First Look: Nicole Kidman’s Stunning Transformation in Karyn Kusama’s ‘Destroyer’

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Playing an L.A.P.D. cop haunted by her past, Kidman digs deep into a woman who “wears her ugliness on the outside.”

Having just won an Emmy for playing a woman who hid her internal turmoil behind a beautiful façade, Nicole Kidman is now diving into a character who shows all of her darkness on the outside. In Destroyer, directed by Karyn Kusama, Kidman plays L.A.P.D. cop Erin Bell who, as a young woman, goes undercover with a criminal gang and, nearly 20 years later, still wears the trauma of the experience.

“We always knew that what we wanted her to look like was a real middle-aged woman with a past that she wears on her face,” said Kusama in a recent phone call. “With sun damage and sleep deprivation and stress and rage, just in her whole physical body.”

The result, as evident in this exclusive first-look photo, is a remarkable transformation for Kidman, an actress known for diving fully into challenging roles—from ruthless news anchor in ‘To Die For’ to Diane Arbus in ‘Fur’—but rarely for undergoing such a huge physical change. “Ironically, she also hates being in the makeup chair,” Kusama said. “She just wants to be on set working. So we had to make it as short an application as possible.”

Working with minimal prosthetics, Kidman turned herself into a woman who, in Kusama’s words, “wears her ugliness on the outside, all that smallness and bitterness.” Though in the end, Kusama promises, “the character is so sort of tragic, and ultimately heroic.”

For the second film in a row, Kusama is working with screenwriters Matt Manfredi and Phil Hay—the latter of whom happens to also be her husband. Manfredi and Hay’s writing partnership is older than the marriage, but the three currently operate as “a trio,” as Hay puts it, at least when the movie industry allows them. “[Matt and I] had some of the basic ideas for Destroyer over 10 years ago,” Hay said. “At some point, we have a critical mass and realize that’s a story we want to tell. Karyn, obviously we really want her to do it, and she always knows what we’re up to in an increasingly specific way. We write and we give it to her, and then we start the collaborative process with the three of us.”

Though Kusama and Hay both describe Destroyer as a character study in disguise as a cop thriller—and Kusama points out that Kidman is in every single scene of the film—they were also drawn to the criminal underworld her character infiltrates. “We’ve all loved bank robbery stories as a place to start, because they almost never go well,” Kusama said. “There’s a kind of particular American madness to thinking you’ll be the one who gets away clean. We were really focusing on characters who weren’t criminal masterminds, but fringe dwellers of American society. Yet they still hold out the hope that they’d beat the system.”

Destroyer, which also stars Tatiana Maslany, Bradley Whitford, and Sebastian Stan, is Kusama’s follow-up to 2016’s The Invitation, an ultra-low-budget horror thriller that earned rave reviews and suggested that, after several years of working in television, Kusama might put her focus on features once again. The director isn’t ready to call the higher-profile Destroyer a step forward, exactly, but “there was something incredibly exciting and vital-feeling every day on set of Destroyer, being able to be in a creative communion with Nicole. I’m proud of the film, and I’m really excited. It’s different from anything else I’ve done.”

Destroyer will debut at the Toronto International Film Festival in early September, before a limited release for Oscar consideration on Dec 25th before opening wide in January.

Available from Cinesky Pictures in April.