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Nicole Kidman on Filming Big Little Lies’ ‘Uncomfortable’ Fight Scenes and the Emotional Challenges of the Role

Academy Award winner Nicole Kidman didn’t realize what being on a popular TV show would be like. On the Philadelphia set of her new film, Untouchable, Big Little Lies is all anyone wants to chat with her about around set. “The crew is always coming up and going, ‘Tell me about this! Tell me about that!’ and wanting to talk about the relationships and dissect the scenes,” she says. “I’ve never been in that before. That’s the beauty of TV. I just go, ‘Well, wait till next week.’ It’s really such a new place for me to be in. I love it.”

Kidman, an executive producer on the HBO adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s best-selling novel, optioned the book with her friend Reese Witherspoon, who also stars in and executive produces the series. She plays Celeste Wright — a gorgeous, wealthy wife and mother caught up in a vicious cycle of domestic abuse. With only one episode of the mini-series left to air, Kidman spoke to Vulture about the emotional and physical challenges of the role; working with Alexander Skarsgård, who plays her husband; and why it was hard to say good-bye to a production with so many women in leading roles.

When you and Reese decided to option the book and move ahead with the project, did you know right away that you would play Celeste?
Liane, the author, wanted me to play Celeste, so it wasn’t discussed. It just naturally fell into that place.

And how did you feel about that? Was that the character that you wanted to play?
As an actress, we can read something and feel it, and in this case I could feel probably all of the women, which is a great thing. But I suppose Celeste was the most natural fit for me, just because I could feel her pulsating off the page. Then, as David E. Kelley started to write it, he wrote it specifically for me, so it started to have its own voice. It’s a strange thing because in the book, yes, I could feel her very powerfully. Liane did such a great job of capturing that marriage and that relationship. But David started to mold it, and then I would work with David molding things as well, and with [director] Jean-Marc [Vallée]. I did an enormous amount of research, and I also approach things viscerally. So as much as there was an intellectual approach, this character was incredibly visceral.

What were the important things for you to show in her?
Initially, Liane said to me, “when you play Celeste, she fights back.” That’s a very important part of her nature, and it’s a huge part of her guilt, which keeps her in that mea culpa place of I’m to blame. It’s my fault because of the things that I do. Those therapy scenes are so astute and beautifully rendered and written. Jean-Marc just let those scenes breathe, so they play out in real time. You have the love; you have the guilt; you have the addiction. You have the pain, and you have the responsibility. A lot of it was that Jean-Marc doesn’t rehearse. We didn’t rehearse anything. We just came in and we just shot. Then the scenes that were very sexual, I haven’t seen that very often in film, let alone on television, but I think it’s very real. I’ve had so many women coming up to me and saying, “oh, I have a friend”; or, “I relate to that”; or, “oh my gosh, it’s so devastating”; or, “when I watch that, I just feel like I’m watching reality, you know? It doesn’t feel like I’m watching a show,” which is fantastic.

How hard was that on you? After the fight scenes, and even the sex scenes, did you feel emotionally drained?
Afterward, I would just be quiet. I would go home and be quiet. After we shot some of the really, really violent scenes, I was in a lot of pain myself. My body was. It was very strange. It was very uncomfortable. It wasn’t a good feeling, I have to say. But women go through this, so I wanted to tap into the truth of it, and I wanted to be real in those scenes, so that’s what it required — an element of violence. The way in which Jean-Marc shoots, where there’s so much documentary style to some of those things, I was pretty beat up myself. It wasn’t good. I feel weird talking about it. I’m not comfortable because — I don’t know — I feel like I want the work to speak for itself, and I don’t like dissecting it too much. It’s probably one of the hardest roles I’ve had to talk about because I’m still very raw about it, if that makes any kind of sense. It’s weird.

It makes perfect sense. Jean-Marc said that you also worked with a body double. Was that to help you choreograph the fights?
There was — there’s this scene later on in the finale where we used that so that she could show me, and then I would just get in there and do it myself. The scene in the dressing room, for example, there wasn’t a body double. We just felt through it. Alex was so fantastic to work with because he was so into it and open and available. It’s a roller coaster, their relationship. It’s a very, very difficult relationship to map over seven hours.

The writing of the relationship is extraordinary and unexpected. When they go to that first therapy session, you don’t expect him to be the one to be more open about the violence.
Yeah, it felt very, very real. Obviously, this doesn’t represent every domestic-violence relationship. But in terms of this particular relationship and the many that mirror this in the world, that’s a very, very real part of a relationship like this. There’s so much at stake for Celeste, and she feels that she has to protect him because he is a good man. She doesn’t feel he’s a bad man. She doesn’t. She’s married to him. She loves him. She’s got two children with him. As I said in the scene, he stood by me through thick and thin. “You don’t understand,” I say to the therapist. I think that’s why people watch that and go, oh, there’s something there that’s very truthful to why people stay in those relationships. It’s very sad, but it’s so great that amid all of the entertainment value of this show, you can still tap into some topical things that are hopefully really truthful because it’s not gratuitous and it’s not exploitive.

She takes a lot of the responsibility on, but then in episode five, the therapist makes her confront it. She tells her a few times, “He hurts you,” and she has to face it.
It’s shame, an enormous amount of shame. But please, let’s talk about Reese! Let’s talk about [Shailene Woodley]. [Laughs] How great are they? How great is [Laura Dern]? How great are all of them in this? Right? Let’s stop talking about me. Please.

Reese is so much fun to watch. Madeline is something.
She’s totally brilliant — and the way she handles language. She’s like quicksilver. She can just move through emotions. That’s one-of-a-kind talent there. So it’s fantastic to watch. And Shay also, raw, and Laura is like watching a high-wire act. I just love seeing women of this caliber all together in a show, and it’s fun to revel in their talent. So I’m just so glad that we got it made.

I love Madeline and Celeste’s friendship. The scene where Celeste opens up to Madeline a little bit about the relationship was so interesting. Madeline’s reaction — she was so intrigued and excited by it.
Yeah, I love Reese’s reaction. She’s like, whoa, bit weird but kind of fascinating, too. [Laughs] Yeah, well that’s what it is. Everyone’s got their secrets, right? I love the stuff in the car after Celeste started being a lawyer for a second just to her help out. I love that scene in the car where we both say we want more.

Tell me about casting Alexander Skarsgård.
Yeah, he was so good. I wanted him! I wanted him badly. [Laughs] I was like, come on, please. Come on, HBO, we’ve gotta get him. They had a relationship with him already [working on True Blood]. He was really amazing because he wanted to work with Jean-Marc, and it’s a great role for him. It’s not what it seems, so he followed the spirit and he really captured it, I think. He’s obviously got that ability to pull you in and hold you, and he breaks down, you know? He has that whole fragility to him as well — so this sort of dominance and then this fragility; it’s a weird mix. And, obviously, he’s very tall as well, which is really, really helpful for me. It’s not often that I look small. So physically he’s very dominating as well, which is frightening, but I take him on.

You sure do. You sent him to the hospital this week!
That’s right. That’s right!

Earlier in the episode, the therapist plants the idea of Celeste setting up a safe haven for the boys and herself. I was surprised at the end of the episode to see her actually moving toward that.
Trying, right? Inching her way out. But there’s a lot more to talk about in the finale. Just wait and see. I’m so glad people are so into it. People come up and say they haven’t seen this tone on television, or this many great women for a long time. That’s so cool.

This could have easily been a breezy, soapy murder mystery — fun, but not as realistic or deep.
That’s the beauty of Jean-Marc and David’s writing. And then you’re dealing with people like Laura and Reese. There’s just so much experience. And Shay — even though she’s so young — and [Zoë Kravitz], they still have this incredible well of emotion and understanding. But Jean-Marc has to be lauded as the director because, yes, it could have had a very, very different approach. He was an editor originally, and his filmmaking skills are masterful. He shot all seven of them, and he works so hard and understands every character, and had to deal with every single story line and nuance culminating in the final episode, which I think is the best episode.

The movie you are shooting now sounds like it’s more of a traditional production as opposed to Jean-Marc’s style. Is it hard for you to go back to that?
It’s more traditional, and I’m with Kevin Hart and Bryan Cranston. So it’s very different. But for me as an actor, I just love having the diversity. I love exploring humanity through these roles, and I have so many questions about life and why we’re here. My whole thrust as a child was always philosophical, and my mother said I was always a very intense child. So this is the way in which I navigate through my life — finding these different roles that are very, very different and diverse. Otherwise, I don’t think I’d have the energy or the desire. Celeste was very, very deep for me, and I’m so grateful to have that role and then to do something like Lion, which is a whole different thing. There’s a reason behind wanting to do certain things. But I would like to just go and do something very, very lightweight at some point. Incredibly popcorn or even bubble gum. I wouldn’t mind if it was bubble gum.

Do you feel like you learned something new working with Jean-Marc?
Oh, he’s a master. I would so love to work with him again. You step on the set; you don’t rehearse; you’re in character, and off we go. It was so simpatico for us. I felt joined at the hip with him, and I loved the way he works. It was really sad saying good-bye. A lot of times, I go and work with the directors again because I get very, very attached.

Does that style of not rehearsing, just shooting, work better for you?
No, because I did a play in London where we rehearsed for six weeks, and we got to really mine the material. It’s different. You have to adapt, and that’s part of the excitement — the adjustment. If it’s uncomfortable, I have to just move through it. It’s all an exploration; it’s fascinating. But the beauty is, I get to connect with really profound, brilliant minds — and there come along times when I realize I have learned things, or I’ve grown or have been pushed into territories or places I didn’t expect to go. That’s what I want out of my life. I’ve always wanted a well-examined life. I don’t want to just coast along. I’m deeply curious about people and ideas and the whys. I suppose I’m always on a quest to feel my way through what it all is.

You’re working with two men now. Even though you worked a lot with Alexander on Big Little Lies, that set was unique in that there were so many prominent roles for women. Was it difficult to leave that?
I was so sad to say good-bye because we all became very, very close. It was one of the great joys of doing the show. And, yes, they’re a particular environment of women — and I get to go on and do other women from all different socioeconomic backgrounds and all different cultures, and that’s the beauty of being an actress. But there was an enormous amount of protection and love for these characters from us as women. It was lovely being in their skin for a period of time, just because of the complexity of them and their truth. I really think there’s an enormous amount of truth that vibrates, and that’s why people are responding. I’ll shut up now! I’ve got to go! I’ve got to go back to Kevin and Bryan!

Okay! Is there anything you can say to tease the last episode?
I think it’s the best.

That’s what Jean-Marc said, too.
And it made me cry.

Nicole Kidman on Filming Big Little Lies’ Fight Scenes