Stylist's Debbie McQuoid spends an afternoon at the home of Uma Thurman, Tarantino's muse, and falls a little bit in love in the process.
Picture credits: Getty Images,Rex Features
A series of events have brought me to where I sit now; perched at Uma Thurman’s kitchen counter in her Manhattan apartment, nonchalantly sipping peppermint tea and trying to surreptitiously store away in my memory bank every book, photograph and brand of cleaning product I can see.
I’ve flown to New York to talk to the actress about her new film Bel Ami, a remake based on Guy de Maupassant’s 1885 classic novel about Parisian scoundrel and womaniser Georges Duroy, played by Robert Pattinson. Our original meeting was scheduled for this morning at The Gramercy Park Hotel, but a sick child (hers) has postponed it to this afternoon. A family dinner party means it’s easier for me to visit her at home, is this OK? Of course. Do I mind if she prepares the ragù while I interview her? Not at all.
Totally thrown – I came here to sit in a fashionable but neutral hotel suite and ask questions – I am now a guest in her apartment. The star of cult favourites Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill: Vol 1 & 2, and, yes, admittedly, a few duds too (My Super Ex-Girlfriend …anyone?). I’m in Uma Thurman’s pad.
There are a few rules I have agreed to; not too much detail about the apartment and no detail at all about Maya, 13, and Levon, 10 – her children with ex-husband, actor Ethan Hawke.
As soon as I enter, I can see why. This is a home; her home. The hallway table spills over with framed photos of friends and family, the living room bookshelves are bursting with board games, the kitchen table is scattered with half-completed school homework. She opens and shuts the fridge (full of family foods) and laments the shelf-life of herbs. Rosemary in particular. “It turns so quickly,” she remarks. It’s all so terrifyingly intimate.
At 6ft tall, the 41-year-old is utterly contrary to the typically Hollywood-grown petite actresses. And right now she’s standing over me – hair back, bare-faced, luminous skin – with a kitchen knife (not unlike the one she wields in Kill Bill) as I shrink into my chair.
“I’m not very relaxed naturally,” she says, not meaning to sound a little bit so. “I’m one of those highly focused, overly intense characters. I often drive myself nuts.” It’s true; there is an intensity to Uma. It’s in her mouth; the way she slightly grits her teeth when she’s chopping a vegetable, punching her way out of a wooden box in Kill Bill or flirting with near death and John Travolta in Pulp Fiction. “I actually find work can be quite relaxing,” she says. “When the children were little I wasn’t able to work like I did before. So now, when I do work, it’s very much like, ‘This is good, this is my time.’”
In Bel Ami, Uma plays Madeleine Forestier; a “passionate contributor to the world” who becomes Georges Duroy’s lover, then wife, as he sleeps his way to the top through the wives of 19th-century Paris’ power players. Although the story’s main focus is Duroy’s naked ambition, the women, especially Thurman’s Madeleine and Christina Ricci’s Clotilde, stand out for their ‘relaxed’ attitudes towards sex and relationships.
“Maybe those women were more liberated than many women are today?” Uma muses. “They’re certainly getting away with it; operating in a culture that supports backdoor behaviour.
Uma’s referring to the fascinating campaigns for the US presidential race; where Republican candidates Rick Santorum and Mitt Romney seem to be throwing personal and ethical baggage at each other more than any policy criticism. Her voice drops to an astonished whisper. “It’s crazy. It’s like a freak show on the world stage. It’s televised and presented as really legitimate, but it’s clearly a wildly eccentric bunch of individuals in a gigantic country, all professing various different ideologies consumed by personal interest,” she says.
Her son calls out to his mum; I’m reminded of my intrusion into her home and pick up the book lying in front of me. She’s reading Suzanne Collins’ teen sci-fi bestseller The Hunger Games aloud with her children, but is unaware of the upcoming film versions I tell her about. This brings us to the topic of Twilight, another film franchise she hadn’t paid much attention to until she met her Bel Ami co-star; tortured heart-throb du jour, R-Patz.
“He’s very serious,” she reveals. “He did a huge amount of rehearsal in his own time. I think that’s what you do as a young actor, when you take your work very seriously and want to take it to the next level.”
Filming in London and Budapest, Uma hadn’t heard about the fans scaling hotel walls to catch a glimpse of Pattinson, but then again, she remarks that they were hardly going for dinner together every night. In fact, the way she’s talking about him now, her years of experience and the chasm between that of her 25-year-old co-star couldn’t be more evident. In short, I bet she terrified him.
“You know, when you’ve been doing this a really long time, it’s hard to take it all so seriously,” she says. “I said to him, ‘Don’t get too upset about it because, before you know it, Twilight will just be an old film that made you lucky enough to get another job’. But when you’re in that position and you’re young, it’s hard to hear through the noise.”
Has there ever been a point where Uma wishes she could regain her pre-fame anonymity?
“Of course. But, for me, because I started so young, I have never had an adult life where I’ve known any different. I saw from early on that [fame] could make people crazy. It’s probably made me crazy, but I’ve been re-grounded by recognising that. I’m very grateful for my career; I know what a blessing it is.”
A lot is made of Thurman’s unconventional upbringing. Born in Boston to Robert Thurman, the first American to be ordained a Buddhist monk; he gave up his robes to marry Uma’s Swedish model mother (and ex-wife to Sixties psychedelic guru Timothy Leary) Nena von Schlebrügge. The Dalai Lama was a regular visitor at their home. Uma deftly waves her hand: “All families have their craziness.”
With a freedom not granted to many 15 year olds, she moved to New York on her own to pursue acting. Success came quickly with roles in only her third and fourth films – as Venus in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen and Dangerous Liaisons, both in 1988 – initiating an uneasiness with her early image as a sex symbol.
“I find it excruciating to watch myself as a teenager,” she confesses. “I’ve made a vow never to do it.”
Same country, similar corset and salacious subject material, Bel Ami inevitably courts comparison with Liaisons, which saw Uma play the innocent Cécile de Valonges, who was ruined by John Malkovich’s Viscount Valmont. She namechecks the cast and crew – writer Christopher Hampton, director Steven Frears, Glenn Close, Michelle Pfeiffer, Malkovich – fondly.
“I remember [producer] Norma Heyman saying to me, ‘You have no idea how spoiled you will be from this experience.’ I was only 17 and I was working with some of the finest people you’ll ever meet in my industry. But you don’t realise this until you’ve spent nearly 25 years trying to work with such a group again. It’s rare, if not impossible.”
And was she spoiled by it? “Yeah, they did sort of ruin it for me,” she says with a laugh.
What about the personal and professional trajectory that success at such a young age threw her on?
“If you had sat me down and gone through some of the challenges I would face and what I would overcome and grow through, I probably wouldn’t have believed any of it,” she says.
There is a plethora of events to which she could be referring. Her two-year marriage to actor Gary Oldman when she was 20 (he was 30) that ended following his arrest for drink-driving; her five-year union with Hawke, which ended amid speculation he was having an affair with the nanny (to whom he’s now married); or her on/off relationship with multi-millionaire philanthropist, and father to Elle Macpherson’s children, Arpad ‘Arki’ Busson.
When you've been doing this a really long time, it's hard to take it all so seriously.
Judging by the photo in the hall, that particular relationship seems to be in ‘on’ mode (and on my return to London it’s confirmed; Uma is pregnant with his child).
“There are always things that hurt – certain invasions of privacy, certain types of cruel remarks,” Uma tells me. “There are things that you never get used to; it’s how they affect people around you, or the people you love. It’s hard for me to say, but I never got any other… I never got the chance to have a different life. I went to work really young and managed to stay in the business that I love all my life, and I know that’s not a given. I can’t not feel lucky about it, no matter what the downsides can be.”
With that, the first dinner guest arrives, which means it’s time for me to leave. Throughout our entire conversation, Uma has been busy cooking a meal for her family and friends, paying attention to the calls of her children, and giving genuine thought and attention to me. I’m still intimidated, but more by her skill at multitasking than the thought of her screaming at me to get out of her home. “I should do this more often,” she tells me as she shows me out. “I get more done this way.”
I walk past a few guests who are joining the gathering. Fine food, great conversation, board games. I suspect they’re in for a good time.
15 THINGS YOU DIDN'T KNOW ABOUT UMA
- Her shoe size is 12; Quentin Tarantino has a thing for feet and encouraged her to get hers out in Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill.
- Her first role was in Kiss Daddy Goodnight in 1987 – she was a teen vamp who seduced then robbed unsuspecting men.
- Terry Gilliam shot a naked 17-year-old Uma for his 1988 movie, The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen.
- Uma’s mum was briefly married to psychedelic guru Timothy Leary. She was introduced to him by surrealist artist Salvador Dalí.
- Uma is named after the Hindu goddess of light and beauty.
- Her brief marriage to Gary Oldman (1990-92) means she was once sister-in-law to Laila Morse, who plays Big Mo in EastEnders.
- She turned down the part of Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction (1994) but Tarantino was desperate to have her, so read her the script over the phone.
- Uma had a Siamese cat for 21 years called Chi Chi; she still keeps its ashes in a box.
- She turned down Peter Jackson’s offer of Eowyn in Lord Of The Rings: Two Towers.
- Drew Barrymore auditioned to be Cécile in Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and Sarah Jessica Parker turned down the role before Uma got it.
- There is a nude statue of her maternal grandmother Birgit, overlooking the Swedish harbour of Smygehuk.
- She left school at 15 to become a professional model. She and her mother have been cover stars of US Vogue.
- One of her mother’s friends told her she should have a nose job. She was 10.
- Tarantino wrote Kill Bill just for Uma and gave her a co-writer credit for helping to create her character, The Bride.
- Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal was a student of her father’s. He teaches religion at New York’s Columbia University.
Bel Ami is in cinemas nationwide on Friday 9 March