Nicole Kidman: Portrait of a lady at iVillage Entertainment

Talk about landing on your feet: Nicole Kidman is so spot-on her thespian toes these days one could almost say it's a shame Tom didn't cruise long ago. Summoning the raw emotion laid bare by the upheaval of her high-profile marriage to the box-office big wheel, Kidman has since shone in challenging roles with rave reviews -- and her public sincerity about the pain of her personal heartbreak shows that the still-tender Australian actress saves her cunning for the cameras.

This year she follows the success of The Others and her Oscar-nominated performance in Moulin Rouge with three films adapted from Pulitzer Prize-winning novels -- as Virginia Woolf in Michael Cunningham's The Hours (costarring Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore), and in Cold Mountain (by Charles Fraser) and The Human Stain (by Philip Roth).

Kidman, who was born in Hawaii, was raised with her younger sister, Antonia, in Sydney by mom Janelle (a nursing instructor) and dad Anthony (a biochemist and psychologist). A high school dropout, she says her love of literature led her to be an actor.

While not an obvious candidate for the role of Woolf -- thanks to makeup artists, test audiences didn't even recognize the ravishing redhead as the dowdy Englishwoman -- Kidman immersed herself in the life and work of the literary and feminist icon, learning to write with her right hand (she's a lefty) and rolling her own cigarettes.

"I didn't want to do it," Kidman admits of the film, which began production soon after her marriage ended. "I tried to pull out. I actually called my agent and said, 'I don't want to do this. This isn't the right thing for me. It's too much at this stage, and I just need to hibernate.' And my friends all said, 'Get on the plane and do it. Go get lost in it.'"

Ultimately, however, Kidman was grateful for the role and the vision of director Stephen Daldry. "I thought, wow, I get this opportunity to really go and do something I've never done before and exist within a character in a completely different way," says the actress. "And it was in this time of my life when I was just raw enough to do it. And everything kind of came together ... To share this film with these two women -- that doesn't happen often. And I felt very, very privileged to be able to say, I made a film with Meryl Streep and Julianne Moore."

Asked whether her recent experience informed her introspective portrayal of the writer, Kidman allows that "there's a loneliness to Virginia. And I think once you start to deal with loneliness ... all of that feeds into your art.

"I try not to analyze it all too much because then you go, oh, it's too complicated," she adds. "But I do know that at this moment in my life there are so many things that are bubbling within me, that I feel inside me. And I think it has a lot to do with things that have happened. And I'm willing to explore it and put it into the work."

Making her primary home in Sydney, Kidman takes the most pride in her role as mom, sharing custody of the two children she and Cruise adopted, Isabella, 7, and Connor, 9. And despite the enigmatic dissolution of their nearly 10-year marriage -- Kidman was reportedly three months pregnant, later miscarrying, when Cruise filed for divorce in February 2001, and his cryptic comments seemed to suggest infidelity -- the 5-foot-9 actress never takes a stab at her ex, although she has mentioned being happy to be able to wear heels once again.

"I'm not good at acting in my real life. I've got to get better at that," she says. "I tend to be very candid and I'm not good at protecting or shielding myself. But I don't know how to do that. I think you reach a point when you reach a certain age when you've had a certain amount of life experiences, where you just go, okay, well, this is the journey. There's happiness and there's great sadness and there's the gamut of emotions. And if you keep waiting to be happy, that's never going to happen. So it's just saying, 'It's life.'"

As for Oscar buzz on her performance in The Hours and the inevitable tabloid teases that she has "finally arrived" as an actress, Kidman is firmly planted on solid ground. "I suppose I just say it's a fleeting moment -- 'cause it is fleeting. You know that, particularly as a female actor. How long will last? Who knows? But it's here and it's now. I've had moments when they've said, 'Now it all begins.' But it never begins ... hopefully it never quite ends."

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