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INTERVIEW : Portrait of an Iron Lady : Nicole Kidman may be charming, sweet and well-married, but that’s not what landed her the choicest role of her career.

<i> Laurie Werner is a free</i> -<i> lance writer based in New York</i>

When Nicole Kidman was pursuing the role of Suzanne Stone, the TV-obsessed would-be anchorwoman in “To Die For,” which opened in theaters Wednesday, she got director Gus Van Sant’s number and called him at home. This, according to Van Sant, doesn’t happen very often. And neither does what happened next: Van Sant cast her immediately, without screen-testing, over the phone.

“She said she felt destined to play this part,” the director explains. “And that kind of set me aback. But I felt that if she felt destined to play it, she would work harder than you normally would. She was so convinced that she would be the best choice that that was enough. I figured we could work it out.”

It certainly helped that by steamrolling Van Sant with the force of her ambition, she was displaying quintessential Suzanne, a small-town girl so determined to make it on national TV that she’ll stop at nothing to get there, even seducing a high school student into killing her husband. (The film is based on Joyce Maynard’s novel which is in turn loosely based on the Pamela Smart case.) And, as Van Sant observed throughout the shoot, such intensity is also quintessential Nicole, evident even in the simplest activities such as playing a board game on an afternoon off. “She was so focused on the game that she would win, she’d won all the games that she’d played,” he recalls. “Her philosophy was, simply, to win. She’s very directed, very driven.”

When told of his statements, Kidman just laughs, a wild, raucous, wall-bouncing laugh. “Oh, Gus, Gus . . , " she says. Sitting on a couch in a Manhattan hotel, sipping tea and lemon to combat a sore throat she got flying in from London for this 24-hour visit, she looks paler, more vulnerable than such a swaggering description would suggest. Her trademark naturally curly red hair is straighter, blonder for the role she’s currently shooting, Isabel Archer in Jane Campion’s version of the Henry James novel “The Portrait of a Lady.” When she’s seated, you don’t get the full effect of her towering, 5-foot-10 height. Her manner is friendly, charming, self-effacing, sweet.

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“When [I heard about the Suzanne role] I thought, ‘I’ll never get it--it’ll be offered to someone else,’ ” she explains. “So I called Gus at home and he took my call, thank God. I told him I’d seen ‘Drugstore Cowboy’ and I really wanted to work with him. I said I was destined to work with him.”

As much as Kidman, 28, may want to deny the outward evidence of her ambition, however, she can’t deny the results that that ambition has produced. To put it simply, it’s been quite a year. First, she was on display in the showy role of the brazenly seductive Chase Meridien in this summer’s “Batman Forever.” Now the buzz on “To Die For,” starting in Cannes, proclaimed that, surprise, she really could act, that she could be funny, compelling, that she could carry a film. She then went into a prestige project that practically every young actress in Hollywood wanted for a director whose last film, “The Piano,” won an Oscar for its star (Holly Hunter). Added together, these three will probably propel her into the upper ranks, to a position where she’ll no longer have to call directors to campaign. And take her out of the shadow of her previously most famous role, that of Mrs. Tom Cruise.

Perched on the edge of that individual stardom, Kidman, also balancing that marriage and being a mother of two, clearly has a lot on her hands. “Look at me,” she says between coughs. “I’m stressed, I’m sick!” But gratified nonetheless. “I know that I’m in a situation now of being in a movie that I’m proud of,” she says. “It’s so great just having a chance to play roles like this. It’s what you dream of but it never happens.”

During the six years she’s been in Hollywood, she’s certainly been working--doing films such as “Days of Thunder,” “My Life,” “Billy Bathgate,” “Malice"--but she did wonder whether the big break would ever happen for her. Part of the reason, of course, is the Cruise factor; in a spotlight that bright, her own development as an actress was skewed.

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“I came to the States and did ‘Days of Thunder,’ married Tom Cruise and it became a whole different situation,” she says. “I wasn’t this young actress working in the industry. It was all this attention, overwhelming and strange.”

At the time she hadn’t even thought she’d get married; raised by a biochemist father and a feminist mother and educated by her school to concentrate on a career, she thought she’d emulate her idol Katharine Hepburn and not marry. Once she met Cruise, she changed her mind but totally underestimated the “Mrs. Tom Cruise thing” because, as she says, she was naive, young and Australian. “I didn’t come from America so I didn’t understand the whole idea of movie stars and the way America deals with it. The scrutiny on your life is . . . weird,” she explains.

Having to cope with it would be unnerving for anyone, but it was particularly difficult professionally for Kidman, considering the career she’d previously had in Australia. She’d been acting professionally since the age of 14, had won Australia’s version of the best actress Oscar, had starred in rigorous dramatic films such as “Bangkok Hilton” and international hits such as the suspense film “Dead Calm.” But in Hollywood, none of that mattered.

“It really was a shock to go to Hollywood,” she says. "[Before] I was working with really great people like Philip Noyce and George Miller who were writing roles for me. It never really hit me until a few years into it when people would say to me, ‘So your first film was “Days of Thunder,” ’ and I’d say, ‘No, I did all this theater and stuff.’ It was frustrating having to start again. . . . It took quite a long time to get to the stage now where I can play complex or challenging roles.”

Once she saw one, “To Die For’s” Suzanne, she went after it, and once she got it, applied the same intensity to preparing for it. And that meant, despite living here for six years, a crash course in a certain stratum of American culture.

“I checked into a hotel, ordered room service, watched TV for three days and went completely nuts doing it,” she laughs. “The hypnotic effect of television is just extraordinary. The way in which it gets into you . . . you can’t turn it off. Watching all those talk shows, all the yelling. You’re like this first [ she opens her eyes wide ] it’s everything you look down your nose at and then you’re [ she screams ] doing everything the audience is doing. You have to go ‘Whoa!’ That’s how I understood [Suzanne]. That’s what she’s been raised on. So she’s a victim of society, a victim of that.”

She and Van Sant differed some what on how to play her, how ever. He was more objective, more “savage” in her words; she, more protective. She saw a naivete in her. Still, Kidman doesn’t stint on shading her as bizarre and psychotic. “I’m vicious in it, totally vicious! It’s wonderful to be able to be that vicious,” she laughs.

She knows, however, that there are drawbacks in that. People will think that’s what she is and that’s all she can play. More rumors will probably result as well; since their Christmas Eve, 1990 wedding in Telluride, she and Cruise have constantly battled rumors (that he’s gay, that theirs is a marriage of convenience, that they’re so physically demonstrative in public to cover the fact that they have a marriage of convenience, all vehemently denied).

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She seems mystified that the rumors about their marriage continue, describing their lives as normal as they can be, given the movie-star, world-traveling circumstances. They trade off taking care of their two adopted children, 2 1/2-year-old Isabella and 7-month-old Conor, with Cruise doing diapers and baths as often as she. “I’m a ‘90s woman so he sure does,” she laughs.

As a result of their parenting obligations, the two schedule their projects so that they aren’t working at the same time. “Tom was going to take care of the kids while I was working and the London press was so shocked, which I thought was so antiquated,” she says. “He wants to have a relationship with his children.” She smiles. “Maybe that’ll be the next rumor: that he’s giving up his career to be a househusband.”

They haven’t yet figured out what they’ll do about this juggling act if two great roles come up at the same time. But they would, especially now that her roles are becoming more significant. "[Part of our relationship] is about working our careers into each other’s careers,” she says. “And I think it’s great for the kids to see two parents working and then back at home, taking care of them.”

Where home might be, though, could change year to year. They got accustomed to London while Cruise was filming “Mission: Impossible” there and she the first part of “The Portrait of a Lady,” so they’ve decided to move there, at least for now. “The children are young enough so we don’t have to settle in a particular place at the moment,” she says. “So we’re renting in London and looking at going to France. Traveling and moving and stimulating ourselves.”

The next stop is Italy, where the majority of “Portrait of a Lady” is going to be filmed. After they return to London in November when the film wraps, they’ll head off somewhere else. As adventurers who love thrill-seeking outings such as sky-diving and racing cars, they’ll be off on a slightly safer activity: an African safari.

“I’ll probably be in a huge depression after this movie,” Kidman explains. “Portrait of a Lady,” like “To Die For,” is difficult and dark.

“And it’ll be cold and dark in London. Plus,” she laughs, “I’ll be out of work.”


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