Kidman honoured as she takes it to the limits for new role

Brave performance: Kidman plays a 'death-row groupie' sexually and racially-charged film <i>The Paperboy</i>.
Brave performance: Kidman plays a 'death-row groupie' sexually and racially-charged film The Paperboy.

Day one shooting her new movie The Paperboy, Nicole Kidman had to bend over a pink washing machine in a graphic sex scene with John Cusack.

Day two she urinated on Zac Efron (or rather his character, in a scene where she treats a jellyfish sting).

Day three she had "telepathic sex" with a prison inmate.

And then she was asked to say the N-word. And that's when she drew the line.

"I just didn't feel it was right for the character," Kidman says. "And obviously I have a son who's African-American. It's just something that wasn't right. It wasn't right."

In The Paperboy, a sexually and racially-charged film noir based on a 1995 novel by Pete Dexter and set in the swampy backwaters of 1960s Florida, Kidman plays a wild "death-row groupie" who writes love letters to jail inmates and is engaged to a condemned murderer (played by Cusack).

It divided critics at Cannes, with some raving and some throwing brickbats.

But there's no denying that Kidman's performance is one of the bravest and most startling of her career.

Kidman is being honoured today with a "gala tribute" at the New York Film Festival, which is in its 50th year.

The festival is screening The Paperboy, followed by a Q&A session with the actress, Wednesday night New York time (Thursday in Australia).

In a press release, the festival said the tributes were created "to celebrate the work of those in film who've made significant artistic contributions to film culture in the past and will continue to do so in the future".

"Nicole Kidman is one of film's finest contemporary actresses," said festival director Richard Pena. "Kidman has insisted on finding roles that are complex, bold and demanding. We are excited to honour her with a tribute at the New York Film Festival."

In The Paperboy, Kidman has certainly found another demanding role - one which tested her limits.

Director Lee Daniels also persuaded Kidman to gain 7 kilograms for the role, telling her "I want your butt jiggling". But he says he understands Kidman drawing the line where she did on the N-word.

"I had just seen the Confederate flag and you could feel the racial tension as [we] were location scouting in the swamps [near New Orleans]," he said.

Many people refused to deal with him, insisting on talking instead to his (non-African-American) assistant director. "It was scary," he said.

"And I said we're going there, let's push it, call him the N-word, and [Kidman] said 'I won't do that'. So I went home and told my producer 'she won't say the N-word'. And my producer says, 'Lee, day one she's bent over a pink washing machine. Day two she urinates on Zac Efron. Day three she has telepathic sex. I think you can forgive her for the N-word."'

Kidman says she is in a place in her career where she wants to test her limits.

"I'm now 45 years old and I've worked a lot with many different directors in many different places and experienced so many things and I just want to push myself," she said.

"I want to be in places that I haven't been before and I want to be uncomfortable in those places sometimes. I want to go home at night and feel discomfort at times and feel challenged and feel ripped open, and it's very, very hard to find those roles.

"Sometimes it's going to work, sometimes it isn't - but I don't want to get into a place at this stage of my life when I'm running scared. I'd much prefer to be pushing through the next few decades giving it all I've got."

Lee Daniels said he studied late '60s and early '70s movies such as Cool Hand Luke and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner for the look of the movie.

"What I wanted you all to think was that you had seen a film that was made in the early '70s," he said. "Flaws and all, that it was edited, shot and acted in the early '70s.

"I thought I was a loser for a second, I said Nicole, even I think we'll get the dubbing, the lip-sync off and she looked at me like I was on crack - I don't think so!"

To give Kidman an idea of the look he was going for he showed her the Andy Warhol film Heat, and particularly its star Sylvia Miles - whose walk she copied to help find the grittiness and rawness of the character.

The film had such a small budget that the clothes came from op shops and vintage stores.

"Anywhere that you can get things for five bucks - limitations are a great thing," Kidman said. She found a pair of white shoes, scuffed them up and she felt it was the start of building her character. "These things were just real, from that time period. Perfect."

Daniels said he thought he had "freaked out" Kidman by asking her to do her own make-up for the movie to save money.

But Kidman said it led to another moment where she found the character - alone in her bathroom, playing with mascara and a wig,

Kidman said she didn't see her character as crazy - she had a lot of compassion for her.

"It's a woman who is obviously very damaged and is terrified of intimacy, of being close to someone," she said. "It's almost like a death wish in a way. For me that's tragic."

She met with women who write to prison inmates to research the role, but ended up not wanting to "intellectualise" the role, but to inhabit it in a "visceral" way, she said.

While on the shoot she kept up her southern accent and only interacted with the other actors in character.

"If I did [step out of character] I felt that I was going to judge her, but if I stayed in it then I felt incredibly free to follow all the different instincts."

Because of Daniels' style of just rehearsing scenes on the day of a shoot, she didn't even get to know John Cusack, who was playing her murderous fiance.

"We kind of went for it. I just went, I'm never going to know John, I'm just going to deal with him as the character and he can just deal with me as the character and that was a great way [to do it]. I never spoke to him through the shoot as John. At the very end of the film he came to my trailer and said 'hi, I'm John'. It was great."

Daniels also revealed at the film festival Q&A that he had offered a role to Oprah Winfrey - "she said absolutely not," he said - which ended up being a relief for both, because the character had a very explicit scene.

"I think the universe took care of me because I cannot imagine Oprah on a bed masturbating," he said.

The role was filled by Macy Gray.

The Paperboy does not currently have an Australian release date.

This story Kidman honoured as she takes it to the limits for new role first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.