The Tao of Uma


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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."

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."

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