It’s the prerogative of a movie star to create a distinctive image and build fortress walls around it. A film actress behaves otherwise, seeking audacious and independent projects that test her chameleon abilities.
Then there’s Nicole Kidman, whose 44-film career defies easy categorization. She’s sought by international cinema’s top directors for her aristocratic beauty and laser-like intensity. Yet she pushes her artistic boundaries in dark comedies (Gus Van Sant’s “To Die For”), extravagant romances (Baz Luhrmann’s “Moulin Rouge”) and character roles (winning an Oscar under impressive makeup as homely, unstable novelist Virginia Woolf in Stephen Daldry’s “The Hours”).
There are aspects of all those films in her newest, “Stoker,” which she calls “a fairy-tale horror thriller.” It’s a Hitchcockian coming-of-age nightmare that marks the stateside debut for Korean iconoclast Park Chan-wook, known for stories of eccentric intrigue, sumptuous visuals and brutal violence.
Kidman plays Evelyn, a recent widow sharing a drafty mansion with her emotionally distant daughter, India (Mia Wasikowska). When her late husband’s mysterious brother, Charlie (Matthew Goode), arrives for the funeral, Evelyn and India enter into a kinky, high-stakes competition for his affections. With piercing eyes, ice-sculpture smiles and a head-snappingly dysfunctional approach to parenthood, Evelyn may be the most unbalanced character Kidman has ever played. And that’s saying something: Her last outing, “The Paperboy,” cast her as a Deep South sexpot with a thing for convicts and barely legal young men.
“It’s so much fun to try on an extravagant character and wear it around for a while,” Kidman said by phone. “It’s such a great opportunity to stretch in new directions. It’s like my version of repertory theater.”
Kidman, 45, can pick and choose her films. “Stoker” was originally set in New England but Park moved the production to Tennessee, where Kidman lives with her husband, country music star Keith Urban, to recruit her.
“My family is always my priority. I have two little girls, and couldn’t be away. That’s what I’m committed to. I hope to be in my 80s with my grandchildren, and any career that comes along with that is icing on the cake. So I said I was sorry I couldn’t do the film, and they came back to me and said, ‘What if we do it in Nashville?’ I think it was great for the film,” which has eerie Southern Gothic overtones, she said. “It was serendipitous.”
For all Kidman’s family concerns, her “Stoker” character venomously tells her daughter, “I can’t wait to see life tear you apart.” But she felt she needed to tweak the tone. “That’s why I put in there ‘Who are you? You were meant to love me!’ Because that wasn’t in the original script. I told Director Park [that’s how his cast and crew refer to him, as a sign of respect] I just felt those beats were very important. She’s seeing the blossoming evil in her child and terrified of what her child is becoming. I don’t see it as ‘Mommie Dearest,’ but as a woman whose child has never connected with her.”
Park speaks no English and passed detailed directions to the cast through an interpreter. Luckily, Kidman had worked with other directors in the same situation, and knew how to develop a nonverbal communication style.
“On ‘The Others’ I worked with a Spanish director, Alejandro Amenábar, and he didn’t speak much English. Director Park doesn’t speak any, and I hoped I would be able to understand nuances. It was a bit daunting at first. But he has such a strong way of communicating his ideas. Cinematically he knows exactly what he wants, with every shot storyboarded. In terms of being very meticulous and highly intelligent, I would put him up there with [Stanley] Kubrick [her ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ director] and [David] Fincher [who prepared ‘Panic Room’ as Kidman’s project before she was sidelined by an injury]. When I worked with Director Park, I thought, ‘Oh gosh, he so reminds me of both of them.’ With a lesser filmmaker, it might have been difficult.”
Park prepared for every contingency that could arise, Kidman said, except for the spontaneous magic that arises among a group of actors. “The choice of shots, the number of takes he does, the choices of color and sound. The color of my hair, how pale my skin was, the pale silk fabrics I wore, the design of my jewelry. Nothing is left to chance. A lot of it is already constructed in his head. He’s a very, very strong storyteller-filmmaker.”
It was simple good fortune, however, that “Stoker” features three generations of outstanding Australian actresses. In addition to Wasikowska and Kidman, there’s Jacki Weaver (a recent Oscar nominee for “Silver Linings Playbook”) as Charlie’s apprehensive aunt. “It’s amazing that I’d never worked with Mia or Jacki, and I was with them in an American film with a Korean director.”
Between takes, the actresses’ nationality brought them to a stronger bond, she said. “Absolutely. I love Jacki. I grew up watching Jacki and to see her hitting her stride over here now in America, getting these opportunities, particularly at her age, is just glorious. As an actress you go, ‘Oh, my gosh, for a woman to be discovered at that time of her career, what a beautiful thing.’ ”
Some of Kidman’s most compelling films, from “Eyes Wide Shut” to “The Others” to “Birth,” share a kind of elegant creepiness. That’s attractive material for Kidman, who “loved thrillers and ghost stories and psychological horror growing up.” She saw “Stoker” for the first time at its January Sundance debut “and my jaw dropped. I haven’s seen that level of filmmaking in a long time. I haven’t been in a film so meticulously constructed or disturbing. I wanted to push past my comfort zone. As an actor I want extreme characters.”
In “Stoker,” she certainly gets her wish.