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SCREEN SCENE: Her finest hour.

NICOLE Kidman's moving performance in The Hours has already won her a Golden Globe and could well lead to her first Oscar when that glittering ceremony is held in March.

Her depiction of the doomed and lonely British writer, Virginia Woolf, in the movie has won her glowing critical acclaim. But Kidman says she desperately tried to get out of playing the part.

In 2001 when The Hours was filmed, Kidman was struggling to cope with the very public breakdown of her 10 year marriage to Tom Cruise.

"I just didn't want to make films at that particular stage, I tried to pull out of this, but they wouldn't let me," she admits. "I actually told my agent this isn't the right thing for me to do, I just need to hibernate."

Divorcing from Cruise all but broke the actress' heart: "When it ended, it felt like the end of my life really," she says. "I'm sure many women who go through a divorce feel the same. It's a black, black hole."

The role of Virginia Woolf was also dark - the doyen of the Bloomsbury Group of freethinkers in the 1920s and 30s was a troubled soul, who eventually killed herself in 1941 by filling her pockets with stones and walking into a river - and this frightened Kidman.

"I wasn't sure I could go through with it. Virginia Woolf's unhappiness was just too similar to my own. I was afraid to do it because I thought it would be too painful."

In the end, Kidman gave in to her agent and friends who all urged her to take the part and just get lost in it. "I'm glad I made this now," she reflects.

The Hours, a British-made film which also stars Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep, was in fact the only piece of film work that the 35-year-old Australian actress undertook that year.

And the pain she was experiencing in her own life seems to have etched itself on her screen character. "I think once you start to deal with loneliness and all of those issues, all of that feeds into your art," she says.

But playing Woolf was also rewarding for Kidman: "Virginia's inner life is so powerful. To play a writer of that brilliance, I really had to get inside this character. I needed to feel different.

"I remember the first day and I was really nervous but the character was starting to exist, I could feel her coming.

"I wanted to be true to the emotions I felt she was experiencing. It was strange how it all kind of fell into place."

Today Kidman is still wistful about the end of her marriage to Cruise, the man she met when she was just 22 when she was cast opposite him in Days Of Thunder, and with whom she adopted two children, Isabella, now nine, and seven-year-old Conor.

"I always thought I'd be like my parents, that my marriage would be a success and we'd raise our children happily together. Divorce was not how I expected my life to turn out."

But Cruise is still happily attached to the Spanish actress Penelope Cruz and Kidman is determined to make the best of the situation for the sake of her children.

After pulling back from the spotlight for a time, Kidman says she is now fully engaged with her life again.

She says: "One of the things that resonated to me with Virginia was when she stands on the train station and says, 'I'm living a life that I have no wish to live, how did this happen?'

"That's what you have to fight as a celebrity - becoming too cloistered and protective is dangerous."

She and Cruise share custody of Isabella and Conor and she is now focused on making her relationship with her ex-husband work on this level.

She says: "This is about being parents and trying to be the best parents that we can be."

As with any break-up, she says it is important to get over the anger: "You can choose to be loving and forgiving or you can choose to be angry. I would much prefer to be loving, so that's what you get, a little bit of love."

Kidman's career has also gone into overdrive of late. Since working on The Hours, she has completed The Others, Robert Benton's The Human Stain and Anthony Minghella's Cold Mountain.

Currently she's pondering starring as Catwoman and is set to play one of the Stepford Wives in a remake of the classic thriller.

Rumours that she had become close to Jude Law on the set of Cold Mountain have been strongly denied by the married British actor.

But Kidman is very much on the mend and she admitted recently she is ready to find love again after Cruise, saying: "I've been on my own for two years now and admit that I'd love to meet somebody and be swept off my feet. I mean, to have those goose bumps and that feeling in your stomach when you just go, 'Oh'. Please. That would be fun. That would be lovely."
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Wales On Sunday (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Feb 16, 2003
Words:853
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