She's standing alone in a corner of a Cap d'Antibes hotel room, a few miles from the Cannes filmfest where her latest movie, "Moulin Rouge," had its world premiere two days before.
And you know in an instant that Nicole Kidman is a movie star. Maybe it's her modest but radiant smile, or the elegant way she wears her casual clothes, or her self-assured friendliness as she greets the small group of journalists who've come to make her acquaintance and ask about her new picture.
You also know there's nothing phony about her pleasure in being at Cannes, meeting new people, or talking about her work. In an age of hype and pretense, she's clearly genuine.
She's also cool under fire, since "Moulin Rouge" got decidedly mixed responses here. One newspaper printed a summary of reviews including phrases like "dripping in camp" and "a complete load of rubbish."
What does Kidman think? It's hard for her to be objective after spending 192 days before the camera, undergoing two on-set injuries and now helping to publicize the picture. But she seems to admire it as much as the most enthusiastic critics, like the French reviewer who called it a "fabulous ode to showmanship."
Ability to laugh at herself
Kidman certainly has her career - and her image - in perspective. Asked about director Baz Luhrmann's description of her as a "screen goddess," she has a good-natured chuckle over this typical bit of Hollywood hyperbole, noting that Luhrmann has been cultivating this notion as part of his strategy for promoting the movie.
"You can't take yourself too seriously," she adds, explaining how she maintains a balanced view of herself and her work. "You need to be able to laugh at yourself, and I enjoy people who are little off-kilter.
"In fact, my whole family is slightly mad. My dad tap-dances and also runs marathons, and has a weird sense of humor. I grew up with him reading Mad magazine to me!"
Kidman's ability to take things in stride is illustrated by her willingness to do something new for her "Moulin Rouge" role: enter a recording studio for her first "real" musical work. She did "a bit of singing" when she was 17, in a band called Divine Madness, but that was mainly for fun.
"This was like being pushed off a cliff," she says of her "Moulin Rouge" crooning, "and Baz had to convince me I'd be able to do it!"
Working with Luhrmann, whose other movies are "Strictly Ballroom" and "Romeo + Juliet," was quite a switch for Kidman after her previous project for a world-famous director. That was the controversial drama "Eyes Wide Shut," in which she and husband Tom Cruise (from whom she is now separated) starred for Stanley Kubrick, a filmmaker with a serious, cerebral touch.
"Baz is a participator," she explains, "whereas Kubrick was more of a voyeur. Baz never says 'less, less,' as a director or a person. He loves to talk. But he always watches and analyzes. He enjoys people and makes grand statements in his movies.... Maybe next time he'll make a small, intimate, naturalistic drama - but I doubt it!"
Kidman talks readily about the filmmakers she's worked with, because she considers the director's style to be the key element of a movie. She acknowledges that her admiration for forceful filmmaking runs against the view of many American-trained actors, who prefer the freedom allowed by less strong-minded directors.
"I become very devoted to a director if I admire him," she says, "and I choose my projects based on the director.... I like the idea of people who have really strong opinions about what they want, and I love being devoted to somebody and his vision, the same way I become very passionate about a particular novel I've read or a painting I've seen."
Supporting offbeat directors
She's also savvy enough about the motion-picture industry to know that movie stars can play a part in making or breaking a filmmaker's career.
"I think that as an actor you have a duty to support certain directors," she explains, "because if you have some [industry] power you can help to finance a movie. That's how you find the next generation of Kubricks and [Kyzysztof] Kieslowskis and [Ingmar] Bergmans, who don't necessarily have a chance to flourish in the industry now, since the films that make the most money today are formulaic action films and thrillers. Those can be very good movies, but they're not necessarily changing cinema or challenging our idea of what cinema is."
Kidman means what she says, and any doubt is quelled by a look at her forthcoming projects. Her next release, due from Miramax this August, is "The Others," a psychological thriller directed by Alejandro Amenabar, the rising Spanish filmmaker. She's looking forward to shooting an "experimental movie" with Danish auteur Lars von Trier, whose "Dancer in the Dark" and "Breaking the Waves" broke strongly with cinematic conventions. She is also developing collaborations with her close friend Jane Campion, whose films include "The Piano" and "Portrait of a Lady," and Stephen Daldry, whose "Billy Elliot" competed in this year's Academy Awards race.
While this is a diverse list of directors, they share with Luhrmann an ability to pursue individualistic ideas while working within the world of mainstream moviemaking. "Moulin Rouge" is unorthodox in many respects, from its kinetic editing to its cut-and-paste musical numbers. But it's also a product of Twentieth Century Fox, an old-line Hollywood studio that wants to attract the widest possible audience.
"It's a studio movie," Kidman notes, "but Baz wasn't dictated to at all. He's quite uncompromising, which is great! And the [studio] has been very supportive of him. It's interesting when you get a director who can actually operate in the studio system - and so has access to financial support and distribution - yet still maintains his creative control completely.... I also have admiration for someone [completely independent] like Lars von Trier, but directors ultimately want people to see their films."
These comments about art vs. commerce inevitably turn attention to the story of "Moulin Rouge" itself, which focuses primarily on Kidman's character. She is Satine, a nightclub can-can dancer caught between the love of a poverty-stricken poet and the lust of a wealthy count who could help her become the serious actress she's always wanted to be.
"Satine's choice is about her future," Kidman points out. "Does she trust this [poet] who's telling her to believe in love? She has a [sense of] powerlessness, but she has to say, 'I'm willing ... to give myself over to you, and I believe you're not going to hurt me, and this is real.' On the other hand, Satine comes from the streets. She's always had to protect herself and take care of herself. She's a courtesan, and the Moulin Rouge is her home."
Satine ultimately chooses sentiment over success, of course, clearing the path to a schmaltzy Hollywood ending. "I'm glad the choice she makes is one of love," Kidman says with a smile.
Would she make the same decision if she were in the dancer's difficult shoes? The answer comes in a flash. "Absolutely!"
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor