“I walked on the set [and when I saw] Charlize, I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I was shocked. And that was in person, up close. I couldn’t believe it was her. I kept looking at her, going ‘Charlize?’ ”
Bombshell is further proof of Nicole’s hectic and glorious renaissance. Though her most recent film, The Goldfinch, failed to strike a chord with audiences, Nicole enjoyed major box-office success in Aquaman, playing the Queen of Atlantis. And in 2017 she delivered electric performances in Sofia Coppola’s American Civil War drama, The Beguiled, and Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer, not to mention her work in New Zealand director Jane Campion’s TV series, Top of the Lake: China Girl.
This kind of success parallels what 52-year-old Nicole has suggested is a highly gratifying chapter in her life. Her 13-year marriage to country music star Keith Urban has been a source of immense happiness for her. She revels in family life together with their two daughters, Sunday Rose, 11, and Faith, 10, at their estate in Nashville, Tennessee. But she clearly retains a strong attachment to Australia, recently holidaying in Sydney and generously donating to the bushfire relief cause.
Here Nicole talks about her latest role, the story behind the film and the things that keep her grounded.
How did you get involved in Bombshell?
I was in the middle of shooting Big Little Lies and I was … tired! But projects like this don’t come along very often and I’ve wanted to work with Charlize Theron for over a decade. And then I spoke to Meryl Streep – just to name-drop – “Should I play Gretchen Carlson?” Because I trust Meryl’s taste and also because I obviously don’t look like Gretchen.
I was also thinking, as I always do, that there are 10 other actresses who’d be better, and she said [imitating Streep’s deep voice], “Absolutely you should, because you need to be part of something that marks a time in history.” And I said, “You’re so right.”
One of the interesting, and perhaps surprising, aspects to the story is how these three key female characters don’t unite against sexual harassment – certainly not at first.
You really do see that it wasn’t like a sisterhood among the women at Fox. The women were often pitted against each other – there wasn’t this sense of “Oh, we’ve got your back”, especially in the scene where the other women come to [Gretchen Carlson’s] house and none of them are stepping up.
Why was making this film important to you in the political sense?
I’m not interested in preachy scenarios or a preachy film, I’m interested in getting in there [emotionally]. I don’t want this to happen to my child. I don’t want this to continue in society and so how do we change it? It’s a non-partisan issue. This film is meant to not just be about Fox News. On a much bigger scale it’s about where this behaviour has to stop so that the world is a much safer place for all of us.
Was it a great joy to work with so many powerful actors on Bombshell?
I’ve wanted to work with Charlize for probably over a decade, and Margot – obviously being both Australians – and of course Alison Janney. And I also looked forward to working with John Lithgow, who plays Roger Ailes.
Your roles in Big Little Lies and The Goldfinch were both very demanding. You’ve discussed how acting can be both physically and emotionally exhausting.
A lot of times when you’re acting scenes that are very traumatic, your body doesn’t know the difference … You take it on, and you become that, and so much of it is then trying to shed that. It’s something that I’m exploring, just as an actor, with other actors right now. How do you keep a lifetime of doing these sort of things – because it’s so important to be telling these stories – and stay healthy yourself, so that you can keep giving?
You’ve also been shaking up your choice of roles of late. For example, you went from playing a desperate mother in the indie melodrama The Killing of a Sacred Deer to the Queen of Atlantis in the big-budget studio movie Aquaman.
After working in projects like The Beguiled, I needed to do something very different. So I left for Australia with the girls, who I could finally bring to the set of Aquaman – I definitely couldn’t do that on Yorgos’s film or Big Little Lies, for example. And after watching me work on Aquaman, Sunday Rose wants to become a director!
How proud are you of having helped bring to life Big Little Lies, a project which you produced and starred in?
Actors rarely get to choose their projects – we are chosen by others and we don’t exercise any control over our destiny. So Big Little Lies was born out of our frustration. Reese Witherspoon and I were looking for female roles that really interested us and that dealt with current issues, and Big Little Lies spoke of the reality we are experiencing.
Now that you’ve enjoyed so much success with Big Little Lies, do you think that TV and streaming are going to increasingly displace movies in terms of public tastes?
As an actress and producer, I’m grateful that more women’s stories are being told, whether it’s in the movies or on TV. Now I’m doing a series for Amazon, titled The Expatriates, and I have other projects with them. And thanks to streaming, there are currently many more opportunities for actors.
But I still love film and the opportunity to sit in a theatre with other people who share the experience. I started skipping school at 14 to go watch movies in the cinema. But I also like sitting comfortably rolled up on my sofa at home where I can watch TV and enjoy a lot of the great series that are being made now. I think that both film and TV are going to be around for a long time.
Do you have as much enthusiasm and motivation for acting as ever?
When my kids were younger, my family became more of my priority and I wasn’t as eager to work. But with the kinds of characters I’ve been able to play lately, and experiencing their journey in difficult, risky situations, that gives me so much energy and satisfaction that now I want to keep finding these kinds of demanding roles. It’s exciting!
You seem to be enjoying this chapter in your life with your husband and family. Has the move to Nashville also made a big difference?
I’m an introvert by nature, pretty quiet – someone who would rather stay at home. I’m very sensitive, so my capacity to deal with a lot of tension makes me want to withdraw from stressful situations. When I get home, the thing I look forward to the most is being able to hug my children and Keith, and that’s the kind of feeling which will always keep us connected.
Apart from your family, who are the people in your life who help you to stay grounded and escape the pressures of celebrity?
I’m very lucky to have a group of friends, many of whom have been in my life since I was three. They are always there for me. It makes me want to cry because of the gratitude I feel for them.
What makes you feel most comfortable?
I like to relax by meditating, but what makes me feel most comfortable and secure is being with Keith. Having a partner by your side, someone with whom you can talk, who loves you and who you love, balances everything. Before I met him, I was more scared. Now I feel protected thanks to this great friend and wonderful partner I have.
This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale January 19.