Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor weren’t known for their musical talents when Moulin Rouge! premiered 20 years ago, but the former has been showcasing her vocal range for two decades now in movies like Nine and most recently in Netflix’s Prom, and it was all kicked off with Baz Luhrmann’s bohemian jukebox musical.
While a quartet of established hit makers gave us the chart-topper reimagining of ‘Lady Marmalade,’ the lead actors were entrusted with the bulk of Moulin Rouge!’s soundtrack. For Kidman, the vocal performances were a crucial factor to her signing up for the movie.
“I wasn’t going to do the film unless [Luhrmann] felt that I could do it,” Kidman told ET on the Australia set in April 2000, sitting in one of her character’s future Oscar-winning costumes. Even with her star power, and coming off a decade of box office hits, she still auditioned twice for the role. “And part of that was me testing out my voice to see whether I thought I was gonna be able to do it.”
She added with a laugh, “Because the last thing I wanted to do was embarrass myself.”
“I’ve sung since I was a kid, but not like this,” McGregor told ET from the set. Leading up to being cast, McGregor had faced a competitive round of auditions with two other future household names for his role. He and Kidman spent months together rehearsing songs, and even workshopping the script with Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce. “We worked on singing. We did some movement. And just tried different things out with the camera,” McGregor said.
With the iconic Parisian landmark as its backdrop circa the turn of the 20th century, Moulin Rouge! followed penniless writer Christian (McGregor) who falls for beautiful courtesan Satine (Kidman). Their forbidden romance ends tragically, but not before their love unfolds over the course of many elaborate musical compositions, including reimagined pop hits (“Your Song”), original songs (“Come What May”) and some that were a bit of both (“Elephant Love Melody”).
Months into the production, McGregor had seen enough to predict this movie was going to be an “assault on the senses” for audiences. “You never know until you’ve cut it all together if it’s gonna work and more so [with Moulin Rouge!] than ever before,” McGregor said, before putting a twist on one of the Star Wars universe’s perennial exasperations. “But I have a very, very good feeling about this.”
“I just have faith in Baz,” Kidman said. On top of having seen Luhrmann’s work in theater, she was blown away by his sophomore directorial outing, Romeo + Juliet. Kidman praised how he applied his artistic flair to make Shakespeare accessible to a new generation, even if she had been initially skeptical when she first heard about it. “I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh. That doesn’t sound good,’” Kidman recalled. She later saw the movie and “loved it.”
The film’s straight-forward, sincere approach to telling a love story appealed to both her and her co-star’s taste. “It’s blatantly and unashamedly romantic,” McGregor said.
“I really see it as a celebration of love,” Kidman said, which she admitted was a “very corny” summation. But her belief in Luhrmann’s vision held steadfast through early rehearsals to standing atop a 60-foot high elephant structure on their Sydney soundstage. “Because of Baz’s sense of humor, he’s able to balance it all and we’re just having so much fun doing it.”
Kidman’s confidence in Luhrmann didn’t waiver even after she endured a broken rib, which brought production to a halt while she recovered. “I had never broken a bone, so it was [a bit of a shock,]” Kidman remembered. Gesturing to her torso, she explained her injury was the result of performing lifts for many weeks while filming dance sequences, which had required someone to repeatedly grasp and apply pressure around her rib cage.
The injury was made all the worse by the amount of time that had passed after the initial bone break, which Kidman powered through at first, not knowing it was actually something much more severe. “I kept dancing. I didn’t realize I had broken it for five days. I thought I had pulled a muscle,” Kidman said.
In June 2001, Moulin Rouge! raked in nearly $180 million at the world-wide box office, a rounding success for the industry’s first big-budget musical in recent memory. When awards season arrived, among the movie’s eight Academy Award nominations was Kidman’s first Oscar nod (quickly followed by her Best Actress win for 2002’s The Hours).
The movie, which centered around the production of a theatrical musical, came full circle when the Broadway adaptation Moulin Rouge! The Musical! premiered in 2019. The show received 14 Tony nominations and is schedule to resume production this fall following the Great White Way’s shutdown amid the pandemic. Luhrmann’s next film, which found itself among the headlines at the early onset of the coronavirus, puts him at the helm of another cinematic tribute to music history, this time by way of an Elvis Presley biopic starring Austin Butler and Tom Hanks.
And the epic musical still holds a special place in Kidman’s heart. In 2019, she shared a pic of her and husband Keith Urban staring lovingly into each other’s eyes. For the sweet tribute post, she summoned a sentiment that’s spoken repeatedly throughout Moulin Rouge! She wrote, “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.”
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Watch ET’s interview with McGregor, where he teases his upcoming reprisal of Obi-Wan Kenobi for Disney+.
Ewan McGregor on ‘Obi-Wan’ Being a ‘Standalone Season’ (Exclusive)
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