| Kidman attends the 9th Annual Premiere Women in Hollywood meeting in Beverly Hills. (Reuters)
London, Nov. 10: It was both an unlikely and inspired piece of casting. For his follow-up to Billy Elliot, Stephen Daldry chose the glamourous Nicole Kidman, fresh from her Oscar-nominated performance in the glittering Moulin Rouge, to play the tormented Virginia Woolf in The Hours.
For the Australian actress, it was initially an exciting and daring challenge, but, as filming was about to begin and her marriage to Tom Cruise collapsed, the role of the depressed and suicidal writer became an emotional burden she did not feel she could bear. “My life had basically fallen apart and suddenly I was put in the position of having to play Virginia and not really wanting to act and not really wanting to make a film,” she recalls.
“I tried to get out of it but I wasn’t allowed to; so I went, ‘OK, off I go’ and I basically just absorbed her. I was in an emotional frame where I was able to receive her and all of the things she was struggling with.”
Totally unrecognisable in the role, thanks to make-up and a prosthetic nose, Kidman is already being tipped to receive another Oscar nomination for her extraordinary performance, something that Daldry firmly endorses.
“Nicole is a movie star, but unlike a number of movie stars, she is a transforming actress,” he says. “The combination is incredibly rare. The fact that she manages to make such a transformation in this role confirms her as possibly one of the major actors of her generation. It is an unusual and brilliant skill.”
Daldry and Kidman are talking during a brief reunion in Los Angeles where the actress is taking a break from the shooting of her latest film, Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain.
Daldry has flown in for the day from New York, where he has been rehearsing Caryl Churchill’s play Far Away. They are a contrasting couple: the ebullient 35-year-old Kidman, dressed in a white Victorian summer dress with a gold sash, and the reserved Daldry, 42, dressed all in black.
Daldry chose The Hours — set for UK release in the new year — for his second feature film after the playwright David Hare sent him the first draft of a screenplay he had written, based on Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. “Like many folk, I have Virginia Woolf in my bones,” says Daldry.
“I had been brought up with her. I studied her at university and I suppose I have always felt a very strong connection with her.” He strengthened the connection by using his own house as Virginia Woolf’s Sussex home and his New York apartment for modern-day scenes in the film.
“The Hours interweaves the story of a day in the life of three women in different eras: Virginia Woolf in England at the time she was writing Mrs Dalloway; a 1950s Florida housewife, played by Julianne Moore; and a contemporary New York book editor portrayed by Meryl Streep. All three have lesbian tendencies and, like Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, the two American women are preparing to throw parties. All three turn out to have stronger links, through a kiss and through a death.
“What first attracted me to the project was that it didn’t feel like any other film I’d ever seen, so there was no template to work from,” says Daldry. “There was nothing I could look to that might help me, and that challenge is something that I’ve always enjoyed. Having three stories has obviously been done before, but trying to find a very delicate emotional arc that tied them together so that it felt like one story and like one woman’s day rather than three women’s days was a huge challenge both for me and David Hare and we spent many happy months fretting over it.”
In casting Nicole Kidman, Daldry says he was looking for “a different Virginia Woolf... an actress who could bring something to the part that was dangerous, that was unexpected. Nicole seemed to me to be incredibly emotionally available. She was very vulnerable. But I suspect that’s what she’s like, rather than it just being to do with the circumstances of her divorce.”
When Daldry sent her the script, called her and offered her the role, Kidman re-read Mrs Dalloway, which she had last read at school, and then delved into Woolf’s other books. “It was strange, because where I was at in terms of my life, suddenly everything that I read in relation to her seemed so relevant and so deep and profound; and suddenly her voice spoke to my soul.” She laughs. “And when that happens as an actor, you say, ‘I have to do this,’ and that was me jumping off the cliff.”
Because of previous commitments, Kidman filmed her scenes long after Streep and Moore had finished theirs, by which time her marriage had ended in a blaze of publicity and she was in a fragile state emotionally. “When I received the offer, I was fine,” she says, “but by the time we got to shoot it, I was a little more precarious.”
But with the help of two-and-a-half hours spent being made up every morning, she became the brilliant, tortured and occasionally insane Virginia Woolf.
“I have a process where I try to find the character through a pair of shoes or through things like, how am I going to walk' How do I feel as her'” she says. “I would sit in the make-up chair, just listen to music and put my head back and they would apply it all and then I would step out of the trailer and I was Virginia. I loved the process and I loved having that patrician profile.
“It was almost like a dance to get there and then I’d step on to the set and it was very liberating, and very freeing. It was smoking cigarettes, the hanky, the way in which the dress fell, the nose, the hair... all of it came together, and then my voice changed as well.” Being left-handed, she even had to learn to write with her right hand.
The scene of Virginia Woolf’s suicide called for the actress to walk into a river and gradually sink under the surface, remaining underwater for one minute.
“I was frightened I was drowning Nicole Kidman,” recalls Daldry with a smile. “It was absolutely freezing and it was a very fast current. I put divers in case she was swept away, but when you see that shot of Virginia underwater, being dragged away, that’s Nicole. There were no body doubles in there.”
Kidman has been in Romania, playing a farmer’s wife during the American Civil War, but the memory of Virginia Woolf lives with her. “Her struggle was: ‘Let me live my own life; don’t tell me how to live it. It may not ultimately be the healthiest way to live and I may end up dying far sooner, but at least I will have lived it to the degree that I wanted to and at least it was my choice’,” she says.
“I think these themes resonate and are very important now because there is a lot of judgement in the world. I was sad because her struggle was a huge part of her life, but then I also understood in terms of how it fed her creativity.”