In Birth, the tall, sleek actress in the Chanel denim coat I've come to meet plays a grieving woman named Anna, who is still pining for a husband who died 10 years ago. One day, just before she's about to get married to another man, a 10-year-old child approaches her and tells her he's the reincarnation of her dead husband. Before long she believes him. The set-up might seem rather strange, but Kidman's quiet, poised performance makes it entirely convincing.
The story is almost a fairy tale, but is played out in realistic Upper West Side drawing rooms, with all the trappings of modern wealth. Can Kidman imagine something like this happening in real life? "It doesn't matter what I think," she says with insistence. "Unless I write it and direct it myself, I'm in a film because I want to be there and portray a character authentically and truthfully. But it's not my creation in terms of the written word or the way in which it's filmed. I'm almost there as a conduit, and to augment, hopefully, and bring something to life. But it's not my point of view. So, as Nicole, what does it matter what I think?"
Meet Nicole Kidman, Miss tabula rasa. At her best, for example in Birth, Kidman dissolves into a role. Strikingly good looking and anonymous at the same time, there is a blank, glassy quality about her which makes it easier for us to project onto her our desires. At one point in Birth, the camera tracks in on her face in a theatre and holds it for two and a half minutes, just drinking in the flickering weather of her face, even though she's hardly moving a muscle. It's less acting and more conjuring.
Maybe it's this slipperiness, this refusal to be pinned down, that gets people's backs up: there's something about Kidman that breeds resentment from those who've never met her, and fierce loyalty from those who have. On the one hand, there were snide comments, when she took home the Academy Award for Best Actress for The Hours, about her "winning by a nose." She no doubt married Tom Cruise for love, but the match worked both for her career and against it, prompting unfair accusations of nepotism to account for her rapid rise to the top, although she's held the position with ease since they divorced in 2001. She's now one of Hollywood's highest-paid actress (allegedly making in the region of $17.5m for mainstream movies like the upcoming Bewitched and about the same for her recent flop The Stepford Wives). She is, officially, Australia's richest woman under 40.
On the other hand, despite the mainstream paycheck movies like Stepford and Batman Forever, she's won plenty of kudos and respect for doing risky, small-scale projects (with small-scale pay packets), starting with Gus Van Sant's ruthlessly black comedy To Die For, and startling doubters with her interior Isabel Archer in Jane Campion's The Portrait of a Lady. (Scheduling conflicts meant she had to back out of playing the lead role in Campion's In the Cut, a part later taken by Meg Ryan, though Kidman still has a producer's credit on the movie.) Lars von Trier's Dogville, with its bare-bones set and shocking content, took Kidman even further out on a limb. Grace in Dogville is a classic Kidman part - an enigmatic stranger who becomes a town slave, masochistically adapting and suffering for people's collective needs.
I've yet to meet a single person who's worked with Kidman who has a bad word to say about her. The closest you get is Lauren Bacall's famously snippy insistence in September that the younger actress did not yet qualify to be classed a "legend" at the tender age of 37, and that she was just a "beginner." But just days before she said that, Bacall had told me that working on Birth with Kidman had been "great for us because we started the movie with something very solidly built there, a friendship," having already worked together on Dogville's tense set. Birth's director, Jonathan Glazer, admits, "I was never convinced before I met her, before we started talking about this project. But as soon as I met her, she just knew what we were going for. She really digs down deep inside. She's impeccable."
I ask Kidman what made her choose this role. "It's strange, because it's more like it chooses you, which sounds ridiculous," she says. "But with someone like Jonathan I had to sit down with him and discuss it. And he said, 'I've written this for you,' which is what happened with Lars. We sat and talked about the character and the piece and we clicked. And it was one of those things that, if we hadn't had clicked, then we wouldn't have made the movie together, but we did. And um... the film came along at a time in my life when I wanted to make it. Sometimes you find yourself in a very fortunate position as an actor, when you are able to get films made. You know, the choices are literally based on what do I feel now, and what is something that I want to put out in to the world now. But that goes away! Most of my friends that are actors, they don't have that chance. Most of them are happy to get a job. So I say it lightly, but I value it highly"
What was right about the role of Anna at that point in her life? "With Anna I think it was more the chance to be able to portray somebody on screen who has an enormous inner life, is still living in a lot of memories and is in mourning and grief and existing in the world but is also still existing in another place. And the duality of that I found fascinating, and I understood in a way." What time is she in now, in terms of the roles she chooses? "Now, I'm about to do Bewitched, so I don't know what that says. I'm hoping for a little magic, I guess," she laughs.
Has she got the nose-twitching thing down pat, yet? "Well, actually, having studied Ms Montgomery thoroughly [Elizabeth Montgomery, the original Samantha in the television series], I've figured out it wasn't a nose twitch, it was a lip twitch more. But yeah, the thing I love about Bewitched, why I watched it as a child, is that I always wanted to be able to do magic, so now I get to be able to do it. And you can't do Grace and then Anna and Virginia Woolf and all of those things without some breathers at times, because balance is important as well."
A glutton for punishment, Kidman is planning in the new year to work with Kar Wai Wong, who took a staggering four years to finish his latest, 2046. Exactly how much time is she going to block off for the project? "Who knows?" she laughs. "I mean, for me I've always just gone where I feel I should go. Certain filmmakers, like Lars, can do something in six weeks. Others are different. I think we get too stuck on the business side of this thing sometimes, and everything has to be structured. I know it's about money and I know people invest their money and there's a lot at stake, but sometimes if you are in a position where you can just go and play a little... I mean that's what it's about. Who knows? - which I love being able to say."
Before that she plans to relax once Bewitched wraps. "I'm taking the first part of next year off, and just taking my time," she explains. "I've got all sorts of plans for things I want to do with my kids, some stuff which I'm not saying what it is. I made the mistake of saying I was going to Fiji last year and off the press went. Everyone knew I was in Fiji."
Although Kidman laughs and answers every question gracefully during the interview, she has a delicate way of side-stepping anything too personal, even when it comes down to asking why did she did a particular role. "Your choices are very personal and you're very exposed, but I don't think the detail helps anybody," she points out with queenly delicacy, then adds a matey touch: "You know what I mean? Who wants to read about me wittering on about my life? It's more about choosing projects, and in the end they all come together in a weird, strange way. But I do think it's unfortunate now, because so much of filmmaking is so deconstructed and so exposed. People talk about it and everything's understood. That's what happens in those 'Making Of' films. I hate them! Because it takes away the magic and the mystery, and the reason for letting it exist on celluloid."
It's rather touching that after all this time on sets, Kidman is still in thrall to movies as a spectator herself. "I try to see them in the theatre," she explains, implying this isn't always easy. "I like being with a group of people watching a film. I fall asleep if I have to watch it on video of DVD. Really, I don't like it. They're too small, and I'm like, 'Huh?'. Obviously I will do that if I have to, but even with old films I'd rather drive to see them in the cinema. I love to sit with other people. That's something that's unique about the art-form. It's weird how you get caught up. I saw Fahrenheit 9/11 on its opening night in New York and I heard all this cheering and yelling and I thought, 'Yeah, this is great, I'm so glad I'm not sitting in some little home screening room watching this'. It's about being a part of life."
Since I interviewed her, it seems another half-dozen projects have cropped up in the Kidman pipeline, while others have dropped out. She had already finished the thriller The Interpreter with Sean Penn by the time we met. As of a day ago, she was no longer going to re-team with fellow Aussie Baz Luhrmann, the director of Moulin Rouge, in his Alexander the Great project, in which she was going to play Alexander's mother. But she is going to be in the new movie based the musical The Producers. And then there's a Sudan-based story directed by Tony Scott called Emma's War, in which she'll play the lead; a musical with Jennifer Lopez in the pipeline; and an Australian-set film with Russell Crowe called Eucalyptus already in pre-production. Which will we see next? As Kidman would say, who knows?
'Birth' opens nationwide today