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Nicole Kidman gets gushes on night of her AFI Life Achievement Award

Miles Teller, Zac Efron among those singing the praises of legendary actor
FILE - Honoree Nicole Kidman speaks during the 49th AFI Life Achievement Award tribute to her, Saturday, April 27, 2024, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. The tribute will air on TNT on Monday. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello, File)

Nicole Kidman’s close co-stars, including Meryl Streep and Reese Witherspoon, paid her emotional tribute, as expected, when she received the AFI Life Achievement Award in April.

But when a taped telecast of the event airs on TNT on Monday night, viewers may be surprised to see younger actors thanking the Aussie Oscar winner for the boost she gave their fledgling careers.

Miles Teller, who recently starred in “Top Gun: Maverick” with Kidman’s ex-husband, Tom Cruise, told the audience at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood that he got his first film role, along with encouragement and strategic cold shoulders, from Kidman in 2010’s “Rabbit Hole.”

“I later found out that the reason she said I was right for the part was because I was able to blush on camera,” Teller, now 37, said. “But that was not acting, Nicole. That was hives.”

She would also get the third of her five Academy Award nominations for the role in director John Cameron Mitchell’s film about grief and loss. Teller was just a 23-year-old senior at New York University.

“She was this, like, mystic creature. And I was just so taken by her grace and her beauty and her talent,” Teller said. “After the first day of filming, Nicole comes up to me and she gives me a hug, and she says, ‘Oh, Miles, that was such a great first day.’ I can still remember that moment. I was on top of the world.”

It wouldn’t last.

“The next time I show up on set, I see Nicole and she’s kind of across the room, and I wave to her and I say, ‘Hi, Nicole.’ And she just stares at me, says nothing, and walks away,” Teller said. “And I was like, oh my God, I just messed up. This is not how you do it in the big leagues, kid.”

Later at the wrap party, she apologized for the emotional gaming, saying she wanted to keep the young actor off balance.

“She knew that that would help me and would help the performance. And it did,” Teller said. “Nicole, I am so proud to have ‘Rabbit Hole’ as my first film, and to say that I was cast by you personally. I truly can say that I wouldn’t be here without you.”

Two years later, Teller auditioned to appear with Kidman again, in “The Paperboy.” But he didn’t get it.

“I guess I didn’t blush enough,” he said.

That role went instead to Zac Efron. He’s about the same age as Teller, but already had dozens of credits. The role opposite Kidman would push him past the pigeonholing from appearing in three “High School Musical” films and “Hairspray.”

“What most people don’t know is that when I was making those films, I watched ‘Moulin Rouge’ religiously,” said Efron, sporting a major mustache that would have fit perfectly in that film, which got Kidman her first Oscar nomination. “I must have seen the film over a hundred times, because it’s there that I found inspiration, and it was there that I found Nicole Kidman.”

In the crime drama “The Paperboy,” he plays a character who obsessively pursues the older Kidman. The two share a sex scene, and other scenes that are even more strangely intimate.

“It was terrifying and it was thrilling,” Efron said. “And as my character and I were looking for guidance, there she was.”

He concluded, “Nicole, thank you so much. On behalf of the teenager who was so inspired by you on screen, and the man who stands here today proud to be one of your many collaborators, congratulations.”

It was the kind of personal, loving tribute that was the norm that night.

The AFI award often goes to mid-career Hollywood figures, and often comes years before they would typically receive other major honorary awards. Previous winners include Barbra Streisand, Tom Hanks, Robert De Niro and Denzel Washington.

It gave Kidman a chance to reflect on the nearly 100 films and TV shows she has appeared in, as she stood on the stage where she won her Oscar for playing Virginia Woolf in “The Hours” in 2003.

She thanked by name every director she has worked with, including Gus Van Sant (“To Die For”), Jane Campion (“Portrait of a Lady”), Baz Luhrmann (“Moulin Rouge”), Sofia Coppola (“The Beguiled”), Yorgos Lanthimos (“The Killing of a Sacred Deer”), Lars von Trier, (“Dogville”), Sydney Pollack (The Interpreter”) and Stanley Kubrick (“Eyes Wide Shut”). She teared up when talking about the last two, each of whom died not long after making their final film with her.

“It is a privilege to make films and glorious to make films and television with the storytellers who allowed me to just run wild,” Kidman said.

She cried earlier in the evening when her husband of 18 years, country singer Keith Urban, talked about going to rehab a few months into their marriage, and the love and compassion she showed.

Laughs abounded too.

Streep, Kidman’s “The Hours” co-star, killed when she said she was still intimidated by Kidman despite being “the greatest actress of my generation.”

Witherspoon did the best of many Australian-accented impressions of Kidman.

And Morgan Freeman had the A-list crowd rolling with a video parody of Kidman’s AMC Theatres “we make movies better” ads.

“Nicole Kidman,” he said. “She makes movies better.”

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