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Nicole Kidman says being an indoor kid and a bookworm led her to acting

While her friends and family went to the Australian beaches, Kidman stayed indoors reading — and imaged herself as a character in the books. She says reading is what led her to acting. We talk with the Oscar-winning actor about ageism in Hollywood, singing in a cover band as a teenager, and playing Lucille Ball in Being the Ricardos.




This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is Nicole Kidman. She stars in the new film "Being The Ricardos," a fictionalized version of what happened behind the scenes in one eventful week while Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were shooting an episode of "I Love Lucy." The film was written and directed by Aaron Sorkin. Kidman just won a Golden Globe for her performance in the film. In a way, she plays two roles. As the actress Lucille Ball, she's a powerful woman who understands how comedy works and the kind of comedy she's best at and knows how to fight for it with the writers and the director. Kidman's voice and physical presence change when she's playing Lucy Ricardo in the episode they're shooting of "I Love Lucy," which is a recreation of an actual episode of the show.

In 2020, Kidman was No. 5 on The New York Times list of the 25 greatest actors of the century so far. Kidman also won the best actress Emmy and Golden Globe for her performance in the HBO series "Big Little Lies," which also won an Emmy for outstanding limited series. She was an executive producer. It's part of the work she's taken on behind the scenes, getting more creative control and creating interesting roles for herself and other women. In 2003, she became the first Australian actress to win an Oscar when she received it for her portrayal of writer Virginia Woolf in "The Hours." The film that made her a star in America, the dark comedy "To Die For," earned her a Golden Globe in 1996. There's plenty of other awards I can mention, like the 2002 Golden Globe for "Moulin Rouge." But let's get to the interview.

Nicole Kidman, welcome to FRESH AIR. Thank you so much for joining us. You're speaking to us from Australia, where you're with your mother who has had some health issues lately, and you're taking care of her. How are you? And how is omicron now in Australia? It's all - oh, it's, like, running wild in the U.S.

NICOLE KIDMAN: It's running wild in Australia. And we're down here primarily to take care of my mother and to have her surrounded by her grandchildren. So luckily, last - yesterday, even though omicron is raging through this country, we were able to take her into the gallery after hours and show her the Matisse exhibit, which coming from a mother who's raised me in the arts was very, very - it was soothing balm. Matisse was soothing balm last night.

GROSS: That's really good to hear. So let's talk about "Being The Ricardos." Did you watch "I Love Lucy" growing up in Australia? Was it in reruns like it always seems to be in the U.S.?

KIDMAN: I watched "Here's Lucy" and I watched - "I Love Lucy" was on during the day sometimes when we would be staying home from school because we were sick.

GROSS: That was me, too. Yeah, that's when I'd watch it, mornings in syndicated television when I was home sick (laughter).

KIDMAN: Yes. So I do not - I do not associate her with sickness (laughter), but I do associate her with laughing and keeping me buoyant. And when I was little - I mean, I've sat with my children watching this show subsequently, and my mother and my nieces and nephews and my husband, and every single person laughs. That is genius.

GROSS: So let's start this part of the conversation by hearing you as Lucy Ricardo in the sitcom "I Love Lucy," and this has a kind of complicated setup. Lucy and Desi have had a fight. And Lucy is trying to get Desi to feel sorry for her and kind of rescue her, so she pretends like she has fallen and she's all bandaged up and can hardly move. So she, believing there's really a fire, she's jumped out the window.

KIDMAN: It sounds so outlandish, right?

GROSS: It's - yeah, she hasn't actually jumped. She's trying to make one of those escape ropes out of sheets that you tie together, but she didn't secure the sheets, so she just falls and lands on the Mertz's awning. They remember that Lucy is, like, really bandaged and can barely move.


KIDMAN: (Lucille Ball as Lucy Ricardo) Yeah, honey, I'm fine.

JAVIER BARDEM: (As Desi Arnaz as Ricky Ricardo) Oh, let me help you.

KIDMAN: (Lucille Ball as Lucy Ricardo) Oh, it's a good thing the Mertzs had their awning up.

BARDEM: (As Desi Arnaz as Ricky Ricardo) Oh, honey, it was all my fault.

KIDMAN: (Lucille Ball as Lucy Ricardo) No, it was my fault, honey. Were we silly?

BARDEM: (As Desi Arnaz as Ricky Ricardo) Yes. We will never argue again.

KIDMAN: (Lucille Ball as Lucy Ricardo) Aw, baby.

J K SIMMONS: (As William Frawley as Fred Mertz) Lucy, are you OK?

KIDMAN: (Lucille Ball as Lucy Ricardo) Yeah, I'm fine.

SIMMONS: (As William Frawley as Fred Mertz) You sure?

KIDMAN: (Lucille Ball as Lucy Ricardo) I'm sure.

SIMMONS: (As William Frawley as Fred Mertz) Thank goodness you're all right.

KIDMAN: (Lucille Ball as Lucy Ricardo) Why? What's the matter?

SIMMONS: (As William Frawley as Fred Mertz) When I told Ethel the whole gag was my idea, she got mad and went home to her mother.

KIDMAN: (Lucille Ball as Lucy Ricardo) Oh.

BARDEM: (As Desi Arnaz as Ricky Ricardo) Oh, no.

GROSS: OK. And that was J.K. Simmons as Fred Mertz. So talk a little bit about what you did to get that voice, to get the Lucy voice?

KIDMAN: So I spent 2 1/2 months working to get that voice, just the Lucy voice, not the Lucille voice, get the wah (ph) voice. I know it - and to get the accent because the quality of the voice is very specific. It's tonally much, much higher than where I speak, but it's much raspier. And it has that slight gravel to it. And then she has a very specific way of speaking, her intonations and her accent. So there's a lot to it. It's complicated. And that particular take that you just heard, that was part of a 10-minute take where I then switch back in to Lucille in the same take. And we shot 10 minutes straight where I take all the bandages off. It was like doing theater. And I switch back into the Lucille Ball voice where I become like, no, you got to go back. No, that doesn't work. That's not funny. Try this again. It was a high wire act.

GROSS: So what did you have to learn about voice placement, about placing your voice in a different range?

KIDMAN: For the - for the Lucy voice?

GROSS: For the Lucy voice, for the Lucy Ricardo voice.

KIDMAN: Yeah, you raise your soft palate. I can get very technical. There's an enormous amount of work that you do to raise your soft palate at the back. And you have to not lose your voice because you're straining into a place that you're not usually coming from. So you have to do it in a way where it will last. And so I just learned that where you - and then you place it up higher and higher. And I would just learn how to bring it up. And he would - my dialect coach and I would work on it and work on it. And then he'd go, got it, got it. So then I would just sort of play around in that area without the actual lines. We'd just do improvs. And then it would become just - my muscle memory would settle in with it. I also did smoke cigarettes, which is abhorrent and awful, but I had to smoke them in the - because she smoked all the time.

GROSS: So you smoked real cigarettes?

KIDMAN: I smoked the herbal cigarettes without the nicotine, yeah, and a lot of them because she smoked all the time. There's no way to fake that.

GROSS: Yeah, that's too bad. That (laughter)...

KIDMAN: That is, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah.

KIDMAN: But, I mean, there's things I've done artistically. I did that for Virginia Woolf. I learned how to roll my owns and smoke cigarettes. And you're portraying a character that that's at a time when that was what they did. You know, even with Lucy, Philip Morris sponsored their show. As she says, she, you know - and then she defiantly doesn't smoke Philip Morris (laughter).

GROSS: Yeah. For people who have forgotten what Philip Morris is, it's a major cigarette manufacturer. So let's hear your voice as Lucille Ball, as, like, the co-creator of "I Love Lucy" and the actress, not as the ditzy sitcom character. So in this scene, like, you're basically standing up for what you think should be done in a scene and offering your suggestions of how the scene should go.


KIDMAN: (As Lucille Ball) I wanted to circle back again and express my serious concern about Ricky's entrance at the top. I brought it up at the table read Monday. There haven't been new pages.

TONY HALE: (As Jess Oppenheimer) Because it's going to work.

KIDMAN: (As Lucille Ball) Hear me out.

HALE: (As Jess Oppenheimer) OK.

KIDMAN: (As Lucille Ball) Right now, Lucy is trimming the flowers on the table. Ricky opens the door and comes in.

HALE: (As Jess Oppenheimer) We're going to have to cut the flowers. I don't mean cut the flowers; I mean cut the flowers.

KIDMAN: (As Lucille Ball) I couldn't understand the difference between those two line readings.

HALE: (As Jess Oppenheimer) We're running long. We have to cut the bit with the flowers.

BARDEM: (As Desi Arnaz) How long?

HALE: (As Jess Oppenheimer) About a minute.

KIDMAN: (As Lucille Ball) All right. Well, we'll get back to the flowers. The front door opens. Ricky comes in. Lucy doesn't see or hear him, which is unusual because the front doors is, you know, right there, and in previous episodes, we've established Lucy's eyes and ears are connected to her brain.

GROSS: OK, so what I noticed...

KIDMAN: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...Listening to those two clips back to back, as Lucy Ricardo and then Lucille Ball, your voice placement is still in a higher range, but it's a really serious, commanding voice.

KIDMAN: It goes down the more she smokes and the more - and the later the night. That's right in the morning when she's on fire, and she's like, I got - you got to listen to me. That is part of the same scene that we heard before and where I actually win that battle, I have to say.

GROSS: You have your own production company now. You've become active behind the scenes, as well as in front of the camera. And you and Reese Witherspoon were executive producers on the HBO series "Big Little Lies." At what point in your career did you decide you wanted to have your own company, you wanted to be a producer, you wanted more creative control? Like, what was going on in your career as an actress that made you think, now is the time to do this?

KIDMAN: There wasn't much going on in my career.


KIDMAN: I was at a point where - very similar to Lucille, where I'd reached an age where you're probably - you know, it's been a good ride. And - but you're at that point where you're 40 years old. I was pregnant with my child. And she's 39 in the film when she is fired. And I wasn't fired, but it wasn't like there was anything coming my way that was of substance or interesting. And I'd had some of the most substantial, brilliant roles that you could get, you know, in terms of working with Stanley Kubrick and Jane Campion and Baz Luhrmann and Alejandro Amenabar and Lars von Trier. I mean, the list is - when I look at it now, it - that takes my breath away. But suddenly, there wasn't much. And as is the case, I was looking at the next few decades or however long I was going to continue working, which I hoped would be as long as I'm alive because it's my passion, and I was going, oh, that's - possibly that's not going to be the road; that's not going to be the path that I'd hoped I'd be on 'cause it's drying up, and it's not going to happen.

So along came a review for this film called "Rabbit Hole." I read it, and I then reached out and said, can I read the play? And I read the play. And then I said, can I buy the rights? And David Lindsay-Abaire was like, I would love you to have the rights to this, and I would like to write it. And we wrote it and did it as a very small film, but it was so fulfilling.

GROSS: And that's a film about a couple who lost their child, and the film is about their grief and the tensions in the relationship because of the grief. So that's - it's an adult role. It's not a romantic lead. You're...

KIDMAN: It's a deep role.

GROSS: Yeah.

KIDMAN: It's a deep role. And it was the strangest thing. I'd had my baby, and she was very young. She was under 1. And I went and did this film about losing a child. So as is my way - it makes me cry now - I went to the biggest fear that I would have at the time. And I went, OK, how do - what happens when? Because this is a terror, an absolute fear terror, but people survive it, walk through it. What does the - what does that feel like? And how do you get it made for 4 million? And we got $4 million, which I'm telling you was like banging doors down. We had a financier who just stepped up and is today one of my friends. And that's it.

GROSS: My guest is Nicole Kidman. She stars in the new film "Being The Ricardos." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Nicole Kidman. She plays Lucille Ball in the new film "Being The Ricardos."

So you and Reese Witherspoon were two of the executive producers of "Big Little Lies," the very popular HBO series. The character you play in "Big Little Lies," Celeste is a very - she's in a very complicated relationship, and she's a very complicated character. In the first season, Celeste's husband, who travels a lot for work, is very jealous. He's very possessive and feels like you sometimes cut him out of family life. He's abusive. He - and it connects to the sexual relationship you have. What would often happen is that he'd hit your character, she'd hit him back, and that would lead to having sex. You end up in couples therapy. And then when he's away, you have an appointment. You're on your own with the therapist. And here's a scene between you and the therapist. And the therapist is asking you about all the violence and rage in your relationship with your husband.


KIDMAN: (As Celeste Wright) He's a wonderful father. I mean, he's the best - the best. I couldn't think of a better one, really. It's one of the reasons that I...

ROBIN WEIGERT: (As Dr. Amanda Reisman) The reason you don't leave him.

KIDMAN: (As Celeste Wright) There are other reasons.

WEIGERT: (As Dr. Amanda Reisman) OK. Such as?

KIDMAN: (As Celeste Wright) I'm madly in love with him. He adores me. He treats me like a goddess.

WEIGERT: (As Dr. Amanda Reisman) When he's not hurting you.

KIDMAN: (As Celeste Wright) Look; he's a great father. We have great sex. We make each other laugh. We're - there's violence, yes, in the relationship, and that's why we came in. And it's an issue. But, I mean, all marriages are complicated.

WEIGERT: (As Dr. Amanda Reisman) You think violence is normal in a relationship?

KIDMAN: (As Celeste Wright) No.

WEIGERT: (As Dr. Amanda Reisman) My apologies. I misread. When this violence occurs, have you ever been afraid you might die?

KIDMAN: (As Celeste Wright) Never.

WEIGERT: (As Dr. Amanda Reisman) Never. That must have been terrifying. Did you think of leaving him then?

KIDMAN: (As Celeste) I've thought of leaving him many times.

GROSS: And that long pause that we heard while she's saying - while your character is saying, no, I've never been afraid that I'd die, we're actually seeing a flashback in which her husband is smothering her with a pillow. And she's definitely afraid she might die. What did you have to understand about this character in order to inhabit her, to understand why she would stay in the relationship and why the violence would lead to sex?

KIDMAN: Well, there's shame, deep shame. And so Celeste will lie to protect what she thinks is herself and her marriage. And she'll also sacrifice her own happiness and her own body for the safety of her children, so she thinks, because she thinks by keeping this marriage together, she keeps her family together. She therefore gives her sons a good life, which is what she's - the therapist is trying to teach her, that you're actually putting them in the most danger because at some point, yeah, he'll either kill you or he'll kill them. Or he'll really hurt you or really hurt them.

GROSS: And that they're going to model their behavior on him, whether you're aware of it or not.

KIDMAN: Yeah, and that he's a violent man and - that snaps. And you see that in the course of the series. But it's like the - I mean, Celeste feels she's fighting for her life against the therapist to defend marriage...

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah.

KIDMAN: ...Not against him, which is just - I mean, it's classic in terms of watching it unravel. But the key to the whole thing is she hits back. And that was my key to it is by hitting back, it's also my fault. The things I say make him hit me. By me hitting back means I'm bad. And therefore, I'm to blame. And he's actually just reacting because I'm a nightmare to live with. But the therapist is right. And Celeste knows that deep down.

GROSS: What is it like for you as an actress to take the physical abuse? Do you get bruised a lot? Do you get hurt in those scenes? Is there a safety protocol so that you don't injure each other?

KIDMAN: Yeah. There's a 99% safety protocol. But then there's also just that thing of your being - it's this weird combination of I'm so free in this, so I'm doing it. And we've done it like a choreography and a dance, in a way. But then there's also just, it's a human body, a human form. It's my form. And I would love it to be infallible, but it's not. And so I'm trying to still give the deep truth to this story. But I would lie on the floor in my underwear. And they would put a towel over me in between takes because I couldn't get up - not physically couldn't get up, emotionally couldn't get up. And I think that's where the - it's really difficult, because I would lie on the floor. And I remember lying under the towel in the sort of darkness with all the set around me and people setting up new shots. But I just wouldn't get up. And they'd go, you all right? And I'd just be, like, crying and be like, yes, yes. I'm fine - trying to be professional, you know?

GROSS: You're the kind of actor, I think, who tries to experience as much as possible of what your character is experiencing and not really draw a line at some point between you and the character, to just, like, be the character.

KIDMAN: Yes. And I want to stay healthy because I have a real life that's very fulfilling. And I love coming home to that real life. And that's my balance.

GROSS: Do you feel like you're at risk of not being healthy because of your roles?

KIDMAN: You feel at times you're teetering on the edge of something that's quite dangerous. And I'm sure a lot of actors would say this. And so you have to just learn how to move through that. And what I found is by having the most stable, nourishing, loving family is my balance there. And it gives me the chance to go into these places, and then be still and not become untethered.

GROSS: My guest is Nicole Kidman. She stars in the new film "Being The Ricardos." We'll talk more after a short break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Nicole Kidman. She just won a Golden Globe for her performance as Lucille Ball in the new film "Being The Ricardos." She was in her mother's home in Australia when we recorded the interview last Friday.

Let me move on to another movie. And this is "Moulin Rouge," in which you play, you know, (laughter) a performer.

KIDMAN: Please move on to that now.

GROSS: Yeah.


KIDMAN: I do have a lightness of being.

GROSS: Yeah.

KIDMAN: (Laughter).

GROSS: So you're a performer and courtesan who sings. And I want to talk with you about singing. Had you sung professionally before the film?

KIDMAN: No. I'd sung in a band, you know, when I was a teenager.

GROSS: Oh, you did. What kind of band was it?

KIDMAN: Just (laughter) a covers band, and we never got a gig (laughter).

GROSS: OK. Wait, wait. Stop. Let's stop here. What did you cover?

KIDMAN: (Laughter) "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" dreadfully. And then, you know, Blondie - some Blondie tunes (laughter). Blondie was my forte - love Blondie.

GROSS: Did you do "Call Me"?

KIDMAN: (Laughter) Yes, I did. And "Heart Of Glass." So there you go.

GROSS: Were you comfortable singing? Or - it sounds like you were not comfortable singing. Right. OK.

KIDMAN: (Laughter) I was at first. I was like, yeah. And then I'd hear my voice back and go, oh. Oh, that's disappointing.

GROSS: (Laughter) I like your voice. Would you mind if we played a little bit of "I'll Fly Away" (ph) from the soundtrack of "Moulin Rouge"?

KIDMAN: I thought you were going to say, would you mind if we asked you to sing?

GROSS: Oh, no. I wasn't going to do that.


GROSS: But how about if we play some of that track?


GROSS: OK, great.


KIDMAN: (As Satine, singing) I follow the night, can't stand the light. When will I begin to live again? One day I'll fly away, leave all this to yesterday. What more could your love do for me? When will love be through with me? Why live life from dream to dream and dread the day when dreaming...

Thank you for playing that. I've never heard it by - alone like that.

GROSS: Seriously? You haven't?

KIDMAN: No (laughter).

GROSS: Is that because you'd try to avoid listening back to it?

KIDMAN: I think it's just never been played for me like that. I don't - yeah (laughter). But I've seen the movie again since I - a lot of times, I see these movies sitting in a film festival auditorium, say, at Cannes or Venice or some big, big place. And so I don't ever see them intimately.

GROSS: Let me ask you about your childhood. I know you were born in Honolulu, and you moved to Australia when you were 3. So your parents are not from Australia?

KIDMAN: No, they're both Australian. So I have an Australian citizenship and an American citizenship because of that. I was born on American soil, but my parents are both Australian. My father was studying biochemistry.

GROSS: In Hawaii?

KIDMAN: Yeah. And then moved to Washington, D.C. - the Institute of Health, and - to do his PhD.

GROSS: Your father was a psychologist practicing cognitive behavioral therapy.

KIDMAN: He was a biochemist who...


KIDMAN: ...When I was a teenager decided to get his degree in psychology.

GROSS: So cognitive behavioral therapy, also known as CBT, has become very popular as a form of therapy. How would you describe it?

KIDMAN: Pragmatic. Not dealing so much with past and dealing with, how do I handle the present so that therefore I'm very much in the moment dealing with these things and dealing with my mind? Cognitive.

GROSS: And it's also I think about changing the narrative in your head, to try to revert it from - you know, change it from a negative...

KIDMAN: Catastrophizing.

GROSS: Catastrophizing - to a more positive or at least neutral narrative in your mind. So did that help you as a child? Like, do you feel you were brought up within the realm of that approach?

KIDMAN: I defied it and resisted it and would roll my eyes and just say, don't try that on me.

GROSS: Can you give us more of a sense of how that went?

KIDMAN: Oh, when my dad would start to talk in what I thought was his therapy language, I'd be like, oh, cut it out. Don't. I'm your daughter.

GROSS: Yeah.

KIDMAN: Don't talk to me like that. That sort of typical response from a teen daughter. (Laughter) And then I would call - I'd - I would call him later on and be like, help. And he would talk to me. And it would become very, very useful and beneficial. I was just very fortunate - and I would have parents that no matter where I was - that let me go into the world at a very early age.

I started working at 14, and they couldn't come with me. So I would have a chaperone or a tutor. But I was very much in the film world some - from 14 onward without a parent present, which has its own consequences. But I would call them, and they would be on that phone and talk to me and have no time limit to that.

GROSS: What was a consequence of being in the adult world without a parent?

KIDMAN: Oh, pretty - if I look at it now - tough, difficult. But everything - as my mum says, your career's been pretty difficult. It looks like it hasn't, but she's - but she'll - I don't come from parents that know anything about this world, about the film world, the theater world. I don't have a father in business. I didn't have any of that. So I'm - I had to learn it all myself, and I had to learn it by myself. I could use them for as much as knowledge they had, but they weren't - it wasn't their skill set at all. And so I was pretty much on my own trying to do it.

GROSS: Was your father's office at home?

KIDMAN: Yes. Not his science lab. I would go into the science lab when I was little, little. And I remember sitting in the science lab and doing my homework and he'd be in a lab coat. And we would just - you know, we were not - we weren't wealthy. So we would have - he would pick me up. My mum would work as a nurse educator till 6 p.m. at night. Sometimes we'd go into the hospital. So we'd go either to the science lab or to the hospital and wait in the little cafeteria room. But we would get glimpses of the hospital, and we'd get to play with sometimes - because she was a nurse educator, there would be - she would be nursing, but she would also have the nursing school. And we'd have access to these life-size sort of human dummies that would be naked under sheets, and we would sort of pull the sheets back and explore the bodies. You know, my sister would have to pretend to be a nurse and I'd be the doctor, and I'd come in and do operations on the lifelike dummy with a stethoscope listening to - you know...

GROSS: (Laughter).

KIDMAN: ...Very colorful. And then we'd be in a science lab doing our homework, watching my father over - you know, with the microscope, da, da, da, da (ph), and taking notes. It was quite good. That was good.

GROSS: Watching your father's patients come and go and then being in the hospital a lot of the time watching your mother, you must have seen so many people in a state of physical or emotional distress.

KIDMAN: More like - yes, but not getting the full story. You'd get glimpses in - and a glimpse into the secrecy. A glimpse behind the veil would be what I would say. So we wouldn't get the full story because my father was very appropriate. So he would never - and he was very by the book. So he would never tell you anything. So we'd get glimpses through the window or behind - from behind a curtain. We'd look. We'd never listen at the door or anything but - and in the hospital, yes, we would see things and not get the full story - or hear things.

GROSS: We need to take another short break here. Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Nicole Kidman. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Nicole Kidman, and she stars in the new film "Being The Ricardos" as Lucille Ball.

Your mother, as you said, was a nurse educator. Did she identify as a feminist?

KIDMAN: She did.

GROSS: What did that mean to you as her daughter? Like, did she talk to you about issues affecting women and women's equality?

KIDMAN: Always (laughter). To the point where we were like, shut up, mum.


KIDMAN: And I would go and hand out pamphlets for the Women's Electoral Lobby because I was made to, and I was very embarrassed doing it.

GROSS: What was the Women's Electoral Lobby?

KIDMAN: A feminist group here. And I would sit in the back of the room sometimes - which was fascinating, actually - and listen to conversations. So I was privy to a lot very early on. But I would also, in the same way most kids react to their parents - just be like everybody else. Don't try to have an opinion that goes against the grain. That sort of thing. And then I - as I got older, I relished it. And then I was grateful for it.

GROSS: You started acting when you were 14. How did you know you wanted to act?

KIDMAN: I wanted to act, I think, because it was - I had so much inside me, and I wanted to act since I was - I cannot remember not wanting to. And I started reading big, big novels, and I would become the characters. And then I started reading plays, and I would become the characters.

GROSS: In your mind, or would you actually act them out with people?

KIDMAN: No, by - never with people. Always by myself in my bedroom or in my mind. I've played every role in Chekhov.


KIDMAN: I've played...

GROSS: In your bedroom (laughter).

KIDMAN: Yeah, in my bedroom (laughter) at all different hours, day or night. Ibsen - I've played those roles. But I did realize that at some point that was going to be the only way I was going to play certain roles, and that was going to have to be enough.

So, yeah, but that really - I was - I'm so fortunate that I discovered literature early. And that was having parents that read a lot. So I was - and also because I have very fair skin, I wasn't allowed to sit on the beach during the midday sun. So I would stay home, and everyone else would go to the beach. And my mum would give me my book, and I would just curl up in my bed and I would read. And I was allowed to do that. So that turned out - the thing that I - and I was very frustrated, though, that I couldn't go to the beach. And I'd make a sandwich, and I'd get into bed and I would read and read and read and read and read. And little did I know that that was going to lead me to my - what I - my vocation.

GROSS: Did watching movies lead you to your vocation, too - movies or television?

KIDMAN: Less so.

GROSS: That's interesting.

KIDMAN: Art galleries did and opera did and modern dance did and literature did. And probably films was the last part of the - theater was before that, and then films.

GROSS: That surprises me.

KIDMAN: Strange, right?

GROSS: Yeah, that's surprising.


KIDMAN: But quite good to - quite good because I circled it. Because I do think you need all those other influences, and I think the classical training can be very, very helpful. I mean, it is very helpful. It's needed. And the things you think are never going to be of any benefit to you turn out to be huge benefit. But it was just, I think, the artistic interest and the desire to find the way people express themselves in their voices and I suppose the connection to ideas and being transported with ideas, instantly, to emotions, to feeling was the way in which I came to being an actor.

GROSS: You worked with Stanley Kubrick on his last film, "Eyes Wide Shut," which was released in 1999. Had you always wanted to work with him? Did you admire his films?

KIDMAN: I mean, admire's too weak a word - like, intoxicated by his films, fascinated by his films, hypnotized by his films. So never not wanted to work with him, just never thought I would ever be in a Stanley Kubrick film.

GROSS: I recently interviewed Alan Cumming, who's also in "Eyes Wide Shut," and he was saying that when you work with Kubrick, like, Kubrick would have him do, like, many, many takes, but every time there was another take, Kubrick would explain why and what he wanted and he loved that. And he thought he might not have stayed an actor if it wasn't for Kubrick. What did you learn from working with Kubrick, and what was it like for you to do take after take?

KIDMAN: I mean, I just surrendered to the process, which is probably the best thing you - I mean, we were there for six months just talking about the script and hanging out with Stanley in his home with his family and his cats. And I was there for a year and a half, almost two years doing that, and we were - it was thrilling for me. It was long. It was arduous. You would do huge amounts of takes, then you would get it, then you wouldn't. We'd cook lunch in the trailer. Stanley would come in and eat pasta. All of these great actors would come and go. They'd stay for two or three months and then they'd go. I mean, if you surrender to the process of being an actor and just going, well, this is pretty much as good as it gets, why would you want it to end? And that's what I went into. That was my approach to being there and knowing that it would end but trying to just relish every moment that it was and being incredibly grateful that I was in it. And that was that. And we had two little children. I had my husband there, so the family was there. I wasn't separated from anything. I wasn't trying to get home. I made it my home.

GROSS: Your husband was your co-star. That was Tom Cruise.


GROSS: So that was 1999. The film is so much about sexuality, sexual passion, sexual jealousy, an affair, feelings of sexual inadequacy. Amd the first thing we see on camera is you naked from behind.

KIDMAN: And the film is also about for me - and Stanley hates saying what the film is about. So what does this mean? He'd be like, that is the - do not ask that question and he'd sort of scowl at you. But for me, it's also about you're never going to know somebody's thoughts, and is a thought a betrayal?

GROSS: Oh, that's such a good question because a thought feels like a betrayal.

KIDMAN: Yeah. And if you know the thought, then it becomes of the world and still is it a betrayal? It's very, very deep.

GROSS: So the first shot that we see is you're naked and we see you from behind. And it's as if a man is looking at you, and that's why we're seeing you from behind because you're not seeing who's looking at you, but you're being seen. So looking at the film now does - and there's other scenes like that - looking at the film now, do you think of that as like, oh, it's such a male gaze kind of approach? Or do you think, like, part of the film is from, you know, the eyes of the male character in that - you know, of your husband? That's why you're being seen that way. Like, how do you see that now through your eyes today?

KIDMAN: Well, I haven't watched it recently, so I haven't really seen it through my eyes today specifically. I have the memory of what it was, and it definitely didn't feel like that. That actually was my dress in that scene. That came from my wardrobe because Stanley didn't like any of the other wardrobe choices. So he was like, let's go to your house in your closet. You must have a lot of dresses. And I'm like, well, we're renting the house. I've brought some things with me, Stanley. And so he sat outside, and I went into my closet and tried things on and came out with that beautiful Galliano dress, which I still have. And he said, yeah, let's wear that. And I came up with the shot. I said, what about - look, it can drop like this. That's how I can - it's very fluid how it comes off.

GROSS: Oh, that's interesting.

KIDMAN: So it's a director and an actor working together - interesting, yeah, when I think of it like that.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Nicole Kidman. She stars as Lucille Ball in the new film "Being The Ricardos." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Nicole Kidman. When we left off, we were talking about her role in Stanley Kubrick's 1999 film, "Eyes Wide Shut."

He died six days after the screening of the final cut of a heart attack at age 70. It must have been - you've talked about how close you became to him. It must have been heartbreaking to lose him just as the work - to lose him for permanent just as the work was ending.

KIDMAN: Yeah. Yeah. It was. It was - I mean, I think I'm pausing for a second because Jean-Marc Vallee just passed as well.

GROSS: Yeah, and you worked with him on "Big Little Lies." Yeah.

KIDMAN: Yeah. We weren't making anything together, but - at this stage. But we were definitely circling things. And I think I'm still probably - I've received phone calls that are very shocking. And I don't - and so I received their phone call about Stanley having faxed him. It was in the time of faxing. He faxed me, saying, I'll call you tomorrow. And I was like, oh, should I call him tonight? And I didn't. And then I got the phone call the next morning. And I had my two young children with me, and I just dropped the phone and screamed, everything you probably shouldn't do in front of two young children. But it was a very immediate - it was just awful, awful.

GROSS: Do you think they were frightened by your screaming?

KIDMAN: I held them and walked them through it, just as I'd done when my father died and I had my two young girls. It just seems there's this - anyway, I hate talking about it because it's too - it's actually still too much a part of who I - I just can't. It's too present in my life, those calls.

GROSS: Understood.

KIDMAN: Yeah. So I talk about it, and then I go, oh, don't tread into this right now because it's just too emotional, especially with Jean-Marc recently. And it's just like - I don't want to even put words to it. But I will say, I really - I loved Stanley. And for him to leave the world so suddenly seems - it was awful. At the same time, I loved my father - for him to leave the world so suddenly, Jean-Marc to leave the world so suddenly. But suddenly is, probably for the person that leaves, the - you go, oh, OK, well, at least there wasn't pain. There's pain for us, but there wasn't pain for you, and I'm very glad there wasn't pain for you.

GROSS: So you're in Australia now helping to take care of your mother. I'm wondering if it's easier than it's ever been, maybe, to talk about parent-child issues. Like, you're a parent now. You probably understand things about how she parented you that you didn't understand when you were a child. And you've made a lot of choices based on your life and about how you were parented, about how you were going to raise your children. Has it been comfortable talking about those things now?

KIDMAN: Yeah. But I'm at the place where I'm being given the chance to view the world - because of how close we are, my mom is giving me the chance to view the world through an 81-year-old woman's eyes. That is so beneficial right now because she's so cognizant. She has every faculty, brain faculty, available. So she's - you know, she hasn't lost anything. She hasn't lost any memory, which is fascinating. And she's extremely bright. So she's giving me access 'cause she's also very direct and very honest. And so I'm getting access to the world through her eyes, my mother's eyes, so, therefore, a part of me almost at 80.

GROSS: What are you seeing?

KIDMAN: Oh, that's too hard right now.

GROSS: That's fine.

KIDMAN: Yeah. But it's - I will be able to tell you that in a few years. I'm seeing a lot. I'm jumping into the psychology and emotional place of that. And it's her perspective, obviously. So there's many different 80-year-old perspectives, but it's her perspective and her particular path. But I'm drinking it in and learning.

GROSS: Nicole Kidman, it has just been wonderful to talk with you. I wish you good health. I wish your mother good health. I wish her well. And thank you for spending time with us.

KIDMAN: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Nicole Kidman stars in the new film "Being The Ricardos."

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll hear about a disturbing story of civilian deaths in the battle against ISIS. Our guest will be New York Times correspondent David Philipps, who reported on a secret unit in the U.S. military that picked targets for airstrikes, circumventing rules to protect noncombatants and often killing farmers in their fields and families trying to flee combat. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.


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