and it was really intense.  I had to know how to load and reload every single weapon.”


I have done action sequences before, but I wasn’t really prepared for what this was going to be. I just went fully for it, which is what this performance was about–I am going to jump off the cliff and let’s see if I land.” I had an army guy who came to Tennessee and trained me. He was very tough on me.  He would go, ‘yeah I believe you, or I don’t believe you, more work to be done.’  It’s good having that military approach when you are learning something new.”



Destroyer required complete physical and emotional transformation: “There is a specific way in which I enter the room, in which I observe, in which I move. Suddenly I was there, and I had to change the way I walked, the way I stared, everything! The director was very precise about how she wanted Erin to be–not by the rules: “Karyn showed me footage of animals and said, ‘I see Erin as this wild coyote.’  She didn’t want to go the normal route of imitating cops, she wanted me to come at it from different places so that it would have its own life. The coyote idea sounds crazy, but it was incredibly helpful. A lot of how I look and move is in reference to that animal.”


Her source of joy these days comes from her family: “I can watch my daughters over and over again, they are the most extraordinary children. Indeed, maternal energy is her main sort of pull: “Being a mother is an incredible experience that gives me endless emotion to draw from. But it’s never about me, I am the vessels for these stories, playing characters channeled through me.” In “Aquaman,” I birth a superhero, so that’s different, but to play Nancy and Erin was fascinating as they are both desperately trying to make amends for what they have done, yet they are polar opposites as women.  I feel like I have a bottomless well of emotion. I can access emotion quickly now and I can process it and move with it intensely.


There was joy in playing the Queen. We had our kids there, so the whole set was different than what I am used to. And they were so happy, because for them, it was the first movie they could tell the other kids at school, and the boys were kind of interested, your mom is in “Aquaman?”


With “Aquaman,” I could have fun and then go home. It’s nice to do something that is a bit irreverent, because I tend to be drawn to material that’s weighted and complicated.  There’s definitely room for such escapism in the world right now.” But with “Destroyer” I didn’t leave the energy behind. And Keith could not wait for it to end, he is very supportive of my artistic choices, but he did say at one point, ‘when is this over?’ because it was really heavy and intense. That is why I feel that the balance is so important.


I love sharing my work, talking about it, and I am fascinated with projects that connect, like “Big Little Lies.” I had no idea the series was going to connect in such particular way. When people tell me how they interpret my films, we kind of take an artistic journey together. I’m keeping an open heart, choosing to trust rather than mistrust, because even though I get hurt sometimes, the idea of staying open to the world is a better way to be.”


A long, successful career calls for a strong sense of scrutiny: “I live in Nashville for a reason, I like the peacefulness and solitude there. Keith and I have a normal and simple life, but we work hard to protect it. I like being able to step into hard work, and then go back to the real day-to-day things. I just worked with another actress that’s exactly like that, Meryl Streep. She shows up, with no bells and whistles, and she’s just, ’let’s do the work.’”

Kidman says she still has “endless curiosity” about the art, and never takes it for granted: “If you told me when I was fourteen that I was going to have this level of passion, I would have been like, ‘Really?’  But I do.  This world has given me so much, and it’s why I have never got into directing. I still feel that I was born to be an actor. That is what I love, that is what I cherish, and that is what I am committed to.

I would like to think that my emotional strength has grown, that I have discovered resilience over the course of my life. When I was a kid, I would be easily broken. And there were times in my life when I was down on my knees and I would pray for strength, and it would come. It’s amazing how suddenly you find strength from places you don’t even think you have.”