With a lifelong career of fantastic success, Uma Thurman is making choices to keep it real in life and onscreen.
Story by Dimitri Ehrlich
Photographs by Ben Watts / Art Mix Photography
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
Gotham Magazine hosted its latest issue featuring the current cast of Saturday Night Live at the Four Seasons Hotel on Monday, February 23.