Bad guys, look out. Nicole Kidman is coming to destroy you. When you think about the intensity Kidman has brought to roles in The Hours, Cold Mountain, The Others, Eyes Wide Shut, Rabbit Hole, Birth and more, now imagine her as a cop on the warpath in Destroyer.
AFI Fest honored Kidman and Destroyer director Karyn Kusama at their film festival in the heart of Hollywood this year. They discussed collaborating on Destroyer and Kidman looked back on her career. Destroyer opens in theaters Christmas Day, so get ready for a hardcore Christmas crime caper.
Q: In Destroyer did you totally change from the inside out?
NK: I mean, that’s what you do as an actor. I don’t like doing the hair and makeup first because I still won’t believe in the mystery of the performance. There’s such a desire now for people to tell you everything and dissect everything. There’s magic involved and I love keeping in that magic so you can just watch the film. I have to say, this year I’ve been given roles last year that came out within a couple of months of each other, Boy Erased and Destroyer. Having both those characters in the same year is amazing. It was the time of my life. They’re both really extreme. By talking about the two there, they’re both mothers. They’re both on a path trying to heal what they’ve done to their children. I find that really powerful and emotional. I love that they’re so different but strangely enough they’re on the same path. That is really interesting to me. I actually did Boy Erased and I had four weeks off and then I went straight into Destroyer. And then I collapsed.
Q: And Destroyer is so physical and masculine.
NK: Well, I see it as deeply female. Which is a weird thing to say but I do see it as deeply female because her motivations are female. There’s a moment, and only a woman gets to experience this, when she finds out she’s pregnant and it’s a flash. She’s high. She’s doing cocaine. That is devastating for her. That’s the beginning of her relationship with her child. So that’s a female situation. And it’s so complicated and devastating. It leads her on this very destructive path. But, she’s maternal and she’s operating from a maternal force. It may have been a maternal force that has made massive mistakes, has not been there and has not been what we call a good mother, but she’s a mother. The basis for so much of her motivations and her drive is from that. And her shame and her pain.
Q: How close did you become working together?
KK: I felt like I learned at a certain point that part of the fascinating experience of making this movie with Nicole is that I wasn’t directing Nicole. I was sort of having a shadow conversation with Nicole while talking to the character she’s playing in some way. So I had to find another way in and I think we found this kind of minimal spiritual psychic thread that we lived on. I think it’s effective, I think it worked but it was like a heads pressed together communion in some way.
NK: There was nothing in my past that would suggest I could play the role, which is why actually I had to go, “Do you think I can do this?” That was what was interesting, was creating her together which is what I love to do. Because there’s synergy between actors and directors, if it works it’s very powerful. It’s deep and out of that you create the character together.
Q: Do you run towards things that scare you?
NK: It sounds so screwed up, but probably. Partly it’s because I’m not interested in what I know. I’m interested in what I don’t know. I‘m drawn to places I haven’t been and I’m interested in exploring the human psyche and actually by seeing the world through different eyes, it gives me a chance to feel more a part of the world. So as much as I feel, not even scared, it’s just more I’m drawn to and I’m trying to understand the human condition. I’m interested in behavior and why people do things. I’m interested in people.
Q: What did Nicole bring to this role?
KK: It’s actually tough to quantify because there is so much every day that surprised me and that delighted me. I will say that Nicole, I feel like she’s an adventurer. I guess I feel like I could just speak so honestly and ask her things that felt sometimes a bit off the wall, and I never got a look, in the same way that I don’t think an actor wants a director to judge the performance or to judge a character, I never got that from Nicole, a sense of “no, I’m not going to hear that.” There was just an open channel there and yet here she is playing someone who is so shut down and so emotionally damaged and withholding. So to have to operate on two planes like that, it’s a real privilege to be working with somebody who as an artist is living on that frequency because we can’t always be at that frequency. So it was a privilege to see.
Q: Did it feel different having a female director and crew?
NK: I don’t know about different because it is what it is. I just think that right now, I say this because I’m in a position to sometime go am I going to be able to get this financed. To put my weight behind women right now is an important thing for me to do. It’s unfortunate that it’s not just even, that you don’t just show up and sometimes an all female crew, sometimes an all male or sometimes it’s just mixed. It isn’t like that. It is still statistically very imbalanced. I feel the more you actually make a conscious effort to go, “No, we need to do this.” It will get changed, but only because you’re actually doing it. So having a female DP and a female editor, you can keep going.
KK: A lot of women were heads of departments. It just created a great feeling on set.
NK: And they were really passionate because these were opportunities they haven’t gotten easily. That’s unfortunate to say that but that’s the truth. So hopefully that needle is swinging, that will change and we won’t be having this discussion in a decade.
Q: Do you look at roles differently now than when you started out in movies?
NK: I started actually at 14 in a film called Bush Christmas. I got to get out of school for six weeks, but I think my whole journey has always been trying to find characters. As an actor, you’re very much not in the driver’s seat. You need a director to choose you. You audition a lot when you’re young. That’s what you do and sometimes you get roles and sometimes you don’t. I think you just have to have a passion and view it as a long journey because 30 years, always the journey. I wanted to go and explore the world and to explore the human psyche. By doing what I do and getting a chance to act, it’s taken me on this extraordinary road. And I’ve worked with the greatest directors in the world. I’ve been around the greatest minds. I’ve been the recipient of some of the greatest writers so it’s an amazing place to be, but I never thought it was going to be like this. I dreamed big but not like this.
Q: How do you sustain that passion, curiosity and energy to give 100% in every role?
NK: It ebbs and flows. That’s the truth of it. There’s times where you go, “I just don’t have any more to give.” There’s been times where I’ve gone, “Okay, I’m now drained. I don’t know where I am in my life. I’ve got to go and find it.” I always say you have to have the life to then be able to go and put it into your art. I’ve had a crazy life. I just have. I’m also a highly sensitive person and I attach very strongly to people. So with that comes all of the emotions that are attached to that. That then gives me the well to draw from. But I’m also still very curious. I still have this passion for the work and for being on the set. That time between action and cut is so extraordinary to me. Sometimes it falls and you just go I’m never ever going to be any good ever again. And then something happens and it ignites. I love it and I still love it to this day.
Q: How important was Moulin Rouge! and the role of Satine to you?
NK: I grew up in a family where musicals were considered the best. That was what you wanted to do. My family would stand around the piano, we would sing. I don’t have a great voice. I don’t have a voice that could sustain a Broadway show eight shows a week for years. But, suddenly Moulin Rouge! came along and it was like oh my gosh, I get to sing and dance and act which is what they used to do. The great actresses all could do all of those things. So it was kind of like being given this opportunity. Then of course I freaked out. I’m going, “I can’t do it.” Baz kind of had to push me into it. He’s such a showman, Baz. So he almost roped that performance out of me. I’ve always said I wanted to make a love story. As much as I make so many dark films and I explore all the territories, I like going to places that are considered uncomfortable and dangerous. I also love love. I just had never been in a great love story and I see Moulin Rouge! as a love story and I love being part of that world.