Story by Dimitri Ehrlich
Photographs by Ben Watts / Art Mix Photography | October 26, 2009 | People
LEFT: Wool blazer, Alberta Ferretti ($1,754). Visit albertaferretti.com. Bra, La Petite Coquette ($115). 51 University Pl., 212-473-2478. Wool miniskirt, Roberto Cavalli ($3,267). 711 Madison Ave., 212-755-7722. Leggings, Gucci ($450). 725 Fifth Ave., 212-826-2600. Fifre nappa leather ankle boots, Christian Louboutin ($1,195). 965 Madison Ave., 212-396-1884. Necklace in 18k ruthenium-plated white gold and black-ruthenium-plated silver with black diamonds, Gucci ($135,000). SEE ABOVE. RIGHT: Slip, La Petite Coquette ($98). 51 University Pl., 212-473-2478. Trinity necklace in 18k yellow, white and rose gold with pavé diamonds ($37,000) and Love necklace in 18k yellow gold with diamonds ($3,125), Cartier. 828 Madison Ave., 212-472-6400
You know many things about Uma Thurman: that she is stunning, tall (nearly six feet) and commands a room with radiant old-school Hollywood glamour. But what you don’t know is how nice she is—good old-fashioned honest-togoodness sisterly nice.
Despite being one of Hollywood’s most exalted movie stars (Thurman is invariably referred to as a “goddess” in the reams of cover-story press she receives) in person she exudes an air of profound decency of the sort one might expect from, say, a Buddhist nun. Which she most certainly is not—as evidenced by her willingness to depict stomach-churning acts of violence in films like Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill series. But her father, renowned scholar Robert Thurman, did spend time in robes as the first Western monk under the tutelage of the Dalai Lama.
These days, in addition to being Hollywood royalty, the 39-year-old Thurman is the mother of two—11-year-old Maya and seven-year-old Levon—and is about to embark on her third marriage, to philanthropist and businessman Arpad Busson. When I go to meet her at home, Busson greets me in a faded Rolling Stones T-shirt and offers tea. Thurman is equally gracious and understated. Wearing green Life is Good fl ip fl ops, well-worn jeans and a tank top, she invites me out behind the house to a garden that she is proud of having nurtured into neat rows of vegetables. Her only jewelry is a beaded necklace of tiny delicate shelves, a ring with the image of the Hindu god Ganesha on one hand and an engagement ring on the other. The diamond is approximately the size of a robin’s egg.
TOP LEFT: Lamb nappa pin-studded leather jacket, Yigal Azrouël ($1,270). 408 W. 14th St., 212-929-7525. Leggings, Gucci ($450). 725 Fifth Ave., 212-826-2600. Ballon Bleu watch in 18k yellow gold with diamonds, Cartier ($50,250). 828 Madison Ave., 212-472-6400. TOP RIGHT: Wool blazer, Alberta Ferretti ($1,754). albertaferretti.com. Necklace in ruthenium-plated 18k white gold and black-rutheniumplated silver with black diamonds, Gucci ($135,000). 725 Fifth Ave., 212-826-2600. Ballon Bleu watch in 18k yellow gold with diamonds, Cartier ($50,250). 828 Madison Ave., 212-472-6400. Beaded bracelet, Thurman’s own. BOTTOM RIGHT: Speckled-wool orchid dress, Zac Posen ($1,450). Saks Fifth Avenue, 611 Fifth Ave., 212-753-4000. Square cuff in 18k gold with 1.48 carats of diamonds ($30,650) and bangles in 18k gold each with 1.05-carat diamond ($7,000 each), Faraone Mennella. Saks Fifth Avenue, SEE ABOVE. Beaded bracelet, Thurman’s own
Although she is open and thoughtful in response to most every question, one exception is the subject of her previous marriages—the first one, to Gary Oldman, lasted two years. The second, to Ethan Hawke (the father of Thurman’s children) ended in a painful divorce in 2004 after six years and reports of his infidelity. Hawke later married and had a child with the couple’s former nanny. When that subject comes up, she gently leans forward and asks if we can turn off the tape recorder before discussing it, as if we were old friends. And indeed, off the record it seems there is little she’s unprepared to answer.
But Thurman’s face lights up sweetly at the mention of her current beau. “I’m engaged and it’s all good,” she says with a laugh. “He’s a great person.” Busson, known as Arki, is a hedge-fund manager and the father of two children with model Elle Macpherson. The two met at a party hosted by Valentino.
As we talk, Thurman orders a steak sandwich from the private chef who buzzes around the home’s large country kitchen. She seems equally unperturbed by the insects swarming around us and the occasional bits of tomato and bread that fall on her, flicking them away as she enthusiastically eats and talks. Thurman may be larger than life on the silver screen, but in person she’s as down-to-earth and unfussy as a farmer. She laughs easily and expresses herself in perfectly formed paragraphs that reveal a deeply refl ective mind and a love of original language.
After breaking into movies at the tender age of 16, first in Terry Gilliam’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and then opposite John Malkovich in Dangerous Liaisons, Thurman quickly grew frustrated with being perceived as an ingénue. “I was tall and fair-eyed and ethereal looking,” she says, brushing off the media’s obsession with her beauty. “But actually, that kind of slightly haunted, tall, blue-eyed quality was something that took a lot of work to get away from, to finally create some modern, earthy, contemporary characters that stuck and not be trapped in that kind of physicality.”
But that physicality, however unimportant to her as an actress, has earned Thurman tens of millions of dollars in modeling endorsements—for Lancôme, Louis Vuitton and, most recently, as the face of Parfums Givenchy. Still, her relationship to her own looks remains double-edged. “Sometimes beauty means people don’t even pay attention to what you’re doing,” she says. “I’m grateful to have enough good physicality that it was helpful, but a lot of the time I was frustrated that I lost opportunities I wanted because of the way I looked. Like wanting to play more real people and being told I just didn’t look like I could be from the town of such and such a character. And they’d give me roles to play more spectacular people, which wasn’t really my interest. I was offered so many femmes fatales and I didn’t do them because I just didn’t want to cash in on that aspect. I wasn’t that interested in it.”
In Thurman’s newest role, as a beleaguered mom in the Katherine Dieckmann film, Motherhood, she explores the frustrations of raising children while trying to maintain a sense of one’s own creative self-worth. The subject of mothering is one of interest to Thurman both personally and politically (she is a major advocate of Room to Grow, a charity that helps babies born into poverty; the organization holds a major fundraising event in November at which Thurman’s support is crucial). Her role in the film is one she relates to, she says, more than most people might imagine. “It was the realness that attracted me to the script,” she says. “It was so anchored in something that I knew. Maybe some of the circumstances were different— nobody would believe that it was as close to me as it was! But I read it and felt like this was like years of my life. There’s a loneliness to motherhood and mothering, and the effort of trying to be a fully good mother and at the same time wondering, Who are you otherwise? And seeing the slipping away of one’s career and one’s ability to focus on oneself. There’s this struggle of trying to maintain you, whatever that is after you’ve had kids, and also see if you fulfill your obligation as a mother. That alone is an impossibility… if you’re that kind of hard-headed person desperate to do the best job. What is the best job? When is it good enough? When do you not forget this, or arrive at the kid’s class late, and everybody looks at you and you’ve run eight blocks because your car was stuck in traffic and you’re pouring with sweat? It’s something profoundly universal.”
As she says these words, Thurman has a searching look in her eyes, as if she knows that the film’s perspective and quirky style (the entire movie takes place in one day) is not exactly the stuff of which blockbusters are made. “Apparently people either love the movie or they just don’t get it,” she says. “As [writer and director] Katherine Dieckmann said to me, some people resent that we even made a movie about motherhood. They don’t see any reason why they sat there for an hour and a half and watched the story of this woman who struggles with her groceries. They feel like it’s a really unworthy subject.”
For Thurman, making films that allow her to work hard and learn is far more important than being a movie star. She has a quiet pride in the way her career has always been driven by the desire to explore characters rather than the impulse to remain in the spotlight—though she has certainly done that, too. “I have a taste for general entertainment, but sometimes for the actor there’s nothing really personal to express because it’s been so generalized, especially for women,” she explains. “You’re pretty, funny, charming, scary, whatever. But Motherhood is a tiny subject. It’s one day in an ignored person’s life. And to me it had so much depth and meaning and familiarity. So at least I have kept alive in myself the ability to feel and honestly respond to things in an open way, and that movie is very much a result of that.”
In 1994 Thurman costarred with John Travolta in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. It was a film that, despite nonlinear storytelling and absurdist humor, earned seven Oscar nominations, relaunched Travolta’s career and had many in Hollywood calling it Thurman’s comeback. She was 24.
“I’m a really late bloomer,” she says, dragging on a post-breakfast Marlboro light. “Which is strange for someone who’s been professional since the age of 16. I don’t think I’ve necessarily gotten wiser. In fact, I’m amazed at how slow I think I still I am. But I think the tone and tenor of roles I might be able to play as an adult woman resonate with me so much more deeply than the ingénue roles ever could have. When you fi nally get as old as you felt when you were younger, you get young again.”
Styling by Vanessa Moore at Art Department
Hair by David Babaii for David Babaii for Wildaid
Makeup by Jeanine Lobell at The Magnet Agency
Manicure by Barbara Mutnick for artistsbytimothypriano.com