Nicole Kidman Wants to Change the Way We Talk About Aging

Updated 06/28/19
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In about 28 hours, Nicole Kidman will win an Emmy. I feel very aware of this fact—in spite of the small detail that it hasn't actually happened just yet—as I sit down with the actress for tea on a recent, glorious Saturday afternoon in Los Angeles. Like many, I spent a good part of early 2017 absolutely captivated by Kidman's performance in Big Little Lies as Celeste, a domestic abuse victim grappling with the intense love she still has for her husband. My heart broke as I watched her character's careful stoicism begin to fracture, particularly in the scenes with her therapist.

Kidman's raw portrayal of quiet desperation made for some of the most gut-wrenchingly compelling television I've ever seen.

The acting in the series was phenomenal, and the "whodunnit" storyline was nothing less than gripping (and at times, darkly funny). But beyond its sheer entertainment value, I also felt empowered while watching Big Little Lies. This wasn't just a show that boasted a cast of strong women but highlighted the characters' imperfections and the complexities of the female experience in a truly authentic way. Their stories and personalities weren't obvious tropes—they felt real. This, of course, is why Kidman and Reese Witherspoon chose to develop Liane Moriarty's best-selling novel for HBO in the first place.

"We need to see real women's experience, whether it involves domestic violence, whether it involves sexual assault, whether it involved motherhood of romance or infidelity or divorce," Witherspoon told reporters recently. "We need to see these things because we as human beings, we learn from art, and what can you do if you never see it reflected?"

Of course, even offscreen, the "real" female experience is sorely, notoriously neglected in an entertainment industry that still unloads impossible standards on women in particular, regardless of their talent or success. Initiatives like #AskHerMore, which encourages reporters to ditch the traditional, trite questions like "Who are you wearing?" and "How do you stay in shape?" during red carpet interviews, mark a (female-led) effort to change the conversation. Even today, though we're technically gathered at an event hosted by Neutrogena to discuss the loaded topic of aging, Kidman has little interest in talking about the fallacy of prevention or even much about physical appearance in general.

"For men, [age] has always been far less important," she says straight away, noting that this as yet another blatant example of inequality in Hollywood and beyond. "Men are judged differently."

So while Kidman shares a few wellness tidbits (she loves running outside and despises the treadmill) and mentions her skincare routine (the brand ambassador swears by Neutrogena's SPF and makeup remover wipes, FWIW), the vast majority of our discussion circles around her personal and public mission to completely shatter these tired and unbalanced constructs—whether it's age, family dynamic, or the highly problematic notion that women need a "thicker skin."

Keep reading for Kidman's thoughts on aging from a feminist lens, how she intends to continue defying expectations, and the beauty of saying no.

Nicole Kidman on Sexism and Aging
Getty/Philip Rock

On the power of sisterhood:

"They always say divide and conquer," says Kidman, but "if we're divided, we'll all get nothing done, and the more you bring us together on all issues that are important to us, the more powerful we are." This, she says, was a huge part of what drove Big Little Lies to fruition. "That was just [Reese Witherspoon] and I going, 'This is what we want to do.' And that was an action in terms of our career. But if we can do it with things like aging, we can do it for our children and create opportunities for our daughters. But that also creates opportunities for our sons because the family prospers."

On defying Hollywood's female-specific standards:

In addition to rampant ageism in the industry, one of the biggest hurdles women in Hollywood face is the lack of scope and dimensionality in female characters. Kidman says that she refuses to indulge this stagnancy—she specifically chooses roles that tell diverse female stories and span different ages, even if that means she has to create those opportunities for herself, as with Big Little Lies. "That's my way of actually taking action for it: not being frightened to play all different ages and all different roles, and just pushing through those boundaries," she says.

On using the word "no" as a form of self-care:

When she gave birth to her first daughter with husband Keith Urban, Kidman considered stepping away from acting entirely. "When I was pregnant with Sunday, I was like, I'm done," she says. "I had her when I was 41, and I was like, okay, I'm so lucky now, and that's it." Her mother ultimately convinced her to "keep a toe in," and the rest is (award-winning) history. But taking pause has remained crucial in maintaining a balanced, healthy lifestyle offscreen.

"I love being able to say yes to people. It's such a great thing," she clarifies. "I've had to work really hard not to get myself down with [guilt]. But ultimately, my family benefits and I benefit when I go Ah, I'm so glad I didn't say yes to going out on Saturday night."

On rejecting the idea of a "thick skin":

It's an industry adage that only the thick-skinned survive, but Kidman argues there's little room for humanity in the notion. "We're feeling," she says. "We're sensitive. That's how we connect and that's how we empathize. The idea of not feeling, or just toughing it out, that's just not me. And that's how I act. That's why I play Celeste—that's why I can go into her brain, and go, All right, what is this feeling?"

On how she defines "aging":

It's truly refreshing that in an industry that has historically pressured women to maintain their youth in a very superficial sense, Kidman takes appearance out of the equation altogether. "For me, it's about just trying to stay warm, connected, and moving towards something," she says. "'It's about going, Okay, what else? [It's maintaining] curiosity and still being interested. I just go, In the moment, in the moment, in the moment, which is the easiest thing to say and the hardest thing to do. But it gets easier as you get older."

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