When she first saw the script for Lion, Nicole Kidman did not know she was reading a true story. It is easy to see why she didn’t guess. The plot, for a start, is too fantastically outlandish for real life, and her part such a perfect fit that she probably imagined it had been written specifically for her. Even after the producer had enlightened her: “I still couldn’t quite believe it. Then I thought, maybe they’d fudged some of it. But no. It really is all true.”
Lion tells the story of a boy called Saroo, who was born into an impoverished but close family in rural India. His mother laboured in a quarry carrying rocks, and at night his older brother would catch a train to a nearby town to earn a few rupees lifting bales. One night, the five-year-old Saroo begged to come with him, but was already asleep when they got off the train, so his brother left him to sleep on a platform bench while he went to work. Waking in the night, Saroo found a comfier berth in an empty, stationary train carriage, but awoke in the morning to find himself trapped in a hurtling train that didn’t stop until it reached Kolkata, 1,000 km from home. Unable to speak Bengali, Saroo survived on the streets, narrowly escaping the clutches of predatory abusers before winding up in a chillingly brutal orphanage.
Actors are contractually obliged to promote their movies, but when I meet Kidman, I get the impression that she would want to for Lion even if she weren’t. She seems to have spent most of the past month on red carpets at Lion premiers all over the world, and stops off in London for 24 hours – en route from Los Angeles to Sydney for Christmas, her two young daughters in tow – to talk about the film. Everyone always goes on about Kidman’s statuesque beauty, so I wasn’t expecting it to floor me, but when she stands to shake hands she looks more like an alabaster mannequin than a member of our species. When she speaks, however, she becomes more human than any A-list actor I have met. Kidman has described Lion as “a love letter” to the two children she adopted herself in her 20s when married to Tom Cruise, and weeps so easily throughout the interview that by the end she is asking me how I can stop myself crying, as if this were a rare and mysterious trick.
It is always nerve-racking to play a real person, she says, but her responsibility to Sue Brierley feels especially onerous because the two women have become close friends. “Sue has become very much a part of my life. Yeah, I love her.” Kidman’s tone is dreamily affectionate. “The minute we met, just the two of us in my apartment in Sydney, we just clicked. She told me so much about herself, and I told her. And she’s very tactile, Sue. So she’ll hold your hand and stroke you. She’s very warm, and loyal. And she’s very maternal.”
Kidman’s performance is not a dramatic interpretation of her character but a closely observed study. Even the clothes she wears are copied from old family photographs of Sue. “And I wanted to capture, I suppose, just the goodness in a way,” she says. Kidman’s performance conveys Sue’s limitlessly patient love for Saroo, and is sublimely moving, but some viewers may be uneasy with the uplifting portrayal of transracial, transnational adoption. Does Kidman share any misgivings about rich white people “rescuing” brown-skinned children from exotic poverty – or is it, for her, an uncomplicatedly virtuous act?
“I don’t think virtue comes into it. I mean, I think it’s just as Sue says in the movie. She had the vision, and she followed her vision, and we’re all on our own paths making our own decisions and our own choices, for whatever reason. So commenting on other people’s reasons – I don’t know, I’m always reluctant to do that. People always say, ‘What’s a happy marriage?’ or ‘Tell us what the secret is’, and I’m always reticent to say ‘Well this is how it should be’, or ‘This is what it is’, because we’re all different.”
Sue has become very much a part of my life. Yeah, I love her.
We see Sue tell Saroo in the film that, as a girl, she had pictured her future self mothering a brown child. She had adopted him not out of necessity, but choice. “I’m very similar to Sue,” Kidman says, “in the sense of having a vision, and feeling that it was just part of my path. Something, for whatever reason, I was going to do.” Kidman and Cruise have never made public their reasons for adopting, but when I ask, she means it was because she had shared a similar vision to Sue’s, she agrees: “I believe, yeah.” From what age? “When I was little. So it’s what I relate to in Sue, probably.”
The film, I suggest, must have made Kidman wonder about her two eldest children’s own birth-family history, and she smiles. “From the minute I held them, I wondered about that. Of course. Because you’re all intertwined. Your destinies somehow all come together.” Can she describe her feelings for the birth parents who inhabit her imagination? “Love. Exactly what Sue felt, which is why I wanted to play Sue. The simplicity of that love. The gift of a child. And again, Sue has that absolutely simple, loving feeling.”
In the film, before Saroo sets off to find his birth mother, Sue tells him: “I can’t wait for her to see how beautiful you are.”
“That, to me, is the most gorgeous line in the film,” says Kidman. “Because that’s the truth of it. For me. Because Saroo has two mothers. He has his adopted mother, and his biological mother. But there are two of them. One made him, one raised him.” She seems almost lost in a reverie, but when I ask if this is how she and her two eldest make sense of their own maternal histories, she collects herself. “I’m getting into too personal things now. Their own lives, their choices. But their love is profound.”
Mystery has surrounded Kidman’s relationship with her adopted daughter and son ever since her marriage to Cruise ended, and they chose to grow up with their father in the scientology church. Most reports allege that they shunned their mother and remain estranged to this day, but this has never been confirmed by either child or parent, and it would feel both intrusive and pointless to ask Kidman to break decades of silence.
Another legacy of Kidman’s marriage to Cruise is her stratospheric fame. A bride at just 23, and divorced by 34, nothing she has done since then could explain why, at 49, she is worth so much more to the celebrity gossip industry than, say, Julianne Moore or Meryl Streep. Her 33-year career features a string of art-house films and theatrical productions, but just one commercial blockbuster – Batman Forever – and Kidman won her Oscar for playing Virginia Woolf in a prosthetic nose. I wouldn’t be surprised if half the fans who will buy any mag with Kidman on the cover have never even seen her act. I ask if she is happiest playing unglamorous characters such as Sue, and her face lights up.
“I love it. I’m a character actor, that’s what I see myself as. That’s who I am. I mean, I had a director say to me the other night: ‘Oh my gosh, your art-house choices are so brave,’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t even see it like that.’ They’re literally just what I’m drawn to.”
Kidman has chosen to live a long way from Hollywood, in Nashville, Tennessee, where she claims that no one ever bothers her or her family. This sounds implausible, but she swears it’s true. “The town is so protective of us. It’s amazing. I find people very, very generous to us. Very kind. And we’re also a very private family. Do you know what my kids look like?” I do not. “Right,” she laughs, with some satisfaction. Her husband is an Australian country and western singer, Keith Urban, and it occurs to me that living in the capital of his industry and not hers helps to correct the power and status imbalance between the couple.
“Yeah,” she agrees emphatically. “I love that.” Because he can be the famous one and she can take the back seat? “Yes! I’m very happy to do that.” She says she’s happiest being “grungy – you know, no makeup, hair pulled back” – and when she took the family cats into her daughter’s classroom for pet day recently, her daughter’s “main concern was that I would show up with my hair wet, pulled back in a bun with no makeup and wearing my gym gear”.
This sets her off crying. Urban, she says tenderly, is “a very stable energy” in the family – “He’s a rock,” but her role is “very much the glue. I mean, I hate to say but, yeah, you’re the heartbeat of the family. Keith says it. The girls say it. They just like it when I’m home. There’s just that female energy in the house, which is powerful. And I’d love to say that Keith could create it in the same way, but I don’t think that he does. The girls don’t say that he does. It’s all about the details, right? Which I remember from my own mum and dad. My dad would forget to cut our sandwiches in the middle – just little things, but when you’re little it all counts, right?”
Kidman adored both her parents, and the memory of her father’s death in 2014 from a heart attack soon has her in tears again. Having experienced both sudden and protracted bereavements myself, I’m curious to know which she thinks worse, but she’s too puzzled by how my eyes can stay dry when I ask the question to reply, and instead we end up analyzing the role of emotional detachment in our respective professions.
In the weeks after we meet, the gossip columns run a new report about Kidman almost every day. She’s trying for another baby! Kidman rules out having more children! She’d love to have another one but says she’s too old! Only one made me pause and wonder. According to the tabloids, Kidman and Urban are applying to adopt a child from India. It is probably nonsense, of course, but it would be no great surprise if it turned out to be true.
• Lion is released in the UK on 20 January