Nicole Kidman was curled up like a cat in the corner of a sofa, looking reassuringly bright-eyed and alert. Reassuringly, because the night before I was ready to call in emergency services to get her to hospital.
Not the real Nicole, but the one I’d seen on screen in an extraordinary film called Destroyer, in which she plays a cop who has destroyed her body after a life of narcotics and booze. ‘Ravaged eyes,’ the actress mumbled.
The opening shot of director Karyn Kusama’s film does indeed show a pair of ravaged eyes. Bloodshot and bleary, they belong to Erin Bell, a Los Angeles deputy sheriff who has clearly seen better days. Her skin is blotchy, her hair lank, her teeth ghastly — and you can practically smell her through the celluloid.
The 51-year-old is unrecognisable as Erin Bell in the thriller Destroyer
When she gets out of a car, her shoulders are hunched. She looks emaciated. ‘I was a lot thinner then than I am now,’ Kidman agreed. ‘I was sick through most of that film. I had flu. It was good in terms of the character if not in terms of my health. A friend saw me walking as Erin and said: ‘For God’s sake, don’t keep walking like that!’ He was worried I’d be like that for ever.’
It’s a brilliant performance that captures a character who may be self-destructing, but who still knows how to handle a pistol and a machine gun. At one point she’s a one-woman army trying to foil a bank robbery, and despite her haggard appearance, she’s pretty awesome.
Kidman said she didn’t care that she looked awful. She was prepared to do whatever the director and screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi wanted her to.
‘I wanted to be believable as this woman who is a cop and a very bad mother to her daughter. To do that, she had to look the way she did. This was a low-budget film, so the amount of time we had to do the make-up was limited. You can’t be having five hours in make-up or you wouldn’t have time to shoot.
‘It’s very freeing as an actress to look like a wreck. I insisted on bad teeth,’ she said, laughing and revealing a set of perfect gnashers.
I asked if she met any addicts to help her prepare. She shook her head. ‘I’ve lived a life, so I’ve seen a lot. I knew what I had to do.’
But it wasn’t easy for those around her. ‘I didn’t want people near me, not even Karyn the director. I wanted to say I’m sorry, but part of being an actor is not apologising. It’s not a popularity contest. There are other characters you play where you can be engaged. But the type of person Erin is — insular and introverted — can’t engage.
Nicole Kidman, 51, as Erin Bell a Los Angeles deputy ravaged by drugs in The ‘Destroyer’
Nicole admitted: ‘l’m kind of amazed that I’m still working’. Pictured here at last week’s Telluride Film Festival
‘Maybe Laurence Olivier would have said to me: ‘Try acting!’ But, I mean, maybe I’m not that good.’ The 51-year-old star was at the Telluride Film Festival, in the San Juan range of the Colorado Rockies, with two films: Destroyer and director Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased, in which she plays the mother of a student (Lucas Hedges from Manchester By The Sea) who has come out to his parents.
His preacher father (Russell Crowe) demands he undergo homosexual conversion therapy.
Kidman’s role is a supporting one but she almost steals the film when she marches into the conversion centre and takes her son away, chiding herself for putting him through such an ordeal. ‘Shame on me!’ her character cries.
Edgerton told me Kidman had reached a place in her career where she had no fear. ‘She has no vanity and doesn’t care what she looks like,’ he told me.
Kidman admitted: ‘l’m kind of amazed that I’m still working. I’ve lived a pretty wild life. There was a point where I was probably burned out and I stumbled. I wanted a baby and I wanted to find somebody to share my life with,’ she told me, without referencing her tumultuous break-up from Tom Cruise.
‘I was in a place where I was willing to give it all up, willing to walk away and then come back.’
Joel Edgerton, Nicole Kidman, Keith Urban and Laura Dern attend the Telluride Film Festival
She’s certainly back. Big Little Lies, in which she starred with Reese Witherspoon, became a phenomenon for HBO and Sky Atlantic and she’s shooting a second series with director Andrea Arnold.
Meryl Streep plays her mother-in-law, and Kidman said they had long conversations about life and career and how taxing it can be to fully immerse yourself in a character.
Like every working mum, she has to juggle schedules; but she and husband Keith Urban are clearly happy together. ‘Happy wife, happy life,’ he told me.
They had flown to Telluride with their daughters — and two cats.
This Christmas, she’ll be seen in cinemas in Aquaman, playing the Queen of Atlantis. ‘I did that for my daughters,’ she told me. ‘They can’t see Big Little Lies and they can’t see Destroyer. But they can bring their friends to Aquaman. It’s a bit of street cred for them.’
Destroyer will play in competition at the BFI London Film Festival next month.
For more than a decade the actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje has been telling me stories about his hardscrabble upbringing with white foster parents in Tilbury.
He was born in Islington to Nigerian parents in 1967, but at six weeks old was ‘farmed’ out to a white, working-class couple and raised with other children in care until he was 16.
Growing up, he had to cope with local kids hurling racist abuse at him. His foster father, a lorry driver, told him to stand up for himself.
Kate Beckinsale in the new film ‘Farming’ that tells the story of a young Nigerian boy
‘The local skinheads beat me up, but I beat them back.
‘After several encounters they were amused by me and took me in as a brutalised pet.
‘By the time I was 16 I was a formidable member of that gang,’ said Adewale, who is known as Mr Eko from the TV drama Lost, and for roles in Thor and forthcoming TV drama The Fix.
The actor has fictionalised his upbringing and written and directed a film called Farming, which is being shown at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday.
Damson Idris plays the teenage boy struggling to discover who he is, and Kate Beckinsale — in one of her best roles — plays the woman who, in her own way, raises him.
Adewale said his foster parents often made racist remarks, but they were made against a backdrop of Love Thy Neighbour and watching Alf Garnett on television.
‘Coon and sambo was the fabric wallpaper. My foster parents had not been exposed to African culture. They didn’t know any better.’ As harsh as it was, he got the best street education and later went on to study law.
Adewale said he was bowled over by working with Beckinsale and we agreed that she’s the ‘fractured, flawed hero’ of the story, which also stars John Dagleish and Gugu Mbatha-Raw.