What does it mean for an actress to give a “brave” performance? We all know the answer: It means she doesn’t wear much makeup. Currently, Nicole Kidman is being hailed as brave for her performance as Erin Bell, an over-it LAPD detective, in writer/director Karyn Kusama’s new drama, Destroyer. But for me, this focus on Bell’s look is a distraction from – and does a disservice to – what’s really brave: Kidman and Kusama’s choices as artists.
In Destroyer, which opens in select cities on Friday, Bell is investigating a present-day murder; the story also flashes back to an earlier time, when she was undercover in a criminal gang whose bank heist went fatally awry. Bell is a character Clint Eastwood once might have played: brusque, impatient, stubborn, taciturn, uninterested in being liked. (Which is not the same as unlikable, although many reviews conflate the two.)
Bell doesn’t explain herself, and that lack of responsiveness, of engagement, gives her tremendous power. She walks with a hitch in her gait – which could be a physical wound, a psychic one or both. She sports dark clothes, a shag haircut, sun-damaged skin and a distinct lack of tinted moisturizer. That, coupled with Kusama’s love of extreme close-ups, has led to all the isn’t-Kidman-brave-for-being-so-unattractive babble.
In a hotel room interview last September, when Destroyer played the Toronto International Film Festival, Kusama and I bonded over disputing that babble. First of all, Kusama noted, Bell’s looking not-so-hot is a function of the plot. Many characters tell her many times that she looks like crap, she needs some sleep, etc. So Kidman couldn’t exactly look dewy.
Second, it was Kidman herself who told Kusama, “I don’t want ‘Nicole Kidman’ playing this role. I want it to be me, as an artist, finding this character.” For those who’ve been paying attention, this is not some awards-bait switch-up – it’s part of a long game that Kidman has been playing for, oh, this entire millennium. She’s worked with Lars von Trier and Yorgos Lanthimos, Lee Daniels and Werner Herzog, Jane Campion and Sofia Coppola. She produced (and wowed in) the HBO series Big Little Lies, and she’s currently on screens messing with the notion of “conventionally attractive” in the gay-conversion drama Boy Erased. And please don’t say that her prosthetics won her the Oscar for The Hours, because that is missing my entire point.
Early on in the casting process, Kidman said something that resonated with Kusama. Kidman had been hiking with the director Campion, with whom she’s worked throughout her life. Campion told Kidman, “You don’t need to be an ingenue any more. And you can’t be. So just be the artist that you are.”
Kusama was feeling something similar: While going through menopause, she noticed how it was often treated as a dirty word. “But I call it stepping into my power,” she says. “It’s very freeing to not have to be a potential object that is looked at for some evolutionary mandate that I help promote the species. Now I can actually fully step into my humanity, for myself. Something happened for me, when my most vital, potent, social and creative self confronted the invisibility the culture imposed on me. In a funny way, I’m all for it. Take advantage of the fact that I have wisdom. Use my experience! And use the fact that I’m thoughtful, competent and good at what I do.”
But third, and most important, Kusama rejects the notion that Bell is unattractive. “I think Erin Bell is potent and beautiful,” she says. “There’s this ragged splendour to her. She doesn’t look ugly. She looks different. There’s something charismatic and forceful, something bracing and strange, when this character walks into a room. She’s not apologizing for her presence. She takes up a lot of space. That is a powerful thing for women to see, I think. I know it is for me. I’ve spent too many years having to ask myself why I want to disappear in a room, as opposed to stand out.”
Almost from birth, she continues, “women are trained to smile and be adorable and delightful. There’s something interesting about girls and women who say, ‘That’s not who I am.’”
Kusama, 50, has been championing female characters since her first feature, Girlfight. She’d written the lead as a Latina, but financiers wanted a known, white actor. She held out, though, and now the world has Michelle Rodriguez. She also had to tussle for creative control with her next films, Aeon Flux and Jennifer’s Body; lately, she’s been directing kick-ass television, including episodes of Masters of Sex, The Man in the High Castle, Billions and Halt and Catch Fire.
With Destroyer, Kusama wanted to explore the idea of circularity: that our past is our present is our future; that we live on the spectrum of our choices; and that if we don’t reckon with our worst choices, they will fester. She was also plumbing the notion of moral accountability, of what it takes to admit that one is wrong. “We think that’s a simple enough thing to do,” Kusama says. “But judging by our current culture, it’s extremely difficult to face one’s decisions and re-evaluate them. It’s extremely difficult to say, ‘I might have made a mistake.’ ”
She and Kidman talked about the toxic effects of shame, and how animals express shame, particularly canines; they watched a lot of videos of coyote and wolf behaviour. And they discussed how a character who is shut down – who not only doesn’t know how to feel, but also doesn’t even know that she is feeling – can be unpredictable and powerful. “There’s something missing that should connect her to the rest of the world, and that turns out to be scary,” Kusama says.
Here, the conversation takes an unexpected turn, toward … Donald Trump, another figure whose missing humanity is scary indeed. “Have we not all encountered characters who are extremely challenging and difficult, yet also charismatic and powerful?” Kusama asks. “Aren’t those the men that we put on pedestals? In the highest offices of the land, and at terrible cost? Isn’t it time that we start asking ourselves, ‘What does it take for those characters, for those people, to change?’ ”
That – and not, “How does she look?” – is what Kidman and Kusama are asking in Destroyer. “A person who was driven by greed and a smallness of spirit, coming full circle and admitting, ‘That was the biggest mistake of my life?’ ” Kusama concludes. “That, to me, is a story worth telling.”
Destroyer opens Jan. 11 in Toronto, with other Canadian cities to follow Jan. 25