To Nicole Kidman, acting isn't a mere technical feat; it's the art of transformation. To hear her tell it, the change can be as dramatic as a caterpillar-into-butterfly metamorphosis. She'll be working and working to get under the skin of a character, such as author Virginia Woolf in her new film "The Hours," and suddenly -- click! -- she'll be there.
"You can't delineate exactly when it happens," Kidman said. "All you know is: Everything starts to flow, and suddenly you're walking differently, you're talking differently, you're thinking differently, your whole demeanor is in relation to what you're shooting a lot of the time, mood-wise even." The 35-year-old Australian-raised actress, who maintains her accent in conversation if rarely on screen anymore, was sipping black coffee with a Diet Coke chaser while trying to recover from Romania-via-London-to-New York jet lag in a well-appointed Midtown hotel suite. Her blond hair pinned up, Kidman is as tall, skinny and striking as you might expect, but she offsets any golden-goddess notions with a casual, confident articulateness and frequent, earthy laughter.
A glamorous super-celebrity like Kidman wouldn't be everybody's idea of a match for the reclusive, suicidal Woolf. Yet "she was the first person I asked to be in the movie," "Hours" producer Scott Rudin said. "As much as I love Merchant-Ivory, I didn't want this to feel like an English period movie, and I was very eager to have someone who had a much more modern take on the character, and I thought she would have that, and she did. I'd worked with her on [the play] 'The Blue Room,' so I knew her, and I had seen her invent 11 characters in the course of an evening, so I knew she had the soul of a character actress."
Stephen Daldry, who directed "The Hours," said he initially was surprised by Rudin's suggestion. "He said it. I went, 'Noooo,' " Daldry recalled. "And then I went, 'Yesss.' "
So Kidman went on a crash course of everything Woolf, becoming a smoker of roll-your-own cigarettes and learning to write with her right hand. (Kidman's a lefty.) Yet by her first day of rehearsals with Stephen Dillane, who plays Woolf's husband, Leonard, she still had not become Virginia. "I remember the first day, and I was really nervous," Kidman recalled. "But she was starting to exist. I could feel her coming, but you wait as an actor for it to just happen. Prior to that, it's panic time because you're waiting, waiting, waiting, and if you start rehearsals and it hasn't happened, you're not so good, you know?"
"But Stephen Dillane, I remember, was sitting in this room -- we're in this country house out in England -- and I walked in, and he and I just looked at each other, and from that point on we were Virginia and Leonard. And it was the way he spoke, and then suddenly my voice dropped. His voice changed. The accents came. It was about the two of us, and that's why he's one of the unsung heroes in this film."
Mind you, all of this happened before Kidman was fitted with the false nose that has attracted so much attention for the way that it helps mask the actress' identity. The nose -- as well as the mousy brown wig, makeup to alter her eye shape and dowdy dresses -- came relatively late in the process.
"[I] try to create who she is through just being her rather than trying to change physically, even though I wore the nose, even though all of those things," Kidman said. "They were the next layer, whereas the first thing was inside."
Rudin has heard quite enough about that fake schnoz. "I ultimately hate the discussion of the nose because I think it diminishes the scale of what she does in the movie," Rudin said at the "Hours" premiere party in Manhattan. "It's a part of her arsenal but hardly the whole arsenal."
"I couldn't agree with you more," Daldry said, talking with Rudin. "The first thing was, put the shoes on, then the dress, then we had a wig, and then we were discussing it, and then she started moving and started developing, and the nose came out of a conversation. It was never an imposition. It was just part of a journey. If you want to really talk about something profoundly different, it's the voice."
Meryl Streep, who co-stars in "The Hours" without sharing any screen time with Kidman -- said: "I think that everybody will concentrate on the adjustment in her appearance, but sometimes that's a very liberating thing for an actor, and it enables them to do things that we won't let them do as an audience -- we won't let them do unless they change. And that's what I saw in her, just this liberation and idiosyncrasies that were just so beautifully absorbed."
Kidman has been happily surprised by how much attention "The Hours" has received relative to her amount of work on it. Her scenes took just three weeks to shoot -- a stretch representing her only acting of 2001, a time when her marriage to another well-known actor had just collapsed in a rather public way.
"I just pulled out of everything," she said. "I didn't pull out of this. I tried to, but they wouldn't let me. I just didn't really want to make films at that particular stage. But I'm glad I made this now." When she looks back, Kidman said, she finds her choice to play a depressed, lonely author to have been a curious if fateful one.
"I lived in this cottage in the middle of the woods like a madwoman, and [Daldry] would come and sit on a Sunday, and we'd just talk through stuff," Kidman recalled of her time filming. "And I was surrounded by all of Virginia's letters and books, and I'd take walks. It was a really lovely way to exist. But also, mixed with that, I was going through a pretty tough time in my life, so things I was grappling with -- loneliness and all of those things -- were very much a part of her. If you'd even try to analyze it, you'd just go, Oh, please, stay away from it. Put the lid on the box and just don't go there."
"The Hours" followed Kidman's Academy Award-nominated musical turn in "Moulin Rouge" and her acclaimed lead performance in "The Others." She has since filmed starring roles Lars Von Trier's "Dogville," Robert Benton's adaptation of Philip Roth's "The Human Stain" and Anthony Minghella's adaptation of Charles Frazier's "Cold Mountain," which she finished filming in Romania just days before she traveled to New York for "The Hours" premiere.
There's no small irony that here she is in New York, and as one of the world's most famous faces is doing scads of publicity for a film about a dedicated artist whose work and struggles took place in near solitude. Still, Kidman found Woolf's life to be instructive.
"What happens when you become very, very well known is that you're forced into a position of not participating, of being watched instead of being a participator, and I am determined for that not to happen," Kidman said. "I just want to be a part of life. I want to exist and meet people all the time, and that's the battle, and you've got to keep pushing through it.
"I can't bear to think that my life will be taken from me. One of the things that resonated to me with Virginia was when she stands on the train station and just says, 'I'm living a life that I have no wish to live. How did this happen?' And that's what you have to fight through as a celebrity, that to become cloistered and too protective is so dangerous. Because then you miss out on life."
Mark Caro writes about movies for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune company.