Thursday, June 19, 2008

Great interview with Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman on "Australia"

with pictures by world class photographer Annie Leibovitz:

"Would you like to touch it?" asks Nicole Kidman.

I lower my hand onto the rounded curve of her stomach. It's as firm to the touch as a melon. "I just felt some kicking," she says, giving me the look of unbridled delight you might expect from a 40-year-old woman who's soon to bear her first child.

"The whole experience is so primal," she says.

Our surroundings, most assuredly, are not. We're at the top-floor bar of the Ritz-Carlton in Manhattan's Battery Park and enjoying the healthiest of refreshments, bottled water and a lavish fruit plate from which Kidman—a devotee of red meat—takes everything but the strawberries (she's allergic). It's a clear spring day, and down below us is the harbor that Kidman's husband, country-music star Keith Urban, says looks a bit like her native Sydney.

Casually dressed in a tight black pullover and jeans—punctuated by the trademark red soles of her black Louboutin heels—Kidman remains strikingly thin for a woman seven months pregnant. So thin, in fact, that I've heard people say they don't believe she's actually with child. When I mention this, she gives the laugh of one who's learned not to be fazed by all the silly things people think.

"Just look at how I'm sitting here with my legs apart"—her knees splay out at a 45-degree angle. "This is the way you have to sit when you're pregnant."

Kidman has always been one of those artists whose creative life takes precedence over more mundane concerns. Whenever we've chatted in the past, her head has always been buzzing with movies: She'd start right in talking about a great performance by Cate Blanchett, the brilliance of Stanley Kubrick, or her burning desire to work with some new director from Hong Kong or Denmark. These days, however, her conversation takes a radical new turn. She starts out talking about—country life.

"I've been in Tennessee, just sitting," she says. "We have a farm there, and I have an organic vegetable garden. This is a path I'd not taken before. My mum's always gardened. My sister gardens. And I've now conformed to the Kidman women's hobby of gardening. And it is just a hobby. I'm not feeding the troops." She laughs. "There's a softness to the Tennessee landscape that I just love. It's very beautiful out there. We have deer and wild turkeys."

Although it takes me a while to adjust to her folksy new interests—I never dreamed we'd be talking about buying a pickup truck—she remains the same Nicole Kidman, one of the most fascinating and complicated actresses currently working in Hollywood. Nobody is cannier about journalists—she remembers the names of reporters who wrote about her two decades ago—and her eyes flash with recognition when she says something she feels sure will wind up in your article.

"Nicole is a thoroughbred," says her dear friend Baz Luhrmann, who directed her in his upcoming film Australia. "She is highly strung, highly volatile, highly everything."

Her mercurial moods lie close to the surface. She's eager to laugh, unafraid to cry, easy to take offense—she's attuned to the hidden fishhook in every remark. When I casually mention that she's starred in lots of movies in recent years, her mouth tightens: Am I implying that she's too ambitious? Well, no. Once she grasps that I'm actually praising her Old Hollywood work ethic, she instantly brightens and, with her most radiant smile—she carefully offers gradations—welcomes me back into her good graces. This is not a woman who shies away from intensity.

These days she's most at ease talking about her children. Kidman already is a mother, of course, and she takes care to sing the praises of her adopted daughter, Isabella, fifteen, and son, Connor, thirteen. But carrying a child is clearly something new and overwhelming.

"When I first saw the baby on the ultrasound, I started crying. I didn't think I'd get to experience that in my lifetime," she says. "I like the unpredictable nature of it. To feel life growing with you is something very, very special, and I'm going to embrace that completely. I don't believe in flittering around the edges of things. You're either going to walk through life and experience it fully or you're going to be a voyeur. And I'm not a voyeur."

The last time we met, the topic of babies never came up. I'd flown down to the set of Australia, a big, old-fashioned epic, about the soul of the land Down Under in the days leading up to World War II, that's a bit like an Aussie Gone With the Wind. Kidman stars as Lady Sarah Ashley, a refined Englishwoman who comes all the way to the outback to look for her missing husband at their homestead in the Northern Territory. She winds up getting involved with a tough local cattle drover, played by Hugh Jackman, whose closeness to the Aboriginal people has made him something of an outcast.

The homestead set had been plunked down in the middle of nowhere, a jolting hour-long drive from the small, dusty town of Kununurra, and conditions were rough. Although the landscape has a beauty that verges on the otherworldly—at dusk, you can watch kangaroos bounding along by the hundreds—it's a dangerous beauty. If the deadly snakes and spiders don't get you, the blazing sun will.

The day I arrive, the temperature is perhaps 110 degrees, and even the leather-faced Australian crew is desperately seeking shade on the veranda of the ranch house that's the center of action. Nobody could feel hotter than Our Nicole (as the Aussie press calls her). Playing a character hopelessly unprepared for the scorching climate, she is dressed in a cashmere jacket and skirt. But when she sees me, she instantly walks 100 yards across the desiccated soil to give me a gentle hug:

"Oh, John," she whispers, "it's so lovely of you to have come all this way to see us. I'm not quite myself this morning. I was up all night with a bladder infection."

I am shocked. Not by the medical update, mind you—Kidman can be surprisingly free with unexpected intimacies—but by her breathy, British accent. Has she gone Madonna on me since we last met? It is only later, as I watch her and Jackman do a scene together, that I realize the truth. She isn't being grandiose. She is simply burrowing her way into the character of Lady Sarah, a character so airily aristocratic that Luhrmann has begun calling his star "Baroness."

For Kidman, Australia is a dream project. She gets to perform with Jackman, who thrilled her by being big enough to sweep her up into his arms ("That's movie-star stuff—and I'm not tiny!"). She gets to be at the center of a movie about her country shot in the grand manner of a David Lean—as Jackman says, "There'll never be an Australian movie like this again." Best of all, she gets to reunite with Luhrmann, with whom she's worked several times, most famously on Moulin Rouge!

"Baz is not afraid to abandon himself to romance," Kidman says. "He's this very, very big thinker who has this rare, almost childlike naïveté. We all feed off his passion."

One of Luhrmann's virtues is that he genuinely likes powerful women. His wife, Catherine Martin (invariably referred to as C.M.), is his collaborator in life and art. It's C.M. who won Oscars for the design and costumes in Moulin Rouge!, and it's she who is giving the Australia production the same level of imaginative intensity. One afternoon she gives me a tour of the homestead, and I'm astonished by her level of planning (if only she could have handled the occupation of Iraq). Everything has been conceived with lavish care, from the cut of Kidman's costumes to the look of the windmill (which, she tells me, had to be aged just so) to the various interior furnishings.

"Baz and I feel that viewers can sense the truth of these things even if they don't know they are seeing them. They can feel that the world we're creating is dense."

Kidman and Luhrmann share a different kind of affinity—she's at once his Muse and his Galatea—and her faith in him is absolute.

"Nicole came over to my house for a Super Bowl party in 2006," Jackman tells me, "and she knew I was talking to Baz about doing the movie. She said, 'You must do it, you must do it.' And I asked, 'Have you read the script?' And she said, 'No, it's Baz. I don't need the script.' " He laughs. "You know, there aren't a lot of A-list actresses who'll sign on sight unseen."

Then, too, there aren't a lot of A-list actresses who would so eagerly jump at the chance to experience the rigors of making a film like Australia.

"It's the roughest thing I ever had to go through," she says. "The heat is debilitating. I was sitting on a horse once and I remember thinking, Gosh, this is what it feels like before you faint—and then I fainted."

She goes on: "There was another time we flew in by helicopter to the Salt Flats—it was like a moonscape, there was just nothing there—and we got caught in a dust storm so bad we couldn't even see. Everybody lived out there for five days in these little silver tents. It was great. That's the adventure. That's why you make movies. It's the equivalent of The African Queen, where they were out in the wilderness and Katharine Hepburn was washing her hair with a bucket. We all want that experience."

At moments, that experience feels transcendent. One afternoon I sit with C.M. and Jackman as Luhrmann is preparing to shoot one of the movie's crescendos, in which a hundred horses come charging down to the ranch house. The production is waiting around for "magic hour," which is never more magical than in the outback when the whole world glows with a sumptuous blood-orange light. In the meantime, Luhrmann revs everyone up with his megaphoned encouragements, which sound less like actual instructions than a guy scat-singing phrases to get everyone's emotional level high. Finally, it's a go. The Australian sunlight shines through the dust, the horses come pounding past the ranch house in a thundering roar, and Lady Sarah rushes along the veranda and watches it with rising excitement. When Luhrmann finally yells, "Cut!" everyone is jazzed. "It was worth making this film just to be part of that!" exults Jackman.

Throughout the production, Kidman and Urban had made a point of seeing each other every few days. (He even played a three-hour set at a party she and Jackman held for the crew in Bowen, a coastal town 1,700 miles from Kununurra that also served as a location for the film.) It was when the production shifted to Sydney that she discovered, to her joy, that she was pregnant. Although she instantly withdrew from her next film, The Reader ("I really wanted to do it, but I had no choice"), the news didn't stop her from putting in fourteen- and fifteen-hour days on Australia.

"Nicole had horrendous morning sickness," Jackman tells me, "but she's a trouper. She put everything on the line every day."

It's precisely this quality that Luhrmann finds irresistible.

"Most people are marvelously centered when it's calm but uncentered when it's stormy. With Nicole, it's the opposite," he says. "When the storm is raging on the set, or in life, her spirit settles down and finds its complete center. Nicole always does a high-wire act without a net," says Luhrmann, "and even if she sometimes falls, this is what makes her compelling—as an artist and as a person."

When I first interviewed Kidman, back in the mid-nineties, her high-wire act seemed focused on her career: She had something to prove as an artist. These days, it's her personal life that's in the process of creation. She's starting to play perhaps the most demanding roles of all: a happy wife and mother.
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