Helen Mirren and Nicole Kidman haven't met before this moment--the afternoon after the Academy Awards' nominee luncheon earlier this month. This is a blind date, at the behest of the Los Angeles Times, but that doesn't stop the pair from gabbing, about the actor's life, everything from hemorrhaging vocal cords and stage fright, to the idiosyncrasies of directors and the actresses' mutual love of Vegemite, a distinctly non-American affection for yeast extract.
Mirren, most famous for her role as Detective Inspector Jane Tennison in the British TV series "Prime Suspect," arrived in sleek black pants and a black sweater. At 56, she's trim and petite and half a foot shorter than the 34-year old Kidman, who is at once ethereal and vaguely saucy in a frothy cream-colored slip she found in a flea market and turned into a dress.
Mirren has been nominated as best supporting actress for her role as the steely chief housekeeper in Robert Altman's "Upstairs Downstairs"-style murder-mystery "Gosford Park," while Kidman earned her best actress nomination for her portrayal of the doomed courtesan Satine in Baz Luhrmann's extravagant musical "Moulin Rouge." It's hard to imagine two more disparate performances, but together, they exemplify almost the complete range of the female experience, from Kidman's sassy exhibitionism, with its undercurrent of vulnerability, to Mirren's self-abnegating stoicism, a muted passion play rendered in a thousand shades of gray.
The two have appeared on both stage and screen.
Helen Mirren: People often ask me, which is your favorite thing, theater or film? And, I would say, which is the absolute truth, the one that I don't happen to be doing at the time.
Nicole Kidman: Yeah [laughing].
Mirren: And it all has to do with sleep. When you're doing theater, you think, oh, film is so easy by comparison, and then when you're doing film, you think, if I didn't have to get up early in the morning, wouldn't it be so wonderful? Did you enjoy the theater?
Kidman [who appeared in the "The Blue Room" in London and New York in 1998]: Oh, I loved it, but I lost my voice in the last week, which was harrowing.
Mirren: I just lost my voice in "Dance of Death" [recently on Broadway]. I had to take two shows off.
Kidman: I had to take the whole last week. It was devastating. I lost it on the stage, while I was screaming as the character. I had a cold, and I was screaming, and suddenly, it was a surreal moment, gone! The voice was just gone. There was just nothing. And as an actor, it's the most horrifying thing. Because I then get into the whole panic. I'm like out of Woody Allen, where, oh no, that means it'll never come back. It means there's something dreadfully wrong now with my voice.
Mirren: I can imagine. But I was told when I was doing "Dance of Death," if I went on the stage that night, I was in danger of destroying my voice for good, because it had hemorrhaged.
Kidman: That's what I had! I'm so glad it happened to someone else. I felt like such a failure.
Mirren: It was mortifying not to do the show.
Kidman: But you have to. I've realized the most important thing an actor has is their voice.
Mirren: In fact, it was funny with the little SAG Award (which Mirren won for best supporting actress), they've got no mouth. He's an actor, and he's got no mouth. That's a strange decision for them to make. That's the most important thing to have. And you understand on stage as well how psychological the voice is. Every nuance of insecurity within yourself and fear and everything, how amazingly it comes out in the voice, without you being able to control it at all.
Question: Neither of you are Americans. Do you feel like outsiders in Hollywood?
Mirren: I think Hollywood has always been made up of people from other places.
Kidman: Everyone feels like an outsider. You never feel like you're in the club. Someone said very interestingly, "When you step foot in Hollywood, you feel like a failure." For some reason, no matter how successful you've been, you always feel like you're not really good enough.
Mirren: I'm not an actress in Hollywood. I don't even sort of appear on the radar screen in Hollywood in actress terms. But I am married to an American film director [Taylor Hackford], whose world is Hollywood. So I sort of see it from two different perspectives. I've come to respect the industry side of it and how incredibly well-organized it is.
Kidman: How long have you been with Taylor?
Mirren: Well, we were together for 15 or 16 years and then got married, which is a good way to do it.
Kidman: Wow! I'm going to take that advice. I'm very sure.
Mirren: Very sure, and it was time.
Kidman: You did it in Scotland. I was in Britain when you got married, and it was everywhere.
Mirren: Yes, because I never wanted to get married and I'd been quoted very often saying I wasn't interested in marriage and I wasn't. I never was.
Kidman: Did he propose a lot?