Nicole Kidman has entered a phase of her career so prolific that you could watch her in three different movies this fall alone. Still, you’ve never seen her do anything quite like ‘Destroyer’.
In this gritty Los Angeles film noir from director Karyn Kusama, Kidman plays Erin Bell, a detective so worn down by a lifetime of tragedy that she seems barely alive. Her eyes red-rimmed as she lurches down the street, Erin is propelled by pure rage, and Kidman burrows so deeply into that anger that she becomes unrecognisable.
When we met up at a West Hollywood hotel last month to discuss the film, for which she’s received a Golden Globe nomination, Kidman spoke as if she were just awakening from the spell ‘Destroyer’ had cast on her.
Kusama is a “muscular filmmaker, and she really pushed me into places I haven’t been before,” Kidman said. “Karyn’s not verbose, she’s tough: She’ll just be like, ‘OK, good.’ But I’m Australian, so I don’t need all that. We could communicate almost telepathically, and she protected my space.”
‘Destroyer’ is out in the UAE on January 31, just a few weeks after Kidman appeared in ‘Aquaman’ as the superhero’s queen mother. She can also be seen in this autumn’s ‘Boy Erased’, and will go toe to toe with Meryl Streep in a highly anticipated second season of ‘Big Little Lies’ that runs on HBO next year.
“I’m trying to stay in that place of making interesting choices and staying true to my essence,” Kidman told me. “When I get off that, I start flailing.”
I’m not going to do a character where I can’t play the whole arc of her — it would be unbelievably frustrating.
Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: How did you feel the day before you began ‘Destroyer’?
A: Terrified! I just felt like I was not going to be able to do it, and then when I showed up on set, I don’t think I spoke to anybody. I was shut down, but that’s Erin.
Q: What’s so bracing about Erin is that she doesn’t care about what anyone thinks of her, or even whether she will survive the case she’s working on. Is it freeing to play someone like that, or is it scary?
A: Definitely freeing. She’s a dangerous person. A lot of times, I would let out a huge yell or a growl before I would start, which I know sounds insane.
Q: Well, she’s a very primal character. What was it like to live inside that for the shoot?
A: It gets you down, carrying the weight of her, because it also has to be real. But there was something amazing about being able to let that energy out. I’ve never done that before in a film. There’s a scene where I go in and beat up my daughter’s boyfriend, and it was the second or third day of shooting. I said to the guy, “Listen, just watch out.” He said, “No, I can take it.” And I just went there and start pushing him, like whoa! I was angry, really angry.
Q: I don’t think you’ve ever played a character this aggressive before.
A: Yeah, and I could tell by the way people reacted on the set. Everyone steered clear of me, but I was taught very early on by Jane Campion, who said to me, “You’re not running for ‘most popular’ when you’re an actor, remember that. You have to be true to the essence of the character.” You can be decent to people and show your respect to them, but the idea of flitting around and joking, you can’t be doing any of that. Otherwise, it would have felt like I was acting.
Q: The movie cuts between a young Erin and the wrecked, older version. With the aid of make-up and special effects, you play both.
A: Normally, they’d cast a younger actress, but that would have been a deal breaker for me. I’m not going to do a character where I can’t play the whole arc of her — it would be unbelievably frustrating. One of the interesting things about Erin is that when she finds out she’s pregnant, she’s high — and that’s the relationship she starts with her child. That’s fascinating and riddled with pain, and if I can’t play that scene and both sides of this character, that’s just not interesting to me at this stage.
Q: You also get to kick some butt in James Wan’s ‘Aquaman’, though of course it’s not quite as fraught as ‘Destroyer’.
A: I said to James, please just give me some sort of action sequence! It’s nice to show my [daughters] that I can do that, and it’s just nice to be in that fantasy world, probably because a lot of the films I do are very hard material. Rarely do I get to do lightweight stuff that’s sort of fun.
Q: The last time you did a superhero movie, you played the love interest in ‘Batman Forever’ (1995), but this time, you have special powers and you get to wear a scaly super-suit.
A: I liked that suit. That felt good! I loved the leather jacket I wore in ‘Destroyer’, too, to the point where I was wearing it home. I refused to take it off, and they wouldn’t wash it. I was really in that place, although I wasn’t aware I was in that place, which is weird.
Q: When does that self-awareness come?
A: Now, talking about it to you! Wearing the costume, that actually was part of the depression [the character experiences and that seeped into her]. That’s a sign of it, isn’t it, where you can’t be bothered dressing or undressing? But it’s nice when that happens in a role as well. It’s kind of what I’m seeking.
Q: We’ll soon see you in a second season of ‘Big Little Lies’, which you also executive produced. The reaction to the first season was probably one of the biggest of your career.
A: The biggest ever! Well, ‘Moulin Rouge’ was pretty big, but this might be a close second.
Q: The show wasn’t initially conceived to go more than one season. How did it feel to revisit the character of Celeste, with all the expectations that now come with it?
A: We felt the weight. But why not try it? I think that’s a good approach, artistically. Whether you can ever live up to the expectations and the sense of discovery, I don’t know, but there’s definitely interest in what happens next. Celeste still has damage and has to deal with Meryl’s character [her mother-in-law], and those things are fascinating.
Q: When did you go from wondering whether you should do a new season to knowing that you would?
A: It was around Emmy time, and it was a pure reaction to people going, “This cannot end, you have to give us more.” I’ve never been on the receiving end of that! It’s fun to give more stories to more women, and we love being together, we love hanging out. Does that warrant making another season? Maybe not, but gosh, it’s a good reason to push for it.
Q: Jean-Marc Vallée directed all the episodes of the first season, but Andrea Arnold is the Season 2 director. You’ve said that working with women behind the camera is a priority for you.
A: That’s part of why I did ‘Destroyer’, to support Karyn, and there was a primarily female crew: Our [director of photography] was female, our focus-puller, our [first assistant director]. If I have the opportunity to throw my support there, of course I’m going to do that. I need to be part of changing the statistics myself with direct choices I’m making.
Q: You’re not just working with female directors, you’ve also picked several projects that involve big ensembles of women.
A: It’s why I signed on to this movie about Roger Ailes with Charlize Theron and Margot Robbie, because I wanted to support Charlize.
Q: It’s about the culture of sexual harassment at Fox News, and you’re playing Gretchen Carlson, right?
A: Yes, and Kate McKinnon is in it, Allison Janney — that’s a strong group of women, again. I’m not in the film a lot, but I’m happy to be in it and give my support to them. You have to walk the talk!
Don’t miss it
‘Destroyer’ releases in the UAE on January 31.