Death can overthrow the status quo that a family relies on. Death creates a new kingdom that a grieving family inhabits, and it is here, in the world without a loved one, that families learn to exist and to move on. Welcome to the new normal.
Director John Cameron Mitchell explores this “world without” in “Rabbit Hole,” based on David Lindsay-Abaire’s heart-achingly raw play about the death of a child. The director of “Shortbus” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” has never been afraid to delve into taboo subjects, and “Rabbit Hole” strips death naked, revealing the reality of grief, sorrow, and recovery with unabashed honesty.
Nicole Kidman plays the stoic Becca, a mother who tries to forge through the emotional devastation of losing her 4-year-old son, Danny. Alongside her husband, Howie (Aaron Eckhart), she tries to shed her conflicted emotions—rage, denial, hopelessness, apathy—and ultimately learns that each person’s recovery is distinct and unique.
Kidman bravely plunges into the role, drawing from her own personal experiences—including the recent birth of a child with husband Keith Urban—to make Becca nuanced and real. She expresses Becca’s emotions with her whole body. Her anger courses up the musculature of her neck, her hands twist like winter tree branches as she heaves with tears.
Back Stage recently spoke with Kidman about “Rabbit Hole” and discussed living in a house with the cast, finding a studio to back their film, conjuring up gut-wrenching grief, and how her character infiltrated her dreams.
Back Stage: This film is brutally honest about such a taboo subject. What interested you about this script?
Nicole Kidman: I think the intimacy of it. It was really raw, and I just felt that it was very real and delicate. The way in which the scenes were written and the emotions were handled were not histrionic. People have said that it feels very “real.” And that, as an actor, is something that you want to hear. I think that someone said that it was like watching your neighbors, like you’re peeking through the window at them and watching, hoping that they’ll get through it.
Back Stage: When was the first time that you read it?
Kidman: I read it as a play first. That was years and years ago now, because it takes such a long time to develop and then film and release. It’s been a long, long road for us, and this is obviously difficult subject matter, so just getting it made was hard, just getting the money to make it was hard.
Back Stage: What difficulties did you face with financing the film?
Kidman: We just found the financing ourselves, and we did it for a very, very low budget, and that was it. So we could choose whichever director we wanted, and we had all the power over it.
Back Stage: What was it about John Cameron Mitchell that made you know that he was the right director for this film?
Kidman: I just think he’s very, very talented, and I also think he’s very raw, which suits this material. I think a director that’s very cold, or that’s slightly removed or stoic, wouldn’t have been so good because the script itself was very restrained. So it was the combination of a very raw director with a restrained script, I just thought that was interesting. And I just like him.
Back Stage: The subject is so taboo, as well. It must have been really difficult to have to sell people on a film about a child’s death.
Kidman: When we were trying to raise the money for it, as well, it was right at the time when [the economy] had crashed, so everyone’s saying, “No, no one wants to see anything like this; they want to see popcorn movies, big entertainment.” And I said, “But this is real, this is entertainment—it’s just maybe not comfortable entertainment.”
Back Stage: The movie seems to be about catharsis and about moving on, as well as solidarity in grief. Everyone feels sorrow, and that fact can unify us.
Kidman: I think it’s hopeful, I really do, because it’s about people coming together through pain, and I think that’s an important thing for us to see, that people can fuse that way.
Back Stage: What other characters from other films, or books, or any sort of media did you look to for inspiration for your own character?
Kidman: I read [Joan Didion's] “The Year of Magical Thinking.” But part of it, as an actor, is that just, when you hit a certain age, there’s a well of experience and a well of emotion that exists. For me, having just given birth a year prior, having three children, having been through many things in my life over the last 43 years, I just think, if I stay open enough, then there’s all of that to mine.
Back Stage: Was it difficult to dredge up these difficult feelings?
Kidman: Well, I’m not constantly mining it, because you know this was a six-week shoot, so I kind of go, “Okay, I’m gonna go into a place that’s taboo, that’s deeply disturbing.” But I want to do it because that’s part of being an actor, it’s part of being an artist, I suppose. I have no understanding of why, but at the same time, I know that I want to tell stories that somehow connect us, and I feel like this is one of those stories.
Back Stage: Grief often manifests itself in physical ways. As an actor, you have to become these characters and take on their grief. In what ways did this grief physically affect you?
Kidman: Just in my sleeping. I really didn’t sleep well. It was disturbed. That’s when I know my psyche is disturbed and I’m deeply involved. It’s really layered and connected. I just have to go, “Okay, I’m just really not going to sleep much.” And weird dreams and nightmares permeate my psyche.
Back Stage: Did you begin to dream as your character?
Kidman: No, but the emotions arise sometimes, even that you’ve [performed] days before. It’s so strange how the subconscious plays out, suddenly there’ll be those similar emotions, very, very present and very, very powerful, you know? I’ll wake up crying or I’ll wake up in a fetal position or wake up terrified and not know where I am.
Back Stage: Were there any points in this movie where you thought that you couldn’t do it? Perhaps that this might be a role that’s too difficult, too emotional?
Kidman: Oh yeah, as is my way, I sort of get dragged kicking and screaming to make it, and then when once I’m in it, I don’t want to give it up, and then when I’m finished, I think, “How did I even go there?” It’s a strange process, but I get there. I just was like, “Oh, my God, I can’t do this now. I just had my baby. Why would I want to do this? I don’t want to do this,” and then, “Whoa, you have to do it. We’ve raised the money, you can’t get out, you’ve signed the contract.” And then I go, “Ugh… okay.” But then I go, well—I suppose a lot of it is saying, “I need to honor this. This is an extraordinary role; people go through this.” And that’s my way of honoring those people and, in some way, reaching out to them.
Back Stage: You’ve been acting quite some time now. Do you find these “difficult” roles are easier now, with experience?
Kidman: I’m just very careful about what I choose now because time is so precious. I’m just not willing to waste the time, whereas maybe in my 20s, I was willing to try anything. But life is not about the past. My husband said a wonderful thing to me: He said, “The rear-view mirror is small; the windshield of a car is big.” I really try to approach my life that way.
Back Stage: And that’s such a great thing for a country singer to say. That’s a lyric right there.
Kidman: You’ll hear it in a song. [Laughs.]