The Oscar-winning actress talks about her new projects and her wish to make films "that penetrate the psyche of the world"

By Joe McGovern
Updated May 08, 2016 at 12:00 PM EDT
Jeff Vespa/WireImage

The Family Fang

  • Movie

In Kevin Wilson’s 2011 novel The Family Fang, the main character, Annie, is an alcoholic, semi-nuts, faded actress who once received an Oscar nomination for playing a drug-abusing librarian in cahoots with skinheads. Wilson was puzzled at first when he got an email from Nicole Kidman, expressing interest to produce and star in a movie adaptation.

“The first thing I thought of was Days of Thunder,” says the droll Tennessee author. “I was obsessed with that film, because of NASCAR. But then I realized, ‘Oh, wait, Birth. To Die For. The Hours. Holy s—, Dogville!’ It made so much sense. She’d be perfect.”

Indeed, Kidman is so poised and porcelain a figure in the public imagination that she’s not always appreciated for the three decades of broken-winged birds and damaged souls that she’s inhabited onscreen. “I’m very interested in messy,” Kidman says in her Aussie-tinged Marilyn Monroe whisper. “Because everything is messy, even if it doesn’t look so. I mean, think about Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, that’s just messy, messy. Right now I’m reading Elena Ferrante and that’s messy. And that’s what I’m drawn to. The sugarcoated, rose-colored glasses kind of art is probably not my best milieu.”

That’s why she seems so relaxed within the non-rosy comedy and pathos of The Family Fang (in theaters now and on-demand). The movie is about zealous performance artists (Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett), who included their two children in anarchist flash mob pranks — much to the kids’ long-term detriment. As adults, the siblings (played by Kidman and Jason Bateman, whom she handpicked to also direct the film) are irrevocably warped and can’t get a foothold in the normal world.

“I suppose I’m more protective of my children and family, just in terms of living life,” Kidman points out. She’s raising two young daughters with her husband, country star Keith Urban, in Nashville. “I’m fascinated how people blur that public-private line because they don’t know anything else. Just the human-ness of that.”

Errant misfires like Grace of Monaco notwithstanding, Kidman’s steely resolve as an performer is underrated. Incredibly, she is still dismissed in some quarters as a negligible Hollywood actress — by people who must never have seen Dogville or Margot at the Wedding or To Die For. In 2012’s The Paperboy, she urinated on Zac Efron and achieved spontaneous orgasm from being in the presence of a jailed murderer. The performance deservedly earned her Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild award nominations. In 2003, she won a Best Actress Oscar for her haunting 28-minute role as a suicidal Virginia Woolf in The Hours.

Kidman says it was the caliber of filmmakers on her resume that strengthened her sense of daring. “I’ve had extraordinary relationships with directors where my opinion is heard, loudly.” She has worked with such legendarily difficult helmers as Stanley Kubrick on Eyes Wide Shut and Lars von Trier on Dogville. “And they were incredibly collaborative with me,” she says. “But I believe in the hierarchy of the director. It’s their art form and I’m only there to help them achieve it.”

Which is exactly her attitude as a producer. Her goal is to enable artists to have their vision realized without interference. And give new voices a chance to be heard. The Family Fang attracted Kidman in large part because Wilson was a debut novelist — and she sought Bateman to direct because she really liked his first film Bad Words and simply wanted to see his follow-up. “She validated me as a director,” Bateman says. “And that really came from her desire to bring more offbeat material to market. We need people like her in the film industry.”

Kidman also produced the 2010 tough-sell drama Rabbit Hole (which earned her an Oscar nomination) but this new phase of her career, at age 48, is just beginning. She and Reese Witherspoon are executive producing and starring (along with Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, and Zoë Kravitz) in HBO’s seven-hour Big Little Lies, an adaptation of the Liane Moriarty bestseller.

“That’s more commercial, so I was confident we’d get it made,” she says. “But still, five female leads — that’s pretty fabulous.” And she hasn’t seen the last of families of fangs. Recently she used her own money to secure the movie rights to a shocking Off-Broadway drama about a woman and her vampire sister. “It’s called Cuddles,” she says with a laugh that’s both girlish and filled with conviction. “It’s particularly dark and crazy and fantastic.”

Just the flavor she likes. Kidman talks more about her attitude and taste — including which recent films she believes have “penetrated the psyche of the world” — in a wide-raging Q&A, below.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I was looking at your credits and BMX Bandits came out in 1983. Can you believe you’ve been acting in movies for almost 35 years?

NICOLE KIDMAN: Yeah, I can actually. I feel like that’s been my life. Since I was 14, isn’t that crazy? I started on stage in this thing called ATYP, Australian Theater for Young People, where we would do all kind of things. My first play was Spring Awakening. And then I was one of those people who was discovered in a little kids’ drama school — actually by Jane Campion.

That’s amazing. You made Portrait of a Lady with her, but she was there at the very beginning.

She was. And I’m going back to Australia soon to be in Top of the Lake 2 for her. It’s a supporting role, that’s all I can manage. But I was like, “I’ll do anything for you Jane.” She’s so great and I’m so close to her.

Is it satisfying to you that you’ve maintained that collaboration?

That’s my favorite thing, when you can still maintain those deep relationships with the directors that you work with and you go back and work with them literally decades later. It’s great having that path together.

Actually, your first credit as a producer was Campion’s movie In the Cut, which starred Meg Ryan.

Yeah, but I didn’t really produce that. I had optioned the book. And then Jane and I worked with Susanna Moore on the screenplay and then basically Jane took it over. I was going to play the lead and I bowed out. At the time, I was going through a whole bunch of personal things and just had to focus on my real life, which is always a good choice.

Oh, so you can’t just live your private life through the movies?

No [laughs]. I’m obviously determined to have my real life very nourished and good and that takes an enormous amount of prioritizing and time. And I’m not willing to sacrifice my “life” life for my artistic life.

But in terms of blending your private life into the public eye, a few years ago you talked a lot about your grief after the death of your father.

Yeah, that was so…gosh. I was very close to my father and it was very sudden and awful. And I have a sister and a mother and he was very much our patriarch. To lose him was and still is devastating. I talk about it because it keeps him present. And also I think that’s different from when I say privacy — those are universal emotions that people go through.

But it was admirable that you were so open about it.

Well, they’re milestones in people’s lives and those things are what we have to connect us together. Loss and grief and extraordinary joy as well. They’re the universal things that I love to explore artistically and just live and feel. I suppose I’m more protective of my children and family, just in terms of living life, and by that I mean a life in terms of school and love and being a husband and wife. All those normal parts of life need to have walls around them so that they can exist.

That’s the thing that’s explored in The Family Fang, right?

Right, the father in that does blur that line because he doesn’t know anything else. He doesn’t want anything else. I’m fascinated how people that blur that public-private line because they don’t know anything else. Just the human-ness of that.

It’s an interesting commentary about crazy families — and where is the place for children within crazy families.

Most everyone I speak to goes, “Oh, yeah, yeah, if you knew my family.” As a female I had a different attitude about it. For me, a child is the thing that ignites all these other things and allows a deeper well of access. Anything that brings me into a much more connected and intimate place with people — and a child does that — actually makes me better.

And that’s not what Christopher Walken’s character thinks in the movie?

No, he doesn’t find that and I think a lot of people don’t find that. And also then there’s the trajectory of children realizing that their parents are flawed and realizing that all people are damaged. And you can’t blame your parents for everything because you’ve gotta get on with it. And that’s an interesting thing to explore.

Your favorite actress is Vivian Leigh, who played strong, fragile women and was quite damaged herself. What does that say about the parts you’re drawn to?

I’m very interested in messy, because everything is messy, even if it doesn’t look so. And I’m also interested in truth and authenticity. I’m very drawn to the complications of things, and I think that’s probably from growing up reading the literature I read. I mean, think about Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, that’s just messy, messy. Right now I’m reading Elena Ferrante and that’s messy. And that’s what I’m drawn to. The sugarcoated, rose-colored-glasses kind of art is probably not my best milieu.”

You’re more drawn to the dark side?

Well, it doesn’t necessarily have to be dark. I’m drawn to digging around in the human condition and not pretend that everything is so perfect when it’s not.

There’s a scene in The Family Fang where Annie gets cajoled into doing a nude scene by a director who’s using all these clumsy justifications to get her to take her top off? Did you relate to that in some way?

Yeah, directors find ways to convince you to do something. When I started out there were probably some times when I was pretty naïve and taken advantage of. But I’m usually working with directors of a particular caliber. Usually it’s a two way street and there’s a discussion about what we both want. And it’s pretty pure. I’ve usually had extraordinary relationships with directors where my voice is heard, loudly. I mean, I’ve worked with Kubrick. I’ve worked with Lars [von Trier].

What were they like?

They were incredibly collaborative with me, but it was their art and it was their art form and we were there to help achieve it. So that’s where I am as a producer as well. I’m there to help get the financing and help get it made and find locations and getting the script to a point where actors become interested in being in it. But I’m there to help to help the artistic vision to get it through to the end.

Did you think about directing The Family Fang yourself?

No, no. It’s not my tone. I would have to feel it from the deepest part of who I am so that it would flow out of me. I wouldn’t want to be struggling to tell the story. I’ve been offered things to direct, but if it doesn’t happen in my lifetime then I won’t do it.

You wouldn’t do it just for the cachet?

Absolutely not. I’ve worked with the greatest directors in the world and it comes from some other place. I don’t think you can explain it. I’ve got a lot of knowledge about cameras, but I would just have to emotionally feel it. Which is the only way I can give a good performance too. If I can feel it, it flows out. If I’m struggling to grasp it, it’s already flailing.

You’ve talked about how that aspect of acting — feeling it — can be much trickier on stage, where you have to be natural and technical at the same time.

Oh, stepping out on stage is terrifying.

You appeared in the new play Photograph 51 in London last year, about the scientist Rosalind Franklin. What was that experience like?

It was probably the most satisfying experience I’ve ever had. In my curtain call, tears would come down my face. Being on stage like that, it’s incredibly direct.

Is it true we’ll see you performing it on Broadway in the fall?

We’re tying to see if we can. It would be lovely. I’d love not to have London be the last time I play her. But I have young children and it’s a big thing when you have a 5 and a 7 year old, doing a stage play. That’s their bedtime when you’re on stage. And they get upset and it’s awful.

And that’s a real consideration, right?

Of course. If I was a single woman, I’d be darting off doing so many other things. I commute back and forth to Nashville and I’m able to bring them and move them around, but it’s a juggling act. At times I need to walk away from extraordinary things — which is absolutely fine because I’m just not willing to look back and go, “If only I’d spent more time with my family.” I’ve had moments when I’d been sick and I’ve had these huge epiphanies. And those moments have given me the wisdom to go, “Oh, this actually isn’t that important in the big picture.”

There’s that hospice nurse who wrote about the top regrets of people who were dying. And very common was that people wished they’d spent more time with friends and family.

Yeah. You never hear anyone saying I wish I hadn’t spent as much. I think you probably hear some people say, “I wish I hadn’t given up things.” I think you hear women in their 60s right now — I know my mom’s one of them — she wishes she hadn’t given certain things up. And that she’d followed a different career path. But a lot of women of her generation didn’t have that choice.

But in terms of your career, you can’t have any regrets, can you?

I’d really like to make some movie that penetrates the psyche of the world, deeply. I haven’t done that for a long time because I tend to do smaller, more idiosyncratic films, which I love doing. I’m working with [Rabbit Hole director] John Cameron Mitchell again [on the alien comedy How to Talk to Girls at Parties], and that’s very idiosyncratic.

What’s the last movie of yours that penetrated the psyche of the world?

Oh, I don’t know. Probably Moulin Rouge was the closest in the sense that I still meet people who saw it and when they talk to me they still call me Satine. So, yes, I have a lot of young gay men who come up to me and a lot of girls who come up me and I get many big hugs and they hold onto me and they say “Oh, Satine. I love you, Satine.” It’s very sweet of them.

Kevin Wilson said he first remembered seeing you in Days of Thunder.

[laughs] That did not penetrate the psych of the world.

But he also said that your best performance was in Birth.

Oh, did he? That didn’t penetrate the world either, but I love that film so much. And I think people who see it are deeply affected by it. The Hours has had that effect, too.

What are a few films, not yours, that you think penetrated the psyche of the world?

Every Kubrick film. All of the Ingmar Bergman films, or most of them. Fellini, at different times, though almost all of the time. Some of his are more idiosyncratic but some, like , you watch it and feel like your life’s been changed.

What about films in the last few years?

I’m so old school, so probably not many of my references are recent. But certainly the things that Alejandro Iñárritu is trying to do right now in mainstream cinema are really, really important. I think Lars von Trier still has the ability to delve incredibly deep. I think Michael Haneke, when he hits it, he leaves you lying on the ground. Amour for me was one of the great films about a couple and death. It didn’t penetrate the world, it’s not big enough to do that, but certainly once people see it they can’t forget it. Certainly The Tree of Life, the Terrence Malick film. I’ve seen it five times. And that’s a long film. But it washes over me.

Have you felt the public perception of you change over the years?

I don’t know [laughs].

It changed in 1995 with To Die For, certainly.

I don’t know. I’m a wild card, that’s how I’d describe myself. I’m never sure what I’m going to do next. It’s just so weird how I operate.

Is there a wild card quality to your producing career?

Rabbit Hole was deeply personal. The idea of something that basically is everything that you orbit around, your child, taken from you and you have to still survive. It’s unbearable, so for some reason I had to make that. And I think the play that David Lindsay-Abaire [who also adapted The Family Fang] wrote was gorgeous. He won the Pulitzer, as he should have. I’m so glad we got that made.

But it wasn’t easy, was it?

It was so hard. Raising that money was so hard. People were like, “Wait, what? No.”

What drew you to Big Little Lies, which you’re starring in and producing and filming for HBO right now?

Well, Reese Witherspoon’s producing partner Bruna [Papandrea], who I’ve grown up with, mentioned the book. She called me and said, “Read this book, I think we should go get it.” I read it overnight and I went to Australia and I sat down with [author] Liane Moriarty and I said, “I promise you, we will get this made.” Then 48 hours later she gave it to us. And 18 months later we’re getting it made, which is amazing.

Kevin Wilson told me that you said the exact same thing to him.

[laughs] Yeah, but I don’t say it to many people.

But in both cases, you were right. Do you feel fortified that you can get these things made?

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Well, Big Little Lies is slightly different, because that’s more commercial, so I was confident we’d get it made. But still, five female leads — that’s pretty fabulous. The whole reason for me to act is to be connected and feel part of something. I’m not interested in looking down on characters or people. I would hope that carried over into my career as a producer.

The Family Fang

  • Movie
  • R
  • 105 minutes