Nicole Kidman is one of our most transformative actresses (remember how thoroughly she became Virginia Woolf in The Hours?), but few roles have been as grueling to undertake as an L.A. police officer badly "damaged," as she says, by an undercover operation gone wrong in the recently released Destroyer. Karen Kusama's grim cop drama sees Kidman use prosthetics and wigs and makeup to become nearly unrecognizable, but as the director David Hare once said of the actress, "Nicole acts all the way down." That means Kidman wore not only her character's clothes home from the set at night, but also her distressed state of mind, as she reveals in W's annual Best Performances package. Here, she opens up about the difficulties of the role—for which she's nominated for a Golden Globe this Sunday and during which she almost fell into near-depression—but also about the hardships of taking on such parts and going home to her family, the like-mindedness of her artistic children, and even the first date she ever went on.
Tell me about how Destroyer came to you.
Destroyer came to me, well, actually it didn't come to me. It went to somebody else and they didn't want to do it. And I was in contact with Karen [Kusama], but not sort of in relation to any particular script. We'd sat down a couple of years prior and talked. So then when I heard that she was directing it and I read it, I put my hand up and said, "What about me?"
Really? Maybe she just didn't think you'd be interested.
I don't think I'd be the first choice for that. You wouldn't go, "I know who we should get for this, right?"
Yes. Well, it's very dark.
And also I think just the idea, whether I could be that... then I started to doubt whether I could do it. That cop that's been through so much.
And it's very American in a funny way, too.
Very American, very angry, distressed, and disturbed. And she had a particular vision for it, Karen, so I had to morph into that vision for her.
What was the hardest part about playing the character?
Existing in that state of being for the period of time that it took, which was a long period of time. Also being in pretty much every frame of the film, which I haven't done for a long time. The idea of carrying the weight of all of that. You know, she's a director who allows the camera to stay on you and you have to fill it with just everything that's inside. Even though it's a very sparse script, it requires all of the history and all of that damage. It needs to be there and palpable.
The interesting thing about it, knowing you, is that she's so isolated. And you're so warm. You are! You're close to so many people. This woman is so cut off. It was like I stopped seeing you all together. There was no shred of you in there.
That must have been very hard to keep sustaining day after day.
Yeah. And it was also being really untethered, is how I describe it. It wasn't like I had any idea where I was or if it was working. I just felt very untethered. I felt when Karen would say, "No, no. It's working," then I would sort of, you know, I would say, "Okay, just trust." So much of my career is just going, "Okay I'm just going to abandon and trust here."
I know that the wardrobe sometimes informs things for actors.
We took so long to find that leather jacket that I wear pretty much in every frame of the film.
And the jeans are very particular.
The jeans, yeah. I became so obsessed as the character that I ended up just never taking that off. I'd wear it home. I'd put it on first thing in the morning. I wouldn't be getting dressed really at work. I just wanted to wear the costume home. And I almost entered a state of depression myself.
I was gonna say, when you work in a film like that do you separate from your family? I mean, it's hard to just come home and bake cookies, you know.
I don't bake cookies anyway, Lynn.
[Laughs.] I don't know, make an art project—you do do that.
Yes, I do that.
So I mean, it's hard to change gears.
It is, and I actually have artistic children, so they have an understanding already of the artistic journey. They have two parents who are artists, so they have music, they have acting, they have stories and ideas swirling around. So they're naturally inclined towards that because they don't know anything else. So they kind of know how to dance with it. I mean, they visited the set.
And they were shocked at the way I looked. But they would, you know, they watch. I have a beautiful photo of my oldest daughter sitting next to Karen in the chair with the headphones on, watching, riveted to the screen. But it's more my discipline of having to go, 'Okay, I'm existing in this and not putting that on them.' So even though I'm carrying it, and that's a parent a lot of times, anyway. You're carrying a lot of things that you don't share with your children or that you're protecting them from. You know, that's just the journey of a parent. When you're doing it artistically as well, so it's not just life and the struggles of life, you're also dealing with, 'I'm not gonna lay this character on them.' I'm trying it. So it's jarring and it's difficult and it's not something that comes easily. It's kind of like learning as I go along. Luckily my husband is very, you know, he gets the space that's needed to create in.
Have you seen the film? Was it hard for you to watch yourself?
Yeah. I squirm. But I squirm a lot watching, so... you know, I've been working since I was 14 years old. It's a choice but it's also just the calling. I find it like I'm just pulled. I kind of try to move away sometimes and it just pulls me back.
You're having this incredible moment the last few years. Has it been interesting for you to have this kind of flowering in a way?
I'm sort of astounded and I kind of always feel like it's not really happening. You know? I always approach the work and everything as though... I think I probably always have that feeling of it's probably gonna evaporate anyway. There's a slight dreamlike quality to all of it anyway. But I'm astonished, yeah, I am.
What were the Emmys like? You won for Big Little Lies.
Amazing. When I won the Oscar I was, as I say, alone. And to win something like that with a family and to share that with my family had such weight. And standing there with that Emmy. Also, the other thing is I think winning an award like that, and I really feel this, it's not about a singular thing. It's very much an acknowledgement of everybody and the work and it always feels not me. So as much as it's coming through me, it's not me. Which is why I have a tough time going, "I'm taking this for me, because it's not that." It's very much, part of the thing is always trying to acknowledge everyone that's either helped you to get where you are or helped you to do the performance or helped you in your life, or picked you up when you were down, or nursed you through illness. There's so much that goes into those moments. They're fleeting but that's where you get to go, "Thank you." Does that make sense?