There's an elusive, untouchable quality about Nicole Kidman that has less to do with her personality than her exquisite appearance. Tall and thin – very thin – Kidman is luminous and fragile as she slinks into our Manhattan meeting, dressed in a dramatically low cut, herringbone tweed dress with bodice top, tight pencil skirt and towering heels.
Her intimidating looks are at odds with the genuine warmth that becomes apparent once she starts to talk. "The older I get, the more I feel like I'm on a roller-coaster when I do a film," she says about the current state of her career. "I'm much more brave, and kind of throw myself into it and try not worry if I fall flat on my face. It's easy to become frightened of making a fool of yourself, particularly if, like mine, your nature is a bit reticent and shy to begin with. But I'm getting over it."
She doesn't seem at all shy, but then she's had nearly 20 years of getting used to the spotlight. Her conversation is effusive, littered with superlatives. Yet there is a sense of authenticity, whether she is describing her year-long experience in the Outback filming Baz Luhrmann's epic Australia – "It changed my life, it was magical, amazing" – or the director himself (with whom she worked on Moulin Rouge!, as well as on that Chanel ad, at $42m the most expensive ever made). "I would walk over hot coals through fire for him. I deeply love him; he's brilliant and inspiring, words can't describe my devotion to him." And here is Kidman on new motherhood; she has a five-month-old daughter, Sunday Rose, with her second husband, the country music singer Keith Urban, a fellow Australian. "I can't bear to be separated from my baby; I'm totally devoted to her. My mum says I'm over-bonded with her, but I don't care."
When I first interviewed Kidman in 1991, she had just made Billy Bathgate with Dustin Hoffman. That was after her breakthrough performance in the Aussie thriller Dead Calm and after Days of Thunder, Tony Scott's film about stock car racing, where she met Tom Cruise. The couple had recently married. Fresh-faced and freckled, with curly red hair, not yet a superstar, she had a joyful exuberance and was good company. Kidman is still friendly and still has that gentle, Antipodean lilt to her voice, with a hearty, often raucous laugh, but there is a more cautious detachment, less impulsive openness than before.
At 41, the actress looks regal, with creamy skin, framed by waves of blonde hair that fall to the nape of her swan-like neck. Her lips are pillar-box red. Perhaps intentionally, the image Kidman projects is that of the archetypal Thirties movie star, pure Hollywood glamour, which is fitting, because we are meeting to talk about her role in Australia, set in the Outback on the eve of the Second World War.
Luhrmann co-wrote and directed the £90m epic, the most expensive film ever made in the country. "Since I was a little girl I've always wanted to make a film in Australia about Australia that celebrated the country, a grand love story like this that celebrates love, because that's where I'm at in my life right now. Even though this is not a historical or political film, it has a similar essence to the Australian films I grew up on, like Gallipoli, The Man from Snowy River and My Brilliant Career. All those films that moulded me. Hopefully the generation behind me will watch this and be inspired by our film too."
Luhrmann's Australia, all 160 minutes of it, is full of grand old-fashioned melodrama and is unashamedly romantic. Kidman plays Lady Sarah Ashley, a repressed, haughty English aristocrat who inherits Faraway Downs, a cattle ranch the size of Belgium. Prim and proper, she is dressed in ridiculously inappropriate attire (created by the Oscar-winning costume designer Catherine Martin, Luhrmann's wife) when she arrives by flying boat.
She finds herself in the back of beyond, forced to deal with the harsh, alien landscape as well as the people who, in her eyes, are unsophisticated and uncouth. "It is ironic, to go back to Australia to play an Englishwoman. But I become the essence of an Australian, which is, I think, a survivor. I get stripped of all my barriers and pretences and become this very raw, sensitive human being."
Rival cattle barons are intent on grabbing Lady Ashley's land, and she reluctantly joins forces with a gruff stockman, Hugh Jackman (known only as "the Drover") in order to save the property from bankruptcy. They embark on a gruelling journey, driving 1,500 head of cattle across hundreds of miles of unforgiving, arid land. "I have ridden all my life but I'd never learnt to crack a stock whip and I'd certainly never learnt to do any cutting, which is what you do with cattle on a horse," she says. "At first it was terrifying, but then it was addictive. To be in this extreme heat on the salt flats, riding and rounding up cattle: when else am I ever going to get the chance to do that?"
To begin with, Kidman and the Drover detest each other; inevitably, of course, sparks fly and before long they fall madly in love, arriving in Darwin after the port has been bombed by the Japanese.
The part of the Drover had been intended for Russell Crowe; the role went to Jackman because of "scheduling conflicts". "I believe actors end up doing the films they are meant to do for the right reasons," says Kidman diplomatically. "I would hope I get to work with Russell one day, but I was thrilled to be able to work with Hugh. There is a lot of mystery to him." Luhrmann, incidentally, says he developed the role of Sarah Ashley with Kidman in mind because he needed an actress "who could play a role that's broadly comic, hugely tragic, and who is a movie star at the same time."
Much of the film was shot on location in Kununurra, a small dusty town in Australia's Northern Territory. "There'll never be an Australian movie like this again. This is the last in a dying breed of movies," says Kidman. "I knew I wouldn't be going up to places like Kununurra again, or working in these conditions. It was very difficult," says the actress, who draws comparisons to Katharine Hepburn making The African Queen, "washing her hair with a bucket, out in the wilderness. We have photos of the whole crew living in tents in the extreme heat. Obviously, I'm very fair-skinned and that's not where I'm at ease. I remember getting off the plane and going, 'I'm not going to survive.'
"I remember sitting on a horse and thinking, 'Gosh, this is what you feel like before you faint', and then I fainted. Hugh fainted too on the first day," she adds and bursts out laughing. "He keeled over on his horse at a 45-degree angle. Would I do it again? No. I wouldn't take my baby there now, but I knew that this film for me at this time was something I'd been heading towards for a long time. We wanted it to be an Australian Gone With the Wind."
Australia is strewn with iconic cinematic references, and with deliberate homages to Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara. There's also a Wizard of Oz theme running through the entire film. Luhrmann is unapologetic, borrowing from contemporary role models such as Clint Eastwood and classic film-makers such as David Lean and John Ford. If Kidman's Gone With the Wind V C comparison sounds grandiose, that's because the director, without a trace of modesty (or, in fact, arrogance), refers to his own work as "an epic", audaciously comparing it not only to Gone With the Wind, but also to Out of Africa – and even Lawrence of Arabia. That's a lot to live up to.
But Luhrmann has always had a passionate conviction about his film, and a clear vision about the story. He hoped it would strike a chord with audiences who were looking for sheer, uplifting entertainment and would enjoy being swept up in an epic romance. It's interesting, then, that the director originally wrote a tragic ending to his story, which he was forced to change. After negative reactions from early test screenings, he reportedly came under pressure from the studio releasing the film, Twentieth Century Fox, to rewrite the final scenes.
It's little wonder that, while critics in his own country have piled on the praise, there has been a mixed response from audiences and critics in the United States, where it opened a week ago. At the box office, it was soundly trounced, falling into fifth place with a $14.8m opening weekend, well behind the surprise chart-topping opening of Four Christmases.
"Our hearts are swelling because, my God, it's just the film we needed to see," gushed Oprah Winfrey. The Washington Post described the film as "insanely entertaining... a shamefully enjoyable ride". But, at the opposite end of the spectrum, USA Today called the movie a "melodramatic exercise in tedium" that offers only "schmaltz and cliché". Kidman's performance has been greeted with mixed reviews, too. Some critics have complained that her characterisation is shallow, veering towards melodrama and stereotype; others applaud her depth and predict a second Oscar.
She could certainly do with a crowd-pleasing career boost. Over the years, her career has fluctuated as she's gone from promising young talent – in Malice and To Die For – to movie-star wife and appendage. On screen, she and Cruise starred in the forgettable Far and Away; the only other film the couple made together was Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut.
Looking back on her 10-year marriage to Cruise, which ended in 2001, she says there are no regrets. She doesn't dwell on the relationship and there's no discussion of the acrimonious, highly publicised divorce. Sensitive, presumably, to the feelings of her older children, the actress doesn't have anything negative to say about her ex-husband (who is now married to the actress Katie Holmes) or about his religion, Scientology, which she also embraced. "That's the journey of life – we all go through it. You have love, you lose love, you find new love."
She does confess that her career was stifled during that period. "I felt I became a star only by association. I didn't think my early movies were very good, which is why I would always cower in the background. I thought, 'I don't deserve to be here.'"
Kidman is being hard on herself. There were some poor choices in the early years of her marriage and her career. But, with or without her A-list husband, there was a momentum to her own ascent in Hollywood; she starred in The Portrait of a Lady, and there have been box-office hits over the years, such as Batman Forever, before Luhrmann's spectacular 2001 musical Moulin Rouge! established Kidman as an actress in her own right. Her uncanny portrayal of Virginia Woolf in The Hours, Stephen Daldry's 2002 film, led to an Oscar.
After her marriage to Cruise ended, Kidman worked continuously. She admits that immersing herself in film roles was a way of blocking out the emotional pain: "I kept working because I was running for my life." All her recent movies, though – comedies such as Bewitched and The Stepford Wives, as well as more ambitious dramas such as The Human Stain, Birth, The Invasion and The Interpreter – have been disappointing, at least as far as global box-office is concerned. Even last year's family film The Golden Compass didn't excite audiences.
"That's my body of work," she says. "I am not going to apologise for it. I have kind of unusual taste, and sometimes it's mainstream and a lot of times it's not. I've been through a lot in my life," she says. "I think as an actor, your best work comes from the things you have been through, your experiences, so you are more willing to expose yourself. And as you get older you have more to give."
If her theory is true, it might explain why Kidman's role in Australia is so compelling. She goes from slapstick to rollicking action, intense passion and subtle emotion quite naturally – this is easily her most interesting work for years. And if it doesn't lead to an Oscar nomination, Kidman won't be devastated. On a personal level, the film changed her life. "My character can't have children of her own, and that was me until the last two months of the film, when a miracle happened. I never thought in my lifetime that I would get pregnant, but it happened on this movie," says the actress, who suffered a miscarriage in the early Nineties, shortly after her marriage to Cruise. "There were actually seven babies conceived during this film," she laughs. "There is definitely something up there in that Kununurra water. We all went swimming in the waterfalls, so we call it the fertility waters now. I got my daughter out of this film; that was the biggest gift."
The actress has been married to Urban for two years. "We were two lonely people who went, 'Ah, there you are,'" she says. "We gently fell into each other."
It is hardly a low-profile relationship, though. Urban has a massive international following, and the start of the marriage wasn't easy. Urban had battled a cocaine habit in the Nineties, and soon after the couple's wedding he checked into the Betty Ford Center. He's been clean for two years, and Kidman certainly seems contented. "I'm so committed to the relationship," she says, "and so is he. We never spend more than a week apart."
She has recently been in London (with her husband and baby) filming Rob Marshall's musical Nine. Set in the Sixties, based on a Broadway musical and inspired by Fellini's autobiographical film 8, it's the story of an Italian director (Daniel Day-Lewis) facing a midlife crisis and creative block as his personal life becomes increasingly entangled. Marion Cotillard plays his wife, Kidman is his muse and Sophia Loren plays his mother. Judi Dench and the singer Fergie also appear in the film, as does another of Cruise's exes, Penelope Cruz.
There are no other new films on the horizon, but Kidman dismisses the persistent rumours that she's giving up acting. "I haven't read a script in a long time. If something great comes my way then absolutely I'll do it, but it's got to give me butterflies."
Is she still driven? "Driven for what? To be a good mother? Very. To be a good wife? Yes." Other than cooking, gardening and taking care of the baby, Kidman isn't planning to do any work for the next few months; she's retreating with her family to their farm in Tennessee. "We have wild turkeys and an organic vegetable garden. There's something to be said for going back to nature, a simple form of living, there's safety in that."
Cruise and Kidman share custody of their adopted children Bella, 15, and Connor, 13. "Tom and I have taken them almost into their adult life. To then have a birth child that I have to take into adult life, give her her wings, it's a big purpose.
"The rhythm of my life has changed. In my teens and my twenties, I wanted to change the world. Now I want to keep telling some beautiful stories, but a lot of who I am right now is about just being with my family. I may choose to have some more children, I don't know. I've no idea what is in my future, but I am very much at peace with where I want to be."
Is she any good? The critic's view
It is a complaint made of certain top-flight footballers that they never rise to the big occasion: for some reason, they are always found wanting when it really matters. If such underperformance has analogies in cinema, it would find a pertinent application in the career of Nicole Kidman. There is no doubting her "star quality"; she's one of very few actresses who can get films made on her name alone. But if you examine her actual achievement, it tends to be the roles in small independent movies that you recall and admire, not those in the Hollywood vehicles she is famous for.
In her early twenties, she looked very different – her famous prosthesis as Virginia Woolf in The Hours was surely not the first time she had tinkered with her nose. The prim-looking redhead of Dead Calm (1988) and her private-school head girl in Flirting (1989) are the highlights of her Australian years, when her coltish hauteur was undercut by a pleasing gawkiness. Once she went to America and became attached to Tom Cruise, something of the short man's Napoleonic will must have rubbed off. The frizzy-haired Amazonian soon pupated into a blonde, soft-lipped American, and yet the big roles which she took on – The Portrait of a Lady, Eyes Wide Shut, Moulin Rouge! – never really took off. She looks either overwhelmed by the scale or simply miscast. Her last shot at a major romantic lead, in Anthony Minghella's Cold Mountain, was a fizzle: she didn't look like a woman pining with love, nor half-starved by the privations of the Civil War.
Yet she has been willing to test herself, and the monster of ambition she played in To Die For suggested a gift for comedy (and self-parody?) that has been oddly unexplored. She isn't afraid to make herself dislikeable, as recently proved by her spoilt, manipulative sister in Margot at the Wedding, and her silken evil as Mrs Coulter in The Golden Compass. She's touching, too, in unexpected roles such as the pariah in Lars von Trier's Dogville and as the deluded widow in Jonathan Glazer's mystery story Birth: her teetering between brittle composure and maddened despair is perhaps the best work she's ever done. But doubts remain as to whether she can carry the big event movie. Her last outing with Baz Luhrmann was a train wreck. Australia will be as significant a test for her as Australia will for the England cricket team next year.
'Australia' opens on 26 December