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Nicole Kidman knew she would be judged on playing Lucille Ball. So she got to work

In the new film <strong><em></em></strong><em>Being the Ricardos, </em>Nicole Kidman portrays comedian and actress Lucille Ball and Ball's character Lucy from the hit sitcom <em>I Love Lucy.</em>
Screenshot by NPR/Amazon Prime Video
In the new film <strong><em></em></strong><em>Being the Ricardos, </em>Nicole Kidman portrays comedian and actress Lucille Ball and Ball's character Lucy from the hit sitcom <em>I Love Lucy.</em>

In the new film, Being the Ricardos, actor Nicole Kidman faced two challenges.

The first: depicting the legendary comedian Lucille Ball. And the second: depicting Lucille Ball depicting Lucy Ricardo from the iconic sitcom I Love Lucy.

Aaron Sorkin, who wrote and directed the movie, told Kidman that he wasn't looking for some strict impersonation of Ball. Instead, he needed Kidman to find the balance between channeling someone on film rather than impersonating them.

"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," Kidman says.

"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."

Kidman received a Golden Globe nomination for her role in the film. She spoke with NPR's All Things Considered about how she really channeled Ball, the relationship between Ball and Desi Arnaz, and Ball's work ethic.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity, and includes some web-only answers.


Interview Highlights

Ball was a genius physical comedian, Kidman said, and came up with iconic scenes for the show, including the iconic grape stomping moment, that Kidman reenacted for the movie.
/ Screenshot by NPR/Amazon Prime Video
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Screenshot by NPR/Amazon Prime Video
Ball was a genius physical comedian, Kidman said, and came up with iconic scenes for the show, including the iconic grape stomping moment, that Kidman reenacted for the movie.

On how she channeled Lucille Ball as a person

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

On the pressure to portray Ball

I didn't want to let the team down. You know, the sense of when you're coming in and these actors are so good and this director-writer is the best in the world and there's an enormous amount of expectation. I was just like, "God, I hope I don't disappoint." And I think through the whole film ... it was nerve-racking because I was like, "I don't know if I'm getting there and it's very hard to believe it."

So it was never like resting on our laurels. And I know Javier was the same way. We would look at each other with wide eyes, saucer eyes and be like, yikes, are we doing this?

But this team of actors, this ensemble, and I really emphasize that it was an ensemble, just like the I Love Lucy show as much as she was the star — it was an ensemble.

On why the stakes felt higher in the role

Because of who she is in the eyes of the world right now, and everyone weighing in. And sometimes there is a thing where you go, OK, can we just do it? And then if you guys want to destroy it, fine, we'll accept that. But can we just just try it first? I'll always advocate for that artistically, because there is a point where you go, we just need a chance. And luckily, people like Aaron Sorkin just forge ahead, and we hitch our wagon to theirs and go, OK, let's just keep going. And those voices in the world need to exist. Obviously, we have to keep that so that we keep an artistic path and people don't get terrified to try things and do things and possibly fail. I mean, part of Lucille Ball's story is she encountered an enormous amount of failure, but sometimes what she thought were going to be her biggest failures turned out to be her biggest successes.

On what she learned about how Ball approached her craft

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. And that would be my warmup every day when I was going to play Lucy — is I'd do Vitameatavegamin. Because that — for some reason, that was so Lucy. And I could get her voice, and it would just come.

Then there's another sound that she makes ... which is one of my favorite sounds ever, and I love doing it now when I'm stressed.

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

Javier Bardem and Nicole Kidman play Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball in the new film <em>Being the Ricardos.</em>
/ Screenshot by NPR/Amazon Prime Video
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Screenshot by NPR/Amazon Prime Video
Javier Bardem and Nicole Kidman play Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball in the new film <em>Being the Ricardos.</em>

On the relationship between Ball and Arnaz, both their partnership and their problems

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. This, to me, was 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.

This interview was produced by Gus Contreras and edited by Sarah Handel. It was adapted for web by Wynne Davis.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.