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INTERVIEW : Portrait of an Iron Lady : Nicole Kidman may be charming, sweet and well-married, but that's not what landed her the choicest role of her career.

October 01, 1995|Laurie Werner | Laurie Werner is a free - lance writer based in New York

NEW YORK — When Nicole Kidman was pursuing the role of Suzanne Stone, the TV-obsessed would-be anchorwoman in "To Die For," which opened in theaters Wednesday, she got director Gus Van Sant's number and called him at home. This, according to Van Sant, doesn't happen very often. And neither does what happened next: Van Sant cast her immediately, without screen-testing, over the phone.

"She said she felt destined to play this part," the director explains. "And that kind of set me aback. But I felt that if she felt destined to play it, she would work harder than you normally would. She was so convinced that she would be the best choice that that was enough. I figured we could work it out."

It certainly helped that by steamrolling Van Sant with the force of her ambition, she was displaying quintessential Suzanne, a small-town girl so determined to make it on national TV that she'll stop at nothing to get there, even seducing a high school student into killing her husband. (The film is based on Joyce Maynard's novel which is in turn loosely based on the Pamela Smart case.) And, as Van Sant observed throughout the shoot, such intensity is also quintessential Nicole, evident even in the simplest activities such as playing a board game on an afternoon off. "She was so focused on the game that she would win, she'd won all the games that she'd played," he recalls. "Her philosophy was, simply, to win. She's very directed, very driven."

When told of his statements, Kidman just laughs, a wild, raucous, wall-bouncing laugh. "Oh, Gus, Gus . . , " she says. Sitting on a couch in a Manhattan hotel, sipping tea and lemon to combat a sore throat she got flying in from London for this 24-hour visit, she looks paler, more vulnerable than such a swaggering description would suggest. Her trademark naturally curly red hair is straighter, blonder for the role she's currently shooting, Isabel Archer in Jane Campion's version of the Henry James novel "The Portrait of a Lady." When she's seated, you don't get the full effect of her towering, 5-foot-10 height. Her manner is friendly, charming, self-effacing, sweet.

"When [I heard about the Suzanne role] I thought, 'I'll never get it--it'll be offered to someone else,' " she explains. "So I called Gus at home and he took my call, thank God. I told him I'd seen 'Drugstore Cowboy' and I really wanted to work with him. I said I was destined to work with him."

As much as Kidman, 28, may want to deny the outward evidence of her ambition, however, she can't deny the results that that ambition has produced. To put it simply, it's been quite a year. First, she was on display in the showy role of the brazenly seductive Chase Meridien in this summer's "Batman Forever." Now the buzz on "To Die For," starting in Cannes, proclaimed that, surprise, she really could act, that she could be funny, compelling, that she could carry a film. She then went into a prestige project that practically every young actress in Hollywood wanted for a director whose last film, "The Piano," won an Oscar for its star (Holly Hunter). Added together, these three will probably propel her into the upper ranks, to a position where she'll no longer have to call directors to campaign. And take her out of the shadow of her previously most famous role, that of Mrs. Tom Cruise.

Perched on the edge of that individual stardom, Kidman, also balancing that marriage and being a mother of two, clearly has a lot on her hands. "Look at me," she says between coughs. "I'm stressed, I'm sick!" But gratified nonetheless. "I know that I'm in a situation now of being in a movie that I'm proud of," she says. "It's so great just having a chance to play roles like this. It's what you dream of but it never happens."

During the six years she's been in Hollywood, she's certainly been working--doing films such as "Days of Thunder," "My Life," "Billy Bathgate," "Malice"--but she did wonder whether the big break would ever happen for her. Part of the reason, of course, is the Cruise factor; in a spotlight that bright, her own development as an actress was skewed.

"I came to the States and did 'Days of Thunder,' married Tom Cruise and it became a whole different situation," she says. "I wasn't this young actress working in the industry. It was all this attention, overwhelming and strange."

At the time she hadn't even thought she'd get married; raised by a biochemist father and a feminist mother and educated by her school to concentrate on a career, she thought she'd emulate her idol Katharine Hepburn and not marry. Once she met Cruise, she changed her mind but totally underestimated the "Mrs. Tom Cruise thing" because, as she says, she was naive, young and Australian. "I didn't come from America so I didn't understand the whole idea of movie stars and the way America deals with it. The scrutiny on your life is . . . weird," she explains.

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