A new passion, a busy life

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NICOLE KIDMAN volunteers that she was in a funk as far as acting was concerned, but insists it had nothing to do with approaching a certain age. She derides such milestones as artificial foolishness and, after all, "We could all be dead tomorrow. What does 40 mean?"

So what was it, then, that had her down on her craft before her new "Margot at the Wedding"?

A while back, she suggested she simply was going through a phase where she didn't have anything to say, "anything inside me," and thus lacked the "primal urge" to act. More recently, she mentioned "mistakes" she'd made in picking roles, presumably since her Oscar-winning turn as Virginia Woolf in "The Hours." Or maybe she was just happy, she said, floating the notion that "my whole life was so full that my interest in performing had really lessened."

Whatever we believe, her point to us as moviegoers, and not snoops, is that she rediscovered her love of acting in writer-director Noah Baumbach's dark comedy, with a touch of Bergman, about wedding plans that go awry with the arrival of Kidman as the bride's older sister, a writer who can't help speaking her mind, whether it's about the groom-to-be (he's a loser), her quiet young niece (clearly autistic) or the bride herself (why doesn't she look you in the eye?).

For Kidman, it was another character who throws bombs, albeit verbally, while putting on an innocent face and thus was reminiscent of her suburban wife willing to kill to achieve fame in "To Die For," the 1995 satire that signaled that this pale, beanpole Australian might be more than the sexy chick of her earliest roles or the celebrity spouse of her first marriage.

Since then, she's made it clear that she's notone of those starlets who slum in an art film or two in a bid to prove their bona fides. The poseurs are quickly exposed, after all, by the most basic of acting chores, such as having to adopt an accent.

So consider how Kidman takes on one voice in "Margot" -- of a New York literati -- then another in the epic she's filming in her home country, Baz Luhrmann's WWII-era "Australia," in which she plays an upper-crust Englishwoman who inherits a cattle ranch. After that? She becomes a Germanpalm reader in Stephen Daldry's "The Reader." She's also in Chris Weitz's upcoming fantsy film "The Golden Compass." (For a look at "Compass" costumes, see Page 24.) "But as there's an obvious risk every time you adopt an unnatural voice -- humiliation -- so is there a risk every time you do an indie with, say, a Lars von Trier, in whose "Dogville" Kidman was raped and chained to a wheel.

Of course, there's a risk too in climbing a gnarly tree, as Kidman does in "Margot," pulling herself up branch by branch, to heights that high-priced stars are not supposed to go.

"I'VE worked since I was 17 and you go through ebbs and flows," Kidman said while in New York in advance of the film's release this month. "You know, the balance between your actual life and your working life . . . 'Margot' came at a time, I think, when I was just ready to be awakened as an actress."

But when producer Scott Rudin sent her Baumbach's script, she didn't think she was right to portray the spoilsport older sister, a Manhattan author. Then she saw his "The Squid and the Whale," also about a dysfunctional family, "and I said, 'All right, I'll just kind of jump in.' "

They filmed it at a seaside home in the Hamptons with the lonely tree Kidman climbs. It's under it that younger sis Pauline -- played by Baumbach's real-life wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh -- is supposed to marry Jack Black, who plays a would-be artist who spends his days writing letters to newspapers. The first time we see Kidman's Margot is on the bus, with her son, when she's not yet met the intended groom, but is already dubious, because "Why would you marry someone you've only known a year?"

Kidman said the hardest times were when Margot turns on her son, criticizing how he walks, even -- a type of mothering she would not dream of with her own two children, adopted with first husband Tom Cruise. Baumbach had to remind her to stay in character when she corners the boy by a staircase. "He's like, 'Mustn't cry. You mustn't touch him.' . . . I said, 'Yes, but you can't make this woman one dimensional. Promise me that you'll feel her pain, that you'll feel her heart.' "

That's her job as an actor -- to defend her character, to make the woman's case, in part by suggesting a "Why?" behind her behavior. But Kidman does not like to go too far into this aspect of the craft. When she goes to the movies, she says, she doesn't want to know what the actors were thinking at any moment or what they drew on in their own lives, just as she doesn't want to know how special effects were achieved. She'd rather maintain "the mystery of performances."

The spotlight on Kidman's family life inevitably has focused on first husband Cruise and second husband Keith Urban, and after that her younger sister, Antonia, a TV personality in Australia, with whom she speaks daily. "We always say if we outlive our husbands we'd live together," Kidman said, "like those old women living in a house. 'Who are those crazy sisters?' "

But when you spend so much time on movie sets, you build families there too, and 76-year-old costume designer Ann Roth is part of Kidman's after working with her on "The Hours," "Cold Mountain" and "Margot." So is dialogue coach Elizabeth Himelstein, who has helped her on a slew of films.

For "Margot," they decided the character "didn't quite fit in to the whole New York literary society," Himelstein said, and that led them to think of Susan Sontag, who originally was from Tucson but developed the "New York upper-class sound," only as an outsider. Kidman practiced for weeks to lower the register of her voice, make it come more from the chest.

If you doubt a voice coach can be like family to a Vanity Fair cover girl, consider: Kidman is godmother to Himelstein's 4-year-old daughter and "takes the role seriously," Himelstein said, describing how the 5-foot-11 actress gets down on the floor to play with the girl. And when her goddaughter was in a preschool play, guess who was in the bleachers with the proud mommies and daddies?

ONE way Kidman found to become allied with her character in "Margot" was to see her as making trouble for her sister out of love. "I've got to save her from this man. This isn't good enough for her," Kidman said. "I mean, how many of us have had people in our lives say that?"

Kidman knows of such things better than most, given the blood sport of speculation about her first marriage, and to a lesser degree her second, to Urban, the Australian-raised country singer, who, four months after they wed, checked into the Betty Ford Center for rehab. When he got out, he thanked his wife for staying "strong and loving" -- for, in the country tradition, standing by her man.

It's in that context that she tells us that she's finally found the balance between love and work, and who are we to doubt that? Or the assertion of a woman who makes no secret of her desire to have a child of her own and that her 40th birthday this June bore little significance.

She used to speak of a dream of escaping to an island where her hair would flow as her kids trailed behind, kids everywhere. "Yes, yes . . . the island was probably a metaphor," she said, "for how I was feeling is that I just wanted to be alone and isolated."

Her new idea of utopia is a farm. She and Urban bought land in Tennessee, plan to build a house and have "a gentle existence that's quite private." She speaks like that's her reality already, though she's been in Australia for months, reunited with "Moulin Rouge" director Luhrmann, to play the lady with the English accent.

"I ride a lot in this film. So I would like to have a couple of horses," Kidman said of her farm. And she'd like one thing more in that Eden, a "little thing" the snoopers would never guess. "I'd like to have," she said, "a goat."

paul.lieberman@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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