Uma Thurman: Pulp friction
The new episode of Quentin Tarantino's bloodthirsty epic Kill Bill is set to slay audiences. Leslie Felperin meets its fractious star
Friday 16 April 2004
The 33-year-old star of Kill Bill, parts one and two, looks very like a woman having, if not a nervous breakdown, then a very bad day. She comes sweeping into the hotel room where I am to interview her, and mutters something about having to make a phone call as she strides past us onto the balcony, jabbing buttons on her mobile as she walks. Everyone wants Uma, and her time is limited, since in a couple of days she's due back on the set of Be Cool, the Get Shorty sequel she's making with her Pulp Fiction dancing partner, John Travolta. This means I have to share my interview slot with a woman journalist from Denmark. We wonder who Uma might be talking to. She appears tense. Why do I suddenly feel like a Crazy 88 gang member about to lose a limb?
You'd think she'd be in a better mood, considering she's had some of the best reviews of her career for her performance as The Bride, aka Beatrix Kiddo - she who sets out to kill Bill. With Kill Bill Volume 1, Thurman proved that she could do action. Volume 2, with its broader scale of emotional tones, allows Thurman even more scope. It was never much of a stretch for her doing ethereal beauty - playing, for example, Venus in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, or decorative lovelies in Dangerous Liaisons and Beautiful Girls, or even the underrated Gattaca, where she met Ethan Hawke, her husband since 1998 and father of her two kids. They separated this year over his rumoured infidelities.
The daughter of a Swedish model and a professor of Eastern philosophy, Thurman has been trying to prove for years that she's more than just a pretty face. She's had an interesting run playing various screwed-up beauties (as in Mad Dog and Glory), ironic minxes (most famously in Pulp Fiction), and kick-ass super-vixens (Poison Ivy in Batman & Robin). But her display of maternal tenderness in the last scenes of Kill Bill Volume 2, genuinely heart-rending, marks a career best so far.
By the time she returns to the room, she looks less like a lethal assassin than a harassed working mother having a bitch of a day at the office. It is 4pm and she's already faced 10 rounds of questions about splitting up with Ethan Hawke and dating hotelier Andre Balazs. No wonder she's snappy from the off.
"Did you see the movie yesterday?" she asks us, taking the initiative as she settles those long, antelope limbs into a chair. "Yes," we reply, trying to make smiling, happy, friendly faces.
We try to appeal to her maternal instincts, and suggest that the ending, in which Beatrix is reunited with her four-year-old daughter, makes the film a kind of love story, a family romance. Did she like that about it? "Yeah, I think it takes a tremendous turn where the character is thrown back into life, because if that hadn't happened she might as well have given herself a five-point exploding palm and died," she says, alluding to a deadly kung fu move.
The Danish journalist starts in with slightly insinuating questions, trying to move us onto the subject of the split-up. She asks if love and hate are different sides of the same thing. "Many people think that," says Uma non-commitedly, obviously wise to the ruse. "I'm not so sure, but I think when people affect each other profoundly, it's a very precious thing and it has to be very well cared for."
"Have you ever felt vengeful," the Dane asks. "No, not really. Not physically." But emotionally? "I've felt anger before. Revenge is basically anger dramatised, and I've certainly felt anger."
The terseness of the reply is ominous, so I ask if she got injured much while shooting Kill Bill. "Yeah, lots! All the time." she laughs. "I don't want any more injuries."
Would she do another action movie like this? "You know, you could make one movie with one person and another one with another person, thinking it's going to be similar, and it changes so completely," she says. "Quentin being quite a unique person, I can't imagine even he will go about making a movie again in the same way. But I certainly feel that I had to learn some stuff. It stays in there. It's like learning to dance. Your body starts to tune itself to a certain type of coordination that's stir-up-able, so who knows? I'd like to play another really strong female character, but she doesn't necessarily have to be a boxer."
Thurman has spoken before about having had a poor self-image in the past. I ask if the training for Kill Bill made her more self-confident about her body. "It certainly did, and especially physically. I was never very physically self-confident. I was, you know, awkward. But I did things for this that I didn't think it was possible for me to do. So when you see that it's amazing, because then you think you could do more things that you don't think of as possible."
The Danish journalist has spotted a chink. "Ethan has talked..." she alludes to how Ethan Hawke has discussed the breakup of their marriage on US television. But Thurman's publicist has slipped into the room and blocks the thrust.
The Dane tries again, Uma resists, and the publicist looks ready to stop the interview. Uma looks like she's about to start crying. This little drama, we will later learn, has already been played out with variations several times today, at one point provoking Uma to tears. Bringing up her movie's violence seems the least inflammatory thing to do.
"I don't like realistic violence," Uma says, apparently grateful to change the subject. "In fact, I don't really like violence full stop. The violence is Quentin's thing. I don't groove with him on it. But I think the way he executes his violence is comic, creative, dramatic and playful, and not titillating in that horrifically realistic way. It's clearly a creative expression. If you look at the House of Blue Leaves sequence in Kill Bill Volume 1, the reason he wanted it to be so operatic and absurdist was because, if it had been less ridiculous, it would be more upsetting." In other words it's so over-the-top it doesn't really count as violence, I suggest. Thurman nods emphatically. "I basically think he is an artist, and he paints these insane, wild, ghastly figures sometimes. I don't look at him as, say, a documentarian or even as a standard Hollywood film-maker using violence to make an action movie. He's sort of in another category. For me, violence is a colour he uses in his palette and I've sort of fallen into step with him, and I respect him as an artist, so I don't really look at it the same way as I would, say, a run-of-the-mill action entertainment thing that is giving you violence in a generic fashion. He's so beyond that, in a kind of dream-like, mad, inspired sort of way - at least that's what I've always felt about him. Even on Pulp Fiction it was the same thing. When I read the script first without meeting him and understanding him, I didn't really want to do it because it was really violent. I was like, 'Ew! What's this, and who's the gimp, and - euch!' And then, you know, seeing Reservoir Dogs, then meeting him and getting a sense of the force that was in there on a cinematic level made me dare to go with him, and it turned out really well. So you just have to let it flow."
We hear that she's going to be dancing with John Travolta again, in Be Cool. Is that true? "Yeah, It's just a bar-room dance, but I think it will be fun," she says, tersely.
What makes her relationship with Tarantino so special, I ask tentatively. "I don't know," she says with a shrug. "I think it's part accident, part connection. I don't know why we ended up on such a giant adventure together, but we've made three films together and that's a lot. It's happened before - there are other actress-director relationships like that..." she trails off, letting us fill in the blanks - Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg, Alfred Hitchcock and Ingrid Bergman - they're all spelled out for us in the press notes and Uma is sick of this question too.
Quentin seems so manic - does he make a good friend? "He's a very good person," she says, fondly. "We came up with the idea of the movie together, the seed idea, the whole construct, the samurai, nah nah nah..." (Gee, Uma, could you sound more bored with this?) "The initial conversation was about a wedding chapel massacre, and about Beatrix Kiddo, an ex-assassin who tried to quit the business and then went on a road to revenge. That was the initial conversation. And Bill. Those were points that were outlined. And even the script, which was dramatically gigantic - it was like 222 pages long - if you were told that it was a 90-minute film you'd think that all of these action sequences would all be very tiny. So a lot of that sort of unfolded, you know? I'd never had any idea that the House of Blue Leaves would be a 25-minute fight sequence."
The Dane has recovered, and now quotes back at Thurman that she once said she felt more empowered after this movie. What is she going to use all this strength for now, she wonders.
"I don't know when I said that - maybe I'll take that back now," Thurman says, like a mischievous child, refusing to help out in any way, eyes flashing hostility like police car siren lights. "Yeah, maybe I'll just take it back. I don't feel all that strong right now. I might feel diminished by the film, actually." I don't think she actually means this last comment - though who knows - but the peevish tone of voice implies that she doesn't want to share her feelings with us in any way, shape or form now.
She's practically getting out of the chair, so to stop her I ask if there's going to be a Kill Bill Volume 3, given that the ending of Volume 2 leaves plenty of scope for a sequel. "There's no plans for Kill Bill three," she says with an annoyed laugh. (Don't read the next bit if you don't want the ending spoiled for you.) "Who cares? I mean, Bill is dead! What are we going to call it? Ghostbust Bill? Exorcise Bill? Bill Is Taking Over People's Bodies?"
And with a curt "thank you", she snaps up out of the chair. The Dane has one last question: "Could you tell us what you're wearing?"
"Clothes," says Uma. "I'm wearing clothes." You see? Movie stars, they really are just like the rest of us.
'Kill Bill Volume 2' is on nationwide release from 23 April
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