HAPPY 50th BIRTHDAY UMA

Poised unfathomably between naivete and guile, Uma Thurman’s screen performances give the impression of a woman with secrets to tell, but one who may never do so. She is more coltish than the Lauren Bacall who told Bogart how to whistle but radiates the same knowingness, while she shares something of Nina Van Pallandt’s Nordic cool In The Long Goodbye and American Gigolo. In the photograph opposite, Thurman wears a bracelet once owned by Marlene Dietrich. All she needs now is a Josef (or Josephine) Von Sternberg to help her poeticize her icy aplomb, to render it more user-friendly—or more lethal. Delivered to us as Botticelli’s Venus on a giant clam in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Thurman has gone some way toward proving that she is more than mere love-goddess material. Ten films into her career, the twentytwo- year-old actress hasn’t settled into an “image,” and there is no sign yet that Hollywood knows what to do with her—which may be her greatest asset.

She was born in Boston in 1970, her mother a psychotherapy graduate and teacher, her father an eminent professor of Eastern religions — hence the Hindu name “Uma,” bestower of blessings. She modeled and acted in plays before making her film debut as the sultry robber of rich pickups in Kiss Daddy Good Night in 1987. She was Cecile, a pendulous tulip deflowered by the simian John Malkovich, in Dangerous Liaisons, and one of three spoiled kids evicted from home by demolition king Dabney Coleman in Where the Heart Is—in which she revealed her skill at goofy comedy and her ease in ensemble work. She was excellent in Henry & June as June Miller, distracted by intimations of madness from the febrile eroticism of husband Henry and Anais Nin, and brought a touch of As You Like It to the TV Robin Hood, turning Maid Marian into a feisty feminist tomboy. She has since segued into mainstream thrillers as the troubled younger sister in Final Analysis and a blind girl involved with a homicide cop (Andy Garcia) in next month’s Jennifer Eight, written and directed by Bruce Robinson. She also appears as indentured servant Glory, alongside Bill Murray and Robert De Niro, in John McNaughton’s upcoming comedy-drama Mad Dog and Glory. A few days before she set off to begin filming her role as Sissy Hankshaw in Gus Van Sant’s film of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Thurman arrived at Interview, where she was instantly the tallest person in the office. In person, she is direct and serious, assertive but not defensive, a woman who looks you in the eye and articulates her thoughts with no little heat, but who isn’t so keen to know the answers to every question about her life until she’s ready.

GRAHAM FULLER Tell us about your upbringing.

UMA THURMAN I was brought up in Woodstock, New York …

INGRID SISCHY This is too good to be true. Were you conceived at Woodstock? A summer-of-love child?
UT No, I wasn’t. Actually, my parents were on their way to somewhere else, but they didn’t get there because they stopped in Woodstock. They just fell in love with it and bought some land. I mostly grew up there, and also in Massachusetts. My father had a position at Amherst College teaching Asiatic studies—Tibetology—for about nine years. We lived in India at two different times, too, for a year each time; we lived in other places as well.

GF So you grew up in an Intellectual environment?

UT Intellectual—I don’t know about that word. It never sits too well with me. I grew up in a nontraditional academic environment, in college towns, around learning centers where my parents taught.

IS How old were you when you moved to India?

UT We lived there in the first year of my life, and then again in the eleventh year of my life, which I remember very well.

GF What memories do you have of that?

UT They’re very vivid, perhaps because my first impressions of the world were Indian impressions, and then again India linked up very heavily for me at the cusp of puberty. There are smells that still send me back, like jasmine and human bodies, too many of them, on the street. It was a trip roving around Delhi. My brothers and I used to go climbing all over the mosques, jumping around, leaping and digging in different places. I was not afraid of anything there. It was a wonderful place to be an innocent. I used to do things that would constantly freak my parents out. One day this man with a camel appeared outside our door and asked me to go for a ride, which I did— sending my parents into complete anxiety, of course. I came back perfectly fine, after having my nice camel ride around the neighborhood. In India, my mother used to put my youngest brother on a leash, because he would run away. My older brother was also put on a leash the first time we lived there. He was this wild, white-haired child who wore a fur vest, no underpants, cowboy boots, and a harness leash.

IS You strike me as someone who can’t be put on a leash.

UT (laughs). They never tried to put me on the leash. But I never ran away in front of them, either. I was a little wily that way.

IS In acting there’s a different kind of leash, isn’t there? You know, the attempt to typecast actors in roles that reinforce their image.

UT I’ve never really been bothered by the typecasting idea, because in some sense everyone is typecast—by their sex, their size . . . by their essential physicality, whatever that physicality is. But there’s a more scary leash, which is choosing a career. I think being involved in what is grown-up work and not having the more expansive side of being young, the openness and the options and activities . . . just the room to move in is a more frightening proposition. It’s like a pipeline. You can’t change your mind a lot, or be irresponsible, or fail. At the same time it’s an incredible privilege to be doing that kind of work,

IS How many years have you been acting professionally?

UT About seven.

GF What do you remember most about the first year that you began to work?

UT I look back on that time now and, in retrospect, can’t believe how brave I was. I was sixteen and living in Hell’s Kitchen, going out and meeting people on auditions, sitting down and shaking their hands—it was unreal to me, and also quite playful and incredibly amusing because I wasn’t directly ambitious. I didn’t have a material understanding of my “career” working or not working out any more than someone handing in a term paper for a grade might be thinking about the rest of his or her life. None of this seemed permanent or lasting or significant in any way. And then by the fall of that year, someone asked me to do a lowbudget movie, which I did.

IS What was the movie?

UT Kiss Daddy Good Night. (Everyone laughs.)

 

IS Why did you want to get into this unpredictable world of acting?

UT Acting was an idea I had as a child, because I always liked to be in plays. As a kid, I changed schools so many times, I was never particularly integrated into any sort of social strata with other children. Plays were one of the few things that I felt a desire to participate in. So I had this ongoing relationship with acting before I really started to do it. Then the opportunity came for me to try it out, and when it received me, it was kind of strange. But I don’t think I really knew that I wanted to act until I did (The Adventures of) Baron Munchausen.

GF What was it like, being part of that madness? Or wasn’t it madness? How did it seem to you at that time?

UT Well, I was seventeen years old and running. The sets were the size of football fields, and there were all these wonderful actors assembled and magnificent costumes, and the whole thing was this sort of passionate fun for me. It was also such an affirmation. When Terry Gilliam cast me in that movie, it was as if he had taken me and said, “Look, you can do something good.” I was incredibly flattered to be among all those people, even though I was definitely the
goof. I was playing Venus, and I was the sweet little awkward, gangly seventeen-year-old in their midst. I don’t think anyone quite knew what to do with me, but I was there.

GF In any actor’s career there is always a moment when they arrive in the public’s consciousness, and that was your moment, is: It’s interesting, Uma, that you arrived in your consciousness at that same moment, too.

UT Baron Munchausen is the kind of movie that makes movies look like they are worth dedicating part of your life to doing. Which was how, after being in that movie, I started to feel about acting,

IS You said acting was the one thing that made you engage with other people. Tell us more about that.

UT I remember being in silly little plays as a child, and I would be afraid before and after the play, but when I was onstage I didn’t feel any of the inhibitions that kids tend to feel. In every other way I was an incredibly self-conscious child, and just rapt by all the things that were wrong with me.

IS Like what?

UT Well, you know, I was a strange-looking child. I wasn’t traditionally cute, or one of the attractive girls. I was, in fact, one of the unattractive girls—I was slightly taller, and my clothes, of course, were all wrong. And on top of that I had a strange name.

IS How were your clothes all wrong?

UT My mother’s trip was not about trying to wedge her kids into society so that the whole family could blend in and be as moderate as everybody else. She wasn’t on a yuppie trip. She had no interest in integrating us in that way. We were in a small town, but my parents just weren’t small-town people; to them, living in a small town wasn’t about belonging to it.

GF Was Henry & June an important film for you?

UT Very.

GF Did you feel that it was a big step for you technically, in terms of acting?

UT It was the first chance I really had to act. I’d never had a character that I felt was at such a distance from me, in every way: culturally, physically, vocally, emotionally. That’s fun for an actor. And it meant a lot to me how that performance turned out. I was nineteen at the time, so to do it was quite a challenge.

 

IS One thing that often happens in films, particularly if they involve so-called unusual sexuality, is that they take on a kind of titillating profile that can have nothing to do with the film itself. Were you worried that June’s sexuality, and trying to interpret that, would create this type of response to the film? Was that one of your concerns?

UT That the film would exploit June Miller’s life? Yeah, it was a great concern of mine. And especially when it came down to her sexuality. People might think the character was overtly sexual, but I didn’t actually think she was, which is why I’m most proud of that performance. When you’re playing a character that you respect, you fight their stereotype; you don’t condescend to the character or to the audience in that way. As an actress, I’ve always felt that stereotypical sexuality is so boring. If you’re going to portray stereotypical sexuality, then you’re not playing a character, because no person has that kind of automated lifestyle. To play a character like that is not a commentary, it’s not an expression of humanity—it’s a bore. But I don’t think June Miller’s trip was about being bisexual or heterosexual. That wasn’t where she was at. The woman had a nervous breakdown not long after where the film left off in terms of her story. She was an incredibly trapped and isolated person—like many women are, behind their sexuality— and very disappointed in being constantly shortchanged emotionally.

GF Something I wanted to ask you, in regard to Dangerous Liaisons and Henry & June, has to do with all this. What do you think about the representation of women in films? Does it bother you as much as I imagine it might?

UT Well, sure. But not only in film. Women are always at war with their role of being attractive and sexy. On a big level. Professional women are at war with the idea of being given a job because they’re nice to look at! Secretaries, businesswomen, lawyers, all women. And women who do not feel attractive and are not, in our kind of magazine society, perceived as attractive are set against those who may be allowed to go on because of the way they look. But I am not really taken in by the beauty myth. I mean, there are many, many attractive people out there. So many of the actresses that are working right now are attractive people, in different ways and at different levels—glam beauty, simple beauty, ugly beauty, plain beauty. I can’t think of an actress who doesn’t have some kind of beauty. But I’ve also seen millions of others in acting classes, in auditions, gorgeous girls all over the place that want to do this job, but why aren’t they succeeding? Because, obviously, beauty isn’t really enough. Otherwise, the profession would be far more overcrowded.

GF But what I’d like to get at is—

UT Wouldn’t you say?

GF Sure. But what I’d like to find out is, did you feel any sense of resentment toward people who thought of you in those terms? That you got where you are because of the way you look?

UT At a certain point I did. It just irritated me.

IS Did it worry you?

UT Yes. But it’s more that it gets tiresome, you know. And then people say, “Oh, stop moaning and go do something else.” Right! That’s like saying to Anita Hill, “Why don’t you get another job, babe? Why didn’t you quit your job in the first place?” when maybe she was just trying to work it out. She was doing what she wanted to do, and essentially she liked her job. That was her career, it was her life. She happened to be working for an ignoramus, so she had to pursue her career as best she could around that obstacle. I think actresses also do that. They are trying to pursue what they like to do around the obstacle of women having to carry the sexual burden in movies. It amuses me that women are always asked about doing nudity in films, or sex in films, or even being sexual in films, and men aren’t. How many people ask big movie star guys, “What is it like doing movie after movie where all your leading ladies are being used the same way? What is it like being in scenes with leading women where the focus of the scene is about getting something of their intimacy out? What is it like for you to sit back and, in some sense, ride on that?” A lot of actors who have been very successful, who have been in very commercial, sexy movies, are not perceived as being sexually exploitative, but their movies make a lot of money and their price goes up. There’s a strange exchange going on. I’m not putting them down for it, but it seems like they’re getting more out of what the woman is put through than they themselves are put through,

IS That’s true. But then there are also people like Sean Connery. He is a good example of a man who has this dynamic with women in films, but a guy who has also had to spend a lifetime having to carry films in that way, too: he has sex objects and he has to be one, too.

UT With men, people don’t hold their beauty against them. That’s why male beauty is not such a big subject. I mean, Kevin Costner is a beautiful man on film—

IS Not my type. I guess he’s a beautiful man in a certain way. But if a man is beautiful in a non-“rugged,” non-“masculine” way, if he’s beautiful in another way, even as an actor, I think he has a hard time being taken seriously. I mean, there’s a certain kind of beauty that seems to be acceptable for men.
UT Beauty can ruin people in a lot of different ways. It can really stifle them, because they’re so trained by the fact that they have this face, that they have this body, and they’re reminded of it culturally all the time as they’re growing up, so it starts to take on this sort of unconnected quality— like a mask. I mean, you know when you meet someone who was considered beautiful as a child. You can tell. There can be this sort of laziness about them, this sort of social assumption inside them that they can just pull energy in a room.

IS Or you can see the opposite. You can see people who, because they were treated in that way as children, have this real burden, this kind of sad desire to always please.

UT Which can also be an addiction to a certain kind of attention, to being able to seduce the moment, you know, or just pull over stuff all the time. Of course, that’s not a blanket truth.

GF Well, it’s interesting to me because what I’ve noticed in the trajectory of your films, and the types of roles you’ve played, is that the public perception has changed about you as you’ve shown us a deeper side, a richer kind of personality than in your earlier films, like Dangerous Liaisons.

UT Naturally, one grows up. I did Dangerous Liaisons when I was barely eighteen. It’s now four years later, and there is a huge growth from that age in anybody’s life. But I also think that’s dictated by opportunity. I think you could probably take a person who is somewhat mediocre, and if you give them the right opportunities and help them, they will grow. It’s like shining a light on a plant. A plant goes Wow! Boom! If you don’t have the chance, what can you show? People have such limited expectations of what you can do sometimes. It’s like they don’t believe you can walk across the street unless they see you do it. And when they see you fulfill a particular job they go, “She did that job, that’s all she can do.” But we’re also talking about a certain media reaction, because most people don’t feel that way necessarily. They see something and they like it, or they don’t like it.

IS They say It’s hard to make a life in your profession.

UT It’s very disruptive. But then, it disrupts things that can also be deadening. Like, it disrupts one’s ability to plan. It disrupts one’s ability to nest. It can be very painful not to be able to do that. It’s like, “No, it’s not your lot to have these things. It’s not your lot to be able to hunker down and, if you like, stagnate.” It forces you to stay fluid,

IS But clearly it’s your lot to express something.

UT I think when people have no place to create it’s an incredible burden on the creative process, because the whole idea of creating is in the exchange. Sometimes I wonder, If I had developed other ways of doing that, would I have found one I liked better than acting? When I’m working, a part of me is engaged that doesn’t exist in my life, like a whole process of thought or imagination or creativity. Sure there are times, with bad scripts, where, you know, it seems like you’re not an actor, you’re a plasterer. You’re not painting the wall, you’re just filling in the cracks. But amazing things can come out of that, out of fixing problems. You find that, because you’re forced to fill a certain space, like a crack in the wall, it sets you off in another direction. In my day-to-day life I don’t have the kind of stimulus and engagement that I do when I work. And I’ve been through times when I didn’t work where I would cry and would wonder, What am I doing? There was one period I remember when I begged my agent, “Tell me to quit, tell me to quit. Don’t let me waste my time, my life.” I think a lot of actors go through that. I know people who have gone through it for many years, who have asked themselves many times, Why not just do something else? And then they keep on going, which is a way of saying, “Because this is what I do.”

GF Do you consider acting a spiritual activity in any way?

UT I think all imaginative processes are spiritual. And any job can have a spiritual side to it, although that side is not always so peachy—it’s not like you’re always being gorgeously creative and having a fantastic time. But that part of the brain, the creative or spiritual part of the brain that can reimagine a situation, is the part of everyone that can change their life.

GF How has it changed yours?

UT There’s a moment when you realize you are not invulnerable, that there is nothing carved in stone that says you are going to be happy, nothing written down that says you are going to flourish, or that you are going to survive at all. At one point, not long after I did Henry & June, I got to a place where it became very clear to me that my way of going about things was simply to fall into them, which has to do with complacency, my own sort of refusal to come to my own aid. I was attached to the idea that nothing was worth anything if it didn’t happen by itself. And I was so controlled by that idea that I didn’t believe in anything unless it almost forced itself on me. Then that changed, because I realized how incredibly dangerous it is to trust yourself last. You know, “Oh, I’ll take me if there’s no one left.” [laughs].

 

Interview INGRID SISCHY, GRAHAM FULLER
Fotos ALBERT WATSON