By Debra Birnbaum
“It’s six degrees of separation,” said Nicole Kidman, of her connection to Claire Foy. The two women had gotten to know each other when Kidman was on stage in London with Foy’s husband, Stephen Campbell Moore, in a production of “Photograph 51.” But it’s their TV roles that have everyone talking — Kidman as an abused wife in HBO’s “Big Little Lies,” and Foy as the reluctant Queen in Netflix’s “The Crown.”
The actresses open up to Variety about the roles that may win them Emmy gold.
Congratulations on your Emmy nominations. What do they mean to you?
Nicole Kidman: I’m absolutely over the moon, because obviously this is something that from conception all the way to now has been my baby and to see it get acknowledged in this way is extraordinary. It’s good to have all of the cast and all of the production and the director and everyone’s nominations. It just makes for a sort of joyous celebration.
Claire Foy: I feel the same. I think it feels a bit surreal because we finished shooting the second (season) of “The Crown” now, so it feels like we’re at the end, even though (the Emmy nomination) is about the first series. So exactly the same as Nicole really, that so many people from the show have been nominated, but it’s just a lovely excuse for everyone to get back together again and celebrate something that was so lovely to do. You get to celebrate it in a way where we can all go, “Hooray!”
What do you each look for in a part? What makes you say yes to any given role?
Kidman: For me, it changes every time. It can be a director, it can be the actual character and the journey of that character, it can be a small role in a film that I feel is really compelling. It can be because it’s being directed by a woman, or it’s written by a woman, it can be because my friend’s starring in it. There’s so many different reasons I do things. But, I suppose the underlying current for me is the idea of not doing something I’ve done before. I call myself a character actor and I’m always trying to stay a character actor.
Foy: I’m one of those people where I don’t really know what it is really until it’s front of me, and I have definitely said no to things that on paper would make a lot of sense. Or would be a really great part, but for some reason, I don’t feel like I’m the right person for that part or I don’t understand it in the same way as other things. That’s not to say I’ve done things that I completely understand, because the majority of my jobs, I’ve been terrified about not really getting to the heart of it or struggling to. I’m realizing the more jobs I do and as my career goes on that there seems to be a theme of choosing the things I’m most scared of doing in a weird way. I’ve never really taken a job and not been scared of some sort of aspect of it. It’s the challenge of it, I think.
What was it about these roles in particular that made you say this was something that you wanted to do?
Foy: I think this part came along at a point where for me, because I was having a child at the time, it wasn’t so much just about the role. It just felt like a bigger life choice for me. I feel like I was making the choice to play this part without really taking into account all the elements of it in a weird way. I think I just instinctually went, “Yes, this is what I’m going to do now, and this is the decision I’m making and god knows how it’s going to go.” It’s got to be the most technically difficult job I’ve ever done, purely because when you’re playing someone who has existed, or is recognizable, it comes with a whole other set of challenges which sometimes when we’re just playing a fictionalized character, you could say it’s a little bit easier. I was very much intrigued by the idea of how on earth do I play this person and not make it a caricature and also how do I play this person when they’re really recognizable as a 60 to a 90 year old, as opposed to a 25 year old, vulnerable, confused, young mother and wife, who people know very little about. That was the challenge side of it, I suppose for me.
Kidman: Well, you triumphed. We all fell in love with you. I think I would have played any of the roles in the novel. I just wanted to get it made. Reese (Witherspoon) and I wanted to keep our promise to the author, which was we would get the book made for her, and that we wouldn’t disappoint her. I would have played any of them, but Liane (Moriarty) said, “I’ll only give you the rights if you play Celeste.” She basically cast it. I went, “Okay.” She knows the intricacies of the character, if that’s what she feels is most aligned to me, so as I delved into it, I was like, “Hmmm, OK.” Then it took on a whole different life for me. Because it was a six month shoot, I was just so absorbed in her. I’m so glad that was the role I play, and now look at the rest of the roles and think, “Oh my gosh, I couldn’t have played any of them. What was I thinking?”
Foy: How did you approach it just from being a producer in the beginning?
Kidman: We both felt frustrated with the roles we were being offered in terms of film, and not really being offered anything in television. We were like “OK, how do we make things happen for ourselves?” We’re very good friends, and I’m very good friends with her producing partner, and it was one of those situations where it was just kismet. We were all like, “Wow, this is a great book.” It just bloomed out of frustration. Then we were in the fortunate position of everything happen very quickly, so within six months, we had our writer, we had our director, we had our cast and we were just waiting to go into production.
Given that frustration about the lack of good roles, what does it mean to both of you to have embodied these two strong women. Do you think more such roles will follow?
Foy: In England, there’s been a lot of kind of controversy at the moment because it came out in the press that the BBC had been paying these female TV personalities a third of what they were paying the male TV personalities.
Foy: All of a sudden, they’ve been looking into how many women there are in drama and things like that. I feel like especially in the U.S., the female leads in TV are ever so slightly stronger than it has been in film. I think there is more opportunity for female characters to lead a show, and for people to suddenly go, “Hey, this is really interesting. It’s a woman that I recognize.” I think the conversation is should always be being had, and it should always be there, but I think that the fact that people like Nicole are finding work and making work is a sign that it’s something that needs to change, but it’s only changing by us doing it.
Kidman: I still think if you pull up the statistics, because I like to be always given the numbers because then you actually see the reality, I think it’s still pretty poor. It’s really moving rocks up the mountain. It’s certainly not easy, it’s not suddenly become easy either because of these, and “Wonder Woman’s success” didn’t suddenly open huge amounts of doors. It’s always the needle moves very slowly. But you have to keep moving forward, we don’t want to go backwards. Also the greatest thing on “Big Little Lies” was calling up people like Laura and Shailene and Zoey and hopefully if we ever get to do something, if not this, we have something else together, creating more roles that are fantastic roles for all different ages of women. But those phone calls going, “Hey, we’ve got this role, are you interested?” That’s brilliant to be able to do that.
Will we see more from that dream team that you assembled?
Kidman: Yeah, we’ll give it our best shot. You know? But it’s hard. It’s hard to get source material, it’s hard to come up with ideas, as we all know, and then it’s hard to make them compelling, and particular the standard of television now is so high, which is fantastic, but you’ve really got to do an enormous amount of preparation and thinking before you just jump in. There’s certainly things brewing and that’s just my small little contribution. We’re all trying to do it, but it just requires constant work and support and discussion.
Both of your projects, though, involved working with male showrunners and directors.
Kidman: We had just one director, Jean-Marc (Vallee), and at one point, he was going to do (half of the episodes), and then we were going to have a female, so it was going to be half and half, then we bowed down to the auteur vision, just for the series, to have him do everything, because he acquiesced and said he would. For us, that was so necessary because his style is very particular and to try and have anyone else try and come in and mimic that style I think would have been not good. Then we had obviously David E. Kelley who we went out to and asked him to write it. It was a very good balance actually. We had so many women in terms of the actors and producers, then having a male director and a male showrunner was a lovely balance. They were definitely outnumbered. The percentage was far more female skewed, but I think their contribution was really important and it was fantastic to have that male contribution. I’ve also subsequently done Jane Campion’s series (“Top of the Lake”) where that was a female director, so I had the same experience of television but with her helming it, and that was pretty special as well, and very different.
Foy: We had obviously Peter Morgan. It was interesting actually talking to him about having done “The Queen” and having done “The Audience,” he had lived with this woman for a long time, and I think he wrote her very, very well. Hans Zimmer did the music for it, and he said that he wanted it to be masculine and muscular, which I found really interesting. Because the music for “The Queen” was very romantic with violins and stuff, and obviously it was quite foreboding and overwhelming. It kind of gave the show another aspect, the music of her. I always felt like Elizabeth was a woman in a man’s world. But in a way that she wasn’t asking to be there. I’ve had lots of people say that she was a feminist and a woman in a man’s world and she was kind of forging ahead and she was a very, very reluctant figurehead and so it’s quite difficult as a modern woman to approach a person who was operating in that world. In the second (season) we have our first female director. She’s a very interesting female director, because she came from documentary so she’s approach it with absolute realism. I have to say that I absolutely adored working with all the directors that we have, male or female. But there was a sort of shorthand, I suppose, with a female director that you wouldn’t necessarily have. But it’s my job to say I don’t agree with that, I don’t think that’s right, I feel uncomfortable doing that, I don’t agree with your opinion actually about that. I don’t think a woman would ever do that. I also always think it’s very odd if there’s not a woman in the editing room, or there’s not a woman in post production somewhere who’s able to go, “Um, can I just say that I think that that,” you know, I think that’s a very important thing to get the yin-yang when you’re making something.
Was there one specific scene that was particularly challenging for you?
Kidman: It was challenging in the sense of initially just choosing to jump in and go, “Okay, we’re going to go there, and we’re going to try to tell a story sexually as well as the emotional story.” But the sexuality of this couple has to be really telling each moment and each part of their journey rather than it being a kind of time out for everybody to watch a sex scene. That was the great part of Jean-Marc, Alex (Skarsgard) and I going, “Okay, what will we have to do to make this really complicated, so people could choose to watch it, to be compelled by it, to see the toxicity of it, yet also the chemistry of it?” Each one of those scenes that we had to do was difficult at first, but then it just became imbuing the character’s journey together and why they’re together and why they’re hurting each other. It wasn’t difficult, it was just we wanted to be very precise with it and not have it be indulgent or exploitive at all. I’m just glad that people were able to get into the psyche and feel instead of judging. Which was important because I think the judgment particularly on people in abusive relationships a lot of times just falls on the victim, because it’s like, “What are you doing? Get out, show some strength. Come on. You must see it.” That sort of black and white reaction to it.
Foy: The coronation was challenging because I just didn’t want to look like I was very, “And I’m the queen!” (Sings.) I didn’t want it to be kind of like angels singing, that sort of thing. That was actually Philip Martin. Amazing director. But it was the writing, he would approach something not directly, like with the coronation, for example, from her uncle, the man who should have been King. You’re watching it from his perspective, which is really clever, because it means you’re not just doing a carbon copy of an actual event that happened, which can just be regurgitating history. I think the one thing that I always had to stop myself and be constantly be checking myself was not allowing myself to get too overemotional. To remember to put restrictions on myself in terms of my emotional capability I suppose. I’m not painting every actor into the same brush, but I’m a very emotional person and I love feeling things, so I tend to approach things kind of quite openly, I suppose. But to play someone who’s from a completely different background, a completely different time and to constantly remind myself, “Well now actually, she wouldn’t kind of be laughing so much.” So I had to remind myself to speak within the parameters and emotions. And within that, try and create thoughts of other emotions and ways of communicating. It was all a challenge in that respect.
Kidman: I also love the marriage, I love how it was the chemistry between the two of you. Just fantastic. You just danced so well together, and you really understood the bowing down and having to acquiesce and your commitment to the crown and to god and to being in a higher realm and him having to understand.
Claire, I know you’re not going to be playing her after this season. Is it going to be hard for you to let go of those comfortable shoes?
Foy: In the immediate aftermath, it never ends. Because you’ve got ADR, and you’ve got all the publicity and all those different things. The train keeps on rolling. I don’t feel that the cord has been pulled quite yet. I’m holding onto that. I think once I move onto the next character, I think, once I’ve stepped onto the next steps, I’ll realize I’m not going to play her again. That’s fine, I’ve never actually stayed in character for longer than two seasons. I’ve always for one reason or another moved on, and so that’s fine, but I feel like this part and this show and everything has been a very special part of my life for all sorts of reasons. The journey it’s gone on and the friends I’ve made. I feel like that will be the thing to let go over the fact that it’s over now, but it’s kind of stand on my own two feet, and off I go. Hopefully I won’t have a mental breakdown. I can’t wait to see who else plays her. I can’t wait to watch it from the outside and see someone else reinvent it.
You both did a lot of research to help you shape your characters. How important is that for you in any given role?
Kidman: Depends. I mean, something like “Killing of the Sacred Deer,” I didn’t do any research. Nothing. Because Yorgos Lanthimos, the director, just kind of wanted me to show up and he didn’t want any preparation or what he called, “actor-y” dialogue or discussion, so there was nothing. For “Big Little Lies,” I wanted to know a lot about abuse and the different forms of it, and the insidiousness of it. You can see Ted Talks and then I think there’s certain just emotional things that you research, but you don’t discuss. I’m a big believer in keeping some of the mystery in terms of how a performance comes to fruition, because in this day and age, every thing’s so dissected and analyzed, and there’s some magic involved. You can’t put your finger on what it is that creates those things, and so to overanalyze them, or talk about them somehow demystifies them to a place where they’re not as compelling.
Foy: If you have a director who just wants to work with you, and wants you to live it, and believe it, and the only preparation you can have, really, it’s about yourself I suppose. You just turn up and be a human being. I’ve always been ever so slightly anxious about improvisation because I do like to work with limits. I think it depends on if you know the facts, then at least you’re going to be true to a given situation. You’re not going to go wildly off into the realm of playing someone with a limp and stay within the realms of the reality for that person at that time in their life. That’s the amazing thing about being actors, is you are given the opportunity to try and understand what makes other people tick and there’s always a point with anything I do where I also go, “I’m never going to get that, I’m never going to understand it. I never will, I never will.” There is a magic there. There is a reason why people play certain parts and do certain jobs. It’s because of who they are. You can try and kind of pick that apart, understand how everyone played the part. You’d never get to the bottom. Well, I hope people don’t. I remember leading off what you said about how you love acting, because you are interested in the way that human beings work and how we feel and what we think and psychology and the way we do things. I’m with you, I think that’s kind of the amazing thing, and there is no kind of preparation for that really in a weird way.
Kidman: We get such a gift as actors, because we enter into the heads and the bodies and the hearts and the souls of other people. We see the world through other eyes a lot, and I think that puts you in a place of deep empathy if you really go in, because you get to look from all different perspectives at the human condition.