Uma Thurman has always been a standout. Her name, the whole 6-foot-tall thing, those arresting, angular features, all guaranteed she’d get noticed.
And she was—first by agents at age 15, then by director Terry Gilliam, who cast her as Venus, her first splashy film role, in “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.” Other films followed, some acclaimed (“Les Liaisons Dangereuses”), some not (“Mad Dog and Glory”). Then came Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction”—she played a sexy mob wife doing that dance with John Travolta, and earned herself an Oscar nomination. Since then she’s done her share of action flicks (“Batman & Robin,” “The Avengers,” “Kill Bill Vols. I and II”).
In her latest film, “The Life Before Her Eyes,” directed by Vadim Perelman, she and Evan Rachel Wood both play DianA. Wood is the wild-child high schooler whose life changes when a student opens fire at school, confronting Diana and her best friend, forcing them to make an impossible, split-second decision. Thurman is Diana 15 years later: an introspective suburban mom, still struggling with the tragedy.
Joseph V. Amodio sat down with Thurman recently to discuss adolescence, motherhood and meeting the Dalai Lama.
Q. Do you worry that people might think the film is exploitative? A school shooting—giving kids ideas.
A. I know what you mean—but the movie doesn’t really examine child violence. I don’t think any of us have a bleeding clue about that. It’s in the story, but what moved me was the friendship of the two girls. The way the writer articulated the often-painful experience of becoming a woman. The meanness toward young girls, older guys picking on them—pretty, easy targets. (She looks off.) These stories are shared by many women. My character didn’t just survive an act of violence—she had to survive coming of age.
Q. You have children ...
A. A girl who’s 9, a boy who’s 6. (Their father, Ethan Hawke, and Thurman divorced in 2004.)
Q. So you’ve got some time before the scary teen years.
A. I don’t look forward to it. I never liked myself or anyone else as a teenager. Puberty is a scary thing, a painful time.
Q. This film was shot in Connecticut—was that almost like going home?
A. Kind of. I grew up mainly in Amherst, Mass., and upstate New York. My father’s a professor, so sabbaticals (took us away). We went to India for a year. But I have sort of a fantasy of living in the suburbs. (She pauses.) I used to want to live in the country, but I think that’s unrealistic now.
A. Well, I have kids, and their dad lives here (in Manhattan) and ... a lot of issues. So my dream of doing that probably has been diminished.
Q. You’ve been busy—you shot “The Accidental Husband,” a romantic comedy with Colin Firth. And “The Zinc Bed,” a drug addiction drama by David Hare. And there’s “Eloise in Paris”—no drugs or painful adolescence there, I hope.
A. Noooo. “Eloise” is a bona fide, straight-up, delightful children’s movie. We shoot that this summer. But I’m about to start shooting “Motherhood,” a small movie I’m incredibly excited about. Anthony Edwards plays my husband. It’s a hellish day in the life of a New York mom, a woman with dreams and aspirations, not enough money, trying to raise kids in a fourth floor walk-up.
Q. I remember living in a fourth-floor walk-up, convincing myself it was great for fitness. Couldn’t wait for the day I moved into a building with an elevator.
A. When I was a teenager, I lived in walk-ups. The worst was always the suitcase moment. I was traveling all the time. I’d come home, get out of a taxicab—this is in the early days, coming back from France filming “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” or something—and there I am with three suitcases, trying to figure out how to get me and the bags up to the fourth floor. At midnight. And you’re exhausted. Uhhh! That’s a walk-up moment.
Q. I understand your dad is a renowned Buddhist scholar, and on occasion the Dalai Lama has visited your family. What’s he like? Do you sense ... greatness?
A. You sense the incredible beauty and serenity and intelligence. And a seriousness.
Q. It sounds like a special opportunity ... to hang with the Dalai Lama.
A. Well, you don’t really “hang” with the Dalai LamA. I, I certainly don’t. He’s very busy. The hardest part meeting him is when he looks you right in the eye and says, “Well, why have you come. What can I do for you?” And your mind goes completely blank. You’re suddenly thinking, “Oh, uh, I don’t know.”
Q. You’re thinking, “What’s my Big Question?”
A. Right. Then, you think, “What can he do for me?” I should do for him. (She laughs.)
Q. I suppose my big question is the one you likely dread. Your name—I’ve read all kinds of things. That you’re named after a Hindu goddess. Or it means “kiss” in Polynesian. You’re probably sick of it all. Can you set the record straight?
A. Ohhh. (She hangs her head back.) That’s been lingering for yeeears. (She pauses; then comes a faint smile.) I’m what my name means. It’s me. I think I’ve become it.