In Perspective with Nicole Kidman — “I was like, ‘How the hell did I get here, because this was a mistake!’”
Often times an actor can loose their path. Their insecurities get in the way, and now, more than ever, opportunities can feel few and far between with the stay at home orders due to COIVD-19. With so many conflicting rules to the game, it’s hard to know what to do, where to turn next, or what not to do on your journey to booking the next role. But if we actors were to take a step back and reflect on our craft, to hone our skills, and to build genuine relationships, the rest will certainly follow. This has proven to be true for Oscar winning actress Nicole Kidman, who sat down with a group of actors on Tuesday evening to discuss her perspective on craft, her insecurities and how she still has to fight for roles.
“Thanks for having me, I’m glad to be here.” Nichole’s soothing voice floated over the Zoom cyberspace. She was dressed in a minimalist black and white, polka-dot blouse, pristine white trousers, and had her long blonde waves floating down past her shoulders. The sun shined through the shutters on her Australian home while she sat in the clean, white room. She was simply radiant in angelic charm. “Coming to you live, from Sydney, Australia.” She laughed, seemingly shy and possibly nervous.
Having grown up watching Nicole Kidman films, I was beyond thrilled when Backstage Magazine and HBO invited me into this interview, along with a handful of other actors. If this were normal times, before the global spread of COVID-19, I most likely wouldn’t have been given the chance to partake in this private interaction. However, thanks to Zoom, there we all were, gifted with the rare opportunity to ask one of our idols our burning questions. I personally felt as if I had struck gold, and I most definitely wasn’t disappointed.
“Good! Yes!” Nichole exhaled with relief and a bright smile upon hearing of how realistic she comes across on film. “I suppose my sense of identity, to my sense of physical identity, is always up for grabs. I want to be able to change and become a character. When I started, it was always about, ‘Create a character. And bring that character to life.’ So physically, emotionally… is how I approach it. Always emotionally first.”
The first real question of the evening seemed to catch her off guard, when asked what it must be like to have her “pick of the litter” when it comes to roles. “Well it’s not,” she interrupted, setting the record straight. “I have to say, I think that any actor knows, that so much of it is about the Director when you’re working on a film… Director’s very much choose who they want in their films, and who they want to play their characters… no matter where you’re at in your career, I think we’re still at the mercy of weather somebody wants us for a role.” Her words struck me right in the heart. I instantly related to her, having walked the path of countless audition after audition and hearing, “No,” after, “No,” before finally, that one Director says, “Yes!”
“I’ve had the luxury and the ability to move into being a producer, which gives me a little more control over some of my destiny as an actor. But not all of it, and I’m still very much an actor. I recently was cast by Robert Eggers, who did ‘The Witch’, and I went and did ‘The Northman’ in Belfast with some really fine, fine actors… Alexander Skarsgard was one of them.” She added bringing attention to her prior co-star and onscreen husband from HBO’s ‘Big Little Lies’, which she also executive produced along side actress Reese Witherspoon.
“But Robert Eggers chose me for the role. I had to be right for the role and he had to want me in it. That was a great supporting character, but it was a wonderful thing to be given…” she continued to express how, even now, she will read a script, be intrigued by the role, only to be told that’s she’s unwanted. Through her honesty, her humbleness and gratitude was refreshing. And for the group of actors currently listening, relatable. “Sometimes you’re wanted and sometimes you’re not, and sometimes you audition, and sometimes you don’t, and sometimes you get asked to do something. Or it’s a previous audition, or previous meeting, or previous collaboration that brings you to the possibility of doing something.” She paused, and then smiled, adding, “Or it’s a friendship. That’s important, right?”
All too often I hear from casting directors, directors, agents and talent managers, of whom I take general meetings with, that your talent will take you far but that your relationships within the industry are just as precious and vital. Now, here is Nicole Kidman saying the exact same thing, in her humble and elegant way of being so forwardly blunt. “People always forget, as actors, that so many times… we get chosen. We don’t get to make the choices… But I always say an actor can’t be a control freak. Because so much of our life is giving up control… and kind of, offering ourselves up. Offering our emotions up, offering our bodies up, offering our hearts up. That’s a really raw, vulnerable place to be in. It never goes away.”
The Undoing, Nicole Kidman & High Grant © HBO
Most recently, Nichole portrayed Grace Fraser, a successful mother and therapist with a devoted husband living in New York City in HBO’s ‘The Undoing’, a modern twist on a classic, ‘who-done-it’ tale. When asked what drew her to Grace and to the story of the ‘The Undoing’, Nicole responded without hesitation.
“Grace is very different to other characters in the sense of, she comes from a place of power, almost… And it’s her fall. So, you’re watching somebody whose got a really, really good life, and a good marriage, and a really fulfilling job. All of these things are set in place and then it gets taken from her… it’s a character of much fewer words, than say, Hugh Grant’s character… so I’m always having to watch and listen, absorb, change direction, and think.” She continued, adding that the prospect of sustaining this type of tension over the course of six hour long episodes was frightening to her. “It required, just constant focus… because you don’t shoot in sequence. You’re shooting the final lap and then you’re shooting the beginning. And you could be shooting that in the same day! That’s where it goes, ‘Okay! I’ve got to have my act together here.’ I’ve got to emotionally have some sort of arc, but I’ve also got to be willing to move with every actor who comes in, and dance, and change, and respond, and be very, very supple. A lot of it was that suppleness, and trying to stay in that place. And that requires an emotional commitment to a state of being. But it also just requires real preparation.”
With that, the conversation began to shift into how the actress was trained, and her personal process when it comes to choosing what acting tool she reaches for in her toolbox when she sits down with a script for the very first time. “I was taught really early on to always read the whole script, from beginning to end. And the first time you do it, to write everything down. Because you’ll never have that first response… You’ll have different ways of approaching it when you reread it… And so quickly write your feelings, everything down, so that you can capture that. Stanley Kubrick was the one that said that to me. I’ve never stopped doing it.” She smiled, once again referring to how important the relationship between Actor and Director truly is for her. “They’re going to be your best friend. They’re going to be your guide. They’re going to be your mentor. They’re going to be the one that shapes you, that sits in the editing room and obsesses over everything for you. I really feel that that is the primary relationship that you form. And if that can form, so that it’s incredibly intimate and deep, then you’re off and running.”
“Everything is different. Every role is different, and every approach is different,” Nicole continued, explaining how her vast work has spanned from working with Director’s such as Lars Von Trier (Dogville Confessions, 2003), Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!, 2001, Australia, 2008), and Jean-Marc Vallee (Big Little Lies, 2017), as well as her on stage work in London and in Sydney, and how each one couldn’t have been more different. “Every single experience, which is what’s so gorgeous, is different… That’s the wonderful part of being an actor… we don’t know what our future holds. Right?” She asked with a chuckle.
“The love of the process is probably the most important thing for me. The actual doing of it… Obviously, having read Stanislavski, having read Meisner, having absorbed everything and then putting it together… I don’t know even how you form it.” Nicole detailed how depending on the role, she can either become a method actor, or other times finding herself leaning into the technical side of the craft. When it comes to performing in the theater, she had to learn projections in order to fill the theater because her director, Michael Grande, couldn’t hear her from the back row. She continued that no matter the technique, she’s still learning to be technical and incredibly visceral at the same time. “The combination… All of those things… I don’t know, it’s why I’m not an acting coach or an acting teacher because I have no idea!” Nichole laughed at herself in pure honesty, folding over in her chair. But as soon as she regained her composure, she looked right into the lens, at us, with confidence to say, “I know when I’m there. And I really believe in the generosity of spirit… When you come in open, available and ready. That is the most beautiful thing. You can come onto a set, or a rehearsal room, or on a stage, open, available and ready.”
Nicole freely offered more of her heart through expressing her passion on working with other actors. “Being willing to hear, ‘Okay, that doesn’t work! Try again.’ And the other actor going, ‘Would you mind trying something,’ and you go, ‘Okay, yeah, yeah, let’s go.’ All of those things, I love the doing of it!” She rounded up her statement by confessing that she’s weary of the talking stage, as it’s where her fears tend to get the best of her. “I’m like, ‘God, I hope I’m going to be able to do that!” she laughs, “I can do a bit of it but then I’m like, ‘Can we just get it on it’s feet. Can we actually get up and start doing something?’ Because that’s when I get over my fear. People always say to me, ‘Oh, you’re so brave.’ And, no, it’s not brave. It’s more just the willingness to walk through the fear.”
Upon hearing this, a young actress inquired more surrounding Nicole’s confidence as an actress, and how, if ever, she experiences and handles her stage fright.
“I experience stage fright more so now!” Nicole readily confessed. “I did a play, ‘Photograph 51’, in London a few years ago. Prior to that, I’d done, ‘Steel Magnolias’, when I was here in Australia. I’d done ‘The Blue Room’, both in London and on Broadway, and I don’t remember having stage fright. Suddenly, I’m in the West End going…” she paused, reliving her experience with wide eyes. “I looked at the theater, when we went from the rehearsal room into the theater, and I practically vomited. I was like, ‘Are you kidding?!’ I just got — it was really frightening, and like, my heart would start palpitating in the wings.”
Nichole detailed how the nerves would overtake her night after night, and how her only saving grace against the scientific jargon, was to pray to her father, who was a real life scientist, as she walked onto stage to face the audience before her delivery of the opening monologue. Nichole’s eyes then shifted up to the heavens with a look of disbelief. “I was like, ‘How the hell did I get here, because this was a mistake!’ But at the same time it was incredibly exhilarating once I got on… I would literally have the photo of my father in my dressing room before I walked on, in his lab coat, and his glasses… I would just be like, ‘Papa, help me.’ I mean, it was that intense. It really was a shock to me too, because it kind of came out of nowhere. I didn’t expect it, but at the same time, I’m so glad I did that play. It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. I felt incredibly close to Roselyn Frank. It was a weird combination of adrenaline and fear, and then exhilaration and accomplishment.” Nicole shook her head and then said the three words every actor truly feels, “We’re all crazy. We’re all crazy!”
Nicole began to dive deeper into her inner workings and the mechanics behind her acting abilities when it came to the subject of auditioning and memorizing a script. “That is a massive part of what we do. With an audition, try to do your best to be off page. I know that’s hard, because you’re doing so many. But the more you can be actually looking, and communicating, and controlling your own pace — not having to constantly be reading, is so much better. Even if it’s not word perfect, just try to be off page, because as someone that’s done a number of auditions, I’m always better when I’m not caught on lines. Then, I think you just have to put the work in. But if you have the scene, and the structure of the scene in your brain, where you’re not grabbing for them… it’s always so much freer.” Nicole told it straight and though, backing up her advice with her own experience. Once again, she spoke to how working with different Directors will determine how she memorizes her lines.
“Say, for ‘Photograph 51’, Michael Grande has a rule, where you show up, first day of rehearsal, and you’ve learned it. Which was kind of like, ‘What?!’ But it was really freeing because these days you don’t have as much rehearsal time.” Other times Nichole says she simply asks her Director how they prefer her to be, word and punctuation perfect, searching for the lines, or rhythmically. “I’m more musical, the way I learn an accent, so if I listen a lot and start to form it, I will pretty much stay in the accent for the whole shoot. Which drives my kids and my husband a bit insane. I just played a Russian-American, in the show I’m doing here, so at the end of the shoot, the other actors finally heard me speak with an Australian accent and they were like, ‘That’s how you sound?’ Because it was not an accent I could just move in and out of, and it was actually really, really wonderful to do.”
As we approached our final question for the evening, Nichole’s head cocked to the side, “The final?” She exclaimed, “Did it go that quickly? I love talking about the craft. I don’t get to do it very often. So many other times interviews are about so many other things. So thank you for giving me the opportunity. I’ve been an actor since I was fourteen years old, and I wanted to be one since I was about four. My mum used to take me to see pantomimes and ever since then, I was in love.”
I got the sense that if able, she would have spoken to us all day and night about the craft. Here she was, gifting us with such a wealth of knowledge, and she was thanking us! I’ve heard many people advise against meeting your idols, but I’ve never found this to be true, and Miss Kidman was proof of that.
“Jane Campion always said to me, ‘Really protect your talent. Protect it. It’s very, very precious. Take care of it and be willing to be your authentic self.’” Nicole began, choosing her final words for the evening truthfully. “Know that just because you don’t get something, it doesn’t mean that it won’t lead to something else. So many times you go and you audition for something and can’t believe how many times, fives years later, that audition got you somewhere else. Don’t take it personally. Which is the hardest thing because, for us, it’s all personal as actors. Never give up.” She smiles and laughs, nodding the man who said it before her, “Winston Churchill… and find the people around you that believe in you because you’re going to need them. They give you so much. And when they believe in you, they can carry you through the good and the bad. They can lift you up when you’re down… Find your teachers, find your mentors. Be kind. Be generous. And stay connected with your tribe.”
I reflected back to when Nicole commented how a lot of what being an actor is, is offering ourselves up, and how that’s a raw and vulnerable place to be in. From what I could tell, that’s exactly what she embodies. She comes from a perspective of generosity, lending every aspect of herself to those around her and to her craft.
“Goodbye Nicole, we’ll keep in touch.”
“I hope so,” she smiled gracefully. “Bye.”