The Tao of Uma

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MATTHIAS CLAMER FOR TIME

Since the beginning of cinema, directors have been falling for their leading ladies. At least in this sense, Quentin Tarantino is a traditionalist. "People talk about beautiful actresses," says Tarantino. "Like Cameron Diaz — she's a beautiful girl. But I went to high school with three girls who look like Cameron Diaz. Uma Thurman is a different species. She's up there with Garbo and Dietrich in goddess territory." Like a 3-year-old, Tarantino demonstrates his affection through inventive cruelty. In Pulp Fiction he gave Thurman an adrenaline needle to the heart (a nice metaphor for love, Tarantino style). But that was a barrel of rose petals compared with what he cooked up for her in Kill Bill. "I get shot in the head, raped, kicked, beaten and sliced by samurai swords," says Thurman brightly. "The movie should have been called Kill Uma."

Thurman waited nine long years for the chance to be brutalized onscreen. After getting a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for Pulp Fiction in 1994, she performed with varying degrees of conviction in stiff period pieces (A Month by the Lake, The Golden Bowl), little-seen indies (Tape, Chelsea Walls) and a few conspicuously horrible blockbusters (Batman & Robin, The Avengers). "I never built a niche for myself," says Thurman a bit defensively. "Some of that was because I didn't want the niches I could have had — the romantic heroine, the victim, the girl who needs to be rescued. And some of it is because I didn't go to college and I saw the early part of my career as a chance to explore and develop. I didn't want to find something that works and just stick to it."


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At 33, Thurman is no longer in the early part of her career. She hasn't been in a multiplex movie since The Avengers in 1998 and admits she would like a defining film role. She couldn't have chosen a stranger one than the Bride, the nameless assassin in Kill Bill (the film will be released in two parts; Volume 1 will be out Oct. 10, and Volume 2 arrives in February 2004) whose mission is only slightly more complicated than the title. "It's a movie about a woman who challenges five people to duels. That's pretty much it," says Thurman. Whereas Pulp Fiction has three plots, Kill Bill barely has one; Tarantino created no layered subplots, no pathos and no circus of pop references to ground his movie in reality. "He is brilliant, but my job was to take this character out of his wildly creative, seemingly improvisational world and make her human. If the movie was going to be more than a cartoon, it was up to me."

Thurman helped design the greatest acting challenge of her career during a night out with Tarantino 10 years ago. "We were with people from the cast and crew of Pulp Fiction, just talking about revenge-genre filmmaking," she says, "batting ideas around." In a matter of minutes she and Tarantino came up with a plot idea: a pregnant female assassin tries to go straight, gets viciously attacked at her wedding, loses her baby, slips into a coma, recovers and goes on a trail of revenge. Tarantino was so excited by the premise that he went home and wrote nine pages of the script in a multicolored felt-tip frenzy.

Then nothing happened. Thurman married Ethan Hawke (the couple is currently separated; predictably, this is something Thurman would rather not discuss), and Tarantino went into a much publicized creative funk. "I had really sort of lost touch with him until we ran into each other at this party in L.A. a couple of years ago," says Thurman. "I asked him, 'What happened to those pages? Did you lose them?' He said he still had them in a drawer." A few months later, Thurman received a birthday note from the director promising a script within weeks. "That," she says, "went on for a year and a half."

Eventually Tarantino did get a script done and started preproduction, but by then Thurman was pregnant with her son Roan, now 20 months. (Thurman and Hawke also have a daughter Maya Ray, 5.) Tarantino, who likes to use nuclear hyperbole when mere exaggeration would do, says replacing Thurman with another actress was out of the question. "Would Sergio Leone have replaced Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars? Would von Sternberg have replaced Dietrich in Morocco?" he asks. "I knew how good she was going to be in this movie, so we waited."

When Thurman finally arrived on the Kill Bill set in March 2002, she was far less certain of her abilities. "First of all, he started the movie with my character accidentally and in self-defense killing a woman in front of her 4-year-old child," says Thurman. "You can't really stack the cards against a character much higher." There was also the matter of the martial-arts training Tarantino expected his leading lady — three months removed from childbirth — to endure. "Three styles of kung fu, two styles of sword fighting" — Thurman says this through pursed lips, as if she's going to spit--"knife throwing, knife fighting, hand-to-hand combat, Japanese speaking. It was literally absurd."

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