NICOLE Kidman wants to talk about her pushiness. Her alleged pushiness, that is. Recent articles have suggested she as good as bullied fellow Australian Jane Campion into giving her the plum part of Isabel Archer in Portrait Of A La Back in 1995, the press suggested she goaded director Gus Van Sant into casting her as the career-vaulting weatherwoman Suzanne Stone in To Die For.
Actually, Kidman tells me, "I was kind of shy to call Jane. Not until I heard that she was interested in me for the role did I ever have the guts to call her. You go after roles to a certain extent, but that gets misrepresented."
Fifteen years ago in Australia, Campion cast a 14-year-old Kidman for a lead in her student short, A Girl's Own Story. But Kidman's headmistress forced her to decline so she could study for exams. Campion sent Kidman a note asking her to "protect her talent," and talked about using her in "a classic role" in the future. Later, the part of the relatively normal sister in Sweetie came up. Campion bypassed Kidman, who found the snub "devastating".
A Girl's Own Story explores emergent female sexuality (two teenage girls draw a man's penis and practise heterosexual love-making), a leitmotif in Campion's work. Kidman says this is also a subject close to her own heart: "Jane wanted to boldly explore repressed sexuality in Portrait." One of the film's strongest scenes is a masturbatory fantasy in which a nearly faint Isabel imagines herself making love to all three of her suitors at the same moment.
Kidman says her relationship with Campion was often fraught. "I think Jane disliked me, or there was a sort of frustration with me at the beginning. I was overawed, and a director of that stature doesn't want to be put on a pedestal. After we went through a whole audition process, and she told me she didn't know if she wanted me to do the role, I got angry. I got upset, too," Jane said, `I really made a mistake; you're going to have to audition'. I admired her for being so blatant about it. I suppose that's when we knew we could work together."
Campion says: "I told Nicole she had to earn the role. Originally, I had said yes, then I got cold feet. I couldn't go into two years of work with an actress I wasn't sure was the right person. She was devastated. She was a little bit in awe of me before then, and then she just thought I was disgusting, completely despicable. And she just got very straight. Nicole's quite shy, but when she's angry she's very direct. I was going, `This is really good, the way you're talking to me now.' This put us on a strong footing."
THE bumpy course paid off. "I came out of this film feeling an enormous rapport and friendship with Jane that will last for the rest of our lives," says Kidman. "We hang out together all the time."
Kidman talks about another project she recently completed, the action movie Peacemaker which will be the first film released by Steven Spielberg's Dream Works studio. She plays a nuclear physicist opposite George Clooney's special-forces officer, and says it was important for her to be directed by a woman (first-time director Mimi Leder) who treated her character as a female using her brain rather than "as a man, carrying guns and sort of carrying on".
Campion recently gave a US magazine a different slant on Kidman's Peacemaker experience. "I don't think she had a fabulous time. To me it looks like something an agent would advise you to do to keep your options open." Kidman, however, insists: "I make all my own choices."
Surely that's not what she thinks her heroines should do: put up and shut up? "Not necessarily," she counters, sharper now. "I feel profoundly sympathetic for most of my heroines and their situations.
"Look at Portrait Of A Lady," she continues. "It's really sad, because it's about the getting of wisdom, and it hurts and that's real. The romantic myth - it's like 'Enough, please!' - it's hurting everybody. Come on - we all know that relationships are hard, really hard, and that lots of people fail at them."
"I could see how it might have been good for Nicole to work on a story she could really throw herself into - especially to complete a project she had started," suggests Campion. "But I also could see how it might be too hard because it was too close or too strong. You have to feel compassionate towards someone who's going through such a major change in public."
Not that Ryan didn't have her own very public split with Dennis Quaid and affair with Russell Crowe to contend with. "Meg was a year or so ahead of Nicole," shrugs Campion. "I guess you would have to say that for both women the romantic ideals are pretty much well and truly shattered even though they were icons for the rest of us in that regard."