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Andrew L. Urban meets the Nicole Kidman conundrum: a mysterious woman who is both mega star and frail female, courted by directors but believing in luck.

Tall, untanned, and thin and lovely, the girl from … no, no, no; nice tune, wrong tone. Nicole Kidman is not anything like the Girl from Ipanima, that sensual fantasy immortalised by Antonio Carlos Jobim in his song. But she has all of those characteristics... blessed with angelic hair, alabaster skin and big blue eyes, a sensationally lean and tall modern figure (if a tad let down by her red, unglam hands) Kidman is enigmatic even when she is fresh and forthright. She sits at the table where we conduct the interview as if she were very present – yet somehow not quite within reach. 

"far from aloof or cool"

Is this the mystery of her femininity or of her stardom? There is a remarkable conundrum about her choice of clothes, too: whether designer or ‘just a dress’ like now, the material is always flimsy, thin, soft . . . nothing like armour, and usually pale gold, fawn, beige. All the wrong colours for her pale, pale skin. Can she be so defenceless? No, my take is that it reflects how she sees herself – her ‘self’. 

Not that she talks freely about her private life, especially her children. All she will say, in the context of trying to maintain some sort of ‘normality’ in their lives is that her golden rule is: “keep them close”.

But amateur psycho-analysis aside, Nicole Kidman is far from aloof or cool as she subjects herself to yet another close up, this time by media, whose lens is like a hungry eye, not so much receiving her performance as demanding it. 

She is flanked by Anthony Minghella, the English Patient director who contrasts her in every way. Has no hair left, for a start (sorry, Anthony), but is not burdened with a performer’s professional vanity needs; he tackles life placidly (but not unemotionally) and is not in the firing line of the media’s probing into intimate issues. He oozes intelligence and understatement, has no need to assert himself and smiles easily. It’s a complex kinda table . . . 

Minghella is the latest director to have sought her out; that’s how Kidman selects her roles, she explains, out of the many offered. “Yes, when you get to a certain stage as an actor you do get the ability to choose … from some really extraordinary roles. Strangely enough for me, I get scripts but the only things that I really deal with is if it’s a director that I feel I’m interested in – and then that jumps to the top of the list and I’m haaaa (she gasps with a little chuckle) and I can’t wait to read it, to see what it is. I have directors that seek me out … and I basically respond to whether I think I would work well with that person. And I will sign onto something without a script just based on the director.”

"emotional intensity"

To the film critic (like me) who happened to see Kidman in Cold Mountain on Wednesday and Dogville on Thursday, the idea that she is working long and hard seems unavoidable. But that’s partly driven by the emotional intensity of the roles, which we think might drain the actress more than the sort of job that requires more mundane exertions. But Kidman is quick to point out that it’s not always so.

“Well, see, Dogville, that was five weeks. You’d start around 9am and Lars (von Trier, director) would finish around 2 pm, going ‘I’m tired now’... well of course we had no sets and he could control the whole thing. He knew exactly what he wanted... it’s just a different way of making a film. Cold Mountain, though was something com-pleeeetely different. (The shoot lasted 22 weeks.) It was a long period of time and it was the first film I ventured into that I was prepared to give a part of my life to. Because I really, really wanted to do this.

“And it wasn’t really my decision, because I had to meet Anthony and he chose who he was going to cast, in terms of the triangle.” She turns to Minghella: “You cast us all on the same day... ” 

Minghella, who speaks softly but with eloquence, smiles coyly: “I like to say that, but listen, within one second of sitting down with Nicole I was desperate for her to do it.”

Kidman lets out a laugh: “But he didn’t let me know that!” It’s a telling little revelation about the absence of arrogance Kidman’s professional self image; she sweated on it like any actress would.

And speaking of why he cast her, Minghella says “Nicole is always modest about her contribution in the sense that the crew and the cast look to the leading actors in a film for a tone – and if the tone is we’re here to work and enjoy our work’ then the crew and cast learn from that, and a particular work attitude is a contagious thing. It was always the case with Nicole and Jude and Renee, that there was a great sense of opportunity and passion and commitment and that spread to everybody.”

"the remoteness of the location is a protection"

‘Everybody’ happens to include a number of Australians among the crew, notably cinematographer John Seale (with whom Minghella made The English Patient, earning Seale and Minghella their two out of a total nine Oscars). “I think this is the best work John’s ever done,” says Minghella. “He’s marvellous; he denies his poetry, saying ‘I’m a technician’ but his work is brilliant.” Minghella also praises First AD Steve Andrews, “without any doubt the best…” And the Aussie contingent was also Kidman’s “comfort factor.”

Not that Kidman ever felt uncomfortable, or in need of any creature comforts, even in the middle of Romania’s poverty stricken countryside, where much of Cold Mountain was shot. “I was thrilled we didn’t have cell phone access, that you couldn’t get online easily. It’s much harder when you’re shooting in New York or some city, because you’re so available to everybody. But the remoteness of the location is a protection.”

It also helped the cast psychologically, Minghella adds: the absence of the contemporary world helped “the sense of time travel”. Set in the middle of the 1800s as America bled from its Civil War, the film is adapted from Charles Frazier’s novel. When Ada Monroe’s (Nicole Kidman) widower minister father (Donald Sutherland) moves from Charleston to a small southern village, she briefly meets young Inman (Jude Law), and each senses an instant attraction. They barely have time for a first kiss when Inman is off to war as a Confederate soldier. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and although most of their letters never reach the recipient, they long for each other amidst the terrifying circumstances of the war. Inman is badly wounded, Ada is left poor and hungry when her father dies. Into her life comes young and pragmatic Ruby (Renee Zellweger), to show by example what a young woman can achieve besides knowing the gentle arts, with the help of nature and her own hands. As Inman tries to head home to Ada at Cold Mountain, the war continues to interrupt his journey, and the hatred bred of the war exacts its vicious price on all of them. 

"Luck…so much of your career depends on it"

Kidman, looking even more fragile than Ada, smiles and shakes hands as the interview ends and she looks to her publicist Wendy Day for directions to the next media session. Strange job this acting, crying your eyes out at Cold Mountain one minute, talking about yourself non-stop the next. “It’s not entirely natural,” she says perfectly frankly, “and you can’t do it for too long without a break….” But she isn’t planning one: a short Christmas holiday in Australia with her family (2003), then on to The Interpreter for director Sydney Pollack – who produced Cold Mountain.

Her awards and acclaim notwithstanding, Kidman put it all down to chance: “Luck…so much of your career depends on it.” 

Published January 8, 2004

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Nicole Kidman


... on the set with director Anthony Minghella

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