Since her first film and television appearances thirty years ago, Nicole Kidman has been one of the biggest movie stars in the world (Days of Thunder, Far and Away, Batman Forever), an awards magnet (To Die For, Moulin Rouge!, The Hours), and an artist willing to appear in work as diverse and risky as Dogville, Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, and Rabbit Hole. Kidman’s latest film, The Paperboy, fits squarely into the latter category, and also sits among her finest work to date. In the latest film from Oscar-nominee Lee Daniels (Precious), Kidman plays death row groupie Charlotte Bess in 1960’s South Florida. Bess has fallen in love with inmate Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) and tries to help investigative reporters Ward Jensen (Matthew McConaughey), Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo), and Ward’s younger brother Jack (Zac Efron) secure his release. The sexy neo-noir murder mystery ultimately serves as Jack’s coming-of-age story, in which Charlotte ends up playing a crucial role. The polarizing reactions the film has received so far are understandable, but no one can deny that the entire cast does incredible work. Kidman is such a passionate supporter of the film that while she has been in Paris filming Grace of Monaco, she’s been calling back to Los Angeles in between scenes to talk about The Paperboy. I recently enjoyed such a conversation with Kidman, and was immediately taken with her generosity and candidness. Here’s what Kidman shared with me about Daniel’s unique approach to working with actors, her on-screen relationships with Efron and Cusack, and filming The Paperboy.
Jackson Truax: In 2003 you won a well-deserved Oscar for The Hours. How did winning the Oscar change your life or your career?
Kidman: I suppose I don’t have the objective view. But, subjectively, I wished I had a partner to share it with… I suppose it emphasized my loneliness, in a way. I was alone when I won it. It’s one of those things that you really want to share with somebody. At the same time, it was completely overwhelming. The next day, you just get some many phone calls from people. It just becomes, like any mark in your life, where it was pre-and-post. I think I probably got a lot more offers… I was in the middle of shooting Birth. So I went from winning it to going back and shooting a very, very small independent film… It’s almost like you win it for your director. Which sounds weird, but a lot of actors I think would relate to that. So much of being an actor is pleasing your director. In the same way that you please your parent, if that makes sense. I felt like I’d done Stephen Daldry proud. And I was very attached to him at that time. So that was really important to me. And also [screenwriter] David Hare. Because David Hare wrote the most beautiful words for me to say. That speech at the train station was just one of the great speeches. They just gave me that. And that was a gift.
JT: You’ve worked on so many films since The Hours, and you always find interesting projects and you take the audience someplace new each time. Why is that important to you, to always be doing a different kind of film than the one you did before, and to always be challenging yourself?
Kidman: That’s how I was raised at drama school. I’ve never thought any differently. Like I’m lazy if I’m doing the same thing. And I’m a curious person. I interested in going places that I haven’t been. And I’m interesting in working with people that I feel are dangerous and sort of push me in different places. That’s probably what I’m attracted to. I used to jump out of planes and stuff. I don’t do that now. But I suppose I still try to do that with my work. But at the same time…it’s not like stunts. I try to be truthful. I suppose I’m just very attracted to flawed people, interested in the psychology of that. I’m interested in human nature and examining what makes sense.
JT: In The Paperboy, you have such a specific physicality to your character, and how you move and talk and carry your body. What was your process of finding Charlotte’s voice and body and building her character?
Kidman: Lee has a particular way of approaching – he’s very raw. He’ll say anything. A lot times he wants to shock you. He pushed me into that place. He gave me the [Andy] Warhol movie Heat to study and he said, “I want you to watch Sylvia Miles and how she walks. And I want you to put on ten pounds, so start eating.” He’s obsessed with your behind. He just wanted a much rawer version of anything I’d ever done. I was so willing to do that for him. Because I believe in that in terms of the choice of the character. This woman that was obsessed with men in prison and was very damaged. I came up with a whole backstory for her. There was a whole past that led her to where she was. So much of her power is from her sexuality. That is her power, really, in the world. And what she’d always had.
JT: When watching The Paperboy, it’s obvious that Lee Daniels is paying homage to various types of noir film and characters, and in particular the grindhouse and exploitation films of the 1970s. You mentioned studying Sylvia Miles. What did you take from her that helped build your character?
Kidman: With Sylvia, she’s so out there and there’s such a raw sexuality to her in general. I tried to access that. That’s not naturally me. So I tried to morph into something else. That was important to me. To be truthful in regards to that, but not to mimic. I suppose I leave the rest of it up to the director. He said to me, “Just know, you’re never going to know where the camera is. Don’t ask.” I try not to be technically proficient as an actress anyway… I’ve worked well over twenty years now. I’m probably the most naïve actress in terms of lenses and shots and all of that stuff. I try to stay very in a bubble, with the other actors… We probably had some sort of downside to it, but at the same time, for me it leaves me in a place of feeling free.
JT: When you were getting ready to shoot, the movie as a whole as well as each day on set, did you talk with Lee Daniels beforehand and get direction? Or did he leave you to give your performance and then give you direction if need be?
Kidman: We talked before, but Lee doesn’t like to rehearse. He would just shout things out from behind the camera. A lot times he just yells out, “I don’t believe it! I don’t believe it!” Which is a pretty good barometer… A lot times he wouldn’t say, “Action.” He would just keep the camera rolling and we would improvise and try things. That was how the film was made. It was very raw. “Renegade filmmaking,” is what I call it.
JT: I know that as research for the role you interviewed five women who had relationships with men in prison. Specifically, what kinds of questions did you ask them and what did you take from those experiences that helped build your character?
Kidman: I asked them “Why?” And they’ve got a different answer every time. And “What was the attraction?” Two of them were incredibly honest… The stories of when the men got out of prison were pretty horrendous. Then the other three, they were still having the relationships. So they didn’t have as big a perspective. For me, what I took from it was that all of these women were damaged. They had a form of actually not really wanting a relationship, wanting the protection of the prison. And when the men are able to get out, that’s when it’s not good. So there’s a huge fear of intimacy. And there’s power in being able to go in. And that’s probably what the scene in the prison represents. That’s Charlotte’s power. That’s how she goes in and she feels wanted and she feels needed. She feels like she’s in control. To me, that sort of stuff is fascinating… That scene, that wasn’t written that way on the page. It kind of evolved. Because John [Cusack] and I… Lee had the cameras at the back of the room where we were shooting. Half the time we didn’t know what was being shot and when we were shooting and when we weren’t… The lines get blurred on Lee’s set, a lot.
JT: You spend a lot time on-screen with Zac Efron. He’s been doing more and more independent films and more dramatic roles, but we’ve never seen him do anything like this. As a scene partner, what did he bring that was unique?
Kidman: He just has a lot of heart, Zac. As tough as he tries to be, he’s not tough. Which is a good thing. I mean that as a compliment. There’s no rough exterior to Zac. I think you really feel that on-screen. He just has to look, and you feel for him. I think he has a really strong power in what he doesn’t say… I think he’s going to have a really strong career. Because he’s also very open. That’s a beautiful thing in a man, is that openness. I think you feel that in the character. He’s more than willing to love Charlotte and obsess on Charlotte. A lot of young guys, they wouldn’t be as free or as open with it.
JT: You and Zac Efron had an on-screen relationship that’s incredibly intense, and passionate, emotionally and physically. Whether it was a physical or a more emotional scene, how did you two build that trust and that intimacy and approach those scenes?
Kidman: We kind of just had it. I think that was the whole film. It’s not we had to build trust. Every actor that ever came on the set, there was kind of just an immediate trust. I think because we were down in New Orleans. Because we’re all doing this because we want to be there. Because we want to be with Lee. Because we want to play these characters. We were just really committed from the moment we stepped on. Matthew, John, Zac, David, everyone in it. That was what was fun about it. And really intense at times.
JT: You said the scene with you visiting John Cusack’s character in prison was spontaneous and just evolved on the day. Was that true of a lot of your scenes with Zac Efron?
Kidman: Everything in the film was spontaneous. It was caught on the day. Obviously there was a script. But at the same time, a lot of the stuff just evolved and happened. That’s what makes it like a bit of a tightrope walk. And probably what the film erratic at times and unpredictable, which is what Lee wanted. He wanted it to look like we shot it in 1968. And he wanted to be kind of flawed.
JT: One of your best performances was in Rabbit Hole and I know one of your upcoming projects is The Family Fang, another project scripted by Pulitzer Prize-winner David Lindsay-Abaire. Can you share anything about that project? What it is about David’s writing that you find so attractive?
Kidman: I just read the book. It’s a Tennessee writer [Kevin Wilson], who wrote “The Family Fang.” I read a review. It was the same sort of situation to Rabbit Hole where I read the review and we went and chased the project. I just optioned the book because I love the book and I love the characters. We took it to David and said, “Would you be willing to write it?” I think because we all had such a good experience on Rabbit Hole, we [said], “Yeah. Let’s go.” We have the same producing partners. It’s the same sort of setup. We’re slowly working on it… It’s a great book. I really recommend it to people. Rabbit Hole for me was such a labor of love. It was very hard to get that film made because of what it was about. But I’m so glad we got it made… Because of the subject matter, there’s something very, very deep about it. The way in which David handles those subjects…there’s really nobody like him writing right now.
JT: I know you’re in Paris right now, filming Grace of Monaco. Can you share anything about what we can expect when that film opens?
Kidman: It’s not a bio-pic… It’s a few months of her life after she’s married to Rainier [Prince of Monaco] and she has Caroline and she has Albert. She hasn’t had Stephanie yet… When I’m in the middle of something, I hate to define what it is, because half the time you don’t know until it’s done. But I love working with [director] Olivier Dahan (Le Vie En Rose). He’s in that same category of just a visionary… He has a very, very strong vision of what he wants.
JT: Here you are in Paris filming another movie, and between filming scenes you’re calling back to Los Angeles to talk about The Paperboy. What is it about The Paperboy that’s so meaningful to you, to the point where you’re championing it so passionately at this stage?
Kidman: I suppose my heart is with smaller movies. It’s very hard when you don’t have the budget and you don’t have the studio support. So this is the only way for people to hear about these kinds of films. That’s important to me. I did it for Rabbit Hole. I’m doing it for this movie. I’ll do it for whatever else I have coming up that needs the support.