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SHOW PEOPLE / Unattainable, but still earthy: Sarah Gristwood meets Uma Thurman, whose blazing screen debut has turned into a slow burn

UMA THURMAN has always been 'awestruck' that her father speaks Tibetan without an accent. Not many actresses can say that. Not many Nordic-looking blondes were named after a Hindu goddess, either, but Uma Thurman is one. It may not be essential to have a glamorously distinctive background in order to stay ahead of the Hollywood wave, but it helps. Or helped. The need for such props is passing now.

Uma Thurman was not, as she puts it, discovered in McDonald's. If your father is an Asiatic scholar with homes in Woodstock and Amherst, and your mother a non- practising psychoanalyst whose first husband was Timothy Leary, you don't need to be. But apart from that, the fairy story holds true.

She was catapulted to fame at 17, by the double bill of Dangerous Liaisons, in which she played the convent-bred ingenue, and Baron Munchausen, in which she played Venus and Oliver Reed's wife. The combined effect was less dramatic in America than in Britain, where the two films were released within a few weeks, but the attention was alarming enough to send her into retreat.

'It made me want to withdraw completely, which I did for more than a year. I felt I hadn't had the time to create myself as a performer.' In the intervals of filming Henry and June, Philip Kaufman's risque dramatisation of the three-way love affair between Henry Miller, Miller's wife and Anas Nin, she also created herself as Mrs Gary Oldman. The marriage began to break up in little more than a year.

Oddly, she has not been seen to advantage since that early thunderclap. She is drawn, she says, to parts that are 'not basically transcribable'. On the surface, her role in Dangerous Liaisons was little more than a tribute to her freshness and her extraordinary face. In fact her quietly witty transformation from virgin to voluptuary was an early indication of her ability to produce the effect of currents under still water.

It's not a talent that makes her easy to cast. It didn't help her to do much with the non-role of Patrick Bergin's Maid Marian in the other Robin Hood picture. It was all but thrown away when she played third fiddle to Richard Gere and Kim Basinger in Final Analysis. But she emerged with personal credit from her role as a blind girl in the thriller Jennifer 8 although the film, much altered by the studio, shows no sign of being released in this country. The advice from one of her co-stars, John Malkovich, was a bare 'Just be blind'. It worked well for Thurman. 'Don't just do something, stand there,' von Sternberg told Dietrich, and exaggerated though the comparison may seem it is not a new one. Like Dietrich, Thurman is at once unattainable and earthy.

Thurman said a couple of years ago that she was too sophisticated to play modern ingenues, and too young to be cast as anything else. She says now that 'most of the great roles are for women, not girls. But I'm getting on now.' She is 23. And her time may just be coming. Gus Van Sant's Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, based on the cult Seventies novel by Tom Robbins, is released later this year with Thurman in her first real leading role. She plays Sissy Hankshaw, a ranch dweller and former model for feminine hygiene products blessed (if that's the word) with unusually long thumbs.

A glance at Thurman's hands suggests it's a role for which she is admirably suited. But she says it's just that since filming, her thumbs have never been the same. Meanwhile, there is Mad Dog and Glory, about a shy detective (Robert De Niro) who falls for a girl (Thurman) who's been loaned to him by a gangster. The film is directed by John McNaughton, who made the memorably uncompromising Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer, and it is an open secret that it too was changed by the studio, who wanted a happy ending. But the reviews were good in America - better than the box office.

There was some politically correct criticism of a third picture in quick succession (after Indecent Proposal and Honeymoon in Vegas) which has women up for sale; but Thurman dismisses it as Fascism. 'Complaining that something exists is the positive side of the American attitude, but whingeing and moaning about the portrayal of it seems to be missing the point.' She heaps praise on the goodwill and generosity of De Niro, and says she wasn't afraid of working with him. 'He wasn't going to make me better, or worse. I'm only afraid of myself.' The film wasn't particularly easy to do, 'but we don't do things because they're easy. Difficulty is relative. It was easier than travelling second-class on a train through India with four kids, anyway.' She knows, having once been one of the four.

Her mother was Swedish-born, her father had German roots, and to Americans she has that exoticism they admire in European actresses, but she rejects the view of acting as a beauty contest in which she has been dealt a winning hand. In her teens she was 'always geeky and gawky', though not not anorexic: 'A doctor said if you hooked my blood up to someone with heart disease, it would cure them. I am rudely healthy.'

She has changed in more than looks, of course, since starting her career. 'Can you compare yourself from 17 to 23?' The security of her background - 'my parents raised us to be independent' - allowed her to develop inner strength, like a muscle, she says. But that doesn't imply any firm hand on the future. 'Things just happen. It is quite beautiful.' You can take the woman out of Woodstock, but you can't take Woodstock out of the woman.

'Mad Dog and Glory' (15): Empire, Leicester Sq (071-437 1234) from 2 July.

(Photographs omitted)