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Nicole Kidman Goes Big and Goes Home

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Closing in on 50, the Big Little Lies co-star balances ever more complex roles with real family life...

There was no plan B, there was just this.

She has played everything from a Stepford Wife to Princess Grace of Monaco and a love interest for Batman. She scored an Oscar for portraying writer Virginia Woolf in The Hours, but after nearly 35 years in show business, Nicole Kidman is only beginning to have an appreciation for complex parts.

“Put on a permed wig and dance through life,” Kidman said with a laugh at year’s Toronto International Film Festival — tempting casting directors to do their worst: “Bring it on!”

Catching a second wind after building an astonishing body of work, the 49-year-old dual citizen of Australia and the U.S. has been committing lately to more challenging roles that hit closer to home. In the acclaimed biopic Lion, released in late 2016, Kidman plays a character not unlike herself — an adoptive mother.

“I think that’s what I probably bonded with Sue about,” Kidman says of Sue Brierley, Lion’s true-life adoptive matriarch. “That’s one of the reasons she wanted me to play the role,” she says. “She very much believes in destiny. Just like her speech [in the film] when she said she had this vision of a brown-skinned child and then it all came to fruition. I think I just related to her on that level.”

In Lion, Kidman’s character takes in and embraces a lost, poverty-stricken, five-year-old boy from the streets of Calcutta.

She plays a very different sort of mother in her new project, the HBO series Big Little Lies. Created by David E. Kelley (Boston Legal, Ally McBeal), the limited HBO series follows the lives of three suburban mothers (played by Kidman, Shailene Woodley, and Reese Witherspoon) who bond over their first-graders until their perfect lives unravel to the point of murder.

“I’ve been acting since I was 14 so it’s all I know. There was no plan B, there was just this,” Kidman says when she’s asked whether her approach to acting has changed with advancing movie roles. “I use all different [methods] depending on what’s needed. I don’t know how I work or how it works. I just try to stay open, available and in the moment.

“But having just done a play where you need an enormous amount of technique, there’s always that balance. And that’s actually the great thing about working in different mediums and working with different directors. You exercise so many parts of your artistic abilities because of the people you’re working with.”

While Kidman’s dedication and varied approach to acting might not have altered much since her breakthrough role in the 1989 thriller Dead Calm, she does admit that, as she nears 50, her filmography carries a slightly heavier burden.

Be here, be present, and have a good time.

“Decades start to go fast when you get to my age. People say it goes so quickly, and when you’re young, you’re like: ‘Ya, right!’ But as you get older, you go: ‘They were so right,’ ” Kidman says of her desire to gamble artistically late into her comfortable career. “Talk about carpe diem! That’s probably why I try to do so much right now — because time is so precious.”

Her voice turns soft and delicate when she mentions the loss of her father just over a year ago — a shock that prompted the actress to reframe her career with a new perspective.

“From that point on, I’ve gone: ‘Don’t worry about anything, jump in, have fun, give it a go. If it doesn’t work out, try the next thing. Be here, be present, and have a good time.’ ”

Success hasn’t simply meant taking on films with personal resonance for Kidman. These days, she also considers the directors and people behind the movies that will keep her miles away from her husband, country-music star Keith Urban, and their four kids as she films for weeks on end in remote locations.

That’s partly what propelled her to such projects as Lion, which was directed by young hotshot Garth Davis. “He’s got a very kind of soulful, laid-back approach to things so I was just very happy to be part of his vision,” Kidman says.

The same goes for the Australian-produced TV series Top of the Lake by Oscar-winning filmmaker Jane Campion (“I’ve known her since I was 14 so I went back and did that and I had the best time, actually”), and Big Little Lies, directed by Montreal-born auteur Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club).

“I’m in such a great place in the sense of being able to work with and support new directors or bold directors,” says Kidman, happy to draw a line between work and play. “Then I catch a plane and go back to my real life.”

Steve Gow is a Toronto-based entertainment writer and editor.