It isn’t hard to go into murky emotional woods with Nicole Kidman.
In movies like “The Others” (2001), “Dogville” (2003) and “Birth” (2004), the actress’ innate serenity and porcelain beauty mirror the spooky unreality of a ghost tale, a moralistic parable and a mystery about reincarnation, respectively. She describes her new film, “Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus,” as “a very weird fairy tale.” Asked if there’s anything fairy tale-ish about herself, she says “Not at all” before offering an image of her inner life that seems like a drawing in a children’s storybook.
“My life ... sometimes it feels likes it floats rather than being actually earthed, and at other times I feel like I’m brought down to earth very quickly,” she says. Yet that sense of “floating,” she insists, isn’t always good. “I try and be very open to things that come along, to have my eyes and ears open. But that’s a hard place to exist in. It’s quite raw sometimes.
“But ultimately, I’d rather be like that than closed off. You develop scar tissue. Though it’s a really hard way to live.”
Right now it’s real life that’s difficult for the 39-year-old actress. On Oct. 19, her husband since June 25, country star Keith Urban, who was born in New Zealand but like Kidman was raised in Australia, voluntarily went into a treatment center to deal with an alcoholism problem. Kidman was “at his side,” as celebrity magazines said.
Before meeting the red-headed Oscar winner, Urban had battled, and defeated, addiction demons, but now they involve his new superstar wife - who lives with him in Nashville - and so the 39-year-old musician reportedly wanted to address his drinking before it got worse. (His new CD, “Love, Pain & the Whole Crazy Thing,” came out Tuesday.)
Asked about life with Urban, Kidman simply says that “It’s beautiful to have a family, and love, to be part of a union.”
In the years since her 2001 divorce from Tom Cruise - after nine years of marriage and the adoption of two children, Isabella, now 13, and Conor, now 11 - Kidman never tried to hide the spiritual search she’s on to make sense of her needs and wants. (She describes, in an awed voice, how she loved a quiet sojourn to a monastery six years ago.) But like a Hans Christian Andersen heroine whose personal growth can only come if love is forsaken, she flourished professionally once she was on her own: She actually came out on top of her and Cruise’s marathon filming of Stanley Kubrick’s erotic drama “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999) before enchanting audiences and critics in Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge!” (2001) and winning a Best Actress Oscar for “The Hours” (2002).
Yet in discussing life issues “in a very roundabout way,” it’s clear that one of Hollywood’s biggest and most beautiful stars is wary of buying into illusions.
“I don’t think life ever gets easier,” she says with a small laugh that would sound girlish if it didn’t have a dark tinge to it. “I think we all think it’s going to, and you keep hoping for that time when you can say `All right, it’s easy now!’ I actually don’t think that ever happens. But I much prefer to stay alive and participate - I choose that, rather than to run away. And there have been times when I’ve chosen to curl up in a ball and, I suppose, hibernate until I come out. I’ve got no problem with that!”
When not hibernating, however, Kidman - who was born in Hawaii but grew up in Sydney - is hardworking. Since winning the Oscar, she has done everything from the high-profile “Cold Mountain,” “The Stepford Wives,” “The Interpreter” and “Bewitched” to smaller films like “The Human Stain” and “Birthday Girl,” a vital part of her personal and professional reinvention.
That new focus, she says, has resulted in professional bravery. “With that comes risk-taking, in terms of work,” Kidman says. “Sometimes the films reach the heights you hope for, and some of them don’t, but it’s an exploration, always.”
“Fur” certainly exists in its own dreamland state. In it, Kidman plays famed New York photographer Diane Arbus, who at age 35 stopped assisting her husband with his mainstream photo jobs and began her own career shooting portraits of freaks, oddities and outsiders, some of whom came from the world of circus sideshows.
Director Steven Shainberg and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson, the team behind 2002’s “Secretary,” chose to tell an “internal portrait” of the artist, imagining Arbus’ transformation from a mother and wife into a unique American stylist (Arbus killed herself in 1971). “Fur” envisions her change coming via a friendship, and eventual romantic relationship, with Lionel (Robert Downey Jr.), a character totally covered in hair due to a rare disease.
Says Shainberg, “An actress needed to fit into `Fur’s’ fairy-tale universe, and bring wide-eyed curiosity and a depth of feeling to it. And most of that had to be on the actress’ face. There had to be an essential mystery. That’s Nicole in spades.
“And the idea of changing your life ... that’s part of Nicole’s biography,” Shainberg continues. “There’s obviously a relationship between the trajectory that Diane takes in the movie and the one that’s come around in Nicole’s life.”
“This movie’s about how there is nothing like being truly seen by your partner, where you’re just able to be who you really are,” says Kidman. “And it’s about how you stay protected in certain ways so that you don’t get too damaged, by outside forces. You find a way to protect your heart.”
And while “Fur” requires Kidman to indulge her sexy side (and show a bit of skin again), she says she herself doesn’t think she has a “smoldering quality,” despite evidence to the contrary dating back to such films as “Dead Calm” (1989) and “To Die For” (1995) and continuing through “Practical Magic” (1998), “Eyes Wide Shut,” “Moulin Rouge!” and “Human Stain.”
“I don’t have that awareness or analysis of myself,” she says. “I might call myself a sensualist. But I do deliberately try not to (attempt) what I feel might be safe ... I really try to live in a place in my work that isn’t comfortable, if you know what I mean.”
Her seeking out tougher issues led her this year to become a goodwill ambassador for UNIFEM, the UN Development Fund for Women, dedicated to advancing women’s rights around the globe. Kidman - previously a UNICEF ambassador for Australia - just returned from Kosovo, and hopes to use her celebrity “to put whatever weight and muscle I have into these issues and see what I can do.
“My mom was a nurse, my dad’s a psychologist, so they’re caretakers in the world,” she says. “I felt I had to step up to the plate, and in a very committed way.”
Her upcoming work includes being the voice of a mother penguin in the animated “Happy Feet,” opening Nov. 17, and next year she’ll star in a film of the best-selling mystery-adventure novel “His Dark Materials: The Golden Compass.”
And she says that magical feeling she gets from performing, first discovered as a teenager, is still very much with her.
“I remember when it clicked,” Kidman says. “I didn’t have a terribly tumultuous childhood, but I’d escape into my head a lot. And to have this thing, acting, that gave me goose bumps and took my breath away, in the same way a boy could ... it was like, `Hmm, boy or acting - I’ll take goose bumps, no matter how they come.’ “