Uma Thurman: the making of a pulp fiction icon

The director Quentin Tarantino has no doubts about the film legacy of Uma Thurman. “She’s just one of a handful – and that’s if you cut off two fingers – of movie stars who could have been just as big, if not bigger than the movie stars of the 1920s and 1930s,” he once enthused with typical Tarantino hyperbole. “She’s up there with Garbo and Dietrich in goddess territory.” To read the full story by Andy click on images above or continue below.

So is he right? Sort of. Both Tarantino and Thurman created two unforgettable female film characters in Pulp Fiction’s gangster wife Mai Wallace and the bride with no name in Kill Bill, but both the actress and director have never reached the career highs of either film since. Not that Thurman particularly cares. “I have gone from being on the A-list to the D-list and off any old list,” she is fond of saying in interviews. “I can’t tell you how many times this has happened. I have had such a touch-and-go career.”

Today’s Uma Thurman is light years away from the sword-wielding heroine that slashed her way through Kill Bill or the seductress that tempted Travolta in Pulp Fiction. This summer she starts work on Eloise in Paris playing the lead role of the nanny in a film adaptation of a children’s book series and last year she completed work producing and starring in the Accidental Husband a romantic comedy with Colin Firth. Thurman says she enjoys comedies because they are like “being asked to come and ice a cake for someone” and, perhaps more importantly, it avoids having to “squeeze into the corset of another period drama”.

The persona that 2008’s Thurman presents is one of a woman who is comfortable in her own skin. And it is easy to see why. At the age of 38 she now commands a reported US$13 million per film, is seeing Arpad Busson, the multi-millionaire former partner of model Elle Macpherson, has two children she clearly adores and is consistently seen in glossy society pages appearing to be genuinely enjoying herself. Earlier this year Thurman was seen with friends Claudia Schiffer, Miuccia Prada and Lucy Liu applauding the farewell show of her favourite designer Valentino. How A-list friendly is that?

Her life has taken some eccentric twists to arrive on the front row of such a privileged catwalk. A self-proclaimed “nice girl from Massachusetts”, the actress is the daughter of Columbia University’s professor of religion, Robert Thurman, a Buddhist monk who worked with the Dalai Lama as his representative in America. Her mother came from Swedish aristocracy and – after a brief marriage to 1960s guru Timothy Leary – was introduced to Robert by the surrealist Salvador Dali.

A distinctively bohemian upbringing was inevitable. Thurman spent some of her childhood in India and in the campuses of some of America’s most liberal universities following her father’s professorships. School wasn’t the most welcoming of places for the tall, clumsy teenager. “My features were too big,” she recalls. “I was severely odd-looking. I spent the early years of my life being quite sure that my looks were hideous. I just had to wait for my face to get big enough to carry my nose.”

Still, what doesn’t destroy you makes you strong. By the time Thurman was 12 she had decided to become an actress and three years later had left home to become a model to support the constant round of auditions. “I was always independent,” she says. “I wanted to start my life and go out into the world very early I don’t know where that drive came from but it was powerful.

Whatever. That incredible drive would soon lead to her first mainstream movie role at the age of 18 as Venus in the confused The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, a brief marriage to the actor Gary Oldman and finally the sophisticated setting of the French court in the highly acclaimed Dangerous Liaisons. At the time, co-star John Malkovich said he was surprised at the self-assurance of this striking teenager. “I’ve never met anyone like her at that age,” he said. “Her intelligence and poise stood out. But there was something else. She is more than a little haunted.”

It was a quality that the director Quentin Tarantino would find completely captivating.

Thurman and Tarantino are an unlikely match. But the tall striking, blonde beauty and the energetic film-obsessed geek were made for one another and it could be argued that they have never really found the same momentum and success after Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill. Like all good stories their meeting was the result of a happy coincidence.

Tarantino had never intended to cast Thurman in Pulp fiction. When they first met, the then 24-year actress had enjoyed breakthrough success in Dangerous Liaisons, but mixed fortunes in films that followed. As Tarantino and Thurman talked over dinner, the famous Pulp Fiction scene in the diner soon materialised in the director’s mind. “Uma and I were doing that scene,” Tarantino remembers. “We were living the movie all right? I was left thinking… she could be Mia!”

Pulp Fiction cost US$8 million to make and grossed more than US$105 million, reinventing the career of John Travolta and catapulting Tarantino into the A-list. Thurman’s role as the gangster’s wife was a triumph of seductive slinkiness, Garboesque delivery and bare-footed dance moves. In a film that was already loaded with astonishing set pieces Thurman’s assured performance deservedly garnered her an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress.

It was also the start of a long collaboration between actor and actress. Although they would not work together for almost a decade, the two had already conceived the blood-crazed, vengeful Bride character of Kill Bill during the making of Pulp Fiction. So, while Thurman appeared in limpid period dramas such as The Golden Bowl or horrendous wannabe blockbusters such as Batman & Robin, Tarantino was shaping the character that would slash its way into movie history.

“Uma inspired me to make the movie and write the character,” said Tarantino, when he finally completed the script. Then just as cameras were ready to roll Thurman found she was pregnant. True to his muse, the director famously delayed shooting for nine months while his star had her second baby, Roan. Recasting was not an option. “Would Sergio Leone have replaced Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars?” Tarantino asked at the time.

If it was the character Tarantino had dreamed of, for Thurman it was a role that brought her to the edge of exhaustion. The first time she swung a sword on the film set she hit herself in the face. “Just three months after Roan’s birth I had to learn three styles of kung fu,” she laughs. “Then there were the two styles of sword fighting… knife throwing, knife fighting, hand-to-hand combat, oh, and learn lines in Japanese. It was literally absurd.”

If you’ve not seen the films, the plots are pretty straightforward Thurman’s character takes revenge on five women who attempt to kill her in a variety of bloodthirsty ways. Whether you regard the end result as a loving pastiche of avenging angel melodrama or a bloody waste of time, Kill Bill became a cult classic and earned Thurman a Golden Globe nomination.

Sadly, behind the professional success, Thurman’s personal life was disintegrating.

She married the actor in Ethan Hawke in 1998 after meeting on the set of the science fiction film Gattaca and had two children, Maya and Roan. Glamorous, successful and grounded, the couple were regarded as one of the most stable of all Hollywood’s relationships. But in 2004 Hawke filed for divorce.

Discussing the relationship with The Times earlier this year, Thurman said: “He [Hawke] claimed I couldn’t be a full-time mother and an actress. I insisted I could, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t even read a script that wasn’t shooting in New York because I needed to be home. It’s still a very difficult balance. I’ve thought about quitting acting but I love it too much.”

The pain of separation is long gone today. Thurman looks more glamorous than ever and is clearly facing a fourth decade with wonderful reasons to be optimistic. Who needs vengeful Kill Bill Samurai swords or Pulp Fiction relationships with gangsters when there is the new relationship, a fresh comedy to promote, a children’s film to make and inevitably more celebrity studded catwalk shows to attend with friends. This is not a woman afflicted by any of the anxieties that super charged her most famous roles.

Acting is never an easy ride which is why I compare my life to driving,” she says. “Sometimes you are flying along the freeway with the top open and the wind in your hair. At other times there’s no way out of the tailback.”

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