Nicole Kidman: Dimitrios Kambouris/
EW Staff
October 17, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Nicole Kidman made EW’s Power List

age 36

The most powerful actress in Hollywood isn’t feeling so powerful at the moment. Driving through Connecticut on an Indian-summer afternoon, Nicole Kidman is instead feeling under the weather. Her most powerful move of the day? ”I got up,” she says, laughing. Her least? ”I cried.” No big deal; nothing that needs elaboration. ”Just personal stuff.”

Fair enough. It’s the professional stuff we want to discuss, anyway. And as far as that goes, it doesn’t get any better. Carried by a succession of acclaimed star turns — ”Moulin Rouge,” ”The Others,” and ”The Hours,” for which she won a Best Actress Oscar — Kidman now finds herself at the top of the actress heap, and without once resorting to a cutesy romantic comedy to make you really, really like her. Her name on a marquee is a veritable promise of award-worthy work. More interesting, perhaps, her power has come despite the fact that she’s not a box office superstar. Her biggest recent hit, 2001’s ”The Others” — with only her celebrity to speak of — grossed a profitable but unspectacular $97 million.

Studio execs will tell you that Kidman — gifted with a range of Streepian proportions (devastatingly beautiful courtesan one year; devastatingly depressed Virginia Woolf the next) — now tops their list of preferred leading ladies. That achievement is all the more striking when you consider that the route she has taken is notably different from those traveled by her peers. True, the former Mrs. Tom Cruise has played the fame game as well as anyone, walking miles of red carpet in designer duds. But since her revelatory performance in 1995’s ”To Die For,” she has mostly stuck to similar, smaller, auteur-driven films. Professionally, she’s more Depp than J. Lo.

Mix in her eminently marketable celebrity, and what you get is the new criterion for the Hollywood package: the glamour-girl artist, sexy and respected. ”Her involvement gives a project instant credibility,” says Harvey Weinstein, cochairman of Miramax, which will release Kidman’s next two films (”The Human Stain” and ”Cold Mountain,” both of which have award watchers placing bets again). ”As with any great talent, she attracts other talent; most actors and directors want to work with her because they know she’ll help them raise their own game.”

Kidman has had her pick of big-payday studio tentpoles since winning her Oscar, like ”Mr. and Mrs. Smith” (which would have had her playing assassin with Brad Pitt) and ”Catwoman” (which would have had her cracking bad guys with a whip). It says a great deal about her clout that when she declined both, fellow Oscar winners Angelina Jolie and Halle Berry — no power slouches themselves — gladly picked up her leftovers.

Then again, her plate is pretty full for the next two years: She will topline six films, all of which can be called ”eagerly anticipated,” and most of which were set up before March’s Oscar. In ’04, there’s ”Dogville,” her controversial collaboration with Lars von Trier (”Dancer in the Dark”); ”Birth,” a supernatural mystery from ”Sexy Beast”’s director; and ”The Stepford Wives,” a broadly comic remake of the 1975 cult classic. On the side, she produced Jane Campion?s erotic thriller ”In the Cut” (starring Meg Ryan).

Kidman could only be hotter if she assayed — and succeeded at — one of those cutesy rom coms. Fortunately for her competition, Kidman has no plans to stretch in that direction. ”The films I enjoy making are not necessarily what you would deem ‘mainstream,”’ says Kidman. She took ”Wives,” for example, because of producer Scott Rudin (”The Hours”), and because, after a series of draining dramas, she wanted to lighten up. ”I needed to be irreverent,” says Kidman, ”to breathe in a different way.”

She’ll get serious again after wrapping ”Wives.” Kidman just inked her biggest payday ($15 million) to star in Sydney Pollack’s political thriller ”The Interpreter.” In true Streep tradition, she’ll speak Russian and learn the cello for the role. Kidman says she doesn’t buy into all this power talk. Power, in her mind, is a term reserved for those in control of Hollywood’s greenlight switches. The clout she seeks is the kind any actor craves: the opportunity to work and the freedom to say no without repercussions. ”It’s all about ‘Is this artistically worthy?”’ says Kidman. ”Otherwise, I’d prefer being with my family.”

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