Female anti-heroes are, thankfully, no longer a novelty - think The Bride in Kill Bill or Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Yet the character Nicole Kidman plays in her latest thriller Destroyer is something quite different.
“A lot of times if you are going to be a female in an action film, they want you to look gorgeous, be bad-ass, be capable of firing guns and doing high kicks and still having lipstick and being svelte and being in a whole different class of action hero,” says Kidman, on the line from New York where she’s filming The Undoing opposite Hugh Grant.
“This is gritty and raw and totally authentic. It’s very different to give screen time - and this amount of screen time - to a woman who looks like this, who behaves like this, who is riddled with shame and anger and fury and rage, yet is also a mother and not a good mother.”
Directed by Karyn Kusama, Destroyer tells the story of Erin Bell, a worn-down police detective, drawn back into an old case that left her traumatised.
In many ways, it’s a typical good-cop-gone-bad film in the vein of Dirty Harry or Mad Max, those 70s action films that traditionally have a male lead as the lone wolf-type character.
Making her a mother is an unusual twist. Bell clearly has plenty to lose, and it was the pathos of this situation that drew Kidman to the story. “[Despite everything] she’s still trying to make a better life for her daughter.”
It added an extra level of truth for Kidman. “[This] is a woman who can’t express herself, she can’t say I love you, she sabotages her own life [and] the other people who love her, that is incredibly relevant. It’s also very real. If you’re in this world and you look around, there are so many people existing in that state of being and it’s devastating.”
Her performance in the film has been critically acclaimed: Variety declared “Nothing Nicole Kidman has done in her career can prepare you for Destroyer”, while Guardian UK described it as “a powerhouse performance by Nicole Kidman in her best role since To Die For”.
There’s been much discussion around her appearance because she plays both a younger and older version of the character. The younger version looks pretty and perky but as the older Bell, Kidman has been made up to look gaunt, tired and worn down by her anger, guilt and sadness. The Hollywood star audiences are used to seeing has been completely replaced: her hair is grey and her face is lined and mottled with pigment.
“Maybe in 20 years time, for the next generation of women, it will be different but by god, I want to be one of those women who’s helping carve a path for the next generation.” Photograph: Sabrina Lantos/Madman
Transforming physically is part of the job description for most actors, yet there’s a different tone to the commentary around Kidman’s appearance and that of, say, Christian Bale who plays an overweight, balding Dick Cheney in Vice.
While the characters are undoubtedly different, Kidman is described as a “ grizzled character “ with a “ disorientingly scorched, ruined exterior” ; the “ dilapidated shell of a woman “ and so unrecognisable it takes time to realise that “the sunburnt piece of beef jerky up on screen is none other than the alabaster beauty from BMX Bandits and Far and Away” , while Bale’s transformation is breathlessly described as “ uncanny “ and “ shape-shifting “ and his dramatic weight gain as looking “ pretty husky” .
Although Kidman says she didn’t notice the discussion, it’s not entirely unexpected. “I’m always astounded at the harsh way in which women are judged, and I shouldn’t be. I should know that by now, but it is what it is.”
Although she sounds resigned to this state of affairs, she is doing her bit to push things along for women in the film industry. “Maybe in 20 years time, for the next generation of women, it will be different but by god, I want to be one of those women who’s helping carve a path for the next generation, because I’m the recipient of those that have come before me to even be in this position. We didn’t get to work 25 years ago, women were pretty much cast out by now, and that’s abominable. But that’s in any work force, and those trends are changing, thank god, but we have to keep the conversation moving forward.”
One of the women Kidman says helped to carve the way forward was Meryl Streep, and later this year she will star opposite Streep in the second season of Big Little Lies. Apparently Streep signed herself up to star in the show after the success of the first season, and she’ll play Kidman’s character Celeste’s mother in law.
Kidman is positively bursting with admiration for Streep: “She’s so professional, and prepared and still excited, and curious. She still has that - to still be excited about the work, I love that.” It’s about more than Streep’s unflagging professionalism: “I said to her: ‘Good god Meryl, you’ve managed to raise all those children, you’ve still got your husband and your marriage and your work’ - and she’s just had a grandchild ... I’m just like, you’re a wow woman.’”
Revisiting her Big Little Lies character is a first for Kidman, who has never done a sequel before, and she found it difficult to go back to Celeste. “Her husband is dead but she is nowhere near healed, she still has a long road ahead of her ... [I wanted] to be truthful about her particular path. It’s not every woman, but it’s Celeste’s journey. Recovering from that, and facing hard truths about yourself and why you’re in a particular relationship and the nature of where that leads you. And then as a mother trying to raise two boys, all of those things, there’s just such depth there.”
Kidman is one of the series’ executive producers alongside Reese Witherspoon, and she says getting everyone back together was tricky because the second series wasn’t part of the original plan. “It was very much from audiences because when we were doing it, we had absolutely no idea we would be coming back. That’s why then to get everyone’s schedules and deals and everything done, it’s almost unheard of that you can pull it off, but it actually shows the allegiance to each other and the show that we did it.”
She won’t give away much more about the plot but she promises that all the main characters will have strong storylines, adding “It’s just nice to be able to offer up six women as leads in a series.”
–Guardian News & Media Ltd