Nicole Kidman claims she's not A-list.
We're in a hotel room during this past September's Toronto International Film Festival, talking about her new film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer. (It opened in select cities Friday.) She's wearing an exquisite confection, as always – she's the best-dressed actress out there – a long-sleeved, floaty white dress with rivulets of silver sequined embroidery. But she's kicked off her tall silver stilettos.
Bendy as a pretzel, she folds her long legs under her in her easy chair, and tucks her straight blond hair behind her ears. Suddenly, she looks like the world's most elegant teenager.
Kidman's actual quote is, "Unless you're in the top, top tier, like, Jennifer Lawrence, you don't control your destiny as an actor." (In her natural Aussie accent, she sounds feistier than she does doing an American accent, and "tier" sounds like "tee-yah.") She sticks by that even when I scoff, "You're not top-tier?"
"No!" she insists, laughing. "I know the industry. I'm idiosyncratic. My taste has always been non-conformist. I've not got a huge group of people coming up with a whole plan for me, and those I have, I overrule their opinions. I'm willful. A little bit stubborn. I grew up in a liberal family who had a lot of political discussion and lateral thinking. And I'm left-handed. So!"
She grins, loving this. "Also, I had a feminist mother, who's still an ardent feminist," she goes on. "The older she gets, the more provocative she gets. To the point where I'm like, 'Mom, you can't say that!' But it's sort of fabulous, right? So I'm an odd mix of things. And my career is a mixed bag."
The older Kidman gets, the more provocative she is, too. At 50, she's come into her own in an enviable way. At TIFF, the party conversation everyone longed to be in was among Kidman, Emma Thompson, Helen Mirren and Kristen Scott Thomas – wised-up broads who've been around the block. Her last film outing, The Beguiled, was a proto-feminist revenge tale; her last Oscar nomination was for the decidedly dressed-down mother in Lion.
Also in September, Kidman won the Emmy for lead actress in a limited series or movie for Big Little Lies, the seven-hour HBO series she and Reese Witherspoon optioned, developed and produced, focused on the hot-button issue of sexual abuse. (Written by David E. Kelley and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, it also won the Emmy for outstanding miniseries.)
Kidman and Alexander Skarsgard, playing spouses hiding a dark secret, pulled off scenes of raw intimacy and startling violence. But their most riveting scenes were their stillest, sitting side by side on a sofa in a couples-therapist's office. "It was so great the way Jean-Marc shot those," Kidman says. "Because we just walked in. We didn't rehearse them. We just sat down and did it. What a great way to perform. It was just Jean-Marc and the cameraman, because he doesn't use any lighting. And he just shot and shot and shot. He was penetrating through our skin in those scenes."
Currently, Kidman is back on TV in another limited series, Top of the Lake: China Girl, written and directed by Jane Campion, with whom she made Portrait of a Lady. As Julia, an ardent-feminist mother to Mary (Alice Englert, who is Campion's daughter), a teenager who's caught up in the disappearance of a sex worker, Kidman sports minimum makeup, maximum freckles, and wild grey curls. (It airs on CBC.)
"Julia is an archetypal female Australian," Kidman says. "A lot of my Australian friends say, 'Oh, I know that woman.' And I've known Jane since I was 14, and Alice since she was born."
With The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Kidman continues her habit of working in independent film for challenging directors, this time the Greek provocateur Yorgos Lanthimos. Like Lanthimos's previous film, The Lobster, actors in Sacred Deer speak in a flat affect and live in a world that looks like ours, but with different rules, which the audience must figure out as the story unspools. Colin Farrell plays a doctor confronted with an awful choice: If he doesn't kill his wife (Kidman), son or daughter, both children will sicken and die. I think it's about the brutality of self-preservation; when I ask Kidman what she thinks it's about, she replies, chortling, "It's a hot mess."
As a mother, her character goes to the darkest place imaginable and roots around in what she finds. "When I first read it, I was like, 'Ohhhh, this is dangerous territory,'" Kidman says. "But I've never steered away from that."
While shooting, Lanthimos "discouraged conversation. He doesn't want naturalism," Kidman says. "Which is exactly the same with Stanley Kubrick, so I'd circled that before. Yorgos is unto himself. He knows exactly what he's doing. He's classically trained, he's intellectual. He writes in Greek and then translates it, which is why it has that slightly strange rhythm. Then he slowly moulds the scenes.
"That's where I'm at as an actor now – I love supporting European filmmakers with unique points of view," she continues. "It's a battle for them to get their films made, and if I can contribute to getting them seen, I want to do that."
Even when she was "in the position of being offered everything," she didn't choose the things that were mainstream. "If I did, they'd crash and burn, because my sensibility is not that," she says. (We're looking at you, Batman Forever and The Peacemaker.) "Moulin Rouge was not mainstream when we made it, but it became mainstream. That's what I like, shifting the needle."
It's true, Kidman's taste has always tended toward unconventional women in unquiet places – Eyes Wide Shut, Dogville, Margot at the Wedding; Diane Arbus in Fur; Virginia Woolf in The Hours (she won the Oscar for that one). She likes working with emerging and female directors, and with Big Little Lies, she's become a producer to be reckoned with.
"It was born out of frustration," Kidman says. "Reese and I were like, 'Where are the roles? We're not getting offered, and our friends aren't getting offered, the things we want to explore.' So we optioned Liane Moriarty's novel and tried to galvanize whatever power we have."
She was "stunned" by how it took off, and loves nothing more than hearing viewers tell her how starved they were for it. "We were starved for it, too," she says. "We didn't understand why people weren't invested in writing scripts about women's real lives, finding topical stories with an underbelly of tough subject matter." She and Witherspoon are exploring a second season, but "we won't do it if the story doesn't warrant it," Kidman adds.
Now that she's back "in a position to get things made," Kidman's upcoming films are a diverse slate: a comic drama, The Upside, opposite Bryan Cranston; She Came to Me, for writer/director Rebecca Miller; a thriller, Destroyer, for director Karyn Kusama; the gay-conversion drama Boy Erased; and a superhero flick, Aquaman.
Her personal life seems to be chugging along nicely – she and her husband of 11 years, musician Keith Urban, are always photographed holding hands, and they keep their two daughters, aged 9 and 6, out of the public eye. But she's reportedly estranged from the two children she adopted with her ex-husband Tom Cruise, and that private heartbreak may be part of why she's drawn to stories that unsettle and discomfit.
Kidman "can't believe some of the scenes" in Sacred Deer. "And that's hard to say these days. Yorgos is poking into places that Greek tragedy poked into, and Shakespeare. But people don't go to that territory right now. Those sorts of things are really fascinating to me."
Other actors can have the top tier. Kidman prefers the sharp edges, the shadowed corners.