Nicole Kidman and Clive Owen in An Affair to Remember
Two of Hollywood’s top stars—who play modern history’s greatest husband and wife war correspondents in HBO’s Hemingway & Gellhorn—make some history of their own.
Lynn Hirschberg: Did you act when you were a child? Were you in school plays?
Clive Owen: I played the Artful Dodger in Oliver! when I was about 13. It was the musical version. I didn’t sing that well, but I gave it a go. I was just given the part, thrown into it, and I came out and said, “I have to do this. I’ve got to be an actor.” I was unwavering from that moment on.
You did youth theater in your hometown, the industrial city of Coventry, in England, and then you auditioned for RADA, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
I’d stopped acting a bit, and I’d been unemployed for a couple of years, and I suddenly realized, If I don’t get into a drama school, it ain’t gonna happen. So I only applied to the one—and that was RADA. You audition, and they choose only 18 people a year. Getting into RADA for a kid like me, coming from where I came from, was the beginning of the whole thing, really.
At RADA, they concentrate solely on theater. They are almost anti-television and film.
After three years there, I still had no idea what a movie set looked like. If you got a part in a TV show, it was completely alien. But then, I had no burning ambition to get into films or TV. All I wanted to do was plays.
You met your wife, Sarah-Jane Fenton, while acting in a play.
Yes. After drama school I did a seven-month tour of Europe performing in Romeo and Juliet. I played Romeo. I was at the first rehearsal, thinking, I wonder what Juliet is going to be like, and she came in. She had a corduroy jacket on and was carrying a pile of secondhand books, and her glasses were falling off. I kind of fell in love at that moment.
Wow! Did people think you had enormous chemistry in the love scenes?
When we did the big balcony scene, I always thought we had this amazing connection. Much later, she admitted to me she couldn’t even see me because she’s so shortsighted, and she didn’t wear her glasses onstage [laughs]. At the time, I didn’t think it would be a great idea if Romeo and Juliet got together, so we didn’t do anything about our relationship until halfway through the run. We finally got together in Belfast, and now we have two daughters.
The first time I saw you was in Croupier—a fantastic movie—in which you play a somewhat mysterious, utterly compelling man who works in a private casino in London. Despite your platinum hair, you were dark in a very attractive way. That ability to portray a mix of toughness and sexuality became a kind of Clive Owen hallmark—in Closer, for which you were nominated for an Academy Award, you were an irresistible bad boy.
Well, I was in the play version of Closer too, and when we did the play, people walked out almost every night [laughs]. They seemed to find me repellent.
Don’t be ridiculous. Closer was full of intense sex scenes—and so is Hemingway & Gellhorn, your movie for HBO, which airs May 28. Do you prefer doing sex scenes or scenes in which you die?
It’s much harder to do a death scene. You’ve got to do it convincingly, and it’s a huge thing to die [laughs]. Sex scenes are only hard if there’s no narrative conveyed through the sex scene. In the Hemingway film, the sex scenes have a story going through them. It’s part of who these people are and what they are.
In the movie, the aspiring journalist Martha Gellhorn meets Ernest Hemingway—who is married—in Key West in 1936. As they begin their affair, he encourages her to become a war correspondent. They eventually marry, and for four tempestuous years travel the world in search of war zones. Did you know about Hemingway before you started this project?
As a writer, he doesn’t have the same impact in England as he does in America. I spent five, six months doing research. I went to his house outside Havana, Cuba. The incredible thing about the house, which his wife donated to the Cuban government, is that the moment he died, they locked the place down. They don’t usually let people inside, but they set it up for me. I got in Hemingway’s home, and everything is still there. His clothes are in the closet. His books. His typewriters. His coats are still hanging in the closet just as he left them.
Did you try them on? Did you read his books?
Everything! I tried on his boots. I don’t think I’ve ever done anywhere near as much research for any part. It was hugely enjoyable to walk around hearing Hemingway’s voice in my head.
I liked the way you-as-Hemingway wrote. He typed standing up, his typewriter placed on a tall chest of drawers. And he attacked the keys with a great intensity.
We wanted the writing to look virile. After writing a page, Hemingway would let it float to the ground. He never crumpled pages—he believed that if you crumpled them, you’d be insane in a year. He could also drink all night—legendary amounts—and then every morning at 6, he’d be up and would write for six hours straight. After that, he’d start drinking again.
And you did the same?
Absolutely! [Laughs.] Research!
Lynn Hirschberg: In Hemingway & Gellhorn, you play Martha Gellhorn, the war correspondent. The film chronicles her relationship with Ernest Hemingway, which was often its own particular battlefield. What attracted you to this project?
Nicole Kidman: I knew nothing about Martha, but I’ve always been drawn to unique women who are willing to take on the world. The exciting thing about this film is that you see her discovering her nature. At the beginning, she’s a lot of talk. She knows that she’s either got to get her hands dirty and become what she pretends to be or she’s a fraud. In the end, Gellhorn out-Hemingways Hemingway.
Clive Owen said that Hemingway is not popular in England. Was he known in Australia, where you grew up?
Well, not to contradict a man [laughs], but Hemingway is big everywhere. Was I aware of him in the same way I studied Henry James? Or the Brontë sisters? No. But that was probably because he didn’t interest me as much.
What was the first movie you remember seeing?
The Wizard of Oz. The Wicked Witch of the West had the biggest impact on me. When the striped stockings disappeared under the house, I wanted to become an actor.
You didn’t long to play Dorothy?
No—I was always interested in the character roles. I thought the witch was much more fascinating than Dorothy.
You started acting when you were very young. What was your first part?
I auditioned for the role of an angel in the Nativity play at school. I didn’t get it. I auditioned for Mary; didn’t get it. So I made up the character of the sheep who sat next to Baby Jesus. I wore a little calico sort of head thing that my mom made. I bleated through the whole thing and got my first laugh. And that was it: I was hooked.
Did your mother support your career?
She always believed in me, but she’s tough on me too. She’s lived a life where she made a lot of compromises. She would have loved to be a doctor, but she didn’t come from the generation of women where she could go and be a doctor. She became a nurse instead. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a nurse, but she wanted to be a doctor. Until I won the Academy Award [for The Hours], I was kind of pursuing things to please her. I’ve really tried to sever that.
Does she like most of your movies?
She likes The Hours. And Moulin Rouge. She didn’t like Fur, but she said she’s going to rewatch it.
Fur was inspired by the work and life of the photographer Diane Arbus. In the movie, Robert Downey Jr. plays a man completely covered in hair.
My character shaves him. I am the only person who has ever gotten to shave Robert Downey Jr. naked. Nobody else can say that—not even his wife!
You and Downey had a sweet sex scene. You are one of the few actresses who seem comfortable with nudity.
I don’t mind being naked. Maybe as I get older, and now after having had a baby, it might be different, but I enjoy not letting my issues get in the way of a performance. Once I start putting all my little insecurities in my mind, I’m not actually acting. Then it’s about me—and it should never be about me. It should be about the character.
In the beginning of Hemingway & Gellhorn, your character says, “I was probably the worst bed partner on five continents.” And yet, in the rest of the film, she and Hemingway have immense sexual heat: They are constantly going at it.
The sex was very important in that relationship because that’s the way she cuts Hemingway off. When Gellhorn says, “I don’t like sex,” it’s her way of saying, “I’m not based in sexuality; Hemingway didn’t have power over me. That’s not where I came from.”
Having said that, the sexual attraction between them was powerful. I kept asking Phil Kaufman, the director, “Is all this sex important for the story?” I wanted to make sure he wasn’t just getting off. But these were two people who could make love when a building was falling down around them. They had passion.
Gellhorn was also very strong-willed. As an actress, do you need to have that kind of toughness in your life?
My husband [country singer Keith Urban] says I’m raw. He thinks the world is not a great place for me because he fears that I’ll be hurt. He says, “That’s my job: I’ll protect you.”
Your husband just had throat surgery to repair damaged vocal cords. He couldn’t speak for three weeks. What was that like?
Three weeks of no sound—no laughing, no coughing, no sneezing, nothing. He could write things down, and he would scribble away. You can still fight when someone can’t talk. When he disagreed with me, he would write, “This is unacceptable.” [Laughs.]
Was it strange to not talk?
All of those things make you closer. It was sort of profound: to go without his voice, and then to finally hear his voice. What if he sounded different? I was there for his first words, and then we cried. How many people experience their husband’s first words? If that doesn’t bring you closer, you’re not breathing.