CANNES, France -- “I'm not interested in being safe, and I'm willing to fail because of that,” Nicole Kidman declares, not a shred of doubt in her voice. “I feel very ashamed when I do something safe.”
That may sound like the easy thing for an actor to say sitting in a quiet cabana at the luxurious Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc. But throughout her career, which includes three Oscar nominations and one victory, Kidman has always walked that particular walk as well as talked it, and never more so than this year.
Kidman has two films showing this year at the Cannes Film Festival (Philip Kaufman's “Hemingway & Gellhorn” and Lee Daniels' “The Paperboy”), and they showcase her in roles that couldn't be more wildly different. As far as Kidman is concerned, that is a very good thing. “The diversity of characters is the thing I'm most interested in,” she says. “I don't think I do well playing myself.”
In “Hemingway & Gellhorn,” Kidman plays journalist Martha Gellhorn, married to the novelist (played by Clive Owen) for five years but best remembered today as one of the 20th century's great war reporters.
“I don't get to read many scripts that are going to be made that are driven by a woman,” Kidman, 44, says of her interest in the project. “She's a woman who sacrifices a lot, who doesn't compromise, for a force she feels inside her, which is to tell the stories of people around her.”
If both this HBO production and Kidman's role in it share the pleasant feeling of classic, almost glamorous filmmaking, “The Paperboy,” adapted from the Pete Dexter novel, is something else again. A lurid, wildly excessive melodrama that depicts rural Florida in the 1960s as a cesspool of feverish mendacity, “Paperboy” features the actress totally convincing as a character whom fellow residents of Moat County describe as “an oversexed Barbie doll.”
That would be Charlotte Bless, a woman of formidable, unapologetic sexuality whose main activity is starting epistolary romances with death row inmates. She focuses on Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), a sullen, white-trash alligator hunter behind bars for killing the local sheriff, and convinces Miami journalist Ward James (Matthew McConaughey) and his younger brother Jack (Zac Efron) that his claims of innocence are worth investigating.
A maelstrom of seething emotions, “Paperboy” features scenes of extreme and graphic sexuality. In taking the part, Kidman was guided, as she often is, by her connection with the filmmaker. “I believe in putting an enormous amount of trust in your director, and I'm willing to take the knocks if it doesn't work,” she says. “I've chosen that path, chosen to contribute, and I have to trust as an actor and try not to be a control freak.”
With Kaufman, Kidman responded to a director she describes as “incredibly deep and a philosopher with a very wise outlook on life.”
A fan of Daniels' best picture Oscar nominee “Precious,” Kidman describes the director as feeling “‘give me all of it, I want to devour the world.' Lee is raw and abandoned, he will do or say anything, he's completely erratic and wild and will shock you with the things he says.”
Because Kidman makes decisions about parts on a gut level, she is used to hearing criticism about her choices.
“There are so many different opinions out there, it is so extreme, diverse and loud, there is so much noise, that to get caught up in that seems like minutia,” she says. What she does feel is “protective of the director. I worry about how they're going to fare. I'm there, but it's them, they're putting themselves on the line.”
The thing that Kidman feels most protective about, however, is her marriage to country star Keith Urban and her two youngest children, 4-year-old Sunday and 17-month-old Faith. (She has two other children from her previous marriage to Tom Cruise.)
“That's my priority in terms of my life,” she says, noting that she and Urban try not to be apart for more than three or four days and that he is taking a long plane ride to be with her for a day in Cannes.
Projects Kidman takes now must factor family in. “Six months in Africa, I can't do that,” she says. “I cannot stand to be away from the girls. I'm not willing to leave them, it's very painful. I attach very deeply, and there are ramifications, pain to endure, if you allow yourself to attach and love to that extreme.”
The couple and their children live outside of Nashville, an area Kidman enjoys, among other reasons, because it is “removed” from the limelight.
“When you get to this age, I want to breathe, I can go with the flow of it,” she explains. “There's still a fire that ignites in me creatively, but I know how to put it out for a while.”
That fire is also the one thing Kidman is not willing to do without professionally. “As you get older, you can lose that abandonment,” she says. “I want to stay in that place of ‘Try it, why not.' I very much still try to maintain that artistically.”
Given where she is in her life, Kidman looks thoughtful when reminded that when she was a teenager beginning serious acting in Australia, she decided to model her career on Katharine Hepburn: She wasn't going to marry or have kids, she was just going to act.
“I knew the thing I need to do was seek out my path artistically,” she says, looking back now on her younger self. “A burning force within me wanted to go out and explore the world, have experiences. If I was going to fall in love at 18 and have a child, I would not have done that.
“In my psyche, the desire to find a partner was very strong, but I didn't want to give in to that. I had to fight against what I knew my nature was.”
It's something she doesn't have to do anymore.
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-- Kenneth Turan
Photo: Nicole Kidman at the Hotel du Cap. Credit: Patricia Williams / For The Times