Most of the actors in “Nine Perfect Strangers” didn’t talk to star Nicole Kidman until they started filming their first encounter.
“I walked in as Masha and I never related to anybody in any other way,” Kidman says.
That added to the miniseries’ mystery and created an atmosphere that other actors could play off.
Masha, a bizarre “guide” through the world of self-discovery, pushes folks through exercises that are odd at best. Digging grave-like holes in the ground, they lie there, reflecting about their lives.
“It’s a pretty unorthodox method,” says Bobby Cannavale, who plays a curmudgeon likely to anger most of his fellow guests. During the scenes, he actually thought about the things Masha asked the characters to consider. “It’s pretty effective,” Cannavale says. “When you’re surrounded by all that dirt, it’s extremely confronting. Whenever we cut, every single person got out of those holes pretty quickly.”
Melissa McCarthy, who plays a best-selling author who bonds with Cannavale, says she was prompted to think of larger life questions: “What will be changed when you’re gone? Who will care?”
Kidman went to a spa similar to the one on “Strangers” and was put in a tank “and everyone was like, ‘It’s amazing. It’s amazing.’ I got in and it was freezing cold and we had to stay in there for two hours. I hate being cold…so it was absolute torture.”
McCarthy was at a spa that specialized in exotic baths. Trying a grapefruit bath was “like being on fire,” she says. The attendant admitted it stings, “but that wasn’t until I was submerged. And then I was like, ‘Well, let’s wash it off.’ And she goes, ‘It’s gonna keep burning for quite a while.’”
Filmed at a spa in Australia during the pandemic, “Strangers” gave the actors plenty to draw from.
“It was like one of those things where you walk in and you go, ‘Is this real?’” Kidman says. “We existed in this dream stage for almost six months. It was really kind of weird and magical. I’m a huge believer in using what you have to penetrate the show and the performance. We all arrived from different countries, different sort of quarantine places and … suddenly bonded.”
Familiarity eases work
McCarthy and Cannavale, co-stars on three previous projects, found familiarity was good at breeding great entertainment.
“Most of the time, it just feels effortless,” Cannavale says of their work together. “That’s a testament to the kind of preparation that Melissa has, her work ethic and the depth of her well.”
Having a comfort level, McCarthy adds, helps the scenes. “You’re not afraid to be embarrassed or feel dumb. It’s like you just go with it.”
Both actors say they prepare extensively before they begin shooting a scene. “We don’t do a lot of talking about it,” Cannavale says. “We’re just there together.”
For “Strangers,” that was a real plus.
“When you mask your problems (it) doesn’t make them better,” McCarthy says.
When one character tells Masha, “I don’t want to suffer,” she responds with, “You’re already suffering.” “That line certainly encapsulates what this show is about,” McCarthy says.
Based on Liane Moriarty’s best-selling book, “Strangers” let the actors do plenty of exercises in the pursuit of honesty.
McCarthy, who was also an executive producer, says long-form dramas provide a “long launch pad for a change. You can go from A to Z (in a way) you couldn’t compact in a film. It’s just the luxury of having more time to tell that story and show real changes.”
Kidman, who got her start in Australian miniseries, says they’re a great way to work with one director for an extended period of time. Ingmar Bergman, for example, did “Scenes from a Marriage” for television. “So it’s not like these extraordinary filmmakers have not ever worked in this territory before. It’s just becoming possible again in a huge way for all of us.”
Kidman considers miniseries like “Nine Perfect Strangers” another art form.
Jonathan Levine, who directed, says the form lets filmmakers play with genres and characters. “We certainly were playing with the audience’s expectations and using genre as a vehicle to tell this story and to keep it compelling,” he says. “For me, it’s about the people.”
And Kidman’s Masha? “She speaks seven languages, even though I don’t speak seven languages in the show,” she says. “I wanted a very calm healing energy to emanate all the time. I remember going over to people and sort of putting my hand their heart or holding their hand. At the end of the shoot, Melvin (Gregg) and Samara (Weaving) came to me and said, ‘We’ve never heard your real voice.’ But it was the only way I could actually relate to people because I felt like, otherwise, I would be doing a performance and I didn’t want to feel that way.”
"Nine Perfect Strangers" airs on Hulu