Cover Story

Seeing Red

Nicole Kidman is ready to take the spotlight -- Mrs. Cruise is set to make her mark with ''Batman Forever'' and ''To Die For''

A spectacularly sunny day in London's Hyde Park. Schoolboys in blue blazers and rep ties stroll the fiercely manicured lawns. An old woman feeds bread crumbs to a flock of overly friendly pigeons. In the distance, a red double-decker bus putters past Queen's Gate. The scene is so serenly civilized, so veddy English, you half expect Mary Poppins to come floating down from the chim-chim-in-eys. But a tempest is brewing in a corner of this British Isles idyll — a tempest with bright red hair and sky blue eyes. ''Bulls---!'' storms Nicole Kidman. ''This is bulls---!'' The 28-year-old actress is poised on a lawn chair near the park's Round Pond, tearing through a bundle of gossip clippings — lurid little snippets about her marriage, her sex life, her husband's sex life — that a visiting journalist was thoughtful enough to bring along. She picks an item out of the pile more or less at random. ''Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman phoned up the Mulholland Drive Cafe the other night and ordered four chicken potpies to be delivered to their hotel room,''' she reads aloud. ''Oh, c'mon! I don't even like chicken!''

After nearly five years of celebrity marriage, Kidman is still getting used to being half of Hollywood's most gossiped-about couple. Almost every aspect of her so-called private life — her adopted children (Conor Anthony Kidman, 4 months, and Isabella Jane, 2), her husband's belief in Scientology, her alleged affinity for poulet en croute — gets covered in the tabloids. For the most part, she's remarkably affable about it, utterly at home in the goldfish bowl. But it's still possible to ruffle her gills. ''After a while it just gets boring,'' she says. ''You get asked the same things over and over. Just once I'd love to be asked about my work. You know, my future projects, something like that.''

Kidman's future projects, as it happens, include the biggest, most notable films of her career — like the reported $100 million Batman Forever (opening June 16), in which she plays a psychiatrist who makes Val Kilmer's Caped Crusader hot under the cowl. After that, she stars as a murderous weathercaster in Gus Van Sant's comedy thriller To Die For (opening in September), the surprise hit last month at Cannes. And soon she'll start filming Jane Campion's adaptation of Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady, playing Isabel Archer, a role coveted by just about every under-30 actress in Hollywood.

It's a cannily planned trio of films that should finally let Kidman carve out a professional identity all her own, independent of her megastar husband. ''We were naive at first,'' she says. ''We thought, oh, you can just do tons of work and nobody ever will judge you. Little did we know that there was this thing out there. The Mrs. Tom Cruise thing.''

''We were naive about it,'' agrees Cruise. ''Every little step Nic takes is much bigger news because she's with me. People judge her because of it. It adds a lot of pressure. I guess that's the downside of being married to Tom Cruise.''

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