There’s a kind of morning-after intimacy between Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart on the morning after Monday night’s Toronto film festival premiere of “Rabbit Hole.” As the actors talk about the raw and ragged emotional terrain they must inhabit as a long-married couple dealing with the death of their young son, there are shared looks, secret laughs, a sense that the day will be more bearable because the other is close at hand.
Eckhart in a dark suit and tie, white shirt setting off what’s left of a summer tan, lazes in his chair. Next to him, Kidman, a study in tailored shades of blues that manage to capture the complexity of those inky, indigo eyes, sits ramrod straight. It’s exactly as you might picture “Rabbit Hole’s” Becca and Howie and the different ways in which they grieve, blame, fight and struggle to carry on with life after such a horrific loss: Eckhart’s warring internal factions evident in his tightly coiled languor, Kidman’s carefully constructed presence, not a hair or a thought out of place.
“The piece is so strong, the writing just takes you there, the emotion, you don’t have to work for it,” said Kidman. “It’s not that it’s easy, it’s not, but with something that isn’t written well, you’re struggling to find that raw, emotional place, whereas when it’s written well, it’s almost like a great piece of music. It speaks to you immediately.”
It first spoke to Kidman in 2006. She remembers being in a Nashville coffee shop – she lives in the city with her country music star husband, Keith Urban — getting her New York fix reading the paper when she came across a review of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Broadway play. She called her producing partner Per Saari, who flew from Australia to New York to see it, pronounced it great and sent her a copy of the play.
“I read it that night, and I was just floored, it just touched me in such a deep way,” she said. “It was before it had won the Pulitzer, before the Tonys. I hadn’t had Sunday Rose yet,” her now 2-year-old daughter. “But there was something very palpable there, a voice that spoke to me that made me want to tell the story.”
“Rabbit Hole” would become the first production for Kidman’s Blossom Films with Lindsay-Abaire doing the adaptation for the screen, and with what might at first glance seem an unconventional pick of John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) as director. On Broadway, the play won its lead, Cynthia Nixon, a Tony, and the film, which channels Kidman’s talent at its visceral best, could earn her similar accolades — that is, if a distributor picks it up (at press time, the film had no buyers).
But then Kidman is a high-wire act, always pulled to play the most fearsome of characters, not always to good end, with 2006’s “Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus” a disappointment, and 2007’s “Margot at the Wedding” not fully realized. The 2009 musical “Nine” and the sweeping epic “Australia” in 2008 also fell short in their own way. Which makes “Rabbit Hole,” with such finely attenuated performances by Kidman and Eckhart, so satisfying, a reminder of the extraordinary work she is capable of at her best.
Eckhart – single, never married, no children — was her first and only choice to play the husband.
“I begged,” she laughed.
“I did get a very nice call,” he allowed.
“My reason for doing this was Nicole. There was no other reason. I don’t think I’d even read the script or the play, I just felt if you get a call from Nicole, no matter what. … How many people get that in a career?” he said. “Nicole had been someone I wanted to work with for a while, someone I knew would be challenging.”
The film opens eight months after Becca and Howie’s 4-year-old has died in one of those tragedies where no one and everyone is to blame: the gate that wasn’t latched, the dog that ran into the street, the teenager behind the wheel who swerved to miss the dog only to hit the running child he didn’t see. It requires that the characters somehow embody all that history from the outset.
“I remember us, in the house where we shot the film — it was empty. John and Aaron and I, we’re sitting on the floor, and we were just slowly putting together the bits and pieces of their life before,” Kidman said.
“When we were working in the kitchen together, I really felt this,” added Eckhart. “You were sitting down, and I was standing up... I felt like it was a couple sitting there talking. We’re talking about our son who has died. We have the belief that it has happened.”
As it is in life, there is a great deal of humor in the film, yet it had to be so carefully played against the tragedy. It is rooted in the humanity of everyone in the ensemble, those ironic moments that catch you by surprise, especially in the hands of Dianne Wiest as Becca’s mother, who manages nearly always to say the wrong thing for all the right reasons.
“If it’s truthful, then the rest follows,” said Kidman. “It has a sense of authenticity, because it is life, in our darkest times the most incredibly strange and funny things happen.”
The most difficult scene for Kidman? For Eckhart?
“It was the same one,” Eckhart offered. “I was a jerk,” which sends them both into spasms of laughter, as if to brush away the perilous angst of that moment.
“It was a big one, when we both discuss the actual death and blame ourselves,” said Kidman. “But I just love you in that, that’s just so … you were so real.”
“There’s such a buildup on those scenes, an anticipation,” Eckhart added. “You’re coming at them with different energies, that feeling of I have to accomplish this, when really you don’t have to accomplish anything. I did learn something that day because I said, why don’t you just calm down and try the scene, which worked, at least for me.”
Still, the piece and its roil of emotions haunted both of them throughout the 28-day shoot.
As Eckhart put it: “You just take a slice out of your life and say for this time I’m going to foster these feelings.”
“Whether it’s reading a novel, seeing it as a play, seeing it as a film, there is a power to these kind of stories,” said Kidman. “Most of us will experience devastating loss at some stage in our lives, and I think the way in which a couple goes through the most terrifying loss and somehow they keep putting one foot in front of another, that just brings me to my knees.
“I dreamt a lot through this production,” she said quietly. “I didn’t sleep that well. It really affected me on a subconscious level. I just wanted to do this justice.”