The Paperboy, the new film from Precious director Lee Daniels, is a searing, character-driven thriller set in the southern Florida backwater, and features some dirty, smoldering, and messily spot-on performances from Matthew McConaughey, Zac Efron, John Cusack, and Macy Gray (yes, even Macy Gray). But it’s Nicole Kidman’s sexed-up performance as a desperate woman trying to prove her husband’s innocence and release him from death row. Last night Kidman was honored at the New York Film Festival where The Paperboy, which opens in limited release on Friday, was screened for an eager audience. We caught up with the actress to discuss the film, how far she slipped into character, and her affinity for white patent-leather high heels.
How did you find your way into the character? How did you even begin to imagine her?
Well, I just thought, “Thishas to be authentic.” And I really needed to find my way in. So Lee said, “You should meet with some of these women that I know.” You know, women that were in love with men in prison and were sort of obsessed with them. I met with five different women that Lee had arranged, and that was how I kind of found my way in. At one point I freaked out to myself, and I thought, “This isn’t me. I’m not going to be authentic in this role!” One of the ladies said, “No, you can, you go, girl!” And she kind of gave me the confidence. Then I kind of just let it flow out of me, and I sort of went with it. I didn’t censor myself in any way—I just went straight into the character. And I didn’t see her as crazy, because I see very few people as crazy, so…[Laughs]
But, for me playing her, she’s a woman who is very damaged and is terrified of intimacy and of being close with someone. I suppose, the way in which she deals with Zac’s character, she knows he’s following her around like a puppy dog, but at the same time she’s not going to ruin him. Because if she lets him really fall in love with her, and if she lets herself, in some way, give in to him, and softens towards him, she’s going to ruin his life forever. What she says to him—“You don’t want me. Trust me…”—that, to me, is unconditional love. And her destiny, she feels, is that kind of like with [her husband]. That’s where she’s headed. It’s almost like a death wish. For me, that’s tragic, it’s very sad. And that’s where I came from with her—I had a lot of compassion for her. The reason I wouldn’t step in and out of the accent and the character the whole time was because I felt like I was going to be judging her. And if I just kind of stayed in it, I was very much, I thought, incredibly free to follow the instincts that were there. Which is how Lee works. You come on set and nothing is blocked out; Lee’s just sort of like, “Show it to me!” I never spoke to John Cusack through the shoot as “John.” It was always in character. At the end of the film, he came to my trailer and said, “Hi, I’m John!”
Are there physical things that you did? Like thinking about the hair, the walk?
Well, Lee was obsessed with the butt! He wanted my butt to be bigger, and I was like, “Okay, I can do that!” And I think that physically, I just wanted to find the sexuality of her. The director also triggers things that can ignite emotions and other things for you. And I think for me, the freedom of her sexuality was really important, and from the point I was in Lee’s hands, I didn’t really want to be saying “no” to anything.
Wasthere anything you actually refused to do in this provocative film?
Not really! No, yes, there was one thing: saying the n-word. I just didn’t feel like it was right for the character. And obviously, I have a son who is African-American. It just wasn’t right. The other thing I try to do as an actor is fulfill a director’s vision—that’s what you’re hired to do. And I have opinions and ideas, and I’m there to stimulate, hopefully, and ignite things in the director. But, at the same time, I’m not there to stop him. I really try, with every director,never to pull them off their vision. You’re there as a muse sometimes, you’re there as their conduit, and you’re there to create a character—together.
Can you talk about your character’s “Swamp Barbie” look?
Limitations are a great thing. There was no budget for the wardrobe. Everything was so authentic, and the costume designer was fantastic. I walked in there, and there were those white shoes! Lee has a thing about shoes! And as soon as we scuffed them, I was like, “These are the perfect shoes!” And after that, we just started trying stuff on, and Poloroiding and showing to him, and he would say, “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” The costumes were really from that time period, and found down in New Orleans. Lee said I was also going to have to do my own hair and make-up, because we couldn’t afford a make-up artist! And I was of like, “Oh, God!” But I just went into the bathroom, and did the mascara and thick eyeliner like that, and put on this hairpiece that I had.
The important part of being an actor is learning not to shut down, not to say no, and being completely free and open. As you get older, you get a little more frightened—particularly now in this day and age, you know, there aren’t many opinions. It just makes me think, “Screw this!” I just want to push through it, and never stop myself from being brave and fighting through my own insecurities. I want to be in places I’ve never been to before and feel discomfort at times, and feel challenged, and feel ripped open. And it’s very, very hard to find those roles. It’s very hard to find those people that are going to do them with you. I do not want to get to an age, at this point in my life, where I am scared, or running scared. I much prefer to be pushing through the next few decades, giving it all I’ve got.