Uma Thurman: Is she ready to play funny?

She is a Hollywood star made famous by her roles as an ass-kicker and all-round vamp. And then there was her very public divorce. So is Uma Thurman really ready to play funny, asks Greg Williams. And exactly how big are her feet?
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The Independent Culture

Three men stand uncomfortably in a lift in a swanky hotel in Manhattan's Upper East Side. It's a swelteringly hot day. Outside, temperatures have risen to more than 100F, but the brutal heat isn't what's causing disquiet among the men in the lift. Each of them is crammed into a confined space with a woman who is taller, more attractive and, probably, wealthier than they are, and they are at pains to ignore her, staring at the floor, watching the lift dial count down to the lobby, trying to pretend that they're not hanging on every word she is saying into the Treo mobile phone.

"Well, let's go with the one that's faster, more competitive and more precise," she says to her caller. "You know, the usual things."

The lift comes to a halt somewhere above the lobby, causing the men to shuffle about a little and cast small, furtive glances at the woman because it's hard to share an elevator with Uma Thurman - for it is she - and not, at least, take a little something of her with you.

Thurman continues to talk as the door glides open, but she's drowned out by the voice of a woman waiting to enter the lift.

"Oh, my god!" the woman exclaims. Minutes later, the lift closes. The woman hasn't got on.

This is one possible reaction to encountering Uma Thurman, and it is not an unreasonable one. Thurman's looks and physical presence are enormously distinctive and more than a little unusual by virtue of their effortlessness. Her unassuming refinement elevates her above the synthetic Paris Hiltons and Jessica Simpsons with whom she sometimes shares space in US scandal sheets and celebrity weeklies. Hers are sushi-grade good looks, not the chicken-fried-steak-with-all-you-can-heap-on-your-plate version that have become the American standard.

"It's just luck," she says referring to a recent appearance of the cover of American Vogue. And, of course, she's right. But to have stuck around as long as she has - this year is her 20th as a professional actor - you need a little more than that.

"For my entire life, I've been participant and co-operative in image-making," she acknowledges. "I've built a whole life on it. Really, it's part of being an actor - making a picture, telling a story."

Today, her image-making is as follows: she's tanned and athletic-looking, her blonde pre-Raphaelite hair tied loosely in a bun. She wears a white cardigan that's buttoned revealingly low, a pair of blue jeans and black sandals. A gold tote is slung next to her chair. She could be on her way to do the school run.

Here are some other things you might care to know about Thurman. She's a keen texter. She owns a Range Rover ("although I'm not much of a driver"). She has a big, throaty laugh that she employs often. She wishes more women participated in the democratic process ("we'd win the vote - if we voted, and if women in the Third World didn't abort us"). Her favourite romantic comedy is Breakfast at Tiffany's. Like most working mums, she struggles to find time to exercise. When nine years old, she lived with her parents in India for a year. She won't make a movie that's not "pro-women." And she might be single. Or she might not.

Recent press reports suggest that she and the hotelier Andre Balazs, who have had an on-off relationship since Thurman split with her husband of five years, the actor Ethan Hawke, are no longer an item. "How do you know I've split up with him?" she playfully rebuffs a question alluding to their break-up.

Thurman is famously private. In conversation, she finds a way of being engaging and direct, while simultaneously protecting that which is important to her. She addresses a question about break-ups by saying, "You cope with them whichever way you can." On being a single mum: "I don't know any different. It's a privilege to have had kids. I feel grateful that I don't have to worry about whether I'm able to have kids."

More often than not, Thurman speaks in perfectly formed sentences, despite the fact that words tumble from her mouth rapidly. She uses words such as "du jour", "volition" and "dichotomous". It's fair to say that these are not words many Hollywood actors would use in everyday conversation. Yet, despite her intelligence and success, she says she still feels her career is something of which she hasn't always been in control.

"I've had such a touch-and-go career," she says. "I don't feel powerful. It's such a miracle to find the right part. I've been on the A-list, off the A-list, on the D-list... Surviving as an actress is a miracle."

But survived she has, for we are here to talk about her 35th film, a comedy by Ivan Reitman (the director of Stripes, Ghostbusters and, less happily, Kindergarten Cop) called My Super Ex-Girlfriend, and Thurman's first foray into straight-up comedy.

Thurman plays Jenny Johnson, a bookish nerd who works in a SoHo gallery and has yet to find her soul mate. But this is only half Jenny's story - her other (omega) identity is New York superhero G-Girl. She's part-Clark Kent, part-Bridget Jones in a film that veers between romantic comedy and comic-book fantasy.

It's diverting enough, with a few snappy one-liners, but you are left feeling that, while keeping up the pretence of the slick, summer comedy - penis jokes, special effects, a glimpse of Uma in her underwear - it knows it's an awkward mélange that would have Gordon Ramsay moaning: "too many f-ing ingredients!"

Still, Thurman maintains her end of an uncomfortable pairing with Luke Wilson, by having lots of breezy fun. While, as Jenny, she's all crazy hair, wonky glasses and gangly awkwardness, as G-Girl she sports spiky boots, stockings, a tight top, and introduces Wilson's character, Matt, to memorable sexual escapades. In one scene, her enthusiastic pelvic thrusts are enough to send a bed crashing through a wall; in another, she takes Wilson into the skies for a coupling - forget Sex and the City, this is sex above the city.

It's a far cry from Henry & June or even Pulp Fiction, movies that were resolutely positioned outside of the mainstream. Despite her work on stinkers including Batman & Robin and The Avengers, this is where Thurman still seems most at home. It has always seemed that Thurman's taste for projects with an audience outside of a multiplex is possibly a function of her being raised in a family where there were books in the house. She and her brothers - Ganden, Dechen and Mipam - were raised by academics. Her father, Robert, a professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at New York's Columbia University, is famously the first Westerner to become a Tibetan Buddhist monk. Her ex-model Swedish mother Nena von Schlebrugg is a renowned psychotherapist who also was briefly married to counterculture guru Timothy Leary after the pair were introduced by Salvador Dali.

When asked about her upbringing, she is keen to address what she feels is a public misconception. "My upbringing is very wrongly distorted in the media," she says. "I didn't have some kind of religious fanatic parents. I was brought up by a college professor and a European mother in a small town in Massachusetts and upstate New York. I went to both public and private schools. I started work very young and, other than that, nothing exceptional." That is, other than her father being a confidante of the Dalai Lama and Richard Gere, who campaigns for Tibetan causes.

Thurman wasn't happy at school and felt awkward because of her towering height. "I got out of there," she says. "Got a job, hung out with adults. I didn't fit in too well. For most overgrowns, it takes us until at least 30 to learn to walk properly. High school wasn't much fun." Consequently, at the age of 15, she found herself working as a model and auditioning for acting jobs.

In a culture where the internet, blogs and video sharing sites are roping us together in virtual communities, there remains something rather distant about Thurman, despite her having been on our minds since 1988 when she appeared as the goddess Venus in Terry Gilliam's flamboyant The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. She has experimented with both art-house and mainstream cinema over the past two decades, playing the virginal convent girl Cécile de Volanges in Dangerous Liaisons, mobster's moll Mia Wallace in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (for which she garnered an Academy Award nomination) and The Bride in Tarantino's Kill Bill Vols 1 and 2, a part which required her to train for months in various martial arts. Memorably, the first installment ends with Thurman dispatching 88 Japanese yakuza with her samurai sword.

Around this time, however, her private life became rather complex. When her husband was caught cheating with a 22-year-old Canadian model, Thurman found herself in the position of being a woman in her early thirties who had been through two marriages (her first, to Brit actor Gary Oldman was brief and Thurman was barely out of her teens.) Hawke's justification was that he believed his wife had conducted an affair with Quentin Tarantino (something Thurman and Tarantino adamantly deny) while shooting the Kill Bill movies. Publicly, Thurman handled the situation masterfully, and kept her own counsel.

"I'm capable of extremes," she explains. "I have two sides: I think I'm very public and strong and organised, and I think I'm very private and more... challenged ," she laughs. There were no tearful midnight mercy dashes or motoring accidents blamed on the paparazzi. Damned by his wife's silence, Hawke came across, by turns, as weasly philanderer or foolish ingrate.

"I always felt that you have to be prepared to pay for what you get," Thurman explains when discussing the intersection of her public and private life. "For instance, if you use your marriage or children for the publicity, you will pay dearly, in another way."

As any divorcee with kids knows, the trauma of separation is superseded by the emotionally charged childcare agreements and fraught, small-scale liaisons with ex-partners. Her post-separation arrangements, particularly relating to her kids - Maya Ray, who is eight years old, and Levon Roan, who is four - are not something she discusses, but she is starting to feel more relaxed about the daily infractions that are part of her family life.

"I think that I've been overly neurotic, and I've relaxed about it," she says. "I've been excessively cautious or paranoid, but I'm a little less uncomfortable with it at this point. I'm nervous about the price I could pay for a mistake. But, at the same time, live and let live. For instance, I found the publicity and paparazzi difficult to take as a young mother. But, now I can have a conversation with my child about what's happening and why it's happening, I feel easier. I've always been aware that every time I've lost my temper, every time I've flinched, I've paid for it, and I'm conscious of the cost - and my own responsibility."

And to a woman who was chosen by designer Mark Jacobs to be the face of Louis Vuitton and currently endorses Tag Heuer watches, tabloid infractions occur in small ways as well as with telephoto lenses.

"The size 12 shoe is really irritating," she jokes, referring to press reports about the size of her feet. "The thing is that they're almost an 11 after I had kids - but do they have to say 12? Really, it gets to be like, 'just call me ducky' and leave it at that."

And how about the future? What personal goals does she have? "I don't know," she says, pausing for a moment. "Personally, growth is the goal, openness is the goal, letting go of garbage is the goal... And having a positive attitude."

And if she could have a super-power like her character Jenny Jones, which would Thurman choose?

"Flying," she says quickly. "But the activities in the bedroom would serve any woman."

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