In this NFSA Presents: Inspired interview, Jenny Cooney talks to Nicole Kidman about her relationship to the Australian film industry and Australian success in Hollywood.
NFSA Presents: Inspired is a collection of conversations from 2021 and 2022 that dive into the creativity, the inspiration and the success of Australian cinematic talent.
Hosted by film journalist Jenny Cooney, the series complements the NFSA’s exhibition, Australians & Hollywood: a tale of craft, talent and ambition.
Jenny: Let's jump right in and start with your first or most influential Australian cinema memory.
Nicole: Oh, golly. I mean, there isn't just one. I think I'm a mixture of so many different memories and filmmakers and actors.
I remember though seeing Peter Weir’s films [especially] Picnic At Hanging Rock (Australia, 1975), and kind of wishing I could be in a Peter Weir film. Particularly that film. All those films from the seventies and those filmmakers that were coming up, Australian filmmakers that were so powerful and so strong.
I was lucky enough to be aligned with Kennedy Miller, which was a production company that George Miller and Byron Kennedy started [and] then they brought in Terry Hayes. And that production company was so influential in shaping my whole life, and all of the filmmakers that worked for them.
Jenny: They really have had a huge impact.
Nicole: And for me I would go to the cinema and watch Australian women on screen and that’s really important. And those women being, you know, Wendy Hughes and Robyn Nevin and Angela Punch McGregor and Judy Davis, of course, Judy Morris... I mean, the list is so long.
I even remember going to the AFIs [Australian Film Institute Awards], getting a ticket. I don't know how I got the ticket and we only had one ticket and I put on a dress that I'd found in a little flea market. I wasn't invited or anything, I just bought one of those public tickets that were available and it was in Sydney and I think it was at the Entertainment Centre and I sort of went to the back and I watched. And Wendy Hughes won that year for Best Actress at the AFI for Careful, He Might Hear You (Carl Schultz, Australia, 1983) and I remember just thinking wow, Robyn [Nevin] and she were just glorious in that film.
Jenny: So what films, music, stories do you come back to over and over again? They could be Australian or American...
Nicole: I mean, there's so many, it's not – I don't think there's one. I saw George Miller's interview and he said The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, USA, 1972). So of course that trilogy of The Godfather, because it can play and play and play, but there are so many films. I mean, I grew up with Australian, European, American [movies], so I’m this combination of films. But as I said, Peter Weir, George Miller, Phillip Noyce, all of these; Gillian Armstrong, My Brilliant Career (1979).
And I know every Australian actress says My Brilliant Career, but you have to remember: I had red hair, and so did Judy Davis in that film; and I had freckles, and so did she. So I related to Sybylla, and I wanted to be with Sam Neill! Those were extraordinary scenes for me – but you know, the flies, the sound of the flies and that wild red hair flying and that wind and that dusty landscape... And that female is iconic for me in my history.
Jenny: What do you think is the secret sauce to Australian cinematic success?
Nicole: I mean, it's a growing industry still. I think we all are very conscious of still being a part of this industry and never leaving it. No matter where you go, what you do – and I see myself as a global actress, I can go around the world and work in all different countries. But my intrinsic make-up was from Australia and I learnt how to make films here, where you would be so lucky to have any sort of amount of money to make a film. It was just like, 'Oh, we're going to get to make a film!'.
You didn't dream of having a career in the film industry because there really wasn't the film industry to sustain a career. So it was like, and then what else am I going to do? Yeah, I want to be an actress, but what else am I going to do? And then suddenly I did a small film and then I got another film and then Dead Calm (Phillip Noyce, Australia, 1989) came along and Dead Calm for me was when [I realised] I'm going to get to do this for a little bit longer. And then it just snowballed, and I think every actor hopes for that.
But it's, you know, it's very hard still to make a living primarily as a film actor here. So you have to be diverse and you have to be willing to go different places. You have to be willing to also try different careers. But our job is to constantly be giving back to this industry, to have it grow and thrive so that every generation that comes has something to go, 'Oh, I grew up with that film'.
Jenny: So when you reflect on your career, what does ambition mean to you?
Nicole: Picking yourself up and not being felled when you're down. And when something happens where, what is perceived as a failure, not letting it be the thing that cuts you off at the knees and stops [you]. Where you just go, okay, get on with it. And wanting to be a part of storytelling and to be associated with people that I admire and that I like to be around and contribute that way.
I think that is ambition for me. And watching and also really sort of trying to help this industry and in particularly women in this industry find their path. And have the chance [for them] to either follow in all of our footsteps – so there is a path that they're able to go, 'Oh, I know how to go there, or I can go there or I can go there. I've seen other people do it.'
Jenny: Well, so many people I've talked to for this series, everybody from Angourie Rice onwards, have all credited you with helping them along the way. And being a trailblazer, which has obviously been acknowledged in the [Australians & Hollywood] exhibition as well, how do you feel about that?
Nicole: It makes me feel a part of, which is a really important thing for me to feel a part of – this is my hometown. This is my home country. I am incredibly honoured to be a part of this industry and to be represented and to be on a world stage with it and to be able to take our stories to the world.
But I'm also the recipient of an enormous amount of knowledge and talent and wisdom and guidance. I can't even name all the names but there's been so many people in the Australian film industry that have gone out on a limb for me, that have given back to me, that have fought for me. And all I can do is literally bow down and say, 'I am so grateful and I'll pass it on, what do I need to do?' So I'm happy to be watching this new generation of actors and writers and directors come up and I'm happy to be a part of their lives still.
Jenny: Well, you had help in the early days too. Talk a little bit about any Aussies that might've helped you at the start of your career.
Nicole: There's a lot. As I say, it falls under that whole banner of the Australian film industry. Because there was George Miller and John Duigan and Chris Noonan and Phillip Noyce. Really, that was sort of the hub of where they came in and went, 'Okay, we're going to give you these extraordinary roles'. And I was very much given – they gave me these wonderful opportunities, which was pretty extraordinary.
I'd go in and audition. I got the roles, you know, and they made some great films and mini-series, which were a big thing then, too.
Jenny: What element of the filmmaking craft do you think that you would want to do beyond the strings to your own bow, if you were starting over again, something else you love about somebody else's job?
Nicole: Well, obviously I've worked with Catherine Martin and Baz Luhrmann. What they do with production design and costume design and how they mould and make a movie, what I wouldn't give to have the talent that Catherine Martin has, you know! When Baz and Catherine Martin focus on you and form your characters for you, it's like – am I really, is this really happening to me? And so I would love to be able to be a costume designer or a production designer.
Jenny: The National Film and Sound Archive has an exhibition celebrating the talent, the ambition, the craft of Aussies back home and globally. Why do you think that's important to celebrate and what do you think about the contribution of the NFSA?
Nicole: Because you need your history for one, you have to have your history. You have to have your references and they're just great stories and great things to preserve and continue to have a part of the conversation and for, you know, the new generation to discover. And for all of us to remember: they're our memories, they're so important. You don't ever want to lose memories.
And at the same time, the celebration is – we don't celebrate enough. I think we need more of the celebration of what we do. One, to encourage us to keep doing it, but it's also just a lovely thing to be a part of and a celebration of others. And to keep that moving into the future.
Interview transcript edited for length and clarity.