“I responded to the wicked comedy of it. And the way in which it sort of disturbs you, gets under your skin,” says Nicole Kidman, speaking about “Margot at the Wedding.” “I think that’s fascinating, because you’re laughing and you’re also feeling uncomfortable.”
Folks who saw “The Squid and the Whale” will know what the Oscar-winning Australian is talking about. Like that 2005 tale of a marital breakup and the mess it leaves behind, “Margot at the Wedding” is the spawn of Noah Baumbach, a New York writer-director who likes to poke around in the psychology, and pathology, of a certain subspecies of human being. Namely, arty Brooklynites and Manhattanites, and the legacy of bad behavior passed on from adults to their children, the reckless egos, the neuroses, the insecurities that strike at the core of a so-called nuclear family.
Margot at the Wedding
Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Zane Pais, Jack Black, Ciarán Hinds, John Turturro
(Paramount Vantage; US theatrical: 16 Nov 2007 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 8 Feb 2008 (General release); 2007)
Kidman stars as Margot - opposite Jennifer Jason Leigh, playing Margot’s sister, Pauline, and Jack Black, playing the layabout songwriter that Pauline’s about to marry. The film is deft, funny, disturbing.
And Kidman, as Margot, hasn’t been this good, and this complicated, in ages.
“I hope you see that the spikiness and the guardedness and the anger is actually a manifestation of her need to protect herself,” says Kidman about Margot, on the phone from New York. “She’s not in a safe place, really, because her sister doesn’t know how to take care of her, and she doesn’t know how to take care of her sister. ... They feel like they should be very, very close, but they actually do not bring out the best in each other.
“I’m fortunate in the sense that my sister and I have been through so much together,” she adds, speaking of her younger sib, Antonia. “We have worked out how to take care of each other, how to protect each other, love each other. But that’s taken an enormous amount of commitment from both of us.
“I’ll drop anything for her, and she will for me. And we’ve both shown that. That’s not just talk. That’s been tried and tested.”
You’ll have to check the archives of the National Enquirer, People and US Weekly to get the details on those trying times. (Key words in the search engine: Tom Cruise.) These days, Kidman, who turned 40 in June, is happy, working hard, and mighty pleased to be associated with Baumbach and company.
It was January 2006 when, after heeding producer Scott Rudin’s advice to read the Margot screenplay, Kidman met with Baumbach in a New York cafe. She had just seen “The Squid and the Whale” a few days earlier, in a theater in Greenwich Village.
So there Kidman and Baumbach are, talking. “I didn’t realize he was married to Jennifer,” Kidman says. “And he said, `Oh, I’m thinking of Jennifer Jason Leigh for Pauline. I’d love you to play Margot.’ “
A little while later in that same conversation, Kidman figured out that Baumbach and Leigh were married.
“I remember thinking, boy, this could be really tricky, stepping into a marriage and dealing with this kind of material. But I think Noah and Jennifer are both just so committed to what they do. ... And they managed to strike a really great creative balance. ... and I just love seeing a director and an actress in love, and working together.
“They could be like Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands, oh gosh, I hope that’s where they’re heading. That would be beautiful.”
A few months later, the actress, along with Black, Mr. and Mrs. Baumbach, and the young teen Zane Pais, who plays Margot’s super-smart, super-quiet son, were camped out on the eastern shore of Long Island, rehearsing, getting comfortable with the discomfort in Baumbach’s screenplay.
“`We can all go up to the Hamptons for two months!’ - that’s what Noah said,” Kidman recalls, her natural Aussie twang in evidence. “`We can live up there, very close. ... and just hang out in this house. I found a great house, and we’ll just shoot it there with very little lighting. Basically, I want to feel like I’m a fly on the wall,’ that’s what Noah said.
“There were structured rehearsals, where you explore the text and do scenes, but at the same time you’re eating meals together and talking and lying around on couches and just basically sharing,” Kidman says. “Because so much of acting is about breaking down all those barriers. A lot of times, as an actor - particularly if you’re well known - you have a lot of protection around you, layers of defense. And so to break those down, and suddenly step into something that’s deeply intimate and vulnerable, takes a little time.
“I can’t just walk onto a set and suddenly expose myself. So, this was a gentle way.”
Kidman also shows up in the much-anticipated holiday title “The Golden Compass.” “I got to have a golden monkey as my soul, my daemon,” she says of her character, the sinister, soul-snatching nemesis of the Philip Pullman book-turned-film.
The actress, who has played Diane Arbus and Virginia Woolf, done Henry James (“Portrait of a Lady”) and Jerry Bruckheimer (“Days of Thunder”), been a Stepford wife and a sitcom sorceress (Bewitched), says she found the character of Margot, a fiction writer on the precipice of divorce, difficult to get inside of.
“She’s got a different nature to me. But that’s also what I’m interested in as an actor. ... I suppose I’ve always sought out things that I feel are unknown, and then I just hope that I’m partnering with someone who knows what they’re doing - which Noah does. ... He constructed her very carefully, and he hates getting asked if it’s autobiographical - I won’t reveal anything in that regard.
“But he understood the nature of both these women. And that’s such a gift, for a male to understand. ... I don’t know if there are many other directors who are studying families in the way that Noah is right now.”
Kidman has become good friends, she says, with Baumbach and Leigh. And she counts a number of other filmmakers she has worked with among her closest compatriots - folks whose relationships didn’t end at the project’s wrap party.
Anthony Minghella (they did “Cold Mountain” together), Sydney Pollack (“The Interpreter”), Stephen Daldry (“The Hours”) - “they’ve become some of my closest friends,” she reports. “I tend to stay in the lives of all of these people, because I think when you choose material you’re also choosing people you want to spend time with. Even Lars von Trier has stayed a friend,” she says with a laugh, talking about the Danish kookball who steered her through the bleak experimental indie “Dogville.”
Right now, Kidman is in the middle of an epic project with her dearest director friend, Baz Luhrmann, of “Moulin Rouge.” A fellow Down Under-er, Luhrmann is guiding Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Bryan Brown and a swarm of actors and extras through Australia, a World War II saga that involves a 2,000-mile cattle drive and the bombing of towns by the Japanese.
“It’s great to be doing it, considering that it’s a dying breed of film now. We’re not in a studio, using blue screen,” she reports. “We’re out there on the land. Out in the heat and the dust.”