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Nicole Kidman says being an indoor kid and a bookworm led her to acting

Rich Fury
Getty Images

As a child in Australia, actor Nicole Kidman was so fair-skinned that she wasn't allowed to go to the beach in the middle of the day with the other kids. Instead, she says, she'd stay home, curl up with a book and pretend she was one of the characters she was reading about.

"I've played every role in Chekov — in my bedroom, at all different hours, day or night," she says of her love of books. "Little did I know that that was going to lead me to my vocation."

Kidman credits her reading habit with sparking her interest in acting. She began working as an actor when she was 14, and made her debut as a lead in the 1989 thriller Dead Calm. In 2003 she won an Oscar for her portrayal of Virginia Woolf in The Hours.

Now, in the new film Being the Ricardos, Kidman takes on a dual role of sorts, portraying both comedian Lucille Ball and Ball's iconic I Love Lucy TV character.

Kidman says juggling Lucille and Lucy was a "high-wire act," which required her to switch her voice and physical presence as she moved between characters. "I spent two and a half months working to get that voice — just the Lucy voice, not the Lucille voice," she says.

Being the Ricardos allowed Kidman to showcase her lighter side — especially when playing Lucy. But other projects, such as her recent portrayal of a woman in an abusive marriage in the HBO limited series Big Little Lies, have taken her to dark places.

"You feel at times you're teetering on the edge of something that's quite dangerous," Kidman says. "What I've found is by having the most stable, nourishing, loving family is my balance ... and it gives me the chance to go into these places and then be still and not become untethered."

Interview highlights

On starting a production company because she wasn't getting good roles in her 40s

There wasn't much going on in my career. ... I'd reached an age where it's been a good ride but you're at that point where you're 40 years old. I was pregnant with my child ... but it wasn't like there was anything coming my way that was of substance or interesting, and I'd had some of the most substantial brilliant roles that you could get, in terms of working with Stanley Kubrick and Jane Campion and Baz Luhrmann and Alejandro Amenábar and Lars von Trier. The list, when I look at it now, it takes my breath away.

But suddenly there wasn't much. And as is the case, I was looking at the next few decades or however long I was going to continue working, which I hoped would be as long as I'm alive, because it's my passion. And I was going, Oh, possibly that's not going to be the path that I'd hoped I'd be on, because it's drying up and it's not going to happen. So along came a review for this [book] called Rabbit Hole. I read it, and I then reached out and said, "Can I read the play?" And I read the play. And then I said, "Can I buy the rights?" And David Lindsay-Abaire was like, "I would love you to have the rights to this and I would like to write it." And we wrote it and did it as a very small film, but it was so fulfilling.

On doing the physical abuse scenes in Big Little Lies

There's a 99% safety protocol ... and we've done it like choreography, like a dance in a way. But it's a human body, a human form, it's my form. And I would love it to be infallible, but it's not. And so I'm trying to still give the deep truth to this story. But I would lie on the floor in my underwear and I would put a towel over me in between takes because I couldn't get up, not physically, couldn't get up, emotionally, couldn't get up. And I think that's where it's really difficult because I would lie on the floor and I remember lying under the towel in the sort of darkness with all the set around me and people setting up new shots. But I just wouldn't get up and they'd go "You alright?" And I'd just be crying and be like, "Yes, yes, I'm fine." Trying to be professional.

On her dad, a psychologist, practicing cognitive behavioral therapy on her

I defied it and resisted it and would roll my eyes and say, "Don't try that on me!" When my dad would start to talk in what I thought was his therapy language, I'd be like, "Oh, cut it out! Don't! I'm your daughter! Don't talk to me like that!" That sort of typical response from a teen daughter. And then I would call him later on and be like, "Help!" And he would talk to me, and it would become very, very useful and beneficial.

I was just very fortunate, and I would have parents that no matter where I was, that let me go into the world at a very early age. I started working at 14 and they couldn't come with me, so I would have a chaperone or a tutor. But I was very much in the film world, from 14 onward without a parent present, which has its own consequences. But I would call them and they would be on that phone and talk to me and have no time limit to that.

On going to her mom's hospital as a kid

She was a nurse educator. She would be nursing, but she would also have the nursing school and we'd have access to these life-sized sort of human dummies that would be naked under sheets. And we would sort of pull the sheets back and explore the bodies. My sister would have to pretend to be a nurse and I'd be the doctor and I'd come in and do operations on the life-like dummy with a stethoscope.

On getting the news that Stanley Kubrick had died, just days before their film Eyes Wide Shut was released, and losing her father and Big Little Lies director Jean-Marc Vallée suddenly

[Stanley Kubrick] faxed me saying, "I'll call you tomorrow." And I was like, "Oh, should I call him tonight?" And I didn't. And then I got the phone call the next morning and I had my two young children with me, and I just dropped the phone and screamed – everything you probably shouldn't do in front of two young children. But it was a very immediate response. Was just awful. Awful. ...

I loved Stanley, and for him to leave the world so suddenly, it was awful. At the same time, I loved my father and for him to leave the world so suddenly, [and for] Jean-Marc [Vallée] to leave the world so suddenly ... But suddenly is probably, for the person that leaves, you go, "Oh, OK, well, at least there wasn't pain." There's pain for us, but there wasn't pain for you, and I'm very glad that wasn't pain for you.

Heidi Saman and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Natalie Escobar adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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