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Wednesday, May 21, 2003

Nicole Kidman finds the Woolf within


Tea was brewing, a half-written review was gestating on the computer screen and slumber pangs were just kicking in when the phone rang about 1 a.m. last Thursday. But when the warm, mildly Australian-accented voice on the other end said, "Hi, it's Nicole!" I focused quickly.

News photo
Nicole Kidman and director Stephen Daldry during the shooting of "The Hours"

It was, indeed, Nicole Kidman on the other end, calling from a car in New York, where she'd just finished shooting a new film and was about to head off to the Cannes Film Festival for the premiere of "Dogville," her latest film, with Lars von Trier.

Regarding this decision, "A lot of people said, 'My God, what are you doing?' " Kidman recalled, laughing. "But for me it was a very important experience." So much so, she's planning a trilogy with the iconoclastic Danish director of "Dancer in The Dark."

Von Trier, whose work has always courted controversy (to say the least), may seem a bit of a leap for an actress who's just won the Best Actress Oscar -- as well as a BAFTA, a Golden Globe, and several other awards -- for playing author Virginia Woolf in a serious piece of literary cinema, "The Hours." But in Kidman's view, winning an Oscar doesn't mean that she'll stop taking risks. "You can't take it too seriously; you just say, 'Well, that's lovely,' because the film will be seen by more people, accept it with some sort of grace, and not get trapped in the idea of having to keep winning these things!"

Yet von Trier is merely the latest in a list of challenging, innovative directors Kidman has chosen to work with: Gus Van Sant, Baz Luhrmann, Jane Campion, Alejandro Amenabar and, of course, Stanley Kubrick. Kidman dismissed any notion of a savvy career strategy with a laugh.

"It's so weird," she explained, "because they're sort of choices, but it's more like you're just drifting into things. I just give over to the idea that things will work out based on not having too much desire."

Virginia Woolf, however, was a role she couldn't resist.

"For me, at the time, there was a deep need to play her," Kidman said. "It came along at a time when my psyche was able to access hers."

This, the actress pointed out, is the sort of "coincidence and timing" that lies behind all her career choices -- though she was also quick to add that "I don't like to use the word 'career,' because it somehow gives it a business connotation, and I really think that so much of what we do has to be connected to art."

There was a time when Kidman wasn't taken so seriously as an artist. But "Hours" director Stephen Daldry, reached by telephone in Miramax's New York office, was obviously taken by her talents. "This totally vindicates her as a transforming actress," Daldry said, referring to Kidman's compelling performance as Woolf; "She can, and does, re-invent herself from movie to movie."

For "The Hours," the problem was how to play Woolf, when -- as Daldry pointed out -- everybody has their own view of her and they can be very possessive.

"For some, she's the great feminist writer of the 20th century. For others, she's a woman who survived sexual abuse by her brother, or she's the great figure of describing depression. . . . In the end, you have to create your own Virginia Woolf, one that feels truthful to you."

For Kidman that meant "finding her soul and essence, getting past the iconic nature of who she was and trying to break that down, make her human. I think it's important that when you play somebody that's lived, and well-known, that you don't get trapped trying to do a precise imitation of what they're supposed to be. It would make you tight. So you just try to breathe life into the character and stay true to the power of their legacy."

Aside from the much-commented-upon prosthetic nose she wore to play Woolf, Kidman learned to write right-handed (she's a lefty), lowered her voice by a husky octave and adopted an angular body language. Kidman described finding these traits through a process of trial and error: "It came about organically, just experimenting on camera, when we were doing makeup tests with the nose. I used this more as time to find the character, so I'd just sort of walk around and talk to myself [laughs], and the director just watches, and slowly that's how Virginia evolved. I never sat down and made a list of things I wanted to do; it was more trying to find them so they'd be real within my body and mind. So they wouldn't feel superficial."

Her greatest challenge was to "try and capture a writer's mind onscreen," said the actress. "Yet that was what I wanted to do, [show] what happens between the thought and putting the pen to paper. And [Daldry] gave me an incredible sort of visual image, which was 'it's like electricity.' The thought comes, then goes down her arm, into her fingers, through the pen and onto the page, and it happens so rapidly.

"Actually, I met Salman Rushdie at a premiere, and he came up to me and said, 'You captured a writer,' and for me, that was such high praise."

Many have chosen to view "The Hours" as a film dealing with depression, which is hard to ignore, but both Daldry and Kidman took different views.

"The film felt more about choices, and the difficulty of making them, than it did about the nature of depression," offered Daldry. "We could probably diagnose [Virginia] nowadays as having manic depression, give her some pills, and she'd be fine . . . and we wouldn't have the great work!"

Kidman points to the scene where Virginia and her husband Leonard walk off together, down at the train station.

"I think a lot of people relate to that in terms of the longevity of a marriage, where two people say, 'We're going to be together, as friends. And we're going to have these huge fights, and then off we go to have something to eat!' [Laughs.] But there's a vitality to it, and an honesty to it, and a deep commitment to a companionship. And I think that's what's so beautiful about her suicide letter: There's a selflessness to it, where she says [to Leonard], 'It's not you, it's me, and I can't go on doing this to you, and I don't think two people could have been happier.' "

As she rushed off to a wardrobe fitting, Kidman explained the quandary of being an actress and mother.

On the one hand, she noted, "I'm able to go to so many parts of the world and be a gypsy and experience so much. One of the things that drove me to be an actor was the exploration of the world, not just one particular country."

On the other, time is tight: "I won't work past certain hours because of my kids, and people get frustrated by that, but that's what it is. I just have very strong boundaries between what I consider work, and what I consider off-time, and I will not budge on that. I would hate just being an actress and not a mother as well, because what it gives you is such an emotional basis."

So it's off to Cannes with "Dogville," which -- given Lars von Trier's track record -- could win the Grand Prix as well as grand derision. But that doesn't faze Kidman: "You have to throw caution to the wind, and know that certain projects are going to succeed, and at times you'll fail, and that's part of the journey, the beauty of the journey."



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