Barefoot, sassy and in 'Moulin Rouge'

Kidman, in midst of divorce proceedings, is kicking up her heels

— Fresh from the Cannes Film Festival, Nicole Kidman is barefoot and sassy.

If you expect a sad, downtrodden woman in the midst of one of the nastiest divorces ever, think again. That side of the estranged Mrs. Tom Cruise is way in the background.

Instead, the woman we're about to interview is very much the movie star � the girlish, giggling leading lady of "Moulin Rouge."

Directed by Baz Luhrmann, the musical is considered risky because it's set in the bawdy Paris of 1899, yet features songs from modern artists like Madonna, Elton John and Paul McCartney. In addition, it's also a risk for Kidman because it tests her solo draw soon after her split from Cruise.

Their 10-year-marriage did not come to a quiet finale. Tom issued a statement saying that "Nicole knows why." Kidman said she didn't know why. Earlier this year, she suffered a miscarriage, which was greeted with tabloid speculation about the father. Her "Moulin Rouge" co-star, Ewan McGregor, felt it necessary to issue a public statement that he (who is also married) had no affair with his leading lady.

She hired a tough divorce lawyer. A settlement of funds in excess of $250 million is in the offing � making Kidman likely to top the all-time-high settlement Amy Irving got from Steven Spielberg. Cruise is otherwise engaged, with bags packed to arrive in Virginia later this month to film scenes for the thriller "Minority Report," directed by Spielberg.

Kidman is anything but hiding. Unlike most public figures in such a situation, she's appearing everywhere.

"Baz was going to do this interview with me," she said, referring to her absent director, "but he said I could handle it alone."

She wore a sleeveless, red and white striped cotton shirt and skin-tight Levis. Her flawless, peachy complexion gave the appearance that the sun has seldom hit her. Her red hair was tied back in a ponytail.

"I was working on Broadway in 'The Blue Room,'" she recalled, "when Baz came backstage and said, 'You've got to do this part. This girl sings, dances, and then dies.' How could I refuse?"

She got the part, though, only after auditioning.

"I considered every name in Hollywood," Luhrmann said in a separate interview. "I knew Nicole had the beauty and the charisma, but I wasn't sure about her singing voice. We definitely were not going to dub any voices. She sang 'Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend' for her audition. She was great. That song ended up being in the movie."

He was as shocked as anyone else when the Cruise-Kidman breakup became public just as "Moulin Rouge" was finally ready to be released. "I know them both and I never noticed any trouble," he said. The film had been planned for release last Christmas but "Star Wars: Episode II" had a contract to take over the soundstages it was using in Australia. Luhrmann, Kidman and company had to complete "Moulin Rouge" in Madrid.

Unforeseen injuries further slowed production. Lurking in the background is what happened to a film called "Proof of Life," which was overshadowed by publicity about the real-life romance of its stars, Meg Ryan and Russell Crowe. Director Taylor Hackford blamed the publicity for distracting audiences and causing a box office flop.

Luhrmann doesn't think Kidman-Cruise publicity will cause the same fate for "Moulin Rouge."

"I think this film is a blessing to her at this time. She's not running away. She's not going into seclusion," Luhrmann said. "One day she's pictured as a saint. The next day as an evil manipulator. For the first press conference at Cannes, she said to me, 'I can't go out there and face the press,' but she did. I told her she had to. I told her, 'Get back up on that horse and be Nicole Kidman � not a member of the royal family.' This is a changing point in her life. This is a time for her to define herself. This film, in fact, redefines her."

Luhrmann admits that the Cannes press was "a zoo � a feeding frenzy." One reporter asked about the miscarriage, but later apologized.

"Nicole is a big girl. She can handle herself," Luhrmann said.

Kidman, at the moment, was thankful that L'Hermitage Hotel, where she was staying, had a rooftop swimming pool. "The children are up there," she said. 'They're having fun." She and Cruise are seeking joint custody of Isabella, 8, and Connor, 6.

But the nasty divorce and the miscarriage haven't been her only recent troubles. Kidman's more willing to talk about the series of injuries that marred the filming of "Moulin Rouge."

"I'm not a whiner. I'm embarrassed to talk about the injuries, but they happened," she said. "I broke a rib during rehearsals. To be more accurate, Ewan broke my rib. Ewan is not a trained dancer. He was supposed to catch me in his arms. He did, but the wrong way. Then, months later, the same rib was rebroken when they put me in a corset too soon."

Catherine Martin, Luhrmann's wife and the designer for the production, remembered the mishap. "I was in the room at the time. We had consulted a bevy of doctors and experts. They all said it was all right for her to wear the corset. The look is an important part of the movie. When it was laced, the injury occurred all over again. We went into shock."

The movie was delayed six weeks.

The last, most harmful, injury came during the last days of filming. Kidman remembers: "It was during filming of the 'Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend' number. It was 1 o'clock in the morning and we'd been shooting a long time � trying to get the shot. I was wearing high heels, which are not my favorite things. I fell down the stairs � the entire length of the stairs. Tore the cartilage in my knee. They tell me it's like a football injury."

This time, there were no delays. She shot the final close-ups for the movie on crutches.

"After the thrill of getting the part of Satine, I eventually had to settle down to the reality that I had to sing � a lot," she said. "Ewan and I made a pact. We agreed that we had to be willing to make complete fools of ourselves in front of each other. Ewan told me, 'Baz is going to push us. We're going to feel as if we're not good, but we're going to do it.' Baz always told us that 'We may make a failure here, but let's make it a big failure.' "

After opening the summer with "Moulin Rouge," she'll close the season with the August opening of the thriller "The Others." Right now she's preparing to go to London to play Virginia Woolf in "The Hours," directed by Stephen Daldry, who directed "Billy Elliot."

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