“you don’t get to see six women in a show and follow all of their lives in a complicated and deep way. I don’t know another show that has six female leads.”
13 June 2019
When Nicole Kidman accepted her best actress Golden Globe award for her role as Celeste Wright in the hit HBO series Big Little Lies, in her speech she thanked her mother, a nurse who wished she’d been a doctor, for never setting limits on what her daughters could be. “My achievements are her achievements,” declared the actress. Kidman also paid tribute to her female co-stars Reese Witherspoon, Zoë Kravitz, Laura Dern and Shailene Woodley, saying, “We pledged allegiance to each other and this is ours to share” – and praised “the power of women.”
Hollywood has been feeling the power of women in the form of #MeToo and the response to revelations about film mogul Harvey Weinstein’s behaviour – and Big Little Lies, which launched in 2017, was one of the catalysts in that process. The series not only highlighted a liberating shift towards female talent, and a move away from big-budget Hollywood studios towards TV cable and streaming, it also voiced the domestic and sexual violence that can lie under the surface of apparently successful women’s lives. Kidman, who also scooped an Emmy for her role as the abused Celeste, said in her Golden Globes speech, “I do believe and I hope that we can elicit change through the stories we tell and the way we tell them. Let’s keep the conversation alive.”
Kidman is personally committed on that score. She has pledged to work with a female director at least every 18 months, to help address the fact that only four per cent of Hollywood movies are made by women. And she does not shy away from roles that open up debate. She took an Oscar for her 2002 portrayal of the troubled Virginia Woolf in The Hours, and followed that up in the space of a year with her appearance in Lars von Trier’s experimental, unsettling Dogville, a role opposite Anthony Hopkins in The Human Stain that Rolling Stone described as ‘mesmerising’ and the lead in Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain. She is currently set to play Gretchen Carlson, the Fox News anchor who filed for sexual harassment against company chief Roger Ailes, in the film Fair & Balanced. In 2018’s Destroyer she was almost unrecognisable as tortured undercover cop Erin Bell. And of course there’s Dr Chase Meridian in Batman Forever – plus Atlanna in Aquaman, which, says Kidman, is her children’s favourite (particularly the goldfish-eating scene).
The children she is referring to are Sunday Rose, 10, and Faith Margaret, eight, her young daughters with country music star Keith Urban. The couple were married in 2006 and live in Nashville, Tennessee, where, Kidman has said, the pace of life is similar to that of Australia, where she grew up. She was born in Hawaii to Australian parents and the family returned to Sydney when she was four. Brought up as a Catholic, she is still a church-goer, and says she has “never really been a party girl.” She was close to both her parents; she has described her late father, a biochemist and psychologist, as a “very gentle man with a really strong social conscience … he would always notice if you had told a funny story, or if you did something kind that helped someone out.”
She is discreet about her previous marriage to Tom Cruise, and about Connor and Isabella, the children she and Cruise adopted, both now in their 20s. “They have made choices to be Scientologists and as a mother, it’s my job to love them,” she told The Guardian in 2018. The relationship with Cruise ended in divorce in 2001, shortly before she took on the Oscar-winning role in The Hours (she said at the time, “I wasn’t really functioning. When I watched it a year and a half later, I could see how raw I had been, probably the worst place in my life.”)
The Hours was made in Weinstein’s studios, as were other films Kidman has worked on. She says she never experienced harassment personally – as a teenager she was chaperoned closely on set and she was married young, at 22. But, she told The Guardian, “I think it shows that there has been an awful lot of hidden violence against women, and that people have been sitting on these things.” A UN goodwill ambassador since 2006, she has worked on violence against women programmes in various countries and says “I know the patterns,” adding “I have certainly got friends who have experienced this, not just in this industry but in all industries. But still it was a massive eye-opener.”
Kidman is committed to championing women in other areas of her life, too – and in more positive lights. The actress has been a brand ambassador for Omega watches since 2005 and, in 2015 when she marked 10 years with the brand, she celebrated by holding an exhibition of a history of ladies watchmaking – the first of a number of events the horologer held in celebration of women.
It’s a similar story on screen. Big Little Lies is a powerful vehicle for its female leads. As Kidman, 51, points out, it’s unique in that elsewhere “you don’t get to see six women in a show and follow all of their lives in a complicated and deep way. I don’t know another show that has six female leads.”
The second season of Big Little Lies opens in June this year. “I cannot believe how Big Little Lies entered the zeitgeist,” says Kidman. “It’s really been a huge eye-opener for me on the power of television, the power of that particular story and how it connected. It was glorious, actually. While it was first being broadcast people were coming up to me, saying: ‘What happens next?’ Audiences were obsessed. It was beautiful. I was very much part of people’s lives. People would want to reach out and touch me. I got so many emails and people talking to me about it.”
Given that success, it’s perhaps surprising that there was a question mark over the series ever going to a second season – and perhaps even that the first series was made. When Kidman and Reese Witherspoon first optioned the novel of the same name by Liane Moriarty, back in 2014, there was no #MeToo. Kidman has said that even getting the series made “felt like a coup.” Viewing figures were respectable; initial reviews weren’t wildly enthusiastic. Then Big Little Lies took off and flew (as did The Handmaid’s Tale, which came out at about the same time). However, there was no second volume to the original novel, so Kidman and Witherspoon took matters into their own hands. They asked Moriarty to write a further 200 pages that served as a template for the second season, scripted, like the first, by David E. Kelley. They also persuaded Meryl Streep to take on the role of Celeste’s mother-in-law.
“Meryl signed on without having read any script, which is a big support of us as a group of women,” says Kidman. “She was: ‘I want to be in the coven,’ and she’s definitely in it now. I was terrified,” adds this world-renowned star, disarmingly. “You’re acting opposite the great one. I get nervous anyway – but to be opposite her and not want her to think, ‘Who is this amateur?’…”
It’s not hard to see why Streep wanted to join the “coven”. The relationship between the women of Big Little Lies is clearly a powerful force. “The desire to spend time together again was a big part of the decision to do another season,” says Kidman. “We’ve now worked together for well over a couple of years and the bonds between all of us are deeper and stronger and richer. We go out all the time, we talk, we help each other – it’s a very strong connection and it’s rare that you get that amount of screen time together. We’re all so different, yet we complement each other.” And the show is, of course, an equally powerful vehicle for its female leads.
A decade ago, she has said, she was on the verge of stepping away from her acting career. Again, she has her mother to thank for keeping her going. “I wasn’t being sent anything that was terribly interesting,” she recalled in an interview. “In this industry, they go, ‘You’re kind of past your date.’ I met an incredible man and had two children and was on a completely different path. I needed more of a real life. It was my mum who persuaded me to keep my toe in the water, but in my head I was done… I am so glad I have a very opinionated, strong mother who’s very wise and I do listen to her.” And now? “It’s lovely at this stage of my life and career to be doing something that I’ve never done before. I’ve never been a part of something that reached so far, globally.”
Big Little Lies season 2 is available to watch now