Nicole Kidman in ‘The Paperboy’/Photo © Millennium Entertainment
As Charlotte Bless, the real-life prison spouse who plays like the love child of Tennessee Williams and Honey Boo Boo, Nicole Kidman was asked by director Lee Daniels to do everything from urinate on co-star Zac Efron to claw through her pantyhose with lacquered talons in a pink-lipsticked jail cell sequence. Kidman’s unbridled performance in “The Paperboy,” Daniels’ follow-up to his Oscar-nominated “Precious,” seems fueled by anabolic estrogen and makes one wonder if there’s anything the Academy Award winner refused to do for the film, a ‘70s gothic that aerobically pulses with Kidman’s performance as a cat-in-heat Southern belle at its core.
“I didn’t really want to say no to anything. An important part of being an actor is learning not to shut down, not to say no. You have to completely throw yourself into it and as you get older, you get a little more afraid. Particularly now, in this day and age, when there’s so many opinions. That’s the thing that makes me want to go, ‘Oh, screw this.’ I just want to push through that and never stop myself from being brave or fighting through my own insecurities.”
Kidman, who is forty-five, managed that task by employing Konstantin Stanislavsky’s method acting. Early on in the process, Daniels recommended she meet with some women who are in love or are having sex with men in prison. “So I met with five different women and that was how I kind of found my way in. I was freaked and said, ‘Oh, this really isn’t me. I don’t know how I’m going to be authentic in this role.’ And then one of them said to me, “You go, girl!” And she gave me the confidence. Then I just let it flow out of me and went with it. I didn’t censor myself in any way. I just went straight into the character and didn’t step out of it until we finished filming.”
“The reason I wouldn’t step in and out of the accent and the character the whole time,” the Hawaiian-born, Australian-bred actor explains, “was because I felt like I was going to be judging her. And if I just stayed in it, I was incredibly free to follow the instincts that were there.” And while that strategy may pay off during awards season, it didn’t exactly endear her to fellow castmates. “I never spoke to John Cusack through the shoot,” Kidman explains of the actor who plays her mail-order prison groom. “It was always in character. At the end of the film, he came to my trailer and said, ‘Hi, I’m John!’”
And while Kidman may have had her own trailer, not so the hair and makeup department. “Lee said I was going to have to do my own hair and makeup,” Kidman remembers, “because we couldn’t afford a makeup artist! And I was like, ‘Oh, God!’ But I just went into the bathroom and did the mascara and thick eyeliner and put on this hairpiece that I had.” This DIY spirit is nothing new to Daniels, who patiently waited as Pete Dexter’s 1995 potboiler worked its way through the Hollywood food chain, at one point even attached to Pedro Almodovar. Daniels loved the book and it replaced Sapphire’s novel Push on his nightstand. “And Push had been there for thirteen years,” Daniels adds.
Daniels even gave “Precious” exec producer Oprah Winfrey a nudge, trying to get her on board as the narrator and housekeeper for the Jansen family – the newspaper publishing clan investigating the wrongful murder conviction that leads them to Kidman’s character and her inmate hubby played by Cusack – but the role eventually went to singer Macy Gray. “I offered it to Oprah,” Daniels says of the other autoerotic role, this one not appearing in the book, “and she said, ‘Absolutely not.’ I said, ‘You have to do this, Oprah!’ And she said, ‘No.’ But the universe took care of me because I can’t imagine Oprah on the bed masturbating.”
“I studied everything from the late ‘60s through the early ‘70s,” Daniels says of the film’s uniquely faded neon look, “Everything from ‘Cool Hand Luke’ to ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.’ I wanted this to look like it was made in the early ‘70s – flaws and all – edited, shot, acted in the ‘70s.” And with that, Daniels brings around a question that’s still on the table: Was there anything Kidman refused to do? “I remember telling Nicole that I maybe wanted to do dubbing,” Daniels says, “but have the synching be a little off. She looked at me like I was crazy.”
Kidman re-creates the look, but maintains her original position. “I want to be in places I’ve never been to before,” she says, “and feel discomfort at times, and feel challenged, ripped open. And it’s very, very hard to find those roles. It’s very hard to find those people to do them with you. I do not want to get to an age, at this point in my life, where I am running scared. I much prefer pushing through the next few decades giving it all I’ve got. The other thing I try to do as an actor is fulfill a director’s vision. That’s what you’re hired to do. I have opinions and ideas, but, at the same time, I’m not there to stop him. I really try never to pull them off their vision. You’re there as a muse sometimes – their conduit – but you’re there to create a character together.”