The Tao of Uma

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MATTHIAS CLAMER FOR TIME

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Thurman's statuesqueness has been an eye-drawing asset in previous performances, but it was a serious impediment to learning how to beat the life out of people. "My body type is the opposite of all the people who created these arts," she says. "They have a low center of gravity; they're compact. Then there's me. I'm like 5 ft. 11 in., all arms and legs, with a 2-ft. neck." The first time Thurman swung the 10-lb. samurai sword her character uses in Kill Bill's climactic duel, she hit herself in the head and nearly burst into tears. "At first I just lied to myself. I said, 'Obviously he sees this is going to be impossible for me, and he'll figure out a way to fake it.'"

Instead Tarantino told her to suck it up. "Before this movie," he says, "Uma's way of training was to smoke half a pack of cigarettes as opposed to a pack, all right? She started the training 30 lbs. overweight from the baby, and she was really intimidated, but no way were we going to use quick cuts or CGI [computer graphics imaging]. Not in this movie." By the third week of her three-month training with master Yuen Wo-ping (of The Matrix fame), Thurman learned to treat the fight sequences like dance choreography, and things began to click. "Yeah, but once she got all the choreography down, we threw it all out," says Tarantino, laughing. "When it came to the actual bits in the movie, we just made the s___ up the day we were shooting. That caused her a bit of chagrin."

Of course, Thurman was also supposed to be generating a character amid all the physical mayhem. Tarantino tried to guide her performance with an avalanche of Hong Kong cinema and female-samurai movies, but, says Thurman: "As much as he might have wanted me to see stuff, I wanted to make something new." So director and actress argued almost daily about just how to portray the Bride, with Thurman lobbying (often successfully) for everything from wardrobe changes to dialogue rewrites. "Quentin's actually kind of great to argue with," says Thurman. "He's a tough character, but he's not stupid, and he grants it when you score a point." Still, during the eight weeks of shooting required for Kill Bill's 20-minute finale — a blood orgy that pits the Bride against O-Ren Ishii (played by Lucy Liu) and 88 yakuza — Thurman confesses, "I kind of treated it like a silent film."

Ultimately, the only analogous performance in recent movie history is Sigourney Weaver's turn as the avenging warrior matron in Aliens. But whereas Weaver clenched her jaw, widened her eyes and depended on a giant space monster to provide the fear, Thurman sometimes is the thing to fear. Even though the reasons for the Bride's revenge spree are well set up, there are moments when Thurman portrays her as a beast who has tasted blood and might like more. Certainly there are also plenty of scenes in which Thurman seems to be holding herself together by the memory thread of her murdered child. Overall, it's a rich, nuanced performance in a movie that has lots of visual candy but no other source of depth.

Thurman's next two films are Paycheck, an action movie co-starring Ben Affleck, and Accidental Husband, a romantic comedy with Brendan Fraser. Unless you watch a lot of Pax, neither could be considered remotely unconventional, but Thurman says she has come to terms with doing leading-lady work in formula studio movies. "There are times when there's nothing more fun," she says. "It's like being asked to come and ice a cake for somebody." But she clearly views Kill Bill as the achievement she intended it to be. "I am really so happy with it," she says. "And so happy that it's over."

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