In Japanese folklore, they call them kitsune. In Irish and Scottish culture, they call them selkies. In fantasy stories, they’re referred to as changelings or shapeshifters. And in Hollywood, we call them the best actresses of their generation.
These mythical, magical creatures slip so seamlessly into their roles that they’re nearly unrecognizable from one project to the next. There aren’t many of them—just a few, really.
One of the rarest of them all happens to be Nicole Kidman.
In the last few years alone, Kidman, now 54, has amped up her game in a nearly incomparable way, successfully accomplishing several of what people in the entertainment industry call “big swings.”
She has metamorphosed from a traumatized undercover cop in Destroyer to a long-legged, Fosse-aspiring chorus girl in The Prom, real-life broadcast journalist Gretchen Carlson in Bombshell, a posh Upper East Side shrink with an extensive collection of long coats in HBO’s The Undoing, and the inscrutable and seductive therapist Masha Dmitrichenko in the Hulu limited series Nine Perfect Strangers.
Unsurprisingly, Kidman shifts shapes again this winter as the great comic actress Lucille Ball in Amazon Prime Video’s Being the Ricardos, written and directed by Aaron Sorkin. The film follows Ball and her husband, Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem), during one hectic week as they work on saving their marriage, filming an episode of I Love Lucy and trying to outrun rumors that Ball is a communist.
Sorkin says that the list of actors discussed to play Ball was not a long one. “But once Nicole Kidman says she wants to do your movie, your casting search is over,” he explains. He adds that because of the pandemic and the fact that Kidman was in Australia and Bardem in Spain, they weren’t able to do the usual chemistry tests before committing to the pairing. “But on our first day, we shot them walking on to the soundstage for the table read. You could see from the first take that they were going to have a good time together.”
It only went up from there. “Nicole would do something in almost every scene that amazed me,” Sorkin recalls.
For her part, Kidman is “greatly relieved” by the plaudits and awards buzz her performance as Ball (who died in 1989 at age 77) has been receiving.
“I was so frightened,” she admits, calling from the home she shares with her husband, musician Keith Urban, and their two daughters in Nashville.
Kidman has known Sorkin for years, at least since she saw his play A Few Good Men on Broadway. (Her ex-husband, Tom Cruise, of course, appeared in the 1992 film version.) Sorkin sent her the script for Ricardos and told her she was perfect for the part, and that he was going to find a “great Desi.”
“When Aaron Sorkin says that to you, you listen,” Kidman says. But trickles of doubt seeped in, as did word that people on the internet didn’t want her to play the iconic role. “I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I’m not the right person. Maybe I didn’t think this thing through.’ And then it was too late to get out of it.”
Kidman acknowledges that this process—dive headfirst into a project, then have debilitating anxiety about it—is “part of my trajectory. I get terrified. It happened on The Others,” the blockbuster horror movie from 2001, and it happened the following year with the role of Virginia Woolf in The Hours, which garnered her an Oscar.
When it comes to her “big swings,” Kidman admits “there’s a lot of unconscious decision-making” at play. “I have a very stable home life, so I can go off and then always come back here.”
“It’s also part of getting older and just looking at life,” she adds. “There’s a consensus in the industry that as a female actor, at about 40, you’re done. I never sat in a chair and heard someone say, ‘You’re past your due date,’ but I’ve had times where you’re turned down and the door is shut on you. It’s definitely changing and moving, but that’s what Being the Ricardos is about.”
After getting turned down for her dream feature film parts, Ball decided to experiment and make a sitcom. The first episode of I Love Lucy aired in October 1951. We know how that story ends: 70 years later, Nicole Kidman is playing her in a movie. As an interesting parallel, it seems that Kidman, too, has found even greater fame in making long-form television; Big Little Lies and The Undoing were both huge hits.
As an actor, says Kidman, “you’ve got to have a thick skin.” When she was prepping for The Hours, she remembers trying to imitate Virginia Woolf’s voice for the director, Stephen Daldry. “It was absolutely dreadful,” Kidman recalls. “He said, ‘I so don’t want that. You’re not going to do that.’ Directors say ‘no,’ if they’re truthful.” On Eyes Wide Shut, she adds, Stanley Kubrick would ask, “What was that?” “over and over.”
“I choose carefully the directors I work with,” Kidman says. “It’s not about nice. It’s about [deciding] I want to be the vessel. I’m here to help. What can I do?”
For Sorkin, that meant Kidman needed to find the Lucy voice. “At first, I said to Tom Jones, my dialogue coach, ‘This is impossible. I’m Australian. How am I going to get this?’ He said, ‘We’re going to get there.’” They decided her Lucy needed to have a “deep smoker’s voice, so I started smoking. If I warm up for a minute, I now can do her voice standing on my head.”
Not that she’s tried standing on her head and doing the voice yet, but it seems like the kind of comic situation Kidman as Lucy might find herself in. Comedy, you see, is hard. “It’s crazy hard. I never really understood how hard it was. You look at Julia Louis-Dreyfus. You look at Mary Tyler Moore. They’re bold. They’re willing to not hear a laugh.”
Somewhat to Kidman’s surprise, her daughter Sunday Rose “wants to be a director. Through nothing I’ve done, though. She’s learned to edit, and if I even offer to be in one of her films, the sense is I’m not getting anywhere near them.” Recently, Kidman says her daughter directed a production of Annie on stage. “All I wanted to do was whoop and holler,” Kidman explains. “But I’m kept on a tight lock and key. I just want to go, ‘You’re amazing.’ But I’m not allowed to call out the window of the car or even compliment too much.”
Kidman compares being a mom to a swimming pool: “As a parent, you’re the wall. They want to hold onto you and know you’re there, and then when they kick off, they want to know you’re there, too.”
For the moment, that’s where she’s sticking. Kidman, who says she reads a lot of parenting and psychology books and at the time of our conversation was halfway through the recently published biography of Mike Nichols, would be excited to do more theater. It’s been almost 25 years since she was in The Blue Room on Broadway and six years since she performed on the West End in Photograph 51.
“I almost had a heart attack doing that play,” she says of Photograph 51, in which she starred as DNA researcher and chemist Rosalind Franklin. “The stage fright gets more intense as you get old. Everyone said it would get less scary. It did not.”
But she enjoys her time in Nashville with her daughters too much. “I have this huge desire to be there for them. I don’t want to miss their bedtimes. That bedtime is so deeply important for me. We talk. We try to have some consistency. The biggest consistency is ‘I’m here and I love you and that will never change.’ It’s a constant balance.”
Hair: Mara Roszak
Makeup: Kelsey Deenihan using Bare Minerals & Sera Labs
Manicure: Thuy Nguyen at A-Frame Agency using Dior