It's too easy to start with the face or what she wears, how she sits. The color of her earrings. The essence is in the vowels, the way she holds and releases them. The voice drops a register, as if in a conspiracy, and a morning conversation drifts across art, ambition, age and riding camels in the desert.
Many roles come to mind when Nicole Kidman speaks: inconsolable mother, suicidal writer, dangerous weather girl, nuclear scientist, gangster lover, top-hatted cabaret singer and Southern femme fatale with an earthy remedy for jellyfish stings. They are all there, unapologetic, in tones of tenacity and risk that have defined her career. One senses she is the kind who would either win big or lose it all at the track.
"I'm going to make choices. I'm going to live and die on them. I'll take the flak. I'll take the hits. I'll take the accolades," said Kidman, who won the Academy Award for lead actress for her rendering of Virginia Woolf in "The Hours." "I'll take whatever comes with it, but ultimately I'm on an exploration. I want to excite myself."
Her latest role — as the dutiful wife of a psychologically scarred former prisoner of war — is not adorned in eccentricities; it is more steady flame than fireworks. It does not flaunt the diamonds and intrigue in her upcoming portrayals of Princess Grace Kelly and Gertrude Bell, a spy and explorer who trekked the deserts of the Middle East.
Her depiction of Patti Lomax in "The Railway Man" is a quiet portrait of a woman fighting for her husband's sanity. "I'm usually larger than life and this is real life," said Kidman. "I think Baz [Luhrmann] said once, 'You're never going to be cast as the girl next door,' and I'm, like, sometimes I'd love to be cast as the girl next door. I really see Patti as the girl next door."
The film, which opens Friday, is based on the autobiography of Eric Lomax, a Scot in the British army who was tortured by the Japanese during World War II. It is a tale of atrocity, memory and how two broken men — Lomax and his tormentor — are healed decades later in an unanticipated act of forgiveness. Kidman's part is small, poignant and distinctive.
"I had never played a role where I just got to love on screen, and I think that's what Patti does, in a very pure way," said Kidman, who spent hours watching taped interviews of Patti, a 77-year-old retired nurse. "She's very sensible in that Scottish way and she's very pragmatic, yet she's very loving. ... They navigated through it as a couple, and that's what I find very compelling and comforting."
Portrayed by Colin Firth, Lomax, then in his 60s, is obsessed with war crimes and mass graves and through strange circumstance sets out to confront Nagase Takashi, the English-language translator in the torture sessions. His is the voice Lomax's younger soldier came to hate. For years Lomax, who died in 2012, had plotted revenge, but after meeting Takashi realized that retaliation would not erase what he and thousands of soldiers had endured.
"Torture, after all, is inconspicuous; all it needs is water, a piece of wood and a loud voice. It takes place in squalid rooms, dirty backyards and basements, and there is nothing left to preserve when it is over," Lomax wrote in his autobiography. "Marks on the body can fade quickly ... [but] the hidden traces which can't simply be built over are uncovered and brought back into the light."
Such were the demons Lomax carried into his marriage to Patti, who speaks in matter-of-fact sentences. "It was quite a unique event when Eric and Nagase met," she said in a phone interview from Japan, where she was touring with the film. "The psychiatrists didn't want us to do it. It had never been done before. ... Eric was fully intending to kill him. He was desperate to get this ogre in his mind, but when he got there [in 1993] it wasn't the man from his past. It was an old man wanting forgiveness. Eric's anger just drained away."
Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, the film is one of a number in recent years, including the upcoming "Unbroken," the story of American G.I. Louis Zamperini, to examine World War II and Japanese prison camps. Kidman said many old veterans "are carrying around huge burdens" and young soldiers returning today from Iraq and Afghanistan are "deeply traumatized ... it's devastating."
Kidman is a busy actress and a prodigious researcher, sifting through the layers of characters, such as Martha Gellhorn, the war correspondent in the HBO movie "Hemingway & Gellhorn," and Grace Kelly, movie star and royalty in the upcoming "Grace of Monaco." She is discriminating, and when she speaks of larger-than-life roles her Australian vowels flatten and harden with intensity. She equates Australians with Texans — independent, spirited, inured to harsh terrains and vast expanses.
"I try to be right in there, and that allows me the emotional kind of well with an enormous amount of experience now," said Kidman, 46. "I don't have to struggle to find things, which is a great place to be as an actress. It's just I then have to be careful what I choose, where I choose to place it and whose hands I put it in. At this stage, I don't want to waste my time because it's so precious. I want to work with people who want to delve deeply. I'm not interested in lightweight stuff."
Kidman sat recently in a small ballroom in a Beverly Hills hotel. She was happy to promote her film but professed a sharp distaste for marketing research: "C'mon," she said, "how are you going to break new ground or find new things if you're being ruled ... by opinions and surveys." Studios, directors and producers who back her are promised: "I'll always be on time and I won't waste your money."
Such sentiment sent her to Morocco and along the Algeria border, where she recently camped and rode camels while filming "Queen of the Desert," Werner Herzog's biopic about Gertrude Bell, a British archaeologist and explorer instrumental in mapping modern-day Jordan and Iraq.
"It was thrilling to play a woman in 1915 heading off into the desert. She did what Lawrence of Arabia did, in a different way," said Kidman, who is expected to have at least four films out this year. "To be in her skin has given me incredible desire and boldness right now ... and nobody knows about her, which infuriates me."
She leaned back. It appeared she needed another adventurous role — quickly — before the mystique of Gertrude Bell faded. "Keep finding the stories and telling them," said Kidman, who lives in Nashville with her two daughters and husband Keith Urban. "I still don't think the great 'War and Peace' [movie] has been made."
Footsteps echoed down a hall past a scent of cut flowers. She spoke of Woolf's genius and the psychological interiors of her novels. They were insistent to find something new. Kidman said, "I love in the most dangerous way I can" and that life, as we go on, gets tougher; parents age, friends are lost, unforeseen accumulations reveal frailties. "All those things swirling around you." Hemingway — Gellhorn was his third wife — once said people grew stronger at the broken places.
"We discover our strengths then," she said. "When those things hit you, and they can hit you hard in whatever form they come, that's when you discover your fortitude. ... I'm the most openly emotional in my family. My mom calls me the changeling." Her parents are academics — her father a biochemist, her mother a nursing teacher — and Kidman said they tease her that "the fairies left you in the yard and we don't quite know where you came from."
She was asked what was the grist of her creativity. She answered with a story about traveling with Urban through the Australian outback.
"We were driving in the car and [lying] on the side of the road was a kangaroo," she said. "I said, 'Oh, my gosh we have to stop.' I wanted to look. And he's like, 'No, no we'll just keep driving.' I said, 'But it's so upsetting.' And he said, 'Just don't look.' I said, 'That is so interesting, there's a metaphor for our relationship, 'cause you're, like, just keep going ... and I've go to look at it.' I've got to look it right in the eye. I've got to see it. I've got to feel and understand it."