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How Nicole Kidman learned to love playing Lucille Ball

Recounting
her preparations to play Lucille Ball, the star of “I Love Lucy,” Kidman
suggested 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
practiced on a floor,” Kidman said 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.

The movie,
which is in theaters and on Amazon Prime, 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, 54,
is an Academy Award- and Emmy Award-winning actress, and she is once again a
contender for year-end accolades for her performance in “Being the Ricardos.”
But she tends to second-guess herself and said she had scant confidence in her
comedic abilities.

Through her
approach to “Being the Ricardos,” Kidman has found more connection than she
expected to Ball, another actress who was pigeonholed and underestimated in her
day. Their life stories and talents may not fully overlap, but they both
understood the necessity of humor to fulfill their individual goals.

As Kidman
said, “I’ve got to be funny, and funny’s hard.”

On a visit
to New York this month, before the omicron surge, Kidman was sitting in a
downstairs lounge at a Manhattan boutique hotel, her fingers ornamented with
intricate rings as she sipped a ginger shot.

Kidman said
“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 could
point to the occasional comic performance on her resume, in a dark satire like
“To Die For” or a family film like “Paddington,” although she had 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 HBO’s “Big Little
Lies,” Kidman said, “It’s Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern who are very funny.
I just say to them, I’ll be your straight woman.”

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She has no
illusions that she was the most logical candidate for the role of Ball or even
the first actress sought to play her.

At its
inception several years ago, “Being the Ricardos” was contemplated as a TV
miniseries, according to Lucie Arnaz, the actress 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 actress was no longer available.

“It just
took too long and we lost her,” Arnaz said in an interview. “I was devastated.”
(A press representative for Blanchett declined to comment.)

As other
stars were contemplated, Arnaz said, “None of them made me happy. It was always
like, who’s the flavor of the month? Who’s got the hot movie of the minute?”

But when
Kidman emerged as a possibility, Arnaz said, she was intrigued.

“I thought
that’s good; we should only be looking at Australian actresses for this,” she
joked.

Kidman said
Blanchett’s previous involvement did not diminish her interest. In show
business, Kidman said, “I feel like there’s a sacred pact among us all: Whoever
gets something, that’s where it was meant to land.”

She was
aware of a backlash online from fans who opposed her casting, some of whom
wanted the role to go to “Will & Grace” star Debra Messing.

“I’m not on
the internet and I definitely don’t Google myself,” Kidman said. “But things
trickle through.”

(Arnaz said
Messing “just wants to be that person so bad,” but added, “We weren’t doing
that. We weren’t trying to be that person.” A press representative for Messing
declined to comment.)

She was not
deeply versed in Ball’s life when she was first approached, but Kidman said she
could imagine the freedom in portraying that slapstick queen: “The way she
moves and falls, every part of her physicality, you go, oh, I can be an
absolute doofus playing her.”

Still, after
signing on to “Being the Ricardos” with some gusto, Kidman said she began to
get cold feet. Her reluctance, she said, was partly about the pace of Sorkin’s
dialogue-dense screenplay and partly about making the movie during the
pandemic.

But on a
fundamental level, Kidman said comedies do not come easily to her — not as a
genre and not as acting opportunities.

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“I don’t get
cast in them,” she said. That might be the result of a career spent in dramas,
or, “it might be my personality, too.”

Reflecting
on her upbringing in Australia, Kidman said, “I was the kid that was not
allowed to go on the beach during the middle of the day, because I was so fair
and I was going to burn. So I would sit in a room and I wouldn’t watch TV. I’d
read.” A youth spent with Dostoyevsky, Flaubert and Tolstoy “doesn’t
necessarily make you a comedian,” she said.

If she’s
going to take on a role with any comic qualities now, Kidman said, “I need to
be pushed and cheerleaded in that area.”

Sorkin was
persuasive, Kidman said, and she was buoyed by past experiences landing a funny
line in stage plays here and there.

“It’s pretty
wow when you say something and a whole theater laughs,” she said. “I can
understand getting addicted to that.”

What the
film really required, Kidman said, was for her to play Lucille Ball (as
depicted in Sorkin’s script) and not Lucy Ricardo.

“Lucy’s a
character — that’s not Lucille,” she explained. “Lucille is extraordinary
because she was knocked down, got back up and just doggedly kept at things.”

The more she
reflected on the screenplay and learned about Ball’s life, Kidman said, the
more she saw a multifaceted person who gave her many emotions to play.

In Ball’s
marriage to the philandering, alcoholic Arnaz, Kidman said, “She loved a person
who loved her but couldn’t give her what she wanted most.” Pointing to the
fizzled film career that eventually led Ball to “I Love Lucy,” she said, “She
was really funny but she wanted to be a movie star.”

Kidman
stopped short of drawing direct parallels between Ball’s life and her own, but
Lucie Arnaz wholeheartedly embraced the comparisons.

Arnaz said
that like her mother, Kidman “had been married before. She understood divorce
and trying to raise your children in the spotlight. She understood a husband
who had an addiction problem.” (Kidman’s husband, singer Keith Urban, has been
treated in the past for drug and alcohol abuse.)

Kidman threw
herself into the physical preparations for the role and worked closely with a
dialect coach, Thom Jones, to develop the voices she would use for Lucille Ball
and Lucy Ricardo.

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As Jones
explained, “Lucy is Lucille extreme. When Lucille played Lucy, she did a broad,
exaggerated version of herself and pitched her voice higher.”

Ball’s
natural speaking voice was deeper and huskier from years of smoking, although
Kidman was not necessarily striving for perfect mimicry.

“We wanted
her to grab at the essence of Lucille and get that across,” Jones said. “If
you’re doing an impersonation, you’re going to be too aware of your outside and
not be able to fill your inside as an actor.”

Kidman ran
lines with her mother, a lifelong “Lucy” fan, although it’s not clear how
helpful this was to her overall process.

“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.”

She also
studied personal audio recordings that Arnaz shared with her, and worked with a
movement coach while learning to duplicate several “I Love Lucy” routines,
although only a handful appear in the film.

Kidman has
already received nominations for several honors, including a Golden Globe and a
Critics Choice Award, for “Being the Ricardos,” but her performance remains an
occasional source of insecurity for her.

She seemed
surprised to be told about an October teaser trailer for the film that only
fleetingly showed her face in a span of about 75 seconds, and that prompted
some viewers to ask why Amazon appeared to be hiding Kidman.

Asked if she
was aware of the teaser or the strategy behind it, Kidman said, “I don’t know
how to answer that, you know? I don’t handle the promotional part of it. Maybe
they were just scared of showing me.”

She drew a
breath before adding, “Bummer.”

Whatever
other notices she receives for “Being the Ricardos,” Kidman will always have
the experience of standing on a facsimile of the “I Love Lucy” set, performing
Ball’s material from the show and hearing the laughter of scores of extras
hired to play the show’s studio audience.

Kidman
offered a single word to describe how she felt in that moment: “Fantastic.”
Then, as if to demonstrate some of the skills she’d picked up on the film, she
waited a beat and said: “They were made to laugh, by the way.”

© 2022 The
New York Times Company

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