Uma Thurman is as beautiful and timeless as a Hollywood star gets. Named after a Hindu goddess, Thurman turns 40 next month, and while that’s long past the expiration date for most actresses, the six-foot-tall blonde is at the top of her game. Thurman has a number of films in the works this year, including the much-anticipated film adaptation of Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, based on the first of a series of acclaimed novels, which is in theatres this month.
She also has a small film coming out this year that she praises called Ceremony − written and directed by Max Winkler (“He’s the Fonz’s son [from the television series Happy Days] and incredibly talented!” gushes Thurman). Bel Ami is up next with actor Robert Pattinson of Twilight fame, which they are currently filming in England (“It’s a bedroom drama,” says Thurman of her role as a ‘cougar’) and Eloise in Paris based on the famous series of children’s stories about Eloise at the Plaza, which will begin filming later this year in which Thurman will star as the nanny. She also has the much-anticipated third installment of the Kill Bill series heading into production and slated for a 2014 release.
They’re the kind of deeper roles the ethereal beauty has been cultivating over the years − contemporary characters, all wildly different from each other, some even surreal or fictional − all way beyond the ingenue we first saw in Dangerous Liasons with John Malkovich more than two decades ago. “I make a habit out of going out of character − both good and bad. Diversity is wealth. I feel like I’ve had such a great exploration through the world of cinema, both with the different kinds of people, different types of movies, different kinds of characters and styles of acting. It’s been wonderfully all over the place,” Thurman says to sum it up. “I don’t think I have necessarily gotten wiser … but the tone and tenor of roles I might be able to play as an adult woman resonate with me so much more deeply. When you finally get as old as you felt when you were younger, you get young again.”
Thurman is also focused on raising her daughter Maya, 11, and son Levon, eight. She has maintained a relatively private existence under the tabloid radar in New York City since splitting with her second husband of six years, actor Ethan Hawke in 2004 whom she met on the set of the sci-fi film Gattaca (her first marriage to actor Gary Oldman lasted two years). She is now keen not to jump into relationships too quickly and recently split from fiancé of two years, businessman Arpad Busson (who has two children of his own with model Elle Macpherson), to focus more on her children and career.
When she’s not home at her old-world, yet simply decorated townhouse along New York’s “Gold Coast” of Lower Fifth Avenue with her two kids, they’re at their house in Woodstock, New York, convening with nature, or travelling to St Barts for a holiday respite. There is certainly a line-up of suitors since her break-up, but no one special in particular. Instead, Thurman is tapping into her down-to-earth, playful side who loves watching TV and reading trashy novels. “I’m reading this fantastic series of really delicious, slightly trashy, fabulous modern Swedish novels. I’m on the second book, The Girl Who Played with Fire [by Stieg Larsson]. You won’t be able to put down The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and you’ll feel like you’re watching daytime television, but you’ll be reading!”
In her latest film, Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, Thurman plays the mythological gorgon, Medusa, winged with snakes for hair and able to turn anyone to stone who looks upon her. The film is set in a modern world where the 12 Greek gods of Mount Olympus are alive and well and creating a new race of mythological heroes or half-mortal, half-god demigods. Percy, one such demigod and the teenage son of Poseidon, is suspected by Zeus of stealing his lightning bolt, the universe’s most powerful weapon. Percy embarks on a transcontinental odyssey to find the real thief, but encounters obstacles of deadly proportions, such as Medusa. Director Chris Columbus (of Harry Potter and Fantastic Four fame who Thurman says is, “the nicest person behind the camera”) maintained her image in the semi-animated figure with the added enhancement of snakes on her head, though it’s not her prettiest look. While preparing for the special effects, Thurman got to see her character. “I saw the semi-animation of me with a head full of snakes, and it was creepy. But it’s my face and hands and body.”
While her character is larger than life, she immediately signed up for the part because it was a quick shoot for the otherwise full-time mum. “As usual, I sort of hurry and scurry in and out of town while I juggle ten thousand things. It was shot in Vancouver and was actually a very long shoot for the film because it’s a huge, beautifully done adventure story full of live action and effects. I have one wonderful scene, and then I’m swiftly beheaded. I speak until, of course, I lose my head. But I turn a lot of people to stone in my silence. My head is dragged around throughout the movie. I’m a little worried about my kids seeing it!”
During the rehearsal, a box of snakes was brought in for Thurman which she let crawl all over her to get comfortable with the idea of having snake hair when she filmed her scenes. “I experienced them up close and personal. I let a lot of them crawl all over me and I saw exactly how hellish [Medusa’s] curse was. It was pretty intense. You can just imagine having 50 pounds of heavy snakes on your head!” But it wasn’t her most harrowing film encounter to date. As a trained professional killer in Kill Bill, Thurman had a number of near-death experiences, and while they were physically exhausting, they were “ultimately gratifying”. Of the action we can expect in the third installment Thurman can only say, “it’s in the zeitgeist!”
Currently on set in England filming Bel Ami with Pattinson, Thurman is missing her kids at home, conflicted by having to leave them since it’s her first long shoot out of the country in six years. But she’s giving the film her all. “It’s traumatic to leave during a school year,” Thurman concedes, but the kids, who are staying with their father back home, will visit during their spring school break, and the work is necessarily nourishing for her. “You don’t want to disrupt their little lives, you know. There’s this struggle of trying to maintain you, whatever that is after you’ve had kids, and also see if you fulfil your obligation as a mother. That alone is an impossibility.”
Thurman’s daughter, Maya, who is a fan of the Twilight series herself, is excited for her mother’s part opposite Pattinson. Of her mum’s role as his older seductress Maya interjects, “Mom, why do you keep getting these roles where you’re getting younger men?” to which Thurman replies, “Well, at least I don’t do it in real life.”
With millions of eyes on Pattinson, Bel Ami could be another big hit for Thurman. “He’s a big star right now. I’m excited because the film is a classical, technical piece of work and it’s beautiful. It’s a romance between Rob and a number of Parisian housewives. I end up marrying him, but there are some twists along the way.”
Thurman’s talent has earned her numerous roles (Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 to name a few) and a few prestigious awards along the way including a Golden Globe for a film she developed and produced for HBO called Hysterical Blindness. The acknowledgement was a total shock because no one supported her playing a paranoid, gritty girl afflicted with bouts of blindness brought on by hysteria. “I was completely surprised and so was everyone else because it was a nightmare trying to get it off the ground. It was my own film and I cast myself. So at least I thought I was over the hurdle, but no one thought I could play such a part. No one thought it would be realistic. I guess no one thought I could act, or that I was a person who has ever cried.”
Thurman’s hyper-intelligence comes from her Buddhist-scholar father, Robert Thurman, the first Western monk under the tutelage of the Dalai Lama, her incredible and exotic looks are care of her European model mother, Nena, and her big heart from both. While she is striving to be a more spiritual person, Thurman lives by the golden rule of do unto others. “There’s a hippocratic oath out there that you can feel as an intellectual idea and then you can really feel through loss and through struggle and to definitely not want to contribute to that which brings others down,” she says.
Off camera, Thurman spends time lending support to Room to Grow, a non-profit organisation that helps infants born into poverty. “The great thing about its model is that it’s a self-sustaining thing from its own community; it’s those-who-have helping those-who-have-less. Part of the reason it was created was because a lot of children below the poverty line aren’t able to access resources until they hit school age. Early intervention is everything as far as getting someone off to a decent life. It’s my new year’s resolution every year to be more helpful; contribute more. Children inspire me. People who carry hope in the face of any type of challenge, disappointment or devastation inspire me. Everybody is being challenged and tested right now, and some people are changing as a result. I try to help others but I don’t do enough. I feel very optimistic about the next decade. I’m just thinking about a new year.” Her advocacy of children began long before she had her own, she points out, “I’m a sensitive person and we have to stick up for those who can’t stick up for themselves. Children are the greatest population of any demographic that falls into that category.”
Even while living in the moment as far as her career goes, the future does hold great things for Thurman. One project she would love to develop in the new decade as part of her desire to produce more is a piece on Anna Akhmatova, one of the most notable 20th-century Russian poets. “I have been toying with the idea since I fell in love with her work. I have produced things and developed things but I’m not ‘captain producer’.” Akhmatova, who often wrote about the difficulties of being a creative woman during the Stalinist era, would understand about limitation. “I find myself humanly limited by space and time,” Thurman admits. But she is managing to take on more: Thurman is in the midst of completing a very personally satisfying project, Girl Soldier, about children soldiers in Uganda. “There’s a group of them called the Aboke girls who were kidnapped. They’re unbelievably heroic. If you want to talk about the extraordinary human spirit, this piece is that kind of brutal, real story. It’s probably going to be very difficult to get made. But, again, I’m also on the busy side – trying to be a full-time parent and trying to, I don’t know, raise bacon. I don’t think I do very well juggling it all much of the time. I try to pull it together when it counts, though.” A goddess, indeed.