Exclusive: Nicole Kidman Talks Keith, Kids, COVID And Her New Thriller, ‘The Undoing’

On the eve of the release of her new TV thriller, editor Nicky Briger meets the woman, the star, the legend

Nicole Kidman slips into our light-flooded Lavender Bay studio in Sydney without fuss or fanfare. Dressed in track pants and a slouchy tee, her hair swept back into a tight topknot, you’d almost be forgiven for missing her entirely, except for the fact she’s nudging six foot and seems lit from within, thanks to her famed alabaster skin. She’s been up past midnight every night this week, pulling 14-hour days shooting the TV adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s Nine Perfect Strangers, but you wouldn’t know it. She’s warm, spry and chatty as she enthusiastically sifts through a full rack of high-fashion pieces: “It feels like ages since I’ve properly dressed up. I’m excited!”

It’s Sunday – her supposed “day off” – yet after today’s shoot, Kidman has a slew of Zoom meetings for her production company, Blossom Films, followed by a one-hour session with her dialect coach (“I’m playing a Russian who spent time in America and Britain, so try nailing that accent!”). In-between all that “work stuff”, she’ll eke out time to collect her two youngest kids, 12-year-old Sunday and nine-year-old Faith, from her sister Antonia’s place. The juggle is real, even when you’re a Hollywood powerhouse with about 60 hit film and TV productions to your name. “She’s the hardest working person in the business,” says long-standing friend and Big Little Lies producer Bruna Papandrea. “Her talent is immense, but it’s her work ethic that’s truly astounding. She’ll work tirelessly not just to get it done, but to get it right.”

It’s been two months since the multi-award-winning actor/producer relocated to Australia with her husband, country music star Keith Urban, and their two daughters after the pandemic forced production of Nine Perfect Strangers to shift from LA to idyllic Byron Bay. It was a mammoth logistical task to move cast and crew, something Kidman was involved in as producer: “I’ve had a lot of sleepless nights, there’s been a lot of stress this year, but we’re making it work with protocols and limitations. I still can’t believe we did it!” But more on that later. Today we’re chatting about her latest project, The Undoing, an HBO psychological thriller in which Kidman plays New York therapist Grace Fraser who discovers her picture-perfect marriage isn’t what it seems. Warning: this six-part nail-biter, written by David E Kelley of Big Little Lies fame, requires binge viewing. (The sadists at Foxtel only sent five episodes, so I have an excruciating wait for the finale.) “I want it to be a date-night series – couples to settle on the couch with pizza and devour it,” says Kidman, who also sings the opening credits.

Here, she opens up about working during COVID, her “simple life” with Urban and the kids, and her passion for championing female creatives.

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Givenchy blazer, pants, shoes, and ring; (02) 8197 0420. (Credit: Photography by Jake Terrey. Styled by Naomi Smith. Hair by Sophie Roberts. Make-up by Linda Jeffries.)

marie claire: Welcome back home! I bet you’re happy to be filming in Oz with the state of the world right now.

Nicole Kidman: Absolutely; we’re just so grateful. The whole time during COVID, I couldn’t pop home and see my family, which was really tough. I missed my mum’s 80th and her knee operation, so now I’m just trying to be here. Last night, I dropped the kids at a sleepover, and then visited Mum. Friends are asking, “What did you do last night?” and I’m like, “I watched a documentary with my mum!” That’s my big Saturday night.

mc: Keith, having just hosted the Country Music Awards in Nashville, has got to go into two weeks’ quarantine. How are you coping?

NK: We’ve never been away from each other this long before; it’s hard, so we’re constantly on FaceTime. That’s our world now – and thank god for it. What would we have done without it?

mc: What has this year taught you?

NK: That you never know what’s around the corner. Who would’ve predicted this? But we’re still alive and we’re all adapting.

mc: And who would’ve predicted you’d be shooting Nine Perfect Strangers in Byron for six months?

NK: I know! When we asked the actors and crew to move the whole show, they said, “Yeah, let’s do it!” To have the opportunity to give jobs to 1400 people from July to Christmas is such a joy for me personally. We’re forging ahead when no-one’s making anything, and the world’s watching.

mc: That’s something to be proud of.

NK: Hey, I’m not saying it’s been easy. I’ve had a lot of sleepless nights. It’s like Russian roulette. You never know when the wheels are going to fall off. You have to be so rigorous, and that’s a different stress.

mc: Since producing Rabbit Hole in 2010, you’ve gone on to produce Big Little Lies, now The Undoing, plus Nine Perfect Strangers and the upcoming Truly Madly Guilty and The Expatriates, among others. What’s it like when you’re both starring and producing?

NK: It’s just stress times 100. But I also have an incredible team and they carry the load. When I show up on set, I stay in character; I can’t really produce as that’ll compromise my performance. It’s an enormous amount of work juggling my projects, my family, the pandemic. It’s exquisitely painful at times and then there’s enormous joy as well. Because I want it to be good and I care so much, I wake up at 3am and worry, which is a terrible trait. But at the same time, I go, “Well, we’re doing this!”.

mc: On top of all of that, you’re promoting so much local talent, from writers to actors. I hear you really championed Asher Keddie for the role of Heather.

NK: Asher’s talent got her the role, not me. She’s doing magnificent work and I wanted her in the show so badly. I was just able to recognise her talent and cheerlead it, which is a really nice thing to be able to do.

mc: And you get to hang out with Melissa McCarthy – how good is that?

NK: She’s fantastic! Such a natural comedian, but an amazing dramatic actress, too. You rarely find that. It’s an incredible cast and crew.

mc: Speaking of incredible casts, let’s talk about The Undoing, where you star alongside Hugh Grant. What drew you to the character of Grace Fraser?

NK: I love how interior she is; there’s a mystery to her. [The show is like] a dark fairytale with this unnerving, eerie atmosphere.

mc: She’s a therapist – did you borrow any recollections from your dad [psychologist Antony Kidman]?

NK: Yes, absolutely. But I’ve also been the one on the couch in Big Little Lies, so I’ve played both sides now.

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mc: The director, Susanne Bier, is behind some of TV’s most gripping recent thrillers, including Bird Box and The Night Manager. What was it like working with her?

NK: She’s a powerhouse. When you work with her, you go, “Oh, I want to be like you!” She’s unflappable, whereas I’m far more sensitive. You need that skill as a director, which is why I could never direct. You can’t get flustered. She stayed on course to fulfil her vision, and it’s truly remarkable.

mc: It’s the first time we’ve seen you and Hugh on screen together (although you both played villains in the Paddington films). What was that like?

NK: He’s great to hang out with, so naughty. I’ve known Hugh since my early twenties. My sister and I remember going to dinner with Hugh and Liz Hurley at The Ivy in London and she and I would talk in our secret sister language. Hugh was always like, “What the hell are you saying?”

mc: There are a lot of intense scenes between you; how did you overcome the heaviness? NK: We just get along. I think having that British-Australian connection helped, and I already knew his wit, so we have an ease, which is great for an on-screen marriage. We went on this intense journey together. There were days when he’d go, “I’m just buggered. Are you?” And I’d go, “I’m wrecked, too. This is harrowing.”

mc: I have to ask – is that you singing the opening credits of Dream A Little Dream Of Me?

NK: Yes! Susannah called me up and said I want you to sing it, which I’d never been asked to do before. That was fun.

mc: At this point in your career, with about 60 films and TV projects to your credit, not to mention an Academy Award, five Golden Globes, two Emmys, countless nominations, what excites you most about your job?

NK: Always the people I get to work with: writers, directors, actors, crew and the process. I just love it. It’s like magic when you step on set and it works. You never know if it’s going to. And delving into characters, delving into psyches, that’s probably being the daughter of a psychologist. Seeing life from different perspectives and being able to explore humanity – I love that. I really want to have a well-examined life.

mc: I think everyone would agree you’ve had a pretty extraordinary life.

NK: Yeah, but I’ve had the hits with it too. I’ve got an incredible life now, though. I actually have a very simple life, strangely enough. Everyone thinks it must be so complicated, but it’s not. My creative life is off the charts, but my actual life with my husband and two daughters is quite simple.

mc: You’re incredibly close to your mum and your family. Is that central to who you are?

NK: I love her, she’s a huge part of who I am. And my sister, her six kids, and my cousin Angie. I’m primarily about that family, and I’m lucky to have that family. We’re definitely female-heavy! But as the girls say, “The dog’s a boy!”

mc: That’s the only testosterone in the house?

NK: Yep! Keith and [the dog] Julian. At times, he just needs to escape with his guitar. Sometimes I’ll find him in his closet playing guitar. That’s when I know we really need to give him space. Oh, and he googles cars. I’ll know when he’s stressed ’cause he’s googling cars. I couldn’t care less what car I’m driving; you can pick me up in any old thing. But Keith and Faith love cars.

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mc: And Sunday is interested in directing?

NK: Yes, she’s obsessed with it. But the frustration with COVID is she usually comes on set and watches, but this time she can’t due to the COVID protocols. It’s so sad as a mum not to be able to take her to work with me. But there’ll be other opportunities.

mc: Speaking of female directors, last year women accounted for only 12% of directors working on the top 100 grossing films. Is it true you’ve committed to working with at least one female director every 12 to 18 months?  

NK: Yes. At the moment, there’s Susannah Bier on The Undoing and Lulu Wang on Nine Perfect Strangers, to name a couple. And I’m really proud of that, along with our very diverse cast.  

mc: What do female directors bring that’s different?

NK: They bring the same things that any talented director brings but they just haven’t been given the opportunities. So it’s a great privilege to be able to call them and say, “Yep, you got the job!”

mc: You’ve also worked for UN Women for 20 years. Does that concept of women supporting women fuel you?

NK: Yes, I’m dedicated to the issue – and it’s deeply personal. I have a mother who didn’t have the career she should’ve had. She was a nurse, she should’ve been a doctor, but she couldn’t because she wasn’t given the opportunities. And she encouraged me to do what I wanted to do and said, “You don’t have to be shackled.” We need to perpetually be committed to moving the female agenda forward. And I’m hopeful, especially when I see this new generation of girls. But at the same time, let’s not disregard the boys! My sister has four amazing boys, and it’s important that we teach them to be fully rounded, loving and supportive.

mc: And great allies.

NK: Exactly. I have a husband who’s an ally. In the past four months, he’s really been carrying the load for me.

mc: Do you top and tail it?

NK: Constantly. At this point, I’ve got to get through this shoot and he’s like, “Great – I’m here.” Right now, I’m carrying the weight of it so he can promote his album. We shoulder each other’s loads when we need to.

mc: And family pitch in?

NK: My sister’s staying over and my mum’s helping; I don’t have that help in Nashville so that’s been incredible. We never leave the kids, one of us is always there. When Keith went to Nashville and I had to work late nights, I rang Ant and asked her to move in with the girls and she did, and bought along her kids. That’s special. It’s the nature of what we’re all having to do now – you get to be commune-like; this extended family where you’re all raising each other’s kids together. We’ve all had to go back to basics, and this year has required it because people are pleading for help.

(Credit: Photography by Jake Terrey. Styled by Naomi Smith. Hair by Sophie Roberts. Make-up by Linda Jeffries.)

mc: Keith recently said he “married up” and you were the love he’s been looking for all his life. Did you pay him to say that?

NK: Yep, absolutely. I wrote the script. Honestly though, I married into my heart. He just came along and protected me. He’s loved me, given me confidence, and made me so much more comfortable. He knows who I am and he’s opened me up. We have an interesting balance because I’m an introvert and he’s an extrovert.

mc: Are you really an introvert?

NK: I’m deeply introverted. Not when I’m with a small number of people, but I’m not comfortable in crowds. I have trouble public speaking.

mc: But your 2017 Emmys speech about domestic violence was so powerful and fierce … NK: That’s because it was right from inside, from the heart, trying to shatter that stigma surrounding domestic violence. But I promise you, I’m a homebody. When I do go out, I end up having the best time. There’s a tip: push me, make me go out! In my 20s, I was far more active. I was just talking to your fashion team, and they said, “You’ve been photographed by everyone”. And I said, “Yeah, I used to go to Paris and be with John Galliano and Karl Lagerfeld and lead an unbelievably glamorous lifestyle”. And how wonderful to have all those different phases.

mc: So what’s after this? You’re off to Dublin to shoot The Expatriates, which is also produced by Blossom Films.

NK: Yes, we’re going in November. We got Australian writer Alice Bell on that project, and she’s also writing another show for us called Hope. And then there’s Things I Know To Be True, written by another amazing Australian writer, Andrew Bovell. I bought a single ticket and sat on my own at the Belvoir Street Theatre on a Sunday afternoon, and I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. It’s the most incredible play. So, those are the two main things for now, and then who knows? But it’s just so great to be able to champion these incredible Australian writers.

mc: I suppose that’s the privileged position you’re in now; to be able unearth new and local talent – and then bring them to the world. [Writer] Liane Moriarty said in a marie claire interview that so many people had optioned her work in the past, but it never came to fruition. And then you approached her for Big Little Lies and said, “Don’t worry – we’ll get it made”. And the rest is history.  

NK: Did she says that? Thank god I didn’t let her down! I love that woman. We’ve become really good friends.

mc: Speaking of which, what’s the latest on the BLL chat?

NK: Reese [Witherspoon] and I talk or text once a week. She’s just moved back to Nashville and we’re really close. We all just want to work together again. I texted Zoë [Kravitz] and Laura [Dern] and they’re in. [Writers] David [E. Kelley] and Liane have a really good idea for it. Watch this space!

The Undoing is airing on Binge and Foxtel from October 26.

See the full story and our exclusive Sydney shoot in the November issue of marie claire, out now!

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