‘I’m not on the internet, and I definitely don’t Google myself’

Nicole Kidman learns valuable lessons each time she plays a real-life figure: how that person was misapprehended by society at the time; how that era of history is more like the present day than she realised; and, crucially, how to maintain her balance while traipsing barefoot through a vat of grapes.

Recounting her preparations to play Lucille Ball, the star of the American sitcom I Love Lucy, Kidman suggests that her methodical efforts to learn Ball’s enduring 1956 grape-stomping routine were not fully sufficient when it came time to reenact it on camera. “I had only practised on a floor,” Kidman says with a gentle earnestness. “The one thing I didn’t count on was that there were going to be real grapes. They’re actually really slippery, just so you know.”

In Being the Ricardos, a comedy-drama written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, Kidman plays Ball in a story spanning a week at I Love Lucy, where she and her husband, Desi Arnaz (Javier Bardem), fight to incorporate Ball’s pregnancy into the series, fend off accusations that Ball is a communist and arrive at a fateful point in their marriage.

Kidman ran lines with her mother, a lifelong I Love Lucy fan. ‘She’d say, You got this word wrong, and I’d go, Mom, just let me get to the end of the sentence before you correct me. Rule No 1: don’t learn lines with your mom’

The movie, which is on Amazon Prime Video, includes some re-creations of famous I Love Lucy scenes. But it is ultimately a story of discovery, for the TV star and for the woman playing her. Kidman is an Academy Award- and Emmy Award-winning actor, and she is once again a contender for accolades for her performance in Being the Ricardos. But the 54-year-old tends to second-guess herself and says she has scant confidence in her comedic abilities.

Through her approach to Being the Ricardos, Kidman has found more connection than she expected to Ball, another actor who was pigeonholed and underestimated in her day. Their life stories and talents may not fully overlap, but they both understood the necessity of humour to fulfil their individual goals. As Kidman says, “I’ve got to be funny, and funny’s hard.”

On a visit to New York before the Omicron surge, Kidman is sitting in a downstairs lounge at a Manhattan boutique hotel, her fingers ornamented with intricate rings as she sips a ginger shot. Kidman says I Love Lucy reruns were a hazy background element from her childhood, and that she leaned toward shows like Bewitched and The Brady Bunch. She can point to the occasional comic performance on her CV, in a dark satire like To Die For or a family film like Paddington, although she has to be reminded that there was some physical clowning in Moulin Rouge, too. (“There was, that’s right!”) Even on a somewhat sardonic series like Big Little Lies, Kidman says, “It’s Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern who are very funny. I just say to them, I’ll be your straight woman.”

Being the Ricardos: Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball
Being the Ricardos: Nicole Kidman as Lucille Ball

She has no illusions that she was the most logical candidate for the role of Ball or even the first actor sought to play her. At its inception several years ago, Being the Ricardos was contemplated as a TV miniseries, according to Lucie Arnaz, the actor and daughter of Ball and Desi Arnaz, and an executive producer on the movie. Cate Blanchett was attached, but by the time Sorkin became involved and the project was set up at Amazon as a film, the actor was no longer available. “It just took too long and we lost her,” Arnaz says. “I was devastated.” (A press representative for Blanchett declines to comment.)

As other stars were contemplated, Arnaz says, “None of them made me happy. It was always, like, who’s the flavour of the month? Who’s got the hot movie of the minute?” But when Kidman emerged as a possibility, Arnaz says, she was intrigued. “I thought, That’s good; we should only be looking at Australian actresses for this,” she jokes.

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