Extreme makeunder: Nicole Kidman loses herself in gritty new role

51-year-old actor transforms for new film 'Destroyer', to director Karyn Kusama about the process

Nicole Kidman in Destroyer (2018)
Powered by automated translation

Hollywood loves a good transformation. Actors who physically go to extremes to change their looks and shape automatically capture the imagination, whether it's Robert De Niro's weight gain for Raging Bull or Christian Bale's skeletal physique for The Machinist. Yet there probably isn't a more startling turn in recent times than Nicole Kidman in Karyn Kusama's new LA cop drama Destroyer.

Cast as Erin Bell, an LAPD detective to whom the years have not been kind, the Australian star utterly disappears into the character. Mottled skin, dark circles under the eyes and a shaggy dishwater-brown wig, it pushed the 51-year-old star far from her comfort zone. Kidman told her director, “I don’t want to look like Nicole Kidman. I don’t even want people to see me. I need people to only see Erin Bell’.”

A dramatic physical transformation

In an interview with The National, Kusama said her star didn't need to spend hours in the make-up chair every day before filming. Kidman, who won a Golden Globe nod for her role, began with make-up tests at home.

“The make-up part wasn’t actually very long. It was probably shorter than a glamour make-up approach. So it was maybe forty minutes or something. We found a way towards something very streamlined with her,” Kusama says.

Still, there is more to disappearing into a character than simply working with a good make-up artist. Here, Kidman goes through a dramatic physical transformation.

“I kept talking to her about collapsing around your heart and almost looking like you’re hurt all the time,” says Kusama, who watched Kidman change her graceful posture into a bow-legged “limping, loping walk”.

Then there's Bell's raspy voice. "She did a lot of voice work to drop her voice down for the present-day scenes. I think that was what required a little more concentration for her." Factor in her clothes – boots, jeans and a masculine leather jacket – and the Kidman that you've seen grace dozens of red carpets is nowhere to be seen.

Kusama was left spellbound. “She’s always been so adventurous,” she says. “But what is really remarkable about her is she now embraces her age and embraces the power that comes with it, the wisdom, and she can say ‘I’m 51 and I do what I want to do now. I’m at a moment where I have more choices in front of me.’ She’s sort of in the best creative zone as an artist that I think she’s ever [been in].”

'If you really think about it, time isn’t kind to all of us'

Scripted by Kusama's husband Phil Hay and his writing partner Matt Manfredi, Destroyer sees Kidman's character on the hunt for a charismatic, volatile gang leader (Toby Kebbell) who re-surfaces some seventeen years after a more fresh-faced Bell went undercover to infiltrate his criminal outfit. While that ended in tragedy, his reappearance gives Bell a shot at putting her demons to bed.

Flashing back and forth, what really shocks is the way time withered Bell. "If you really think about it, time isn't kind to all of us," says Kusama. "There's often reasons for it, but it's not typical that we ask, 'How did you get here?' Lots of people tell her she looks terrible but no one asks why. That's the world we live in: happy to comment on what you look like but not really delve into how you got there."

Another aspect that Destroyer challenges is the crime movie itself. Kusama's cinematographer and editor are women in a genre so often dominated by men. Julie Kirkwood is her cinematographer and editing is by Plummy Tucker. Then there is Kidman's tough-as-nails central character; normally it's the men who get to play the anti-authoritarian gun-toting cop. "A lot of the rogue cop movies that have men at the centre seem to be more focused on the idea of appetites and the idea of excess," says Kusama.

"I think this story is more internal and more demanding because of it but I hope it brings with it a different kind of satisfaction to see someone really fight against themselves, and then come to some small – but very significant – sense of self-awareness." Part of what makes Bell's journey different is that she's also a mother struggling with her teenage daughter Shelby (Jade Pettyjohn).

"I think to us the heart of the story is her relationship with her daughter," says screenwriter Hay.

"Nicole spoke about this a lot – she has love inside her, she is caring, she has those human things, but she's really marginalised them and not imagined that she deserves any of those things."

The result is a film that takes on far more profound themes than your usual cops-and-crooks thriller. As the enigmatic title hints, here is a world where so many elements – “ambition, money, greed”, notes Hay – are all destroyers. But there’s one thing above all else.

“Time is the ultimate destroyer,” says Kusama. “In the end, time wins. It keeps going. We don’t.”

Destroyer opens in the UAE on January 17

Women on screen: 5 extreme film transformations 

Charlize Theron, Monster (2003)

Charlize Theron in Monster (2003) Newmarket Films
Charlize Theron in Monster (2003). Courtesy Newmarket Films

The South African star won an Oscar for her remarkable transformation into serial killer Aileen Wuornos. Theron gained weight, bleached her eyebrows, thinned her hair, wore dentures and even weathered her skin, layering it with washed-off tattoo ink.

Nicole Kidman, The Hours (2002)

Nicole Kidman in The Hours (2002) Paramount Pictures
Nicole Kidman in The Hours (2002). Courtesy Paramount Pictures

It’s less extreme than Destroyer, but Kidman’s Oscar-winning evolution into novelist Virginia Woolf took hours in the make-up chair. Donning a prominent prosthetic nose, it was so convincing, she could leave her trailer and “not have anyone know me”.

Rooney Mara, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Rooney Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
Rooney Mara in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011).

The Goth hacker heroine of Stieg Larsson’s crime novels, Lisbeth Salander came alive in the hands of Mara, who gave herself an extreme makeover to play the part, including dyeing her hair jet black.

Cameron Diaz, Being John Malkovich (1999)

Cameron Diaz in Being John Malkovich (1999).  Universal Studios
Cameron Diaz in Being John Malkovich (1999). Universal Studios

Cast as Lotte, the dowdy pet-obsessed wife to John Cusack’s mournful puppeteer in Spike Jonze’s surreal comedy, the usually-luminous Diaz played down her looks. Hiding her blonde hair with a permed wig, she was almost unrecognisable.

Renée Zellweger, Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001)

Ren��e Zellweger in Bridget Jones's Diary (2001)
Renée Zellweger in Bridget Jones's Diary (2001).

To play the famed singleton, Zellweger ate doughnuts and cheese pizza, going from a Size 6 to a Size 14. She did it all again for the sequel – only this time she hired a nutritionist to help increase her weight in a more controlled manner.