The first time audiences and critics noticed Nicole Kidman as serious actress, and not just the then Mrs. Tom Cruise, was with a little movie Gus Vant Sant movie called To Die For, which ended up having quite the legacy in later years. She was fearless, conniving, and absolutely captivating to watch. Over the years, she's surprised at every turn. Because she's such a marquee name, it's sometimes forgotten that Kidman's best roles have come in underdog movies and not blockbusters, as the femme fatale in Baz Luhrmann's Moulin Rouge or the haunted mother in Alejandro Amenábar's The Others, both in 2001, as a grieving widow in Jonathan Glazer's hugely underrated Birth or her devastating turn in John Cameron Mitchell's Rabbit Hole. She's an artist, and she takes parts that challenge her rather than awards bait. For evidence, just look at her supporting but scene-stealing turns in The Paperboy, Genius and The Family Fang, little-seen movies that nonetheless contained phenomenal Kidman performances. She never plays it safe and she didn't with Lion, the weeper that earned her a fourth Academy Award nomination (Casey Affleck, who made his screen debut in To Die For is also up for an Oscar this year) or Big Little Lies, the HBO drama that premieres this Sunday co-starring Reese Witherspoon, that once reflects Kidman's unfailing taste and her appetite for taking roles that intrigue her and demand that she stretch as an actress. "I think I’m just open to emotions," the 49-year-old says. "I have to be careful what I let in."

So tell me, because I haven’t asked you this in a while, what's your favorite thing you’ve done on your birthday.
When I turned 40 and [husband] Keith [Urban] drove me up the top of this small hill—we were shooting the film Australia—and he sat me down. And he had put together this huge firework display. And I sat there and watched like fireworks that would have cost a fortune, and it was just for the two of us. It was amazing, it was just...it was sexy.

What is your pet peeve in life?

When people say they will do something and they don’t. I don’t like that, I don’t like being let down. I also have a thing where—with Keith actually—where I call him and I know it’s terribly demanding but if he doesn’t answer and I have to keep calling back and calling back I get anxious. So I don’t like that. Does that make me high maintenance?

You like your husband, which is a good thing to like your husband. When you were making Lion, did you make this movie in Australia?
It's not the reason I did the film, obviously, but it was one of the great things that drew me to it, was being able to shoot in Australia, and obviously because the Australian film industry gave me my start. To then be able to support it and go back, which is what I’ve been trying to do far more.

Kidman wears Chanel dress; Tiffany & Co. earrings. Beauty: Chanel. Ali wears Simon Miller T-shirt.

Photographs by Craig McDean. Styled by Edward Enninful. Hair by Orlando Pita for Orlando Pita Play; Makeup by Peter Philips for Dior; Manicures by Michelle Saunders for Essie at Forward Artists. Set design by Piers Hanmer.

This is the first time in a long time, though.
I went back and I did a Kim Farrant film called, Strangerland. And that sort of, you know, didn’t find its way. And then they sent me the script of Lion and I just connected to it. And I got to go to Tasmania, which was a place I’d been to when I was 11, 12 on an RV trip with my mom and dad and my sister, and suddenly I was back there, and that is beautiful. Great food, great cheese—the cheese in Tasmania! And then incredible, as you see in the film, landscapes. I’m a travelogue for that place now, because I’m like go, go, go to Tasmania.

So, what movie makes you cry these days, now that you’re a mom is it different what makes you cry?

I think it’s probably my age. I’m raw as I get older; I get more and more exposed and sort of vulnerable, I think, which isn’t a bad thing. It’s connected, the compassion and the empathy. Room I saw last year and I was absolutely devastated by it. I think I’m just open to emotions. I have to be careful what I let in. I’m careful what I read, I’m careful because I’m impressionable and I think being that sort of sensitized I just have to be protected. But I’m lucky, because I’ve got a sort of nice protection around me.

Did you cry when you saw Lion? You know people sob during that movie.
I did; I cried a few times. And I knew the story, and I saw it with my sister who has six children; she my hero. She sat down and she watched the film. And she’s pretty hard, in the sense that she hasn’t seen a lot of films, she doesn’t have a lot of time. But she sat down, she was wrecked by it. And she came out, she went into the bathroom, and I haven’t seen her like that that often in relation to a movie, and she was in the bathroom and she was shaking and she was crying and she was holding onto me and she said, “That’s not a film, that’s an experience.” I loved that. And that’s when I thought, Wow. This film could really connect. And it has been. Even just this last weekend, I’ve been supporting it and everyone saying to me, aren’t you exhausted? And strangely, I’m not. Because I think the response and the energy from people and the way in which they want to tell me things and is amazing. And it’s really ignited me, it’s given me the desire to keep going out and telling people about it and hoping people will see it.

Your speech in that movie is so overwhelming, it’s very touching. I mean, I wonder when you read the script, did it speak to you immediately?
Yeah, I connected to it. The minute I read it I went, “I know this state of being, I know this woman.” And then when I met Sue, whom I’m playing, I asked her hours and hours of questions. I’ve always said when you play a supporting role you still have to do all of the homework and all of the preparation that you have to do for a leading role. You just have to because otherwise you don’t have the human being. And she just told me things I would immediately understand. It was one of those things where I’m meant to be her. And she apparently wanted me to play her.

Really? That’s so lovely.
I mean, it’s lovely and then you go, “I hope she’s not disappointed. She hasn’t been, thank god, because that’s a huge pressure, in the sense of somebody watching your interpretation of their life kind of in this compact way. I mean, she’s in my life now. She’s very, very special and she’s very warm and extremely maternal.

All right, one more question but I’ve never asked you this and I’ve always wanted to. Where was your first kiss?
This is crazy. So I’m watching The Shining, can you believe it? And we’re playing hooky from school. And I have my first kiss watching The Shining, is that not weird? And I we did a few other things than just kiss too. Don’t ask.

Was there a particular part of it?
Well, I didn’t see a lot of it. But I’m very—I love that film.