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The Oscar-Winning Actress Nicole Kidman Explores Loss and Grief in Rabbit Hole

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Everyone experiences loss and grief, but few films show it in such a naked and matter-of-fact manner as does Rabbit Hole. The Aussie actress Nicole Kidman was so passionate about David Lindsay-Abaire's original Pulitzer Prize-winning play that she signed on as one of its producers as well as its star in order to see to that his script would get made.

Directed by John Cameron Mitchell, this unvarnished and austere movie pairs Kidman (Becca) with Aaron Eckhart (Howie) as a couple struggling to cope with and live past the accidental death of their child. And Diane Wiest brings her wonted pathos to the role of a mother with her own story of loss and recovery. 

In taking Rabbit Hole to the big screen, this glamorous Oscar winner took an incredible chance in bringing this dark examination of loss and recovery to a much larger audience. But in doing so, it has already garnered her a 2011 Golden Globe nomination for Best Dramatic Actress. Kidman has fully matured from being another pretty face into an actress who provides directors of the stature of a Stanley Kubrick, Lars Von Trier or Jane Campion with a masterful performance and can now get risky films made.

During a recent press conference and afterwards, the 43-year-old lithe redhead answered questions about what it took to get this film made and play such an emotionally-wrenching part.

[Photo left: B. Balfour]
Q: This film is about understanding the process of coping with grief. What did you learn about that process in making this film -- did you draw from experiences in your life to connect to the characters?

NK: It's something that I've always wanted to explore. I've explored it in other films in different ways. I explored it in a film called Birth, which was in a very different way. So I feel like it is territory that I would even explore again because it's so much a part of our journey, what we love, what we lose and the fear of that. 

Those emotions are so palpable and so powerful that I'm just drawn to exploring them and expressing them. But I think that with this film it's very much about a family as well and it's about how a family works through it together, about how you can help people and how in some ways  you're just so isolated. I think that's what Howie and Becca are, completely isolated, and yet they are reaching out and they don't know how to connect. 

I find that so touching and it was something that was beautifully, beautifully rendered in the screenplay. It's a very difficult place to exist in, but also the words came easily and the emotions. Actually, a lot of it was how to keep them in because they were available I think to all of us and all the actors in the film. A lot of it is restraint because as actors we're asked to mine those areas often, and a lot of it is up to the editing and to the director about how you modulate it.

Q: Did you go under the radar and attend grief counseling sessions like Aaron Eckhart did?

NK: We both had different experiences. I tried to and was told, "Unless you've actually lost a child or a loved one you're not to come into the room." I completely respected that because they said, "It's just too raw and it's too dangerous and it's a very sacred place and we can't let you in to observe."

I'm glad that they didn't now, when I look back because the way that the emotions came to me in the character were through just my own, the way that I vibrate and the rawness of loving my children. I was able to leap there very quickly. I was amazed at how deep that well is and how available it is.

It's probably as David [Lindsay-Abaire, the play's creator and film's screenwriter] said, that he wrote about this thing that terrifies him the most, and as an actor I played the thing that terrifies me the most. Aaron has a different story.

Q: It seemed that at some point that your character would want her husband to show more of an emotional reaction -- have an outburst or something -- and talk more about the tragedy with her.

NK: That I needed to have an emotional outburst? Or that he did? No. It's eight months down the road. {So no, he doesn't need to do that by this time.] This [also] answers the other question about how we prepared to play the role -- we rehearsed. We talked. 

Part of the preparation that I do as an actor is that I create from birth through now -- which is sort of like my homework -- of where we met, how we got married, all of those things. What happened to my father, because you never see my father, just all the details of the [character for the] performance. 

Then you come to the rehearsal period and you do scenes and then sort of slowly layer the performance. So, no, I don't think it [needed] an emotional outburst. I'm not saying that didn't happen in the period of eight months prior that you don't see. 

That's what I find very beautiful about this film, that this is not about five days after. This isn't the day of the loss. This is [happening] eight months later. This is life. This is how do you stay alive -- how do you choose life when you feel like everything to live for has been taken away? How do you then live? That's the subtlety to the film. 

How do you live with someone that you used to have moments of great joy with and a normal life with when suddenly you've been completely destroyed? That's why I wanted to make the film, because there are so many people in the world existing in [such] places. I've certainly been in a place of extreme depression and pain where choosing life everyday is a choice -- if that makes sense.

Q: When you're shooting such dark material, what's the atmosphere like off-camera? Is there joking around or do you try to maintain that serious level of emotion?

NK: Well, with someone like Miles [Teller, the actor who plays Jason, the teenager who accidentally runs down their young son] I purposely didn't have any conversations. I didn't want to rehearse the scenes. John and I talked about it and we wanted to keep the tension and the way in which we were relating [to each other], which was with some nervousness and [anxiety]. That was good for the performance, and I think that I probably stayed a little bit in character for the whole film. I was kind of half aware and half not aware. 

For this sort of film it's not like you have to be called by the name of the character, but certainly something [remains]. There's the presence of the character [there] at all times. Aaron and I would talk, but a lot of our conversations were about our lives. That was good because there was an intimacy to the conversations that I probably wouldn't have had with him if we weren't in a deeply intimate film together. Those will always remain secret. 

We had a lot of interns and [such] on the film, which is nice because you have people that just absolutely want to be around that are new to film making so they have an enormous amount of enthusiasm, energy and curiosity. And that is a good energy.

Q: Aaron had said that when you walked around the neighborhood you were staying in character just wearing your pajamas...

NK: Not my pajamas, my Ugg boots [laughs]. And the other thing is that when you have the writer on the set you can be very nervous because the idea of not pleasing him holds. It's like, "David is here!" But he was so supportive and encouraging and he came to some initial rehearsals as well.

I'm always asking questions of the writer. I just love it because they have the key. They usually have the key.

Q: How did being a parent help you in playing this role? 

NK: It's one of those things that for me I could go right back into the place that we existed in so quickly. So that it means that the strengths of that love, I mean it's profound. I think from the minute that you have a child or the minute that I've experienced taking care of a child, being the caretaker of a little one, the power of that and the responsibility of that and so therefore the fear of the loss of that child is extraordinary. 

I still can't even watch some of the scenes because they affect me so deeply and I've never had that [happen] with a film before. Because I'm a producer, I've seen this film a number of times. I probably won't see the film again, if that makes any sense. I watch two scenes and I'm like, "Ugghhh," because it still affects me so deeply. So I think that's the power of parenting and playing this role.

Q: This project probably wouldn't have happened without your involvement. What struck you about this story or the play that led you to option it and get it going as a film?

NK: Obviously, I just immediately connected with the subject matter. It was interesting to me from [reading] the reviews and then, when I actually read the play, the characters, the whole story I thought, was so available [to me]. I could immediately just jump in and feel [it]. John [Cameron Mitchell] and I did an interview yesterday, and we were saying that with this whole film... We didn't approach it from an analytical point of view. We did it from a sort of visceral place and that's what it's been.

Q: John is such a unique filmmaker; did you see his movies beforehand?

NK: Yeah, and I just think that I work by my gut and with [producer] Per Saari -- he and I optioned the material and we worked on the script with David, when we heard that John had worked on the script we were like, "Wow," that he was really interested in it I thought, "How unusual because of what he'd done and that he was interested in it."

Then I spoke to him on the phone and I just really liked him. I mean, it's that quick. We shared things, but we didn't have any extremely deep conversation. I just liked him and I've made most of my career decisions based on very quick, spontaneous things. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. 
 
I like bold directors. I like directors that go against the norm in a way, and I thought mixed with this material and his heart, which he has a big heart, was a good combo.

Q: You did an extraordinary thing here considering that you had the toughest job as both an actor and producer...

NK: I don't know if it was the toughest job, but she's in so much pain and so unable to let it out, trying desperately to move on and cannot move on. So that's why she lashes out at herself and hurts other people and then there's regret. It's so complicated -- each little [aspect] -- and that's why I wanted to make it a really detailed sort of performance. So, I hope that [I succeeded].

Q: Not only is making this film important, it's important that people see it.

NK: Yeah. Thank you. I think it's important and hope that it makes people feel not so alone. That's the [whole] point of it.

For more stories by Brad Balfour go to: http://filmfestivaltraveler.com/