How Nicole Kidman Puts Women First in Hollywood & Brings Domestic Violence Out in the Open

SANTA MONICA, Calif. — It was the morning after the Golden Globes featuring Meryl Streep and her impassioned remarks, and the visiting stars had turned in their gowns and begun to clear out of town. But Nicole Kidman was at HBO’s offices here, taking one last meeting before going home to Nashville.

The subject was “Big Little Lies,” the seven-episode series that she co-produced (and stars in) with Reese Witherspoon and that will begin airing on HBO on Sunday, Feb. 19. Based on the best-selling book by Liane Moriarty, the series features five women — the other three are played by Shailene Woodley, Zoe Kravitz and Laura Dern — in an upscale part of Monterey, Calif., that lends itself to social satire. As the story opens, parental warfare is threatening to break out following an unpleasant incident at the local elementary school.

First on the agenda: how to market “Big Little Lies” to reflect the humor, but also the serious drama and frothy melodrama.

A preliminary teaser campaign had already begun. Ads were appearing in magazines. Along Sunset Strip, billboards showed the words “It’s a Wonderful Life,” with the “F” knocked out of the final word and sliding away. Trailers emphasizing different aspects of the story had started to appear on television and cable.


From left, Shailene Woodley, Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman in “Big Little Lies” on HBO. Credit Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/HBO

Len Amato, president of HBO Films, said it was tricky to get the right balance. “If you only see a small bit of it, it could be really reductive.” He added: “We’re not doing ‘Desperate Housewives’ here. Nothing against ‘Desperate Housewives,’ but that wasn’t the focal point of why people wanted to make the series.”

Ms. Kidman is taking a lot of meetings like this one these days. In 2010, Blossom Films, her production company, made its first film, “Rabbit Hole,” a low-budget movie in which she played a mother grieving over the death of her child. It was an unexpected success. “I thought, oh my gosh, I can actually do this,” Kidman said in an interview later.

It opened up new possibilities for her in an industry known for being inhospitable toward actresses who have reached the unfortunate age of 40, even those who have won best actress Oscars. (Ms. Kidman, who is 49, won for “The Hours” in 2003.) Since “Rabbit Hole,” Blossom has produced the romantic comedy “Monte Carlo” and the unhappy family drama “The Family Fang,” and recently has picked up its pace in optioning the rights to books and plays. In today’s Hollywood, the best way to play interesting roles, or to ensure that complicated stories about adult women get to the screen (whether in theaters or on TV), is to take creative and business control.

“It’s allowed me to shape my career in terms of being able to find things that I may not get offered, that I wouldn’t get the opportunity for,” Ms. Kidman said in an interview after the meeting.

On this Monday in January, Ms. Kidman commanded the room, though she was relaxed, and at times playful (introducing her producing partner, Per Saari, she said the two are so close that “we’ve been married for 14 years”). Wearing navy tailored trousers and a crisp white shirt, she seemed taller in person, her Australian accent all the more striking because her non-Australian accents in her work are so familiar.

She said she has no real career plan, other than gravitating toward material that interests her, and seeking out writers and directors who are talented but unknown. Blossom commissions scripts out of pocket, to minimize what Ms. Kidman called in an email “the red tape.” She continues to act in projects she doesn’t produce, and vice versa. “I’m only going for the things that I’m passionate about,” she said. “Otherwise I can sit at home in Nashville and take care of my children” — referring to her two young daughters with her husband, the country singer Keith Urban — “and be very happy.”

Last month, Ms. Kidman was involved in a flap when remarks she made to the BBC about how Americans should come together to support the new president were taken to mean she admires President Donald J. Trump. She later said that she was merely “trying to stress that I believe in democracy and the American Constitution.”


“I’m only going for the things that I’m passionate about,” Ms. Kidman said. Credit Ryan Pfluger for The New York Times

Meanwhile, she is keeping up a fairly grueling acting schedule. In 2015, 17 years after starring in “The Blue Room,” Ms. Kidman returned to London’s West End for “Photograph 51,” playing the underappreciated British chemist Rosalind Franklin; her portrayal won her the best actress prize at the London Evening Standards theater awards. Later this month, she will learn if she’ll win a best supporting actress Oscar for her role as the adoptive mother of a lost Indian boy in the film “Lion.”

Last year, she shot “The Beguiled,” a Civil War-era film set in Virginia directed by Sofia Coppola, and “The Killing of a Sacred Deer,” the latest film, now in postproduction, from Yorgos Lanthimos, who directed “The Lobster.”

“I feel like I’m in a very safe place in my life right now, a place of feeling far more comfortable with myself so that I can be more extroverted,” she said. “It also means that I can work with people I like.”

It makes sense that “Big Little Lies” became a series on HBO rather than a feature film at a major studio. As superhero and other tentpole movies dominate the release schedules of the major studios, even bona fide movie stars like Natalie Portman, Daniel Craig and Bradley Cooper are bringing their projects to places like HBO, Showtime, Amazon and Netflix.

“There’s not as much of a separation anymore,” Ms. Witherspoon said in a telephone interview. “There’s a bigger pool to work in, the talent base is much broader than it used to be, and it’s become sort of a blur — what is television, what is a movie?”

Just two and a half years elapsed between conception to finished project. In the spring of 2014, Bruna Pappandrea, Ms. Witherspoon’s former partner in her production company (Pacific Standard), who is also friends with Ms. Kidman, read a galley of “Big Little Lies,” thought it was great and called Ms. Witherspoon, who was in New Orleans shooting “Hot Pursuit.” Entranced by the book, Ms. Witherspoon got Ms. Kidman, an old friend, to read it, too.

Ms. Kidman said she was drawn in by the many moods of the book, by its strong female characters, and that “as much as it’s about women who are feuding, who are trying to destroy one another, it’s also about friendships.” (The character she plays, Celeste, seems to have a perfect life, including a hunky younger husband played by Alexander Skarsgard, but it’s a facade that begins to peel away as the series goes on.)


Ms. Kidman and Jason Bateman in “The Family Fang” (2016). Credit Starz Digital

She called Ms. Witherspoon back. “I said, ‘I’m in if you’re in,’” Ms. Kidman recalled. “And she said, ‘I’m in. Now all we have to do is get it.’” That meant persuading the author, Ms. Moriarty, at home in Australia, to sell them the exclusive rights.

Ms. Kidman was on her way there for a vacation, and she and Ms. Moriarty met in a coffee shop in Sydney. Ms. Moriarty said she had not expected much from the meeting. “I’ve had other books optioned before, and other authors have said, ‘Never get too excited until the day they start shooting,’” she said by telephone. “And Nicole said, ‘If I option it, get excited because I don’t just option things for the sake of it.’”

Ms. Witherspoon then enlisted Jean-Marc Vallee, who directed Ms. Witherspoon in “Wild” — “And then Reese sends Jean-Marc an email,’” is how Ms. Kidman described it — and the two women then hired David E. Kelley (“Ally McBeal,” “The Practice”) to write the screenplay.

What ensued was a burst of all-female networking activity that Ms. Kidman compared to the way the A-list friends from the “Ocean’s 11” films conduct their business. She and Ms. Witherspoon began working the phones. “Reese and I were like, ‘“O.K., let’s go for it,’ and suddenly Shay was in” — that’s Ms. Woodley — “and she signs on because Laura Dern, who’s one of her best friends, goes, ‘I’m in and I’ll talk to Shay,” Ms. Kidman said.

The experience has been rewarding enough that she and Ms. Witherspoon’s production companies last year optioned Ms. Moriarty’s latest book, “Truly Madly Guilty.” (Ms. Kidman’s company has also optioned a novel called “The Expatriates,” which has what she calls “three amazing roles for women” and is set in Hong Kong.)

With HBO, Ms. Kidman is also working on the dramatization of another novel she optioned, “Reconstructing Amelia,” about a mother who sets out to find out why her daughter committed suicide. (Naomi Watts is in discussions to play the main character, Mr. Amato said.) Ms. Kidman said she feels intuitively that this one ought to be a film, rather than a limited series, which appears to be fine with HBO. “It’s delicate, the balance, how you make these things,” Ms. Kidman said, of the decision to embark on a series or a feature.


With Aaron Eckhart in “Rabbit Hole” (2010). Credit David Geisbrecht/Lionsgate

Mr. Amato’s job means that he meets a great many people pitching their projects. Many actors have production companies, or wish they had production companies, but their levels of commitment and engagement vary wildly, he said.

“Not all big stars are as in the weeds as Nicole and Reese are on ‘Big Little Lies,’” he said. “It’s very unusual when you have a megastar who’s also a producer sitting around the table doing their homework. It’s meaningful when it comes from people who found the project, who put all the elements together and who are also going to put themselves on the line as actors.”

The two women’s involvement included making decisions about locations and budgets, helping shape character arcs and taking part in script meetings. “We got to put loads of ideas on the table,” Ms. Kidman said. “As an actor, you don’t get to do that, but as a producer you have to be there.”

She and Mr. Saari, her producing partner, mentioned another project: a film adaptation of “Cuddles,” a sharp and unusual vampire drama that Ms. Kidman had seen Off Broadway. “I feel like I’m in a position now where I have a little bit of power, I would like to throw it behind people that need it,” she said, speaking of Joseph Wilde, the young British playwright who wrote “Cuddles.”

“Did you option that?” Mr. Amato asked.

“Yes, we’ve got a script, and it’s out with a director,” Ms. Kidman responded. She remained mysterious on the subject of where it might end up.

Ms. Kidman said that the transformation of television had created a vast menu of possibility for actors, and for producers.

“There are so many great stories out there and so many talented people,” she said. “We probably would not have been able to do this — ‘Big Little Lies’ probably wouldn’t have been made — if it hadn’t been made for TV.”