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Nicole Kidman went all in on becoming Lucille Ball for role in 'Being The Ricardos'


In the new film "Being The Ricardos," actor Nicole Kidman faced two challenges. The first - depicting the legendary comedian Lucille Ball.


JAVIER BARDEM: (As Desi Arnaz) Are you being funny right now?

NICOLE KIDMAN: (As Lucille Ball) That is the second time someone's asked me that this morning. I'm Lucille Ball. When I'm being funny, you'll know it.

CHANG: And the second challenge for Kidman - depicting Lucille Ball depicting Lucy Ricardo from the iconic sitcom "I Love Lucy."


LUCILLE BALL: (As Lucy Ricardo) Oh, no, no, no. I can't spend the afternoon with three women and have to tell the truth.


BALL: (As Lucy Ricardo) I'll call Caroline and tell her I'm sick.

CHANG: Aaron Sorkin, who wrote and directed the movie, told Nicole Kidman that he wasn't looking for some strict impersonation of Lucille Ball, which fascinated me. I asked Kidman how she understood that as an actor - this difference between channeling someone on film rather than impersonating her.

KIDMAN: So there was the "I Love Lucy" show, and I just thought, well, if I can create literally a carbon copy of her in the show where I look like her, I move like her, I sound like her, all of those things - and I really studied that for months, like watching it, rewinding, starting again, getting the timing, working on it, working on it, working on the sounds with my dialect coach. If that can be accurate, that then gives me the license to do Lucille Ball, as Aaron said, with the sexuality, with messy hair, with all the things that do not make you go, oh, right, that looks exactly like her. There's a feeling of her, but there's a human being here. And he was like...

CHANG: Yeah.

KIDMAN: ...I want to see your skin. I want to see the color of it change. I won't be able to see that if it's covered in prosthetics. I want to see her as a woman. I want to see what they have together, and I want people to be discovering that.

CHANG: I love that. What part of Lucille Ball did you most hook into as a person?

KIDMAN: I mean, vocally, she had a much deeper voice than me, so I was able...

CHANG: Yeah.

KIDMAN: ...To create this voice that was a much raspier voice. It was a smoker's voice. She was a big smoker. I've said before, she had the most beautiful hands. Her hands were a huge extension of her personality. And I don't have those hands. I have (inaudible).

CHANG: (Laughter).

KIDMAN: But I really focused on those hands. They really helped me. And then I think, the love that she had for Desi and the desire for a home - that is such a strong force in me that I grasp. I want a home. So that was an immediate understanding and connection.

CHANG: That you could relate to.

KIDMAN: Yeah. And yes, you have the desire to have a career and all of these things, but I want a home. And I want the feeling and the nourishment and the safety of that home. And I think that was - she and I both share that.

CHANG: Yeah.

KIDMAN: As Lucy would always say, not a house, a home.

CHANG: As you mentioned with that reference to her hands, I mean, Lucille Ball - she was this brilliant physical comedian. And there's this iconic scene that you reenact from "I Love Lucy," the scene where she's stomping grapes...


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Si, senora. You send for me?

KIDMAN: (As Lucille Ball) Yes. Are there any grape vineyards around here? I'd like to know how they make the wine, how they pick the grapes, how they press the juice out with their feet.

CHANG: And I was wondering when I was watching that, when you were studying every facial expression, every movement in that scene, what did you learn about how she approached her craft?

KIDMAN: She was just a genius. I mean, to come up with something like the grape stomping scene - that whole scene is not a word. I mean, that is a great physical comedian. My access in was through the Vitameatavegamin (ph). And that would be my warmup every day when I was going to play Lucy - is I'd do Vitameatavegamin.

CHANG: (Laughter).

KIDMAN: Because that - for some reason, that was so Lucy. And I could get her voice, and it would just come. And then there's another sound that she makes, which is the (vocalizing)...

CHANG: Right.

KIDMAN: ...Which is one of my favorite sounds ever, and I love doing it now when I'm stressed. I go (vocalizing).


CHANG: I'm sure your husband appreciates that.

KIDMAN: He looks at me like I'm crazy. But there is an enormous amount of stress relief when you do this sort of physical comedy, when you make these sounds. And that's probably what we subconsciously respond to when we watch her in the show because it's enormous stress relief watching her. She just is willing to go for it to make you laugh.

CHANG: Yeah.

KIDMAN: But what the film is - it's fascinating in the film because Aaron shows you how hard that is.

CHANG: And she says, you got to kill it every single week.

KIDMAN: Oh, she actually says, I'm not funny. She says, I'll be funny by Friday.

CHANG: (Laughter).

KIDMAN: That means I'll have to put - I have to put the work in. She even says, Desi - Desi can come on and he can do it. I have to work for it.

CHANG: Let's talk about the relationship between Lucy and Desi, because so much of this film is focused on their partnership, but also on their problems. And, you know, at their best times, what do you think made their partnership work so beautifully?

KIDMAN: I like to focus on their successes as a partnership because, as I've said, all relationships end. They could end because somebody dies. They could end because you break up. They could end because you get separated and can't get back - whatever it is, they all end. We know that. So what do you make of the - this, to me, was this what you would call a successful relationship. There were two beautiful children. There was an amazing creative partnership that created gold. I mean literally. I don't just mean financially. I mean for the world that exists as a timeless piece of entertainment that can still make us laugh. That is a successful relationship. It was fraught. There was an enormous amount of passion and love and pain and tears and fighting. But ultimately, he was deeply protective of her, and he was brilliant at protecting her. She was protective of him. She believed in him, and he believed in her. Could they give each other what they completely desired and needed? No. But they got a lot.

CHANG: Lucille and Desi's personal and professional lives were so deeply intertwined.


CHANG: Did you come away from this film feeling that that kind of entanglement is a good thing in the end?

KIDMAN: For them, it was terrific. I don't think you can generalize about any couple. I mean, for them, if you're asking, was it a good thing? Yeah. They created that show together. That's what they did. That was their choice. That was their - what they wanted. And she would, you know, go out when he was playing. And he would - I mean, that's what their destiny was, and they wanted that. I think what is fascinating is they created Desilu Productions. I mean, no actors had a production company where they were doing their own material. And I think a little-known fact is that they also had "Mission Impossible" and "Star Trek." And I mean, they - all those shows (unintelligible).

Lucie Arnaz said to me, you know, my father was a great businessman. When they broke up, my mother had to learn to do the business. That wasn't what her passion was. She didn't want to do that, really. She did it. She learnt it because she had to, but her passion was comedy. Her passion was the show. Her passion was the writing. Her passion was the performing.

CHANG: Nicole Kidman stars in the new film "Being The Ricardos." It's out in theaters now.

Thanks so much for being with us.

KIDMAN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF "I LOVE LUCY" THEME SONG) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.