Here’s the thing about Nicole Kidman: she takes risks. Sometimes those risks pay off, sometimes they don’t, but it’s rare for a major A-list movie star to go places that might scare other actresses as often as she does. And it’s been that way from the start. From playing a seductive villain in To Die For to her vanity-free portrayal of Virginia Woolf, which got her an Academy Award, to even more recent work like The Paper Boy, Birth, Rabbit Hole and Sofia Coppola’s excellent The Beguiled, Kidman gravitates to parts that challenge her, and there’s something very refreshing and brave about that, which makes her a compelling presence on screen. This year alone has been a banner one for the actress, who was the unequivocal queen of the Cannes Film Festival, where four of her projects premiered. But her biggest success, the one that penetrated her the most and connected on an almost visceral level with audiences was her performance as Celeste in HBO’s mammoth hit Big Little Lies, which she brought to the screen with Reese Witherspoon because she and her peer group weren’t getting the parts they deserved. “That’s pretty much what Big Little Lies was. It was building opportunities for ourselves and our friends,” she says. Though she’s spoken about her experience on the show before, rarely has she been as candid about the impact Celeste had on her personally, both during production and in its aftermath. “I felt very exposed and vulnerable and deeply humiliated at times,” she says in a new interview in W‘s August issue. “But at times I would have flashes of images of women that have gone through this and I’m like, ‘This is authentic, this is the truth and this is what I have to do.'”
What was the first professional job you auditioned for?
The first professional job was Bush Christmas, which was a film I did in Australia. I was 14, it was shooting out in the bush in Queensland, and I got to eat witchetty grubs. Do you know what witchetty grubs are? They are worms that live in the earth, and they’re a milky white color, and I eat them in the film.
You eat them?
And I wanted to eat them. I was excited to do that. I’m one of those people. I could go on Survivor and I wouldn’t be good at the climbing and all of the physical stuff, but I could eat anything. Just so you know. That’s my secret skill. Give me a cockroach, I’ll eat it! Spider, I’ll eat it! You name it, I’ve tried it. I’m adventurous.
Definitely, and I just wonder where it started because I think of you as a pure artist, and I mean that as the highest compliment, because to me, it’s not just eating worms. You just will throw yourself into anything. Even your most recent work, Big Little Lies. Were you always fearless as an artist, even in the start?
I don’t see myself as fearless. I actually see myself as being fearful at times, probably because I experience fear but I kind of just walk through it. I did a play in London recently, and that was really debilitating fear, and every day I just had to go, Okay, get through it.’ I had pure stage fright on the side of the stage where I would have rapid heartbeat and that was frightening, but it was one of those things of just going, ‘I just have to work through this,’ and I think I’ve just always been compelled to do that. And I have an enormous amount of trust, probably to my detriment. I still, at this stage in my life and my career, implicitly trust, and that’s probably where the desire to be a part of something and the desire to contribute and not have my own inhibitions or my own censorship stop something or stop the artistic vision for a director or a story. Big Little Lies for me was so complicated, and that’s what was so beautiful about it. And that Jean-Marc Vallée was willing to hold [his distance]—there’s one scene where he plays it pretty much in a two shot on Alex [Skarsgård] and I, and [Vallée] trusted that and he trusted he didn’t need to come in close, he just allowed it to play out with all of the interaction between us. That’s really something for a director using the small screen medium. And Alex and I worked very hard on creating the dynamic of that marriage.
You guys did. Was there a lot of improvising with the fight scenes or were they all choreographed very deliberately? Because they’re so intense.
No, we would go in and we would do things. We would try and then Jean-Marc would slowly build the scene, but he also shoots everything, so the minute you come on, you start to do it and we didn’t talk a lot about it. There wasn’t really any rehearsal. It was more on the day we would go in and do it. Alex was so in it, and I was so in it, and there was—talking about trust—an enormous amount of trust there, yet at times it felt dangerous and really upsetting, and I would go home afterwards and I would feel—I would keep on a very brave face at work and then I would go home and I didn’t realize how much it had penetrated me. And it affected me in a deep way.
Did you do a lot of research beforehand? One of the things I thought was interesting about the show is you don’t often see portrayed a woman in that situation that’s upscale. There’s an association with being battered that a sophisticated person wouldn’t let that happen to them, and that’s obviously not the case. And there was something very intense about how smart your character was, how smart and how informed and yet stuck in this situation that was both attractive and totally repellent. It was fascinating because it’s a very complicated situation.
Very. And I never wanted it to be, even when we were doing press for it and stuff, I always tried to deal with it with not sort of explaining it in a simple way because it’s not. The simple part of it, yes, she’s abused, and it’s devastating, but the complicated part of it is why she stays and how it even happened in the first place. As an actor of course you come up with your whole back story and what leads to what you see on screen. There’s an enormous amount of material available; I’ve seen podcasts with women who are very honest talking about how they were in situations, and these are educated women, some who were saying they had the means to leave. ‘I could have left and I wouldn’t and I could not leave him.’ And, I’m glad that it’s created the conversation, I’m glad that it sort of pulled the veil off. I’ve received the most amazing e-mails from people saying I now understand why women stay or why people stay with an abuser, and if that changes one person’s life, that’s amazing for me.
And the scene with the shrink where you’re very intense together. What I loved is that this show got more and more interesting as opposed to the other way around, and you also don’t know what she’s going to do, just psychologically.
Which is true because a lot of times when you’re dealing with people in these situations and you’re talking to them and they say that to get the truth, the idea of what’s really happening, to penetrate and somehow get past all of those barriers, because this is Celeste’s identity. To destroy that is to destroy everything that she feels makes her worthy, and it’s so complicated. And also she feels like to betray him she’s betraying him because she also feels like she is so much to blame and so culpable, that it’s the two of them that are causing this, and you know, when she goes initially to the shrink to seek the help, it’s not to pull apart my relationship. It’s to say just give me a few tools, a few things that are gonna help make this healthy again because I know it’s not good. But the thing that absolutely resonated with me is when she goes—when she truly finds out how it’s destroying her little boys, and she says that’s it. And that’s when she has the ability and the motivation and the capacity to act and to really leave. Because prior to that, she thinks that the children are not seeing, hearing, that they’re not privy to any of it and they’re not being destroyed by it. That, I think, is the thing that made me feel for her. I really felt my way through that whole role.
Nicole Kidman’s 13 Most Transformative On-Screen Roles, From Big Little Lies to Eyes Wide Shut
In 1990’s Days of Thunder, Kidman’s first role opposite soon-to-be husband Tom Cruise, she plays Dr. Claire Lewicki, a doctor charged with nursing Cruise’s NASCAR driver character to recovery in the aftermath of a horrific crash. Though a critical flop, Days of Thunder marked Kidman as one to watch — and it still has a cultish fan base nearly three decades later.
Kidman and Cruise’s second co-starring effort was Far and Away, the Ron Howard period piece about two Irish immigrants in turn-of-the-century America. Another film that was a popular success but a critical non-starter, Far and Away nevertheless found Kidman once again utterly transformed into the Irish émigré Shannon Christie.
Arguably Kidman’s most important role to date came with To Die For, the darkly funny crime comedy about an aspiring television anchor (Kidman, as Suzanne Stone). It earned the actress her first Golden Globe (she had previously been nominated, but lost to Mercedes Ruehl in The Fisher King) and, as a bonus, also features a 17-year-old Casey Affleck in his first role.
Kidman is luminous in the already overstuffed Batman Forever, which premiered later in 1995 with Val Kilmer as the titular Batman. She plays Batman’s love interest Dr. Chase Meridian, a psychologist — and though Batman Forever was far from Kidman’s most complex or lauded role, it still finds her again transformed, this time into the quintessential damsel in distress (albeit one with a PhD).
In the last of Kidman’s three roles opposite Tom Cruise, she plays his art curator wife Alice Harford in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. It’s an eerie, complicated role, in which Alice deals with her own suspicions and dissatisfactions while Cruise, Dr. William Harford, undertakes a kind of sexual odyssey.
Kidman was nominated for Best Actress at the 2002 Academy Awards for her starring turn in Moulin Rouge! opposite Ewan McGregor. It turns out, Kidman is also a capable singer in addition to a transcendent actress.
It’s not just Kidman’s capable acting that sees her so transformed in 2003’s The Hours — the film that earned her her first and only Oscar thus far. It’s also her prosthetic nose that completes her evolution into the writer Virginia Woolf.
Nowhere is Kidman’s skill better on display than in the minimalist Lars Von Trier masterpiece Dogville, in which Kidman plays a woman on the run from the mob who hides out in the small town of Dogville, Colorado. With a set simply demarcated by lines on the floor, the film makes the most of its all-star cast, with Kidman at the center of it all.
Adapted from the 1997 novel of the same name, Cold Mountain earned an Oscar not for Kidman, but for supporting actress Renée Zellweger. Nevertheless, Kidman is in top form as a young society woman surviving Civil War-time hardships in the eponymous town of Cold Mountain.
With The Hours and Cold Mountain behind her, Kidman embarked on an early-’00s period of creative triumph. Two years later, she appeared in an entirely different kind of film, starring as an actual witch — Isabel Bigelow — playing an on-screen witch — Samantha Stephens — in 2005’s Bewitched opposite Will Ferrell. The film itself was widely deemed a failure of an adaptation of the original sitcom — but Kidman was singled out as the movie’s redeeming factor.
Kidman earned her third Oscar nomination for Rabbit Hole, the 2010 drama co-starring Aaron Eckhart and Dianne Wiest about a couple coping in the aftermath of their child’s death. Rabbit Hole also marked the feature debut of Miles Teller.
Last year, Kidman found herself back in the awards season conversation as Sue Brierley, the adoptive mother of Saroo Brierley, a young Indian man — played alternately by Dev Patel and Sunny Pawar — searching for his birth family. An extremely ’80s perm is just the start of Kidman’s on-screen transformation.
Kidman is one part of the all-star cast roped into HBO’s Big Little Lies, the limited series also starring Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley, Zoë Kravitz, and Laura Dern. Kidman plays Celeste, the stay-at-home mom and wife of Alexander Skarsgard, whose picture-perfect marriage and children bely a fraught narrative of domestic abuse.
And also just the physical. I mean, I know this is a technical question and it sounds like I’m being salacious, but I’m not. Wasn’t it very difficult to do those scenes basically naked?
When I would go home, I would feel ashamed, and that’s the same emotions and the same feelings that Celeste was having, so we were very much parallel in the feelings, but I was willing to do that for the role because that’s what I felt was important for the role. When I talk about not censoring myself through my own inhibitions and not then affecting a story or a character because of my own inhibitions, I’m here to tell the story and to be true to the art, not to bring my own problems in terms of what I feel comfortable with, not comfortable with. I’ve got to go work that stuff out so that I can come as a pure vessel to the work, if that makes sense.
I totally get it, but I just think the vulnerability of that performance is so profound because it’s not like you’re doing it in a wetsuit.
And I felt very exposed and vulnerable and deeply humiliated at times. I mean, I remember lying on the floor in the bathroom at the very end when we were doing the scenes in episode 7, and I was lying on the floor and I just wouldn’t get up in-between takes. I was just lying there, sort of broken and crying, and I remember at one point Jean-Marc coming over and just sort of placing a towel over me because I was just lying there in half-torn underwear and just basically on the ground with nothing on and I was just, like [gasps]. But at times I would have flashes of images of women that have gone through this and I’m like, ‘This is authentic, this is the truth and this is what I have to do, and it would just come through like that.’ But it was beautifully written, I have to say, and Jean-Marc is an exquisite director because he was able to modulate it and allow it to be and to grow and see and then sort of paste it together, you know.
A Look Back at Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern’s Beautiful Instagram Friendship
Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern enjoy a beach sunset while on vacation during the weekend of the Big Little Lies finale.
Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern enjoy a beach sunset (and wine) while on vacation during the weekend of the Big Little Lies finale.
Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern take selfies and drink wine while on vacation during the weekend of the Big Little Lies finale.
Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern know how to have a good time while doing press tours for both Wild and Big Little Lies.
Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern celebrate Mother’s Day together. Their mothers watched the movie premiere of Wild while holding hands.
Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern know how to have a good time while doing press tours for both Wild and Big Little Lies.
Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern know how to have a good time while on set for both Wild and Big Little Lies.
Actors Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern became close with Cheryl Strayed, the bestselling author of Wild. (And her dog, clearly.)
Back in 2014, actors Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern became very close with Cheryl Strayed, the bestselling author of Wild.
Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern while on the press tour for their 2014 film Wild, in which Dern plays Witherspoon’s mother.
And I also love the scene when you’re just being a lawyer because you can feel her finding her voice again. Did you grow up watching TV or were you a TV fan when you were young?
I grew up watching TV, but I also grew up watching a lot of theater, and I grew up with literature. That was basically where I molded my imagination and where I could get lost. And I’m still like that. Like, I’ll find a book and I can just read and read and read, and it’s my protection, it’s my sanctuary, it’s my place that I can go when I need friends, you know. More than cinema, more than television, more than any of those things, I’ve found that through books. I always wanted to play Natasha in War and Peace. But, uh, too late. Too late. [Laughs] That was the great thing about reading something like Big Little Lies and going, ‘We can get this made.’ And I have to say for [Reese Witherspoon] and I to have taken that from nothing and all the way to here, we both said, ‘We weren’t getting the opportunities of great roles.’ I mean, sometimes every now and then, but I think now, particularly for women, we’re in a position where if it’s not happening, you’ve got to make it happen for you. You’ve got to make opportunities for yourself and your friends. And that’s pretty much what Big Little Lies was. It was building opportunities for ourselves and our friends, and it just happened to become what it became, but that was because there was an enormous amount of passion behind it as well and optimism, actually.
But I also think it’s because it was great. [Laughs]
Well, it was great material but, you know, we all read good things and rarely does it have this sort of trajectory. I mean, all of the pieces coming together. We get Laura [Dern], we get Shai [Woodley], we get Jean-Marc to do all of them, we get David E. Kelley to write them, Liane Moriarty gives us the rights to the book. All of those things sound easy. They’re so hard.
Yes, they’re very hard. And then it’s a huge hit. Even better.
And then it connects in the way that it has. I mean, I was walking through the airport today and, you know, women are stopping me going, [gasps] Big Little Lies. And then their husbands are there too and they’re, like, ‘We love it!’ And I feel, that’s amazing. I’ve never had that in my career.
You’ve never had that?
I mean, Moulin Rouge maybe ages ago, but that was far more niche at the time. This is much more penetrated in a much deeper level for me and broadly. I mean, that’s the power of TV. And I love it.
Nicole Kidman, Milo Ventimiglia and 11 More Actors Who Prove that Television Has Never Been Hotter
“In the show I play an abused woman, and I felt very exposed and deeply humiliated. I remember lying on the floor in the bathroom at the end of a difficult scene, and I wouldn’t get up between takes. I was just lying there, basically naked in half-torn underwear, and Jean-Marc Vallée [the director] would come over and place a towel over me. It was very hard.”
Kidman wears a Miu Miu dress and coat.
“As a girl, I was obsessed with the program 20/20—especially with the coanchor Hugh Downs. I thought I was going to marry Hugh Downs for a really long time. He was so dignified. Everything was going to be all right because Hugh Downs was going to tell you the important story you needed to know that Friday night. They just don’t do newsmen like him anymore.”
Marling wears a Prada dress.
“My first crush was Jessica Lange in Tootsie. I was maybe 8 or 9 when I first saw the movie, and I had never felt anything for a girl before that. I was just mesmerized by her. I watched the film over and over again because of Jessica Lange. I’m still not over her. Every time I meet someone, I compare her to Jessica Lange in Tootsie. That’s probably why I’m not married.”
Skarsgård wears a Cleverly Laundry robe; Schiesser Revival shirt.
“The Americans mostly takes place in the ’80s, during the Cold War. Anytime you’re wearing clothes that are unlike yours, it just heightens the moment. When I wear heels and silk shirts, slacks and blouses, it makes me feel like an adult. On the show, I wear a cat eye with black eyeliner, and it makes me feel like a panther. It’s so unlike me as Keri—this tired mom in flip-flops and jeans. And I love that transformation.”
Russell wears a Michael Kors Collection top; Philosophy briefs; Manolo Blahnik shoes; Louis Vuitton bracelet.
“For Homeland, I made an audition tape with a point-and-click camera and sent it in. The ratio was off. It was out of focus. I was also wearing the wrong thing, and I filmed it against a door that they later told me made it look like I was in a mental asylum. The producers were like, ‘Where the hell is this kid?!’ In the end, I did seven separate audition tapes of the same scene. They finally said yes.”
Friend wears an Hermès sweater; Sunspel boxers; his own ring and socks.
“I went to work on The Crown four months after giving birth. The queen didn’t wear a corset, but I did in the beginning. Now, in the second season, I have to wear a significantly padded brassiere. In the first season, it was all my own breast work, but now it’s ‘Ha! Where have they gone?’ The queen would be so ashamed of me.”
Foy wears a Louis Vuitton dress; Messika Paris bracelet.
“I usually get stopped in the U.K. before I board a plane. What’s funny is that Heathrow is in a heavily South Asian neighborhood, and the kids working at the airport are fans of mine. So while they’re swabbing me for explosives, they’re asking me for selfies. While they’re going through my underwear, they’re quoting my raps back at me. It’s quite a surreal experience that speaks to the insider/outsider status I’ve felt all my life.”
Ahmed wears a Bottega Veneta sweater; Jeffrey Rüdes pants.
“Even with the show, I still live at home in Liverpool. I can’t bring myself to leave just yet. My brother is 21 and he’s still at home, too. I said to my mom, ‘We’re going to be 30-, 40-odd years old and we’re still going to be living in the kids’ rooms.’ I’m hoping I will be able to leave the nest at some point.”
Comer wears a Marc Jacobs dress; Jennifer Meyer necklace; Larkspur & Hawk ring.
“During the screen test for Stranger Things, one of the directors came up to me and said, ‘Bzzz,’ over my head. He then asked, ‘Are you ready?’ I was like, ‘For what?’ And he said, ‘To cut all your hair off!’ The next day I got the job and I cut it. My hair was down to here, but it’s only hair. After that, I was called ‘boy’ a lot.”
Brown wears a Balenciaga dress and tights; Chanel shoes; Jennifer Meyer ring.
“I worked at McDonald’s for a few months, and I got a couple of dates from taking orders at the drive-through window. I was enrolled in an acting class, and I would practice different accents. I was really bad, but people believed me. A young lady would say, ‘Oh, I forgot to order the strawberry milkshake’ and ask me about my Italian or Irish or Brooklyn accent. We would go out on a date, go back to the McDonald’s parking lot, and make out. Eventually, I had to break it to them that I wasn’t Italian or Irish or from New York. The girls would usually end it right then and there.”
Franco wears a Prada shirt.
“In playing Albert Einstein, I found out that he was not the archetypal absentminded professor. He was an energetic, slightly rebellious, rakish, sort-of-bohemian poet. And he was quite amorous—he had many lovers. Einstein wasn’t exactly a ‘player,’ but he enjoyed women, and when his first marriage fell apart, he became what you would call a ladies’ man. He gave up on monogamy.”
Flynn wears a Calvin Klein Jeans Established 1978 jacket and pants.
“My dad, Stan Lathan, was one of the first black TV directors. He used to direct Sesame Street, and he blindfolded me once, and when he took the blindfold off, I was on the set. I got to meet Big Bird. It was my birthday, and the whole cast sang to me. That was the biggest thrill of my life.”
Lathan wears a Lanvin coat.
“I’m not a big crier. But family stuff gets to me. Fathers and brothers and children. If I wasn’t on This Is Us, I’d be a wet noodle watching the show. I’d be crying along with everyone else.”
Ventimiglia wears a Current/Elliott shirt; his own chain.
Nicole Kidman Has Taken a Lot of Risks on the Red Carpet, and They Always Pay Off
Nicole Kidman (Photo by Barry King/WireImage)
Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise at the Director’s Guild of America in Hollywood, California.
Nicole Kidman (Photo by Barry King/WireImage)
Nicole Kidman (Photo by Barry King/WireImage)
Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise during “Eyes Wide Shut” Los Angeles Premiere at Mann Village Theatre in Westwood, California, United States.
Nicole Kidman during 9th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards.
Nicole Kidman (Photo by Barry King/WireImage)
Nicole Kidman during 53rd Annual Golden Globe Awards at Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, United States.
Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise (Photo by Kevin Mazur Archive/WireImage)
Nicole Kidman in Tom Ford for Gucci. (Photo by Gregory Pace/FilmMagic)
Nicole Kidman (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)
Nicole Kidman at the The Kodak Theater in Hollywood, California (Photo by Jim Smeal/WireImage)
Actress Nicole Kidman arrives for the 80th Annual Academy Awards at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood, California on February 24, 2008.
Nicole Kidman arrives at the Golden Globe Awards at the Beverly Hilton January 20, 2002 in Beverly Hills, California.
Nicole Kidman during The 76th Annual Academy Awards – Arrivals at The Kodak Theater in Hollywood, California, United States.
Nicole Kidman during The 62nd Annual Golden Globe Awards – Arrivals at Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angeles, California, United States.
Actress Nicole Kidman arrives on the red carpet for the 68th annual Golden Globe awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, on January 16, 2011.
Actress Nicole Kidman arrives at the 17th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards at The Shrine Auditorium on January 30, 2011 in Los Angeles, California.
Nicole Kidman arrives at the 83rd Annual Academy Awards held at the Kodak Theatre on February 27, 2011 in Hollywood, California.
Nicole Kidman arrives at The 53rd Annual GRAMMY Awards held at Staples Center on February 13, 2011 in Los Angeles, California.
Actress Nicole Kidman arrives at the 45th annual CMA Awards at the Bridgestone Arena on November 9, 2011 in Nashville, Tennessee.
Nicole Kidman arrives at the 69th Annual Golden Globe Awards at The Beverly Hilton hotel on January 15, 2012 in Beverly Hills, California.
Nicole Kidman attends the “The Paperboy” premiere during the 65th Annual Cannes Film Festival at Palais des Festivals on May 24, 2012 in Cannes, France.
Nicole Kidman arrives at the 70th Annual Golden Globe Awards held at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on January 13, 2013 in Beverly Hills, California.
Nicole Kidman attends the 55th Annual GRAMMY Awards at STAPLES Center on February 10, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.
Nicole Kidman attends the World Premiere of “Paddington” at Odeon Leicester Square on November 23, 2014 in London, England.
Nicole Kidman arrives at the 87th Annual Academy Awards at Hollywood & Highland Center on February 22, 2015 in Hollywood, California.
Nicole Kidman arrives at Women In Film 2015 Crystal + Lucy Awards at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza on June 16, 2015 in Los Angeles, California.
Nicole Kidman attends the opening ceremony and “Grace of Monaco” premiere at the 67th Annual Cannes Film Festival on May 14, 2014 in Cannes, France.
This interview has been condensed and edited.