The People’s Courtesan:
An Interview with Moulin Rouge's Nicole Kidman

by Tony Phillips

Galliano? McQueen? Androver? “Fred Segal,” the five foot ten inch star laughs while modeling her pink and red striped tank, “but I cut the sleeves off, they were revolting!” Nicole Kidman turns on her low red mules and another addition, a row of safety pins pegging the garment up the back, is revealed. Her alteration of this low-luxe 90210 item is a testament to today’s bedazzling “anybody with a pair of scissors and a t-shirt can be a designer” sentiment. But there’s something more primal here. One can’t help but recall the urban legend that has designer Norma Kamali flinging herself down upon her conjugal bed after the dissolve of her marriage. Attacking her down comforter with a pair of scissors, the frazzled Kamali emerged with the first prototype of the sleeping bag coat that would define chic for the last days of disco. Moulin Rouge, the musical fin de siecle candy-flip committed to celluloid for the damn near frugal sum of just over 50 million, is Kidman’s sleeping bag coat. In it’s own way, this stunning work of art defines chic for a whole other disco demise, Paris: 1899, but the film is so steeped in personal sacrifice that it can’t but inform the work. Still, all this theorizing doesn’t mean the Hawaiian-born, Australian-bred Kidman is talking. All she’ll say of her private life from the grueling birth of Moulin Rouge until now is “a lot of my life now is different.” She’s more forthcoming about the courtesan Satine, the “Sparkling Diamond” of The Moulin Rouge, whom she plays in the film. “This woman is trapped in a world that she can’t control,” Kidman says, “she’s allowed almost everything, but the one thing she’s not allowed is to fall in love. Suddenly, this young man starts saying, ‘I love you, I adore you, you can believe in it, trust me.” She looks off with ice blue eyes and says simply, “I love the conflict of that, I love the romance.”

She will talk about the numerous injuries she sustained while filming Moulin Rouge’s rigorous dance numbers. “I’m embarrassed by my injuries,” she confesses, “it makes you out to be such a wimp.” Of her broken rib, she says, “Ewan McGregor is very proud to say that he broke it. We were doing this dance sequence where I have to jump in his arms and neither of us — particularly Ewan — is a trained dancer.” Her strawberry blonde hair is falling from a high ponytail. Her skin is translucent. Her smile is quick. She looks none the worse for wear sitting in the garden suite of L’Ermitage Hotel in Beverly Hills. Nonetheless, she continues to say that the “small crack” in her rib was the result of the way her co-star McGregor caught her. Adding injury to injury, Kidman laughs, “They put me back in a corset a little too soon and re-broke it. That was the beginning of the film. I got through the next six months fine and in the last two weeks, I fell down the stairs.” Kidman, who was working 17 hour days in order to cram the unforgettable “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” number into just three days of shooting. The crew from Star Wars was threatening to tear down the Moulin Rouge sets in order to begin their own production at the new Fox studios in Sydney. “At about 1 AM, we were all really tired and we had to get the shot,” Kidman relays, adding that she encouraged Baz Luhrmann, her Australian compatriot and director, to get one more take.“ I replay that moment in my head,” she laughs with 20/20 hindsight, “I was in these huge heels and I fell down the stairs and tore the cartilage in my kneecap.” She adds, “It is getting better,” but then practically boasts, “it’s a really painful injury, it’s actually a footballer’s injury, so is the broken rib.”

So why choose a film that breaks bones, somehow magically sandwiches familiar 20th century pop snippets as diverse as Kurt Cobain’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and Julie Andrew’s “The Sound of Music” to function as story-telling sung dialogue and is helmed by a director who requires a six month commitment before shooting even begins? “I think it was that,” Kidman explains, “the risk of it. I’m drawn to things like that and I also have a great belief in Baz as a director.” Of the director of numerous operas and the surprise hits Strictly Ballroom and William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet, Kidman says, “I’ve known him and his work for many years. He sent me some flowers with a note that said, ‘I have this great character for you, she sings, she dances and then she dies.’ That peaked my interest. When I met with him, he didn’t have a script, but he had this book full of ideas, pictures and drawings of what he wanted the feel and the atmosphere of the movie to be, but he said, ‘The story isn’t set in stone, it’s going to evolve and change due to the work that we’ll do prior.’” After the aforementioned sixth month commitment, Luhrmann said, “That’s my process, take it or leave it.” As a parting shot, Kidman says, “and then he made me audition!”

“When I got the role, I was absolutely floored,” Kidman says, “I was so excited because this extraordinary character is such a gift. The reality of playing it set in when we got to Sydney,” she explains, detailing script read-throughs that weren’t actually read. “You’ve got to sing unaccompanied and you hope you’re in the right key,” she laughs, “it’s very confronting and it leaves you feeling very exposed, but that’s what’s brilliant about Baz. He pushes you early on in the piece so that by the time you start to film, you’re so comfortable with what you’re doing you’re ready to try anything.” Of the on-screen bond between her and her co-star, she says, “Ewan and I sat down in the first two days of the initial workshop two week workshop and said, ‘We’ve got to be willing to make complete and utter fools of ourselves in front of each other at any time and we also have to help each other through this because it’s going to be a long road. He’s going to really push us at times and we’re going to get frustrated. We’re going to feel like we’re no good and all of that stuff and let’s really be great mates.’” With another chuckle, she says, “That’s what we promised to each other and what I think we accomplished it.”

On the icon front, Kidman looks to the great leading ladies of the Golden Age and the great directors she’s worked with to date. “Rita Hayworth is it, I watch her and think, wow,” she says, “beautiful, charismatic, an extraordinary dancer, she takes your breath your breath away as a performer.” With a healthy appreciation Ingrid Bergman and Katherine Hepburn, Kidman was, at first, dismissive of the singing and dancing leading ladies. Now, she says, “I look at Marilyn Monroe, Cyd Charisse, Marlene, they’re all extraordinary. I have enormous respect for all those women now and how across the board they are talented.” And the Golden era musicals? “I watched almost all of them,” she says, “But there are also references to Madonna. Baz describes Moulin Rouge as a post-modern musical. Half the time I wasn’t even aware of all the references because I was playing my character, but when I would see the dailies, I would say, ‘Oh my Gosh, that looks a little like Blue Angel.’” Kidman categories her vamping through Marilyn’s classic “Diamond’s Are A Girl’s Best Friend” as “a nightmare.” She says, “Marilyn does the quintessential number, it’s so famous and iconic, but there’s something about just throwing yourself into it and going, ‘Okay Baz, you think it’s going to work, great.’” She categories her version as “less breathy than Marilyn, less classic, this is more kind of raunchy. I still can’t believe we tried all this stuff, but that’s what’s fun about Baz as a director, he’s really enthusiastic, he’s very naïve though in his approach to things because he just thinks anything is possible and that’s a beautiful thing to work with. He still has this great belief in trying things and even if it’s on film and it’s going to be there forever, hey what do you have to lose? That really is refreshing.”

It’s different,” Kidman says when asked to compare Luhrmann to the A-list roster of director’s she worked with before like Stanley Kubrick (Eyes Wide Shut), Sam Mendes (The Blue Room), Gus Van Sant (To Die For), “different directors demand different things.” Of Kubrick, she adds, “Stanley was slow, methodical and subtle; everything had its time to just evolve. Working on Moulin Rouge, we had not nearly enough money for the ambition of the project, not nearly enough time and Baz is fast. Everything is fast and he wants to shoot a lot to get a lot. Whereas with Stanley, it’s slow, I mean it’s really slow. It’s just different film making.” When pressed for a favorite, she says, “At the time — and it’s who I am as an actor — I get incredibly devoted to the director. And it’s the director that I’m working with at the time and everything else pales in comparison. When I was working with Stanley, I was so crazy about him, he was a God and I just loved being around him. But with Baz, it’s the same thing, you’re suddenly going, ‘well, this is the only way I’m going to be able to work from now on.’ When I finished Moulin Rouge, it was like pulling a donkey because I was digging my heels in. I just didn’t want to leave.” After a shoot in Spain on a film called The Others for director Alejandro Amenabar, Kidman says, “I then tried to push through and do The Panic Room and I am just not physically capable of doing things back to back to back. I kind of learned my lesson the hard way. I got injured again. I loved working with David Fincher and it’s going to be a great movie, but I,” she trails off and haltingly adjust the black leather cord around her neck. “They fired me,” she laughs, “because I just wasn’t physically capable of making the movie.”

Asked for one word to describe herself, Kidman shoots back with “passionate.” She elaborates, “I love to act, I’m committed to it. I think it’s a great art form, I don’t believe in putting it down.” She sums up her youthful innocence at 33 by saying, “I still believe, even in this day and age, it’s very easy to be corrupted. There are times when you feel it happen, and then there are times when it happens and you’re unaware of it, but you can still pull yourself back and say, you know something, this is why I love acting.” She counts one of the reasons she still loves the profession as “I get to reach out to a whole number of people with ideas — sometimes profound ideas. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. You get to work with some of the most brilliant people in the world. You hope to, as an actor, because you ultimately don’t have the control in a film, but you do help to facilitate extraordinary ideas.” She sums up her rich stable of directors by saying, “If you’re working with people like Kubrick — I’m about to do a film with Lars Von Trier — or Baz or Sam Mendes, these people are great at what they do. They’re very smart and very accomplished — brilliant — and I consider myself unbelievably fortunate to be working with them or for them to be asking to work with me.”

She sums up her good fortune to work with the best directors by saying, “They know that they’re going to get somebody to who’s going to dedicate themselves to help them put across their vision into the world. I feel very privileged and very excited to be able to do that and I think I’ll always be excited about doing that.” Is there anything that’s changed since Kidman first came to the attention of American audiences in the 1989 thriller Dead Calm? “My desire to work frequently,” she laughs, “when I was younger it was like there’s this huge world out there and I get to work and work and work and meet people and travel. As you get older, you start to choose, you get tired more easily. But also I think you just say there’s so much more to life, there’s so many more things that I want to do if I live to be 85. But if I’m on my deathbed, I want to be able to look back and say I didn’t just act, I lived. I traveled the world, I learned to speak Italian fluently, I’m a great cook, I was a great mother. There’s so many other things I want to be able to say I did with my life, but one of them would be to say I worked with the greatest directors in the world and that’s exciting. I will remain passionate and committed to that for the rest of my life.”