THE most scandalous scene in heavily overwrought melodrama The Paperboy comes when Nicole Kidman urinates on Zac Efron. Just the combination of those famous names with that faintly medical verb cries out for multiple exclamation marks. Nicole!!!! Zac!!!! Efron, the heart-stopper from High School Musical, plays an enthusiastic swimmer who has been stung by jellyfish. According to Pete Dexter, who wrote the script for director Lee Daniels from his own 1995 novel, the potentially fatal welts can be counteracted by urine. Kidman, playing a trashy southern belle, pushes aside younger beach babes to do the honours.
Of course, you don't really see that happen. You see her face; you hear a splash. At the time, I was conflating the character with the real Nicole Kidman – a mistake, obviously – and thought something along the lines of: "Hooray for Our Nicole, a practical, earthy Australian who knows how to look after herself when faced by marine nasties!" It was only afterwards, when the internet had its own case of anaphylactic shock at Daniels' excess – because stars aren't supposed to have bodily functions – that I realised practical first aid tips were not the point. The excess was the point, even for the actors.
The Paperboy - Trailer
A reporter returns to his Florida hometown to investigate a case involving a death row inmate.
"You just go for it," Kidman says. "I think we did three takes, but it felt like 100."
The Paperboy is the first film Daniels has directed since Pre-cious, the 2009 misery-memoir about a fat black girl who was being routinely sexually abused by her father. That film combined a hysterical tone with serious intent, while this one is "intentionally pulpy", according to The New York Times.
The movie is set in backwoods Florida in 1969. Kidman's tarty Charlotte is about to marry prison inmate Hillary Van Wetter, a convicted murderer on death row played with quite fantastic unpleasantness by John Cusack.
Charlotte is thus the first port of call for Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey), the closeted gay son of the local newspaper proprietor, who is now a reporter with a city daily convinced Van Wetter has been wrongly convicted and is a potential story. Taking his younger brother Jack, played by Efron, as his driver, he plunges into the Everglades to pursue ferals with more guns than teeth, wade through pondweed and dodge alligators. Jack, despite being a nice sort of boy who would probably like a nice girlfriend if this were real life, is soon panting after Charlotte. We're all panting. The Paperboy is thirsty work.
Lee Daniels is black. He is gay.
"I can't tell you how many men I was with in the '80s and '90s I could be intimate with but who would shun me in public," he says. "They hated themselves for it – I know that now." Indeed, he says he knows everyone in this story – he even has a brother in prison for murder whose children he helped raise during his incarceration. "He has women in there writing, so I know this cat. Whenever John gave me something that was not true, I'd say 'Come at me differently'."
His sister writes to prisoners – she has a role in the film and was one of five women Kidman interviewed as preparation.
"They told me stories – wow – and then I got scared, telling Lee 'I'm not going to be able to be real in this'," Kidman recalls. "Then it all just happened."
One route back to reality was Lee's insistence that to save money, Kidman had to do her own make-up and hair. "I actually went into my bathroom and pulled out the fake tan and some fake lashes that were old and a platinum hairpiece, and I threw it all on and took a photo in different provocative positions and texted it to Lee," she says. "That's how it started." Later, she found white shoes; the gold lame and leopard-skin print followed.
From an actor's point of view, Kidman's beach scene is surely child's play next to the scene where she visits Hillary in prison for the first time and, locking her eyes with his, seems to have sex with him from a distance of several metres, reaching a disconcerting mutual climax. Surely that must have been excruciating? "Strangely, no," she says. "I had to step into a place to play the character where I didn't step out of it too much to look at myself. John and I never met as John and Nicole – we met as the characters and never spoke in any other way until after the film."
The Paperboy represented a kind of departure for Cusack in particular. At 46, he is still expected to play characters with boyish charm. But Hillary is mean-spirited, smoulders with fury and thinks with his fists. "That was great – I felt like I'd been let out of a cage," he says.
Kidman, too, resists "being pigeonholed – I don't want to be told 'you can't be in this genre or this kind of role'. I'm willing to fail; I just want to try." Even if it causes outrage. She is a veteran of 40-odd films, with an Oscar (for The Hours) behind her; there is nothing Nicole Kidman has to prove.
"I look for diversity," she says. "The reason I became an actor is that I lived in a particular way and was born in a particular place in the world, and I want to go different places. Ever since I was a child, I could do it in my imagination, and then I realised, wow, there is actually a job that allows you to be all these different people and explore these different parts of life. And that's what I love about it. When I don't have that curiosity or desire, then I won't do it. It's that simple."
WHAT THEY SAID
''A PARTICULAR scene, in which Jack is stung by jellyfish, and his pal Charlotte Bless (Ms Kidman) offers treatment, has already achieved some notoriety, though it's hardly the strangest or most shocking moment. Ms Kidman, garishly made up and harshly lighted, is a vampy, campy whirlwind: a femme fatale, a good-time girl and a tragic diva with a husky drawl and teased hair.''
A. O. Scott, The New York Times
''INDIVIDUAL scenes rattle the brain like a Yahtzee shaker, not least of all a comic aside in which Kidman's character saves Efron's from the effects of a jellyfish sting … What is so deeply astonishing about this scene is that in Dexter's novel, Jack is rescued by a group of nursing students; but in Daniels' film, this isn't good enough. Only Kidman, it seems, is worthy of piddling on Efron: 'If anyone is going to piss on that boy, it's going to be me,' her character squawks, chasing away the nurses.''
Robbie Collin, The Telegraph
''KIDMAN'S willingness to plumb the depths for her director elevates The Paperboy into something much more thrilling than the torrid settings from which it springs.''
Richard Knight, Knight at the Movies
''EFRON more than holds his own. That's not easy to do, considering that the script [co-written by Daniels and Dexter] repeatedly calls for Charlotte, with whom he is hopelessly infatuated, to upstage him. One notable - and much-buzzed-about - scene features Charlotte urinating on Jack after he's been attacked by jellyfish at the beach. Yes, it's gratuitous, not to mention slightly crazy. Although it does nothing to advance our understanding of character or plot, it nevertheless gives you an idea of the surreal extremes to which this movie goes.''
Michael O'Sullivan, The Washington Post
The Paperboy opens on February 28.