The Toronto Sun
27 May 2001
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The Show Must Go On
by Bob Thompson

BEVERLY HILLS -- For Nicole Kidman, it has been the best of times and the worst of times.

With her Hollywood fairytale marriage to Tom Cruise having crumbled, Kidman is featured in Baz Luhrmann's stylish Moulin Rouge.

In the outrageously avant-garde musical that opens Friday in Toronto theatres, Kidman plays the tragic Satine, a can-can Parisian courtesan who falls in love with a struggling writer (Ewan McGregor).

The 33-year-old, six-foot Australian sings, dances, gets goofy and emotes deeply. Her performance will be an eye-opener even for her fans because she displays so many talents. Yet Kidman herself admits she wasn't sure she was up to the task.

Only Luhrmann, who previously directed high-concept movies Strictly Ballroom and William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, knew she could do it. Under Kidman's circumstances, the director suggests the portrayal couldn't have come at a better time.

"Her role shows her as audiences have never seen her before," Luhrmann says. "If Nicole is now a single person and not part of that royal family, this defines her independence like no other film could."

Certainly, Kidman's personal world was thrown upside down when Cruise filed for divorce in February, just two months after they celebrated their 10th anniversary. To complicate matters, Kidman apparently suffered a miscarriage in March.

Cruise won't say why he filed for divorce, and Kidman was mostly quiet about it during Moulin Rouge promotional interviews at the recent Cannes Film Festival, and two weeks ago at the L'Ermitage Hotel sessions in Beverly Hills.

On both media-intense occasions, Kidman thanked the press for not asking marriage questions, explaining that she was most concerned with protecting Cruise's and Kidman's two adopted children -- Isabella, 8, and Connor, 6.

Only during her TV 1-on-1 with Oprah Winfrey last week did she mention the divorce proceedings and their impact on her.

Saying "it's been awful" and that "I will move forward day by day," Kidman concluded that "I'm dealing with this -- I'm stronger than I thought."

Luhrmann, also an Aussie, has been a buddy of Kidman's for 10 years. He is no less surprised by her resilience as he is her professional talents.

"Nicole's got a big, hacking laugh and she's kind of tomboyish and playful," he says. "But she's also regal in a very classy way.

"She's got that spirit I think her parents gave her, to pick yourself up and try again -- that old-fashioned, hold-your-chin-high kind of thing."

Born in Hawaii, Kidman was raised in Australia by her biochemist dad and nurse mother. Tall and lanky, Kidman studied ballet as a toddler, then moved on to drama school by age 10. Four years later, she made her debut in the Australian movie Bush Christmas. "And I knew then that acting would be my life," she says.

It wasn't until the 1985 Aussie TV miniseries Vietnam that Kidman became a star. Her portrayal of the terrorized wife in the film Dead Calm gave her international renown, especially in the U.S. That role helped her get to America and earned her a role in the 1990 feature Days Of Thunder, where she met Cruise.

Since then, her portrayals have been sturdy in films that were not quite good enough for her talents -- pictures such as Billy Bathgate, Malice, My Life, Batman Forever, Practical Magic and Eyes Wide Shut among them.

In theatre, her role in the London and Broadway productions of The Blue Room elevated her acting status.

By all accounts, Moulin Rouge will do the same, despite the wildly chaotic mix of styles and forms, where lines from familiar pop songs are used as narrative devices, and jarring quick cuts come fast and furious.

Kidman was given the incredibly intimidating challenge of singing, dancing, doing snappy patter comedy, mild melodrama and crushing tragedy.

"The risk of it made me want to do it," Kidman says. "I'm sort of drawn to things like that. And I had a great belief in Baz as a director. I've known him and his work for many years."

Kidman also was aware that Luhrmann could pull off this tricky tragi-comedy love story, that he could make the audience believe in it, get hopelessly devoted to it.

"In this business, it's very easy to be corrupted, and to pretend there are reasons for doing something you might not want to do," Kidman says. "But with Baz I knew I would get to reach out for ideas, sometimes profound ideas."

That's important to Kidman, because the thrill of travelling to exotic locations for acting has worn thin.

One of her quests now is to work with great directors. She considers Luhrmann one of them.

"He's really enthusiastic and he really loves to chat," she says mischievously. "And he's very naive in some ways, because he thinks anything is possible. He has not become jaded and cynical. And he has a great belief in trying things, which is refreshing."

Luhrmann is different, say, than the esteemed and dearly departed Stanley Kubrick, who directed Cruise and Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut.

"Stanley was slow and methodical and subtle," Kidman says. "Everything had to take time to evolve. Working with Baz on this ambitious project was so different because we didn't have the luxury of time. Baz is fast, and he likes to do things fast."

That suited Kidman fine. She likes to be totally committed to a project. "It's my obsessive nature," she says. And that's why it is so difficult for her to do movies just for the money.

"I've actually only done one for the money -- okay two," she adds, unwilling to reveal that the two are Batman Forever and The Peacemaker. "Each time it was so unsatisfying."

Moulin Rouge was anything but. What Kidman didn't expect to do was sacrifice so much time and effort in the name of the project. Luckily for all concerned, Kidman and Cruise and the kids got to spend well over a year in Kidman's beloved Sydney.

Besides, Luhrmann is a bit of a charmer when it comes to things he needs and wants. And he wanted Kidman for Moulin Rouge. So he made it a point to catch The Blue Room in London back in 1998.

"He sent me flowers backstage," Kidman remembers fondly. "And later he said, 'I have this great character for you, she sings, she dances, then she dies.'

"That piqued my interest. I met with him. He didn't have a script, but he had this book full of ideas and pictures, and it had the feel and the atmosphere he wanted."

Once Luhrmann got Kidman interested, he worked her into a creative lather -- and then he added this little bit of information. Says Kidman, quoting Luhrmann: "I'll need a six-month commitment prior to the actual shoot. That's my process, take it or leave it."

She smiles at the nerve of it all. "And then," she says, pretending to be indignant, "he made me audition."

Kidman got the part, and a one-way ticket into Bazworld, which in the six-month rehearsal case meant living with his production designer and wife Catherine Martin and the rest of the cast in Luhrmann's two-storey Sydney mansion.

Nicknamed House Of Iona, it is where all things Baz-like originate, and it is where Kidman, McGregor and the principal cast members were treated like rookies starting all over.

"When I got the role, I was floored. I was so excited," Kidman says. "To have the possibility of doing something so unusual, working with Baz, and Ewan, and working in Sydney. It was such a gift."

She pauses for effect.

"Then the reality set in when we started doing it."

Never mind that these famous and formidable movie stars were reduced to novices. They all felt they were going into uncharted territory of this cheeky, post-modern musical.

Kidman recalls: "Baz would say, 'What I really don't want with this picture, is that when the singing starts the emotion stops.' He wanted the plot and the emotion to come alive with the singing.

"And I think he achieved that at some level, because I haven't heard one person say the film is boring."

By all accounts, Luhrmann appreciated the fact that McGregor and especially Kidman could take the rough-and-tumble days, and the bruised egos that go along with them.

Says Luhrmann: "We had some moments. Nicole is not without complications. But not surprisingly. If this was a circus high-wire act, she walked the wire without a net."

Sort of like what she's doing now in her personal life.

As Luhrmann proudly says, "Nicole Kidman's show will go on."

This wasn't in the script Nicole Kidman would just as soon not dwell on the injuries she suffered while filming Moulin Rouge. She's an Aussie, after all.

"I am embarrassed by my injuries. They make me out to be such a wimp," she says.

"Okay, I broke my rib in the rehearsal process. And Ewan McGregor is very proud to say that he broke it."

Actually, McGregor and Kidman were doing a dance sequence that required lots of timing and just a bit of dexterity -- two ingredients that Kidman jokingly says do not make up McGregor's personal envelope.

"I had to jump into his arms, and it was just the way he caught me," Kidman says. "It wasn't really a break. A small crack is the way they described it."

A little rest and not much relaxation followed, and six months of filming went by without a cut, scrape or scratch.

"And then in the last two weeks of filming, I fell down the stairs," she says. "We had three days to shoot one particular scene, so we were shooting 17 hours a day.

"It was like 1 in the morning, and we had to get the shot. We had to. And I said, 'Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, we can do it.'

"I was in these huge heels and I fell down the stairs and tore the cartilage behind my kneecap. It was a painful injury, really a footballer's injury."

She survived that and the subsequent operation, and director Baz Luhrmann got his shots.