Nicole Kidman: The Princess Bride
We have had a lot of years to get to know Nicole Kidman. But when she first came to America, she was shrouded in mystery and overshadowed by her world-famous husband. In the July 1991 issue of Movieline magazine, Christopher H. Hunt tried to get the real story on Mrs. Tom Cruise. What he found was not the Cinderella story his editor expected, but rather a woman who was driven to succeed.
It’s cold and windy outside the little fortress-like home of Nicole Kidman‘s publicist, and no one is answering my banging on the heavy wooden door. Am I being punished for attempting to interview this actress at all? While I wait, I consider what I know about her. Not much. She’s 23, Australian, talented–I’ve seen her in one film, Dead Calm, came to America not much more than a year ago, made Days of Thunder with Tom Cruise, and then married Cruise. She stars in Billy Bathgate with Dustin Hoffman, is now making a romantic comedy with Cruise no planes, guns, or racecars in it. Just how does a young woman react to all the sudden limelight, the sudden money, the sudden power? I’ve only seen the one film– what else would Nicole and I talk about?
My original plan was to take Nicole to a nice place with a high profile–the Polo Lounge, say–just to see what would happen. But Nicole’s publicist said she can’t–or doesn’t want to–meet me in public. So now I’m even more intrigued with finding out how a person’s life is altered by the admission to the highest circles of the Hollywood firmament. What’s it like to be at the top of it all, looking down for the first time, after such a short time climbing? And, as I say, what else would we talk about?
But the problem with all this is that the editor of the magazine told me he’s been warned by the publicity people: I’m not to ask Nicole about her personal life with Tom Cruise. In fact, Nicole will “terminate the interview” if I insist on bringing up the dreaded “T” word. As though I might be some Kitty Kelley in drag. And now this: a dark house and no answer, ten minutes after the scheduled interview time. Is this the ultimate manifestation of control? Am I being shut out altogether? Or am I perhaps just knocking on the wrong door?
Wrong door, it turns out. But even when I find the right one, my worry is not mere paranoia. The feeling in the air is that we are to be very careful with Nicole Kidman. She may be a young actress trying to break through to American audiences, but she is married to Tom Cruise.
“And one inch taller,” my editor noted when I met with him earlier about this story. He was shuffling papers on his desk. I think he was looking for Demi Moore‘s phone number. “Look, Chris– she’s hot, she just finished a film with Dustin. She’s about to start a Ron Howard film with Cruise. Who is she and how did she get where she is?”
“So what’s my angle?” I asked. “Surely you need something to justify a feature story on a relatively unknown 23-year-old Australian actress.”
“Yeah, exactly,” he sighed in his worldly way. “The Cinderella Story. You know, unknown plucked from obscurity by a Prince Charming. See if there’s anything to it.”
Nicole arrives 30 minutes late to her publicist’s house, and genuinely apologetic. She’d been at a meeting for the Ron Howard film “and they kept saying, one more minute, one more minute–just two more minutes, Nicole.” She is graceful and quite attractive in a business-type outfit and a long, dark-grey overcoat, and I find myself telling her the coat is beautiful. She glances at it quickly, says, “Thanks,” then sits down without taking it off. Is she that close to leaving already? I half expect her to flinch as I turn on my tape recorder, but instead she efficiently asks me if I’d like to test it first. And shouldn’t I move it a bit closer to her? Her Australian accent is pronounced, but her voice is clear and steady. I tell her I have no intention of asking inflammatory questions, and she says, “Fantastic. That’s good. Thank you,” and settles back on the couch.
We talk about the big-budget Billy Bathgate. “I was used to big name actors and producers,” she says, referring to Days of Thunder, the film of hers I haven’t seen, “so it wasn’t that intimidating.” But, in fact, this film, based on a novel by E.L. Doctorow (of Ragtime fame), is a classier breed. It features a script by Tom Stoppard, and was directed by Robert Benton, who directed Hoffman to an Oscar in Kramer vs. Kramer. Here, Hoffman is a provocative choice to play real-life 1930s gangster Dutch Schultz. Kidman describes her fictional character as “a wealthy 22-year-old married to an older man, and she likes to hang out with gangsters, likes risks, is kind of on the wild side, tends to get bored easily, know what I mean?” Uh-huh, I know the type–a dangerous girl from the right side of the tracks.
The character is, of course, American–there must have been plenty of American actresses who were ready to kill for this part. Kidman makes landing the role sound easy: “I read it and thought, oh yeah, a spot opposite Dustin Hoffman. Then I put it aside. I got a call telling me Robert Benton would like to meet me. He’d seen me in Dead Calm. We had dinner and really clicked. And then he said, ‘OK, I’d really love you to do this but obviously you’ve got an Australian accent and she’s a New York aristocrat’.” Benton asked her to come to New York and spend a day with him speaking American. She worked on her accent for three weeks, and flew to New York. “I did it, I met Dustin, and the next day I had the part.”
Kidman took Hoffman in stride as well. “At first, when I met Dustin, it was like, this is one of the best actors of his generation.” (Kidman was born in 1967, the year Hoffman made The Graduate.) “When I met him, I was scared. I mean, he’s little,” she laughs, “and he just sort of sits there and watches you. And then as soon as he starts talking he makes you laugh and breaks down all those barriers. After an hour, it’s like, oh, yeah, Dustin. You know what I mean?” My guess is it takes a supremely self-confident actress to warm up to the little guy that quickly.
Nicole Kidman is an American, technically speaking–she was born in Hawaii where her father, an Australian biochemist, was doing work at an island university. Later, the family moved to Washington, D.C., and soon enough went back to their roots Down Under. But Nicole did not forget the places she’d already been. “I always had the feeling I’d end up back here. I made a decision when I was a kid in Australia–I want to live somewhere else in the world. And suddenly I ended up sort of in America.” And now Kidman’s poised to become the first Australian actor since Mel Gibson (also an American) to make it as a legitimate Hollywood movie star–never mind Aussie comic one-notes like Paul “Crocodile Dundee” Hogan.
And the more Nicole talks, the more I get the feeling that her current situation has more to do with drive and desire than with glass-slipper accidents, the transcendent lure of romance, or other fairy tale plot devices. Acting is one of those professions, like concert playing or gymnastics, that preternaturally gifted ten-year-olds can dedicate themselves to with a single-mindedness beyond their years, while their peers are still wandering wide-eyed around the schoolyard. Nicole Kidman did not officially turn pro in Australian films and television till the age of 14, but she did mime and clown work starting at 10. When she talks about those days, Kidman’s voice rises, and there’s a flush in her cheeks. “I went to a little kid’s drama school. I just had this incredible affinity for getting up on stage. Becoming a movie star didn’t really enter into it then. When I wasn’t in the shows, I’d be a runner for the kids who were. I would get really excited–I just used to get tingles, you know what I mean?”
No, I don’t. I was one of those wide-eyed kids wandering around the playground. I wonder what the Voice sounds like as it tells a 10-year-old that she’s already found her calling. In Kidman’s case, at least, it was not the voice of a stage mother. Her mom was a nurse who only grudgingly indulged her daughter’s footlight lust. “When they had the stage show of Annie, I convinced my mom that I had to audition–because I knew that this was it. We fought about it, but I dragged her along. You had to be under five foot two, and I was five foot four, and they measured you at the door. I remember I was trying to scrunch down.”
Kidman was always a head above the others. “I was never cast as the young girl,” she says. How could she have felt like a normal 12-year-old if she couldn’t even play one? But she doesn’t seem to have suffered the tall-girl syndrome. She carries herself these days with graceful authority–and we don’t see her scrunching down an inch or so in photographs for Tom’s benefit.
Kidman worked steadily during her teen years in a series of low-budget Australian kids’ films that, judging from their titles, struck me as possibly educational–if I could find any on tape. But unlike Kevin Costner‘s early thespic efforts, Kidman’s seminal works haven’t yet been resurrected for the video exploitation market. I decide to ask her about them anyway, especially the ones not listed in her official studio press bio. “Uh-oh,” she says with a grin. “Throwing this stuff at me? My past that I’m trying to get rid of.” I remind her that there’s no escaping one’s past. Now then: BMX Bandits, a flick about kids on bikes, no doubt? “I still get letters on that from little boys who were impressed and want to know if I can actually ride a BMX bike, and I have to write back and tell them I actually had a male stunt double–there was no girl who was a good enough rider.” Something called Willis and Burke? “No comment,” she says demurely.
Windrider? “No comment.” Room to Move? “That was with the director who helped me get my part in the mini-series ‘Vietnam.’ I was 16.” The Bit Part? “No comment” Kidman sighs, then brightens back up. “But I did a lot of work, didn’t I? My philosophy was hands on. I wanted to work.”
Frankly, I am impressed by the idea of a teenager with a long-range philosophy. “But it’s not nudity or violence,” she continues. And with each one I did, I got some kind of knowledge and made it into what we all package as experience, or I met somebody that I then had a relationship with.” Like the director of Room to Move, she explains, who helped her get a part on “Vietnam,” which made her a star in Australia at the age of 16–she was voted Best Actress of the Year in a public poll–and that’s what helped catch the eye of Philip Noyce, who was scouting for a lead actress for Dead Calm, the film that caught Robert Benton’s eye.
If we go with the editor’s Cinderella take on Kidman’s story–but isn’t it beginning to seem not very clever?–then the fairy godmother will have to be Noyce, a rangy, bearded Australian filmmaker with wild eyes. He cast Kidman, then 19, in his crackerjack thriller, and thereby charted out her destiny. It’s really quite a good movie. It takes place almost entirely on two yachts in the middle of the ocean, and has a cast of three: Sam Neill and Kidman play a husband and wife on holiday, and Billy Zane is Hughie the crackpot American who pilots his leaking yacht next to theirs and unleashes his young Brando grin and his psychotic fury. When he steals the boat from her husband, Nicole’s character must go mano a mano with him and ultimately save the day; she outwits the psycho and saves her career-sailor husband from death on the high seas.
And so, in her first firm released in America, Kidman made arguably the most powerful debut by a 19-year-old actress since Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not. Unfortunately, few people saw the film. But we know Robert Benton saw it. And Tom Cruise saw it, and thought of Kidman for the role of the doctor who patches him up in Days of Thunder (who knows, in retrospect, what else he might have been thinking?).
After her heroics in Dead Calm, Nicole inevitably found herself labelled “The Australian Sigourney Weaver”–not too absurd, considering the physical resemblance. “I heard that I looked like Sigourney,” she says, “although I was also told that I looked like Fergie! A cross between Fergie and Sigourney–that baffled me. They want to link you to all these different people. I suppose that’s how I get typecast. I get told I can play a strong female. I would like to play a very shattered female. Of course, this next film [the Ron Howard project with Cruise] I’m playing a very feisty, strong-willed woman.”
Nicole Kidman is a feisty, strong-willed woman, I’ve realized by now. She even has a five-year plan. “In the next five years I want to do at least five films, and a play in New York. I don’t go to my agent and say this is what I want, this is what I want, this is what I want. I sort of set goals–secretly. I just steel myself. It’s how I’ve operated my whole career. And it’s satisfying when you reach your goals, ’cause it’s like, wow–gosh, this can actually happen. I really believe in the strength of intention–of making a decision and then following it through. That incredible want that you don’t let other people or other situations counteract.”
But,” I ask, “if you don’t let other people know what your goals are, and you seem to keep falling from one good thing into another, then won’t some people see your success as luck, or even some kind of fantasy?” (I am thinking of my editor, hunting down glass slippers for the Cinderella photo session with Nicole.)
“Yeah, yeah, there is a certain element of luck,” she says, “in the sense that you meet the right person or get the right project at the right time. But relying on luck puts you in a precarious situation. For when does the luck go? So then you have to reevaluate that philosophy and come up with a different one, which is believing in your own strengths, and not putting limits on that.”
There is something like fire in Nicole’s eyes as she says this, and so I believe her. Not because this is a bold new philosophy. It is, in fact, a familiar one–the Power of Positive Thinking. We are told, all the time these days, of its benefits: “Just Do It.” There are even tapes you can order through the mail that will whisper similar messages to you as you sleep, with guaranteed results. No,I believe her simply because there is this fire in her eyes when she says it.
Australian producer George Miller has said, “Nicole is not just someone who’s acting for the short term–to become rich and famous and get on the covers of magazines. She’s an absolutely serious actor.” There are, perhaps unbeknownst to Miller, those magazines which put serious actors on their covers–but only if they’re rich and famous too. The first time I saw Nicole Kidman on a cover, she was Tom Cruise’s “Mystery Girl” and there was a question mark over her face.
The second time, same magazine, you could see her face, but she was way up in the corner with Cruise, and the cover line read “Tom Cruise’s Secret Wedding”–no mention of the bride. Did it hurt to be so anonymous, on this of all days? These are covers she would not have been on for being merely a serious actress. Is this what is meant by the double-edged sword of publicity? In short, I’m sorry Nicole, but what is it like to be married to Tom Cruise?
Nicole is not surprised by this question. She was probably waiting impatiently for me to get around to it. “In the beginning,” she begins, “it was a real eye-opener. The thing is, I don’t not talk about it. But an interview can turn into an interview about why I married Tom Cruise. I have a great love of what I do and it’s very important to me. Sure, I’ll answer a few questions, but when the whole interview–and it has happened–is about our relationship, I sound like a broken record. And obviously, I’m doing a film with him, and I’m not going to go, ‘Oh, I won’t talk about my husband’.”
I recently read in People that Tom caused a riot in Charlotte, N.C. just by walking into a department store. How does Kidman–his wife, after all–react to such insanity? “I can understand it! If I wasn’t married to him and I was a girl I’d be pretty interested in him too.”
Tom Cruise has played the game well, and no doubt Kidman is learning quickly. Take their wedding day, for example. They pulled it off–the marriage itself–with no muss, no fuss, no helicopters, mad paparazzi, secret agents, etc. Cruise knows how to keep a secret. Better than Michael J. Fox. Better, certainly, than Sean and Madonna.
“Tom and I never have bodyguards, anything like that,” says Nicole. “We go out and people will kind of wave if they see you. There’s a great interest in him wherever he goes, but it’s not a sort of mobby-type ripping of clothes. It’s more like, ‘Hey man, loved that film.’ A lot of guys do that. And with girls it’s more like–‘Tee-hee’,” she giggles demurely “and gazing sort of lustfully, I suppose. Seeing the way he gets treated took a few months to get used to. But also Tom–one of the first things I thought when I met him was, he’s a nice guy. Sure he has a nice car and he seems to–to have a lot of money! And a beautiful smile. But when it comes down to what he’s really like in his heart–his whole approach is just like anybody else. Honestly, I’ve never noticed any dangerous situation. And I’m not going to let it get to the point where I’m not able to go to the super-market.”
Because that would take all the fun out of–“Living!” Nicole laughs. “It’s not that I love to go to the supermarket, but to me it means that I’m still in touch with the kinds of people I’m playing…One day, suddenly, Tom says ‘Ah, well, yeah, the Cinderella Story.’ And I was like, ‘Hey, you, shut up!’
And here Nicole does this rapid karate-like neck hold thing in the air in front of me. Christ, he’s shorter than she is. That must have hurt.
“He was joking,” she goes on. “It was just something he read, some press–you know, young girl from Australia just snatched up. So we joke about that.” Nicole pauses thoughtfully. I try to change the subject. No luck. “Ah-ha, the Cinderella story!” Nicole says again. “As if I was some sort of poor girl working as the housemaid for some family and I was snatched up–”
But is it any wonder that Nicole is imagined by an uninformed, media-addled few to perhaps have been the Down Under victim of some weird British class structure, now rescued by Prince Top Gun? Never mind that her father is a biochemist–an author of books–that her family’s descended from a cattle baron named Sir Sydney. Americans like to reduce things they don’t know or understand to something familiar. It’s really nothing more dangerous or permanent than, oh…than a headline in a magazine.
“Oh God, don’t you use it!” Nicole squeals. “This is the title of this article, right? The Cinderella Story. Quite!” And here she’s reduced to gales of laughter.
It’s infectious. “We’ll be photographing you with the glass slippers,” I say, delightedly.
“And rags, right? For before and after!”
“It was hard to find them in your size–the slippers, I mean!” And we fall about the room amidst peals of laughter. But I stop first. For all I know, of course, that’s exactly what’s planned. Oh, what the hell–it’s not such a terrible idea, I guess. Not my decision, thank God. I’m just the writer. Anyway, I tell her, there is one burning topic in her personal life that I have to ask her about. I watch her frown slightly. Skydiving–I understand she and Tom Cruise do a lot of jumping out of airplanes together. “I’ve done ten jumps free-fall,” says Nicole. “Everyone who does it says there’s nothing else like it in the world. When you’re stand-ing up there at 14,000 feet with the cold air hitting your face. I’ve always wanted to fly–”
You mean like a pilot, like in Top Gun?
“No, no. Fly. You know, having a dream about flying. And when you’re free-falling, you fall 45 seconds with nothing. And that to me is the closest thing to flying. I can’t recom-mend it more highly.” And to me it sounds like the closest thing to jumping out of an airplane, so you’ll never get me up there, but I guess that’s the difference. “Tom doesn’t even jump with an instructor,” Nicole says proudly. “We’ve kissed in the air and everything. That’s like–unn-unn-unn-smack! Very quick. It’s not a long passionate kiss, but we certainly have kissed. Tom says, ‘You got guts, honey’,” Kidman gleefully relates. “He says, ‘That’s cool–that’s cool when your wife will jump out of a plane with you’.” The more I hear about this guy Cruise, the more it strikes me that he has a wacky sense of humor–and pretty wicked confidence that things will go his way. He and Kidman do seem a bit like birds of a feather.
I remember to ask her about the Ron Howard film she and Cruise are about to start shooting. It’s called, so I’ve read, The Irish Story. “Oh no, it’s not called that,” says Nicole. “That sounds like a history lesson. Just call it ‘The Ron Howard Project.’ But what do you think of Sure as the Moon?.
Shore as the Moon?
It’s an old Irish expression, right? But people will think it’s “shore,” and maybe they’ll wonder if it’s set on the moon.
“God, yeah,” says Kidman. “Hmmm. Just checking. Getting opinions.”
It’s a romantic comedy. Cruise and Kidman play Irish immigrants in America in 1895. “I read the script and then Tom read it, and he said we should both do it. ‘Hey Nicole!’ “she goes, wide-eyed, turning Cruise into an excitable young lad with a new toy” ‘We can–we can do a film together!’ So then it just happened. He can get a film made like that.”
As a media couple, and as an acting couple–as a couple that plays together and is currently staying together–there must be some kind of additional expectation while filming a romance. “Yeah, we’re married, so there’s all this pressure to have these sparks and this chemistry.” It can’t be easy, I say, for about a million reasons, to make a movie with the person you’re married to. “Well I don’t know,” Kidman answers quite logically, and with quite a smile. “I’ve never been married before. And I’ve never married a movie star.”
Things seem to have worked out so far for Nicole Kidman, in part because she expects them to. I admire that about her. I like her as much as I can like any beautiful woman who’s spent 90 minutes talking to me out of a sense of obligation and nothing more. But I’ll tell you this: I don’t know Nicole Kidman much better now than when we started, and yet mostly all we talked about was her. Perhaps that’s part of what it means to have entered the rarefied top levels of Hollywood–this is what you have to learn quickly if you want to remain there.
And now our time is up, even though I’m beginning to sense that Kidman maybe trusts me a little. No time to ask if that’s even true–her publicist comes in and seems alarmed that we’re still talking. I could point out that Nicole was half an hour late, but I don’t. It’s Friday night and I imagine that someone like Nicole will have plenty on her dance card for the evening. What do Tom and Nicole do of a Friday night anyway, with the whole world as their oyster? Perhaps nothing more than a quiet evening at home in their big house in the Pacific Palisades, watching videos of their airplane jumps. You’d be surprised at how close to the truth that might be; glamour is wearying, and these people are professionals.
At home I watch the video of Dead Calm. I’ve been inspired by Nicole’s go-get-’em attitude towards life and career. I figure it might help me even more than this no booze/no meat diet I’ve been on for, well, 12 hours now. On screen, I’m watching her kick the crap out of screwie Hughie. He’s had experience with killing, but he’s no match for her. She drugs him, trusses him up like a turkey. He breaks free. She smashes him between the legs with a harpoon gun, and then fires one of the darts into his shoulder, pinning him to the door. He’s history. Earlier in the film, when he’s still in control of her yacht and her destiny, Hughie mocks her attempts at survival. “You’re being very aggressive. That could be a real problem on a small boat.”
But Hughie doesn’t take her seriously enough, and that’s why he gets a rocket flare through the tonsils in the end. Aggression is exactly what you need when dealing with psychopaths in confined spaces–and that goes for Hollywood. Smooth sailing is an illusion, and in the meantime, you do whatever it takes to keep your sails filled. Or your parachute open.
Christopher H. Hunt believes that if the shoe fits, wear it.