Nicole Kidman: The Princess Bride

Talk about charmed lives. Nicole Kidman came out of nowhere to star in movie with Tom Cruise, went on to marry Cruise, and is now starring with Dustin Hoffman in the new Billy Bathgate. All this with no fairy godmother.

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It's cold and windy outside the little fortress-like home of Nicole Kidman's publicist, and no one is answering my banging on the heavy wooden door. Am I being punished for attempting to interview this actress at all? While I wait, I consider what I know about her. Not much. She's 23, Australian, talented--I've seen her in one film, Dead Calmcame to America not much more than a year ago, made Days of Thunder with Tom Cruise, and then married Cruise. She stars in Billy Bathgate with Dustin Hoffman, is now making a romantic comedy with Cruise no planes, guns, or racecars in it. Just how does a young woman react to all the sudden limelight, the sudden money, the sudden power? I've only seen the one film-- what else would Nicole and I talk about?

My original plan was to take Nicole to a nice place with a high profile--the Polo Lounge, say--just to see what would happen. But Nicole's publicist said she can't--or doesn't want to--meet me in public. So now I'm even more intrigued with finding out how a person's life is altered by the admission to the highest circles of the Hollywood firmament. What's it like to be at the top of it all, looking down for the first time, after such a short time climbing? And, as I say, what else would we talk about?

But the problem with all this is that the editor of the magazine told me he's been warned by the publicity people: I'm not to ask Nicole about her personal life with Tom Cruise. In fact, Nicole will "terminate the interview" if I insist on bringing up the dreaded "T" word. As though I might be some Kitty Kelley in drag. And now this: a dark house and no answer, ten minutes after the scheduled interview time. Is this the ultimate manifestation of control? Am I being shut out altogether? Or am I perhaps just knocking on the wrong door?

Wrong door, it turns out. But even when I find the right one, my worry is not mere paranoia. The feeling in the air is that we are to be very careful with Nicole Kidman. She may be a young actress trying to break through to American audiences, but she is married to Tom Cruise.

"And one inch taller," my editor noted when I met with him earlier about this story. He was shuffling papers on his desk. I think he was looking for Demi Moore's phone number. "Look, Chris-- she's hot, she just finished a film with Dustin. She's about to start a Ron Howard film with Cruise. Who is she and how did she get where she is?"

"So what's my angle?" I asked. "Surely you need some-thing to justify a feature story on a relatively unknown 23-year-old Australian actress."

"Yeah, exactly," he sighed in his worldly way. "The Cinderella Story. You know, unknown plucked from obscurity by a Prince Charming. See if there's anything to it."

Nicole arrives 30 minutes late to her publicist's house, and genuinely apologetic. She'd been at a meeting for the Ron Howard film "and they kept saying, one more minute, one more minute--just two more minutes, Nicole." She is graceful and quite attractive in a business-type outfit and a long, dark-grey overcoat, and I find myself telling her the coat is beautiful. She glances at it quickly, says, "Thanks," then sits down without taking it off. Is she that close to leaving already? I half expect her to flinch as I turn on my tape recorder, but instead she efficiently asks me if I'd like to test it first. And shouldn't I move it a bit closer to her? Her Australian accent is pronounced, but her voice is clear and steady. I tell her I have no intention of asking inflammatory questions, and she says, "Fantastic. That's good. Thank you," and settles back on the couch.

We talk about the big-budget Billy Bathgate. "I was used to big name actors and producers," she says, referring to Days of Thunder, the film of hers I haven't seen, "so it wasn't that intimidating." But, in fact, this film, based on a novel by E.L. Doctorow (of Ragtime fame), is a classier breed. It features a script by Tom Stoppard, and was directed by Robert Benton, who directed Hoffman to an Oscar in Kramer vs. Kramer. Here, Hoffman is a provocative choice to play real-life 1930s gangster Dutch Schultz. Kidman describes her fictional character as "a wealthy 22-year-old married to an older man, and she likes to hang out with gangsters, likes risks, is kind of on the wild side, tends to get bored easily, know what I mean?" Uh-huh, I know the type--a dangerous girl from the right side of the tracks.

The character is, of course, American--there must have been plenty of American actresses who were ready to kill for this part. Kidman makes landing the role sound easy: "I read it and thought, oh yeah, a spot opposite Dustin Hoffman. Then I put it aside. I got a call telling me Robert Benton would like to meet me. He'd seen me in Dead Calm. We had dinner and really clicked. And then he said, 'OK, I'd really love you to do this but obviously you've got an Australian accent and she's a New York aristocrat'." Benton asked her to come to New York and spend a day with him speaking American. She worked on her accent for three weeks, and flew to New York. "I did it, I met Dustin, and the next day I had the part."

Kidman took Hoffman in stride as well. "At first, when I met Dustin, it was like, this is one of the best actors of his generation." (Kidman was born in 1967, the year Hoffman made The Graduate.) "When I met him, I was scared. I mean, he's little," she laughs, "and he just sort of sits there and watches you. And then as soon as he starts talking he makes you laugh and breaks down all those barriers. After an hour, it's like, oh, yeah, Dustin. You know what I mean?" My guess is it takes a supremely self-confident actress to warm up to the little guy that quickly.

Nicole Kidman is an American, technically speaking--she was born in Hawaii where her father, an Australian biochemist, was doing work at an island university. Later, the family moved to Washington, D.C., and soon enough went back to their roots Down Under. But Nicole did not forget the places she'd already been. "I always had the feeling I'd end up back here. I made a decision when I was a kid in Australia--I want to live somewhere else in the world. And suddenly I ended up sort of in America." And now Kidman's poised to become the first Australian actor since Mel Gibson (also an American) to make it as a legitimate Hollywood movie star--never mind Aussie comic one-notes like Paul "Crocodile Dundee" Hogan.

And the more Nicole talks, the more I get the feeling that her current situation has more to do with drive and desire than with glass-slipper accidents, the transcendent lure of romance, or other fairy tale plot devices. Acting is one of those professions, like concert playing or gymnastics, that preternaturally gifted ten-year-olds can dedicate themselves to with a single-mindedness beyond their years, while their peers are still wandering wide-eyed around the schoolyard. Nicole Kidman did not officially turn pro in Australian films and television till the age of 14, but she did mime and clown work starting at 10. When she talks about those days, Kidman's voice rises, and there's a flush in her cheeks. "I went to a little kid's drama school. I just had this incredible affinity for getting up on stage. Becoming a movie star didn't really enter into it then. When I wasn't in the shows, I'd be a runner for the kids who were. I would get really excited--I just used to get tingles, you know what I mean?"

No, I don't. I was one of those wide-eyed kids wandering around the playground. I wonder what the Voice sounds like as it tells a 10-year-old that she's already found her calling. In Kidman's case, at least, it was not the voice of a stage mother. Her mom was a nurse who only grudgingly indulged her daughter's footlight lust. "When they had the stage show of Annie, I convinced my mom that I had to audition--because I knew that this was it. We fought about it, but I dragged her along. You had to be under five foot two, and I was five foot four, and they measured you at the door. I remember I was trying to scrunch down."

Kidman was always a head above the others. "I was never cast as the young girl," she says. How could she have felt like a normal 12-year-old if she couldn't even play one? But she doesn't seem to have suffered the tall-girl syndrome. She carries herself these days with graceful authority--and we don't see her scrunching down an inch or so in photo-graphs for Tom's benefit.

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