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Karyn Kusama Says Nicole Kidman Was ‘Disturbed’ by Destroyer

Photo: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

Destroyer follows Nicole Kidman as the hard-living, hard-boiled detective Erin Bell. Years after a tragic event threw her life into disarray, an old case comes across Bell’s desk that forces her to dredge up a past life she’s been trying to drink away ever since she left it behind. There’s a man named Silas (Toby Kebbell) she has to find, and Bell will empty whatever is left of her internal tank (that’s filled mostly with booze, hate, and pain) to reach him and make him pay for past sins. It’s Kusama’s most bleak film to date, but one that’s also ribboned with gallows humor and tender humanity. Vulture chatted with the director about why she identifies with Kidman’s relentless Detective Bell, how she approached Destroyer’s intense hand job scene, and why she hopes Donald Trump sees her new movie.

So I would imagine if you get the chance to have Nicole Kidman star in your movie, you say yes to Nicole Kidman. But given how weathered the character of Erin is, did you ever have specific intentions of casting someone who wouldn’t require so much making over to become her, or were you always pretty open?
I was really open. I mean, she wasn’t initially on our radar for this particular movie, largely probably because we hadn’t seen her do anything like this particular thing or look like our conception of the character, which was so deeply broken. It was that adventurousness of hers, to say, “Look, I get it. I would have to disappear into the role and essentially become the character. I’d have to lose myself to play this role, and that disturbs me a lot, and I really want to do it.” The fact that Nicole came to the role, lobbied for herself, I just felt like, okay, an artist of her caliber is saying, “It disturbs me, and I want to do it.” That’s what you dream of hearing from an actor that you love and respect, and who you know is capable of such deep, great work. So that was exciting to me, and she was so open to me guiding the process in some respects. It was a lot of trust right off the bat between the two of us, and it created a really, I would say, very unusual and intense collaborative relationship.

Unusual how?
Movie stars don’t have a lot of time, and I think directors are often kind of looking for, “I need the check in with you. I need to sit down with you. I just need us to be together,” and in the case of this role, I always knew I needed that intense communion over the role itself and the character herself. And Nicole, while she may be the crazy busiest person I’ve ever met in my life, she did make that time for me, and we did find this kind of sacred space for ourselves to just be asking questions and trying to sort of decode the character. I hope actors give a lot of their time and their energy and their souls and hearts to roles, but I don’t know if they always do. And she does.

Does your directorial approach change when you’re working with a veteran at Nicole’s level?
She’s worked with some of the greatest directors of all time. I think Nicole, when she’s on the set working on this movie, she’s not the star. She is Erin, so it’s more about managing a person like Erin.

Who is extremely difficult.
So you’re kind of going through layers in a way, working across this sort of psychic thread — or I felt I was with Nicole — where I was sort of speaking to Erin and reaching Nicole, who was sort of somewhere sort of hiding out in the back of her brain. It’s me saying sometimes, “I really need you centered in the frame, so I need you to take a step to the left. I’m sorry if it’s a pain in the ass.” Trying to keep it simple, because Nicole sort of came up with a code word for me. She would say, “I’m thinking too much,” and so what that meant was I was thinking too much, and I was giving her too much information and she can’t process it.

Like there was too much Nicole coming into the scene.
Exactly. She was always asking for what I could be giving her that would steer her with the fewest amount of words. And that’s Erin. Erin doesn’t talk very much, and so it was interesting to find a much more sort of clean, minimal, pure communication between us. Also, we didn’t have the time or the resources to mess around. It was a very fast shoot and low budget for what it was, so we were working every day kind of feeling like our backs were up against a wall

I wanted to ask you about the hand job scene, because it happens pretty early on in the movie and establishes just how far Erin is willing to go to see this case through. It’s sad and upsetting, but also dry and funny at points, and I wanted to hear about how that came together.
It is a loaded scene, particularly in today’s times, so it was really important for me and for Phil [Hay] and Matt [Manfredi], the writers, and for Nicole that we understood both characters are sort of victimized by the ugliness of their past, but neither are victims in this moment. It is a very blunt exchange that is meant to really serve her purposes, and there was agency there. In the script it was described as “a cold blackness comes over her,” and part of what I think makes the scene really powerful is you just understand, “Okay, she’s going to do it, and it’s going to be really revealing and unpleasant,” and I loved the idea that we get to watch this character sort of just administer this. It’s very transactional. There’s nothing about it that feels debasing.

The vulnerability that we get from him is almost more uncomfortable for her, that he’s practically sobbing from human contact. And I said to him while we were shooting, “I just want you to keep in mind that other than his mother, this is the only woman who will probably ever touch him again for the rest of his life.” And James Jordan, the incredibly wonderful actor, he just was like, “Oh man. That’s sad.” And I was just like, “Yeah, so get into the sadness of it, because this whole exchange is not meant to be titillating. It’s actually meant to be really sad.”

And yet while this whole bleak scenario is playing out and information is being traded for a hand job on a dying man, they’re just in this living room filled with weird owl statues! Were the owls in the script or was that more of a game-time decision?
Oh, yeah. Phil and Matt leave nothing to chance when it comes to moments of humor that are truly genius, and they are very good at creating moments that feel off the cuff but are in fact highly constructed.

So did you have final owl approval?
I did want a certain owl. That owl that Erin talks about, I said, “I need an owl that actually you don’t want to look at for too long, because it does look like it’s looking back,” and they found the perfect owl that looked like it had human eyes that would move if you move.

Erin also gets her ass truly beat in this movie, and not in a choreographed Hollywood fight scene kind of way. She’s not a warrior. She’s just so driven it’s like she’s impossible to stop.
I think for me honestly, something about the elemental qualities of watching a woman be put through a ringer and be beaten down literally and figuratively, and be so furious by it that she lashes out — that for me is emblematic of just being female at this point. You know, I don’t know a ton of women who watched the Kavanaugh hearings and didn’t just feel like it was a literal punch to the gut. Again. And this is what’s at stake. It is literally our lives. It is a sense of our humanness at stake, because we keep giving a free pass to these fuckers.

Even though Erin has her moments of intense personal corruption and she earns her later shame for her actions, I identify with her fury and I get it. I mean, I need to see a woman deal with somebody like [Bradley Whitford’s character] Dennis DiFranco, just haul ass and beat the shit out of him. You know? I don’t think it’s something I want to become a trope of my work, because I ultimately think it’s a really ineffective tool, and vengeance generally is not something I’m really wanting to explore as an entertainment value concept. But I get it.

Erin is actually the form of female vengeance I would like to see come for evil men. I don’t necessarily want like a Marvel superhero with a shiny suit to come in. I want Erin Bell to walk in looking fresh from the depths of hell.
Wouldn’t that be so great? One of our lovely, lovely financiers, Micah Green, he called me one day after seeing another cut of the movie and just said, “I just wish we could screen this movie for the president.” And I was like, “Wouldn’t that be amazing?!”

Just Destroyer as the White House Saturday night movie.
Exactly. I hope he gets his screener soon!

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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