This has been a season of transformation for Nicole Kidman. In Boy Erased, Kidman played a big-haired Southern woman who, along with her preacher husband, decides to send her college-aged son away for gay conversion therapy. Her role as an LAPD detective in Destroyer, out December 25, couldn’t be further away from Boy Erased’s Nancy Eamons — though both characters are defined, in part, by their relationships to their only children. For one, Nancy has a real-life counterpart. Boy Erased was fashioned from Garrard Conley’s memoir of the same name; Nancy is based on Conley’s mother, Martha. Can the same be said for Erin Bell of Destroyer?
In a word, no. Erin is fictional. But perhaps it’s more cathartic to imagine this harbinger of vengeance as someone real. Destroyer shuttles back and forth between two crucial phases in Erin’s life. In flashbacks, she’s a fresh-faced undercover cop working to infiltrate a gang in the California desert with her partner, Chris (Sebastian Stan). After that mission goes deeply awry, she returns to the LAPD to work as a detective, but she’s not the same (literally — her appearance changes drastically throughout the film). Years later, someone from this botched mission reemerges, giving Erin the chance to get revenge on the force that made her a shell of a person.
The character Erin was developed over a 10-year process by screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi. While Hay and Manfredi had a vague conception of the kind of movie they wanted to make, Destroyer only came together after they identified Erin’s particularities. “We had some notions about this story, and kind of ideas about the structure, about a feel, about a certain type of crime story. But when we discovered who Erin was, specifically what her relationship was like with her daughter, that's what kind of lit the whole thing up for us,” Hay and Manfredi said in an interview with Gold Derby.
Erin's character was percolating throughout Hay and Manfredi’s other collaborations with director Karyn Kusama, including the The Invitation. Eventually, around the time that Hay and Manfredi were ironing out the nuances of Erin’s relationship with her daughter, Kusama was let into the outline process. The trio worked together to create a cohesive approach to Destroyer. “Phil and Matt had a couple of ideas that animated how I approached the filmmaking: Erin Bell suffers not because she’s amoral, but because she’s moral. There was this idea that we’re watching an investigation where we come to understand that the detective is hunting herself,” Kusama told Deadline.
Erin may be the product of 10 years of imaginative exertion, but she eventually became real, to a degree. In order to play the cop with a vengeance, Kidman had to create her. The actress realized the role of Erin called for a sublimation of self. In an interview with Vulture, Kusama paraphrased what Kidman said when approaching the role. “I would have to disappear into the role and essentially become the character. I’d have to lose myself to play this role, and that disturbs me a lot, and I really want to do it,” Kusama recalled Kidman saying.
Indeed, that’s exactly what happened. Between takes, Kidman remained in Erin mode: reticent, simmering, angry. When communicating with Kidman on set, Kusama tried to speak to Erin. Kusama ran into problems if she tried to give too many directions to “Nicole.”
“She would say, ‘I’m thinking too much,’ and so what that meant was I was thinking too much, and I was giving her too much information and she can’t process it,” Kusama said. As a result, they forged a “clean, minimal, pure communication.”
And that's not even touching on the sheer physical transformation Kidman underwent to play Erin. With her wrinkled skin, graying hair, and liver spots, Kidman is virtually unrecognizable. She worked with Bill Corso, the makeup artist responsible for Steve Carell's appearance in Foxcatcher, to pull off the change. Of KIdman's haggard appearance, Kusama explained this is "how she’d look if she had not worn sunscreen for years in the desert."
Kidman’s Erin occupies a space typically reserved for gritty male heroes played by Clint Eastwood or Al Pacino. If anything, the fact that she's a fictional character is all the more exciting. Now, women can fill these roles without the tagline, "Based on the extraordinary true story."