LONDON, ENGLAND–When novelist Philip Pullman was asked, by the producers of the film version of his modern classic The Golden Compass, who he thought would be a good choice to play the charming but sinister Mrs. Coulter, he recommended Nicole Kidman. But Kidman was wary of taking on the role because, although she knew the character was interesting, the movie itself is pure fantasy.
"I'm not a huge fantasy fan," she admits in a London hotel room. "I've always been drawn to more psychological dramas in terms of filmmaking. I think that what drew me to this was that I felt the intricacies of the characters might allow for strong performances."
Although the movie is being marketed to families, Mrs. Coulter is arguably the most threatening character Kidman has ever played. She is responsible for the kidnapping of children who are taken to laboratories where experiments are conducted. She has a love-hate relationship with Lyra, the film's protagonist, a child whom she treats cruelly despite the fact that she may be her daughter.
The young actor who plays Lyra, Dakota Blue Richards, had never been on a film set before. Kidman says that when she had to act angry in character, moments after she had been sweet to Richards, she was concerned that Richards would be startled.
"I said to [writer-director] Chris Weitz, 'You have to explain to her the difference,' because there was a point where I had to grab her wrists threateningly. I have worked with children in almost every film I have done recently, and I think you have to really define what you are doing because it can be very confusing to a child. But Dakota has so much poise and intelligence, it was almost like working with an adult. However, there are other children that you have to be so careful and protective with."
Kidman's character appears in all three of the installments that make up Pullman's trilogy, His Dark Materials. If this film is a hit, the sequels will follow. Kidman says that she has committed to the films because the character goes through enough changes during the novels that she will continue to be a challenge.
"This film reveals just a tiny bit of her," she says. "The trilogy explodes and opens up as it goes along, which is very exciting to me. If I only get to play her in this one, I think it would be very disappointing. I see her as being very complicated and morally questionable at times, which I like a lot. And there is a pulse and a heartbeat in her that drives her to do things. I told Chris that you could feel the energy pulsing through her all the time. He was great because he was always trying to give me the opportunity to show the complexities of the woman. And Philip really spelled out so much of her psychological makeup to me. It's wonderful when you have the author available to you like that."
If the movie flops and this is the only book to make it to film, it's unlikely that the busy Kidman will be too concerned. Another Kidman film, Margot at the Wedding, is also being released this Friday (December 7), and she has spent much of the past year working on the epic film Australia. She says she is surprised how much work she has been offered since she turned 40 last June.
"I am looking forward to next year because I can take a break," she says. "At the same time, I have been so privileged recently, particularly at 40 years old, to play some of the greatest roles that I have had the opportunity to play. I'll admit that I thought I was going to have some much-needed time off when I was approached to do this role, but I just couldn't turn it down. I didn't really want to work. I was in a place in my life that was good, and I was in Tennessee [with husband Keith Urban] just feeling a little lazy and wanting to hang out. Chris and Philip Pullman sent me letters, and I was seduced by the letters. Having made the film, I am really glad that I was."
Kidman is also happy that the films are being made at all. She says that it's uncommon to find movies that have strong, young female characters. "I think it's lovely that the protagonist is a young girl, because there are not many films where that is true. I think just the way Lyra is depicted is unique, in that she has a wonderful strength of will and is a true free spirit. That is a lovely combination to have on-screen for young girls to see."