Motherhood suits Nicole Kidman. Once one of Hollywood's most tireless workaholics, Kidman has largely stepped back in recent years to raise daughter Sunday, 2, with her second husband, singer Keith Urban. And professionally, she's back in top form with her other baby, Rabbit Hole, a small, stark drama that has earned Kidman some of her best reviews in years for exploring what it means to love, and lose, your child.
"I now have a whole different set of experiences and emotions I'm willing to mine," says Kidman, 43. "At times, I don't want to work, which is what a lot of my choices have been recently, or I want to do one week in something. But with Rabbit Hole, I knew I needed to do this artistically."
Her maternal instincts have paid off. After a professional drought filled with well-intentioned films, such as 2009's poorly received Nine, 2007's little-seen Margot at the Wedding and 2006's Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, Kidman is back -- and how.
The actress finds herself in awards contention with Rabbit Hole, which opens Friday. Kidman produced and stars in the film as an anguished mother painstakingly coming to terms with the freakish death of the 4-year-old son she adored, even as her husband (Aaron Eckhart) wants to have another baby and get their old life back.
Portraying a woman who loses what she holds most dear "just made me very grateful," Kidman says. "We had to talk it through. Keith was incredibly supportive through the whole thing."
Yes, playing Becca -- by turns abrasive, hilarious, devastated and broken -- was an ordeal of sorts for Kidman. But she's matter-of-fact about it.
"I feel like if people can go through it, then I can act it. I don't think there's enough films out there about coping with grief and coping with loss," she says. "I had a lot of really bad dreams, which I know means my subconscious has been affected deeply. Keith would hold me. I'd wake up and I'd be crying, and that happened a lot. But there's people going through this, and I was trying to be truthful and real."
And free of unnecessary histrionics, says director John Cameron Mitchell. Some actors would shed overwrought tears in every scene to milk maximum drama out of it. Not Kidman.
"Nicole found a way to be this brittle outsider and yet found a way for the audience to empathize with the character," he says. "Her character wants to deal with this grief alone, in her own way. Nicole brought a restraint and a subtlety to the role. She has a regal quality. I think of her as this rare creature that comes from another world but is anchored squarely in ours."
Getting down to work
Kidman has been nurturing Rabbit Hole from the start. She optioned the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by David Lindsay-Abaire, hired Mitchell to helm it after a quick phone call, asked Eckhart to play her husband, and was involved in every part of production. Yes, she knows what it costs to license a specific Al Green song for the film. And yes, she was pivotal in keeping her crew happy during the bare-bones shoot that cost roughly $10 million.
"I did bring the Mudd (coffee) truck every day out of my own money. People like their lattes. I was told it was the best coffee, and everyone would be happy. We had good catering, too, which is important," Kidman says.
"I know we wanted a porta-loo in the house. We didn't need trailers. We had blow-up beds in the rooms. I was in one of the kids' rooms in the house. Aaron had another room. That's how we could save the money and make the film."
That's vintage Kidman, who's an appealing combination of statuesque goddess and plainspoken, pragmatic, slightly goofy mom who'll rock a spellbinding L'Wren Scott dress on the red carpet but also tell you about her travails potty-training Sunday. She punctuates most of her statements with a full-body chuckle and ends sentences with a bemused "yeah." And when a pizza materializes at the table during a late lunch at the Peninsula Hotel, the actress, who seems to personify daintiness and delicacy, digs in with both hands.
Stephen Daldry, who directed Kidman to her Oscar as Virginia Woolf in 2002's The Hours, calls her "great fun. She's a working-class girl from Australia with fantastic parents. She's got a fantastic family that's supportive and strong. She was never a princess in that way as a child. She's a funny, incredibly charming, humble human being."
Stepping back from what was a relentless workload has been good for Kidman. It has allowed her to focus on her quiet life with her family outside Nashville while also handpicking projects that either deeply spoke to her or were appealing and doable logistically. It's a vastly different life from the one she shared with her first husband, Tom Cruise, and their two children, Isabella, now 17, and Connor, 15. Back then, she was younger, footloose and willing to hop on a plane at a moment's notice.
"Bella and Connor, when I was 25, that was a whole different thing. I didn't have the career I have now, either. And Tom, we'd travel around as a big family."
Now, she and Urban are mostly homebodies. Kidman spent three weeks this year in Hawaii shooting a small part in Adam Sandler's comedy Just Go With It, which proved to be a vacation of sorts. "Adam had a little school set up for the kids. He has two little girls, so they would all go to school, and Sunday loved it."
Trying something new
This fall, Kidman also shot the thriller Trespass with Nicolas Cage in Shreveport, La. She has a few projects in development, like the HBO flick Hemingway & Gellhorn. Her one rule? To avoid repeating herself on screen. And if something doesn't work, so be it -- at least she tried.
"That's what I try to do with my career: where you do a whole slew of different types of films and you can't be pigeonholed. That's interesting to me. I never try to do the same thing twice, and explore different things and play different people."
To that end, Kidman is planning to be on the Great White Way next year, in Tennessee Williams' Sweet Bird of Youth. The schedule of live theater suits her as a parent, which she learned during her critically lauded foray onto the London stage in 1998. "You're working at night. I did The Blue Room when Bella and Connor were young. You put them to bed and go to work. In the morning, you're up. I have to push myself a bit so I have some artistic life, yeah," she says.
And that's the key to Kidman's allure, Daldry says. The actress doesn't fret about preserving the Nicole Kidman brand or plot out career moves years in advance.
Rather, "she worries about losing herself in a particular project. She looks after the character she's playing. And she doesn't mind putting herself in dangerous situations as an actress, emotionally and physically," he says. "When we were drowning Virginia Woolf in a real river with a strong current, she wasn't going to have a double do that.
"She's a proper partner on a movie. And apart from all that, she's totally adorable."
Especially when you get her talking about her daughter. Kidman, every inch the proud mama, brags that Sunday is learning Spanish. The little girl is a power sleeper who gets major shut-eye on the tour bus with her parents when they hit the road, throws out Aussie phrases like "g'day" and loves barbecue ribs, which she feasted on after her father performed at a local event in Nashville. For Kidman, the best part of motherhood is simple: "I just like really knowing her," she says of her youngest.
And don't even get her started on Urban.
"Nicole is extremely in love with her husband," says her film husband Eckhart. "She absolutely adores him and loves to talk about him and is so proud of him and is so happy in her marriage with her child. She radiates love."
Kidman stood by her man after he checked into rehab for alcohol treatment in 2006. And today, she makes every effort to keep her family unit intact.
"My husband has a big job. We used to never be separated for more than two weeks. We reduced that to never more than six days. Now we're down to never separated for more than three days," she says, with that laugh. "Which is a good sign."
At home, Kidman takes her daughter to school. She gardens. She tries to cook, with mostly unfortunate results.
"I just don't have that touch. I watch Paula Deen. I can make things like pasta with a bit of sauce. But I'm still not good at roasting a chicken. I can't get it right," she laments. "I have a girlfriend, Simon Baker's wife (Rebecca Rigg), and she has us all over for dinner, and she whips up some amazing frittata, salad, fresh bread, soup. And it's all made from scratch."
And whenever she leaves Nashville to promote a film, Urban and Sunday join her. Mom and daughter had a ladies' outing during a recent jaunt to New York, a moment that Kidman, who once jetted from movie set to movie set, savored.
"I was with Sunday having lunch, just the two of us, and I thought, 'I'm so glad I can do this.' I've worked since I was 14," says Kidman, again with that laugh of hers. "You need to have the time to just relax."
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