“I’ve never been in this position before. It feels slightly surreal. I feel very exposed. I know one day I’ll look back at this period and be able to go, ‘Weeeee!’ “ Nicole Kidman laughs out loud. “This has been a big year for me!”
With the highly public divorce from Tom Cruise this year may have been rocky on the private side, but the tenacious actress has also been able to venture deep into her work, which is why she is enjoying (or not) a frenetic promotional schedule for Moulin Rouge, Baz Luhrmann’ s stylised musical romance set in 1890’s Paris.
“I do feel really proud of this film. We worked really hard on it. We waited a long time for it to be finished. I think it is important to promote it because it is not something a public says: 'Yes, this is what we want to go and see.'
"It's a musical. We sing a lot of the film. It's very hard to describe in two sentences. Yet, the reaction that we are getting from almost everyone who sees it is that they have never seen anything like it, and they enjoy it.”
Moulin Rouge is a zesty and audacious musical extravaganza set in Paris’ infamous Moulin Rouge nightclub in the Montmartre district. Kidman plays sultry courtesan Satine, nicknamed The Sparkling Diamond, who finds herself torn between her love for the impoverished writer played by Ewan McGregor and her lust for the riches offered by an obsessed fan played by fellow Aussie Richard Roxburgh.
Scarlet woman: Nicole Kidman as the courtesan, Satine, in Moulin Rouge
Garish and over-the-top, Kidman’s first entrance – from the ceiling singing Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend – defines the tone of director Luhrmann' s vision. Here was a movie fraught with risk. That was the attraction. “I’m drawn to things like that”, she says laughing.
Of course wanting to play this character this way had as much to do with working with Luhrmann, she also insists.
“I also have a great belief in him as a director and I’ve known him and his work for many years.”
Not that getting the role was a piece of cake by any means. Luhrmann saw the actress on stage in New York doing The Blue Room.
“He’d sent me flowers backstage with a note saying: I have this great character for you to play: She sings, she dances and then she dies.”
That certainly piqued her interest. After the two met, Kidman had to audition. After all, who “knew if I could sing like that”, but of course, Kidman landed the role, and despite the challenges that lay ahead. “When I got the role I was just floored, because to get a role where you actually get the opportunity of doing something SO unusual, working with Baz, working in Sydney, not to mention this extraordinary character and what he was going to achieve with her, was such a gift.”
Then, she hastens to add, the reality of playing this character this way, set in. “When we got to Sydney we had to do a read-through, but of course with a read-through on a musical, you’re not just reading lines, you’ve got to sing, and unaccompanied; it’s very confronting and leaves one feeling very exposed”, the actress concedes.
Yet for Nicole, an actress who has always thrived on artistic perfection, that was challenging and rewarding, “because Baz is the kind of director who pushes you early on in the piece, so that by the time you start to film, you’re so comfortable with what you’re doing, you’re ready to try and do anything.”
Including singing, and going back to the basics of acting, she further explains. “It was like drama school all over again, because we had singing class and dance class. Then we’d have a coffee break and we’d be off doing improvisational stuff. We also lived in this big house and it was drama school all over again.”
Many of the key moments in Moulin involve emotional sequences told through music, a device that Luhrmann uses effectively. For Nicole, conveying emotion musically was a challenge the actress willingly embraced.
“The one thing that Baz insisted from the outset, is that for the emotion to continue even once the singing starts. He didn’t want us to take time out for the singing, as it were and the audience goes: Now let’s back into the film. He wanted to keep the plot, love story and emotions that were being depicted, present and alive during those scenes, so that people wouldn’t get bored.” Kidman adds laughingly that there’s no doubt in her mind that Luhrmann achieved that aspiration.“
"One thing I haven’t heard someone say about the film is that it’s boring. Even with the tango sequence and those kinds of scenes, it’s amazing how you can depict strong emotions like jealousy, love or obsession through music and dance, far more readily. Strangely enough, once we embrace that concept doing the love scenes and singing ‘Come what may’ to each other, somehow made it easier, in a strange way.”
Not quite as easy, however, was stepping into Marilyn Monroe’s shoes performing and re-defining Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.
“That was a nightmare, because I just thought: What is this film going to be? But Marilyn does the quintessential number there which is obviously so iconic. But there’s something to be said about throwing yourself into it and going: OK Baz, YOU think it’s going to work: great!
We tried different ways of doing it and came up with the particular way you see it in the movie, less breathy than Marilyn, more of a chest voice and less classic in a way. Ours is raunchier. But I still can’t believe we tried all of this, but that’s what kind of fun about it, because in terms of Baz as a director, he’s both very enthusiastic yet naïve in his approach to things, because he thinks anything’s possible.”
That first entrance of Nicole’s not only defines Luhrmann’ s unique style and tone, but also presents Kidman as the personification of a movie star. Though the actress feels uncomfortable with that label, asked to comment on other movie stars that may have inspired her in preparing for this film, Kidman is unhesitating in her response.
“Rita Hayworth is IT”, she exclaims. “I just watch her and think: WOW. I mean, she’s SO beautiful, SO charismatic and an extraordinary dancer. She just takes your breath away as a performer. I never used to pay that much attention before, and I used to be more into Ingrid Bergman and Katherine Hepburn, but suddenly I look at Marilyn Monroe, Cyd Charise, Rita Hayworth and Marlene Dietrich, and they’re all extraordinary. So I have enormous respect for all those women now, and their talent, right across the board.”
To prepare for Moulin, Nicole watched “almost all of the musicals I could lay my hand on” from Hollywood’s Golden Age, but also points out that this is a “post-modernist musical” and as such borrows from contemporary sources and references “which you seem to discover after more than one viewing. Even I didn’t get them all, because my job was to find the truth of my character, and not to be limited by trying to achieve things with it.”
Perhaps this has much to do with Kidman’s own approach to her work. When we first met 15 years ago, there was even then, an inherently girlish enthusiasm that the then 16-year old actress had for her profession. Much has changed since then, but not necessarily her girlish enthusiasm for her work.
Kidman still loves to act, she continues, “because I get to reach out to a whole lot of people with ideas, sometimes profound ideas and sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. But you still get to work with some of the most brilliant people in the world and you help to facilitate extraordinary ideas. So I consider myself incredibly fortunate to be working with these people.”
Still as genuinely humble at 31 as she was at 16, Nicole has grown up on screen and audiences have seen her remarkable transformation. And there’s more to come, from Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar’s dark thriller The Darkness, to her upcoming portrayal of Virginia Woolf in The Hours, through to her next film with Lars von Trier. She still insists on pushing the envelope that little bit further, and the actress happily insists that she wouldn’t have it any other way.