Garbo, Dietrich, Bacall. . .Thurman. The exquisite star of Pulp Fiction and the about to be released Beautiful Girls is possessed of a chameleon, otherworldly quality that transcends her physical appeal and acting talent. ALEX SCHOUMATOFF explores Thurman's world-her unconventionally brilliant family, her stormy marriage to hard-living Gary Oldman, and her uneasy relationship with her own erotic power.
Uma Thurman is doing one of her favorite things-ordering up a storm and eating ravenously-at Orso, a small, celebrity-frequented restaurant on West 46th Street. She selects a Venegazzù Capo di Stato Loredan Gasparni '90, and comments on the play she has just seen: Harold Pinter's Moonlight, his first major effort since 1978. She loved the dialogue, "Pinter uses a lot of eight-dollar word," she says admiringly. "He's so on point." This exquisite creature seems to have it all: she's frighteningly intelligent, funny, sweet, unaffected; she has poise and glamour of the young Bacall, the smoky mysteriousness of Garbo, and, on top of everything she knows her vini rossi. Halfway into the bottle, Uma confesses an ambition to direct someday. Ted Demme, the director of her new movie, Beautiful Girls, says, "Without a doubt she should direct. She had incredible ideas on the set. She helped me figure out what the characters and the movie were about." Uma also has "a dream to do theater, especially Ibsen, but basically I've become intimidated because I haven't exercised the different muscles that performance acting is about, and have kept busy doing films."
There have been 14 of them since Uma has left a Massachusetts boarding school after her sophomore year and came to New York nine years ago. Some of the films bombed, but that hasn't seem to matter. She took roles from which she could learn, gravitating toward European and experimental projects. and invariably performed with such intelligence that moviegoers are beginning to see beyond the incredible sexiness of her early performances and her staggering Pre-Raphaelite beauty to the versatility and tremendous potential of her talent. Of late she's been working on her comedic technique, which is displayed in her new movie, The Truth About Cats and Dogs, and in last fall's delightful A Month By The Lake, with Vanessa Redgrave and Edward Fox.
As she leaves, Uma stops to chat with Steve Martin. Outside the door she pauses for a smoke (this is Uma's one vice: a pack-a-day cigarette habit). A huge, muscular white Labrador, straining at a leash, practically dragging its master, comes up the street. Its master asks if she wants to see the dog smile, and the Lab obliges with a big, toothy grin. Uma gushes with admiration.
Putting on her eyeglasses, she takes off down the street, and within 30 feet she has undergone an astonishing transformation: the heart-stopping beauty has become at tall, plain, gangly blonde in brown slacks and a jacket who turns no heads. (She disputes this quick-change artistry involves "desexualization." "I don't have to do anything. I'm half boy to begin with.") She seems to relish her anonymity in Times Square. Uma is in her element here. "The highlight of my growing up was going into the city," she tells me. (Most of her childhood was spend in Amherst, Massachusetts, where her father was a professor of religion at Amherst College.) "Manhattan was the home of my dreams. The beautiful campuses my father worked on were like playgrounds, and New York is like a grand-scale campus, with every kind of life. But it can also be an exhausting place. It's almost like a purgatory. You have to have a lot of people praying for you to get out."
Uma stops at a phone booth to retrieve calls on her answering machine at her latest loft, and soon we are heading downtown in a cab, to join her brothers Ganden and Dechen at a pub on St. Marks Place. It's a lively young crowd-the latest crop of creative types to hit the East Village. Dechen, an intense, appealing 22-year-old actor-director, is having a deep discussion with a playwright whose production he is directing at an Off Off Broadway theater. Dechen would be a great Hamlet, though he hasn't played him yet. Ganden, five years older, a courtly computer whiz and self-described "carpetbagger on the infobahn," invites at cute girl from Queens sitting alone at the bar to join us. The third brother, Mipam, is probably up at their parents' apartment on Riverside Drive, doing his homework. Mipam is only 17 but six feet four, and with his chiseled features and shoulder-length blond hair, he looks like the young Thor. The four siblings all have Tibetan names because their father, Robert A.F. Thurman, the Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, was the first American to be ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist monk (by the Dalai Lama in 1965) and is America's foremost Tibetan Buddhist scholar. Her three siblings are Uma's best friends. Pretty soon Uma, sitting on a stool behind Dechen, has parted his hair and is lovingly massaging his head.
The Thurmans are unconventional and brilliant. Uma's close friend the screenwriter Adam Brooks aptly describes them as a "novelistic" family. Uma's maternal grandmother, Brigit Holmquist, was a famous Swedish beauty; a huge nude statue of her graces the southern port of Trelleborg. In the 30s she went to Berlin and fell for the monocled Westphalian baron Karl von Schlebrugge, who was 20 years her senior. (Uma is unimpressed by her titled ancestry: "I find this obsession with lineage ridiculous and rather pathetic," she tells me.) The baron was jailed by the Nazis for refusing to denounce his Jewish business partners, and Brigit and he eventually decamped for Sweden, then Mexico-where Uma's mother, Nena, was born-then Peking. Nena returned to Stockholm, and there, in 1955, she was spotted in a yard of high-school girls by Norman Parkinson, the famed photographer for British Vogue. "The idea of being a model would never have occurred to me," Nena remembered. "I thought of myself as an ugly duckling because I was nearly six feet tall, but it so happened that I was 16 I started to feel very restless." So Nena went to London, and within the year Eileen Ford had invited her to come to Manhattan, where she quickly became one of the city's top fashion models. "Salvador Dali and I became great buddies," she said. "I would sit around at the St. Regis with him and meet weird people." In 1964, Nena married the LSD guru Timothy Leary, who was 20 years older than she. Nena says now, "My parents divorced when I was six, and Leary was the missing daddy I was trying to supply myself with. Once I understood it was a daddy trip, it was over."
Uma's father, Bob, was the son of a New York actress, Elizabeth Farrar, and he grew up reading the big parts - Hamlet, Macbeth, Coriolanus. He speaks in a rich, resonant tenor, and like all great teachers, he has a flair for the dramatic. "That Uma has made it big-time in the movies is a tribute not only to her own hard work and bravado but to the natural charisma of the family," Dechen reflected, "to Tenzin's oratorical skills [Bob is known to the family and intimates by his monk's name, Tenzin] and his way of being at ease whether he is lecturing 10 or 10,000 people, and to Nena's beauty and cleverness."
A brilliant student, Bob went to Harvard, where he met his first wife, Christophe de Menil, of the Houston oil and art-collecting family; he was 19, she 26. But that didn't last, and Bob took off for India with some buddies on motorcycles. There he met the Dalai Lama, learned Tibetan in three months, and was ordained a monk. Returning to America, he was invited to lecture on the dharma at the Hitchcock estate in Millbrook, New York, where Timothy Leary was presiding over a wild tripping scene, and there he met Nena, who was trying to extricate herself from her marriage to Leary. Even with his head shaved, Bob was captivating, and he possessed the spiritual knowledge that Nena had been longing for. In 1966, Bob renounced his robes, and after Nena obtained a divorce from Leary, the two were married.
Uma was born on April 29, 1970, "just as spring was blossoming. She was absolutely perfect, radiant from birth," Bob told me, "a little postmature, so there wasn't a wrinkle on her skin, and her hair was fully grown in. 'Uma' means 'the Middle Way' in Tibetan and is the name of the mother goddess in Indian mythology. It's actually 'UmA."' As Uma herself understands it, "Uma is the reincarnation of Parvati and means 'May She Not Suffer,' Parvati having committed suicide in her previous life. It's a primal sound. It means 'horse' in Japanese, 'grandmother' in some other language-I'm not sure which. It's the feminine prefix in another."
The Thurman children grew up in a revolving extended family of Eastern holy men, dharma students, Tibetan refugees, and dogs. They did two stints in India, when Uma was just a year old and again when she was 11. Nena brought them up according to Swedish and Buddhist principles. "I raised them from early on to be independent, to think for themselves and make their own decisions," she explained. "So there were always discussions-and squabbling. Squabbling was encouraged." Because they subscribe to the Buddhist notion of reincarnation, Bob and Nena believed their children came into the world with certain established personality traits, the end products of many other lives. "From early on we raised them to see themselves as the extraordinary individuals that they are," said Nena. "There is a verse in the Tao Te Ching that pretty well summarizes how we view our role: parents are like innkeepers at the crossroads, and children are the travelers who use the facilities and move on."
"They were more like zookeepers," Uma says, laughing, when I run this by her. "Both my parents have a great deal of respect for human beings, and we were brought up with the understanding that we were not their possessions, just these little animals, these little people, in their keeping. As for reincarnation, I have no sense of what I might have been before. I don't fall into this frothy otherworldliness. I'm not saying I disbelieve reincarnation; it's just not something that is a big issue for me. It seems as feasible as heaven and hell."
But perhaps this unusual child-rearing philosophy explains how Uma has managed to be financially independent and calling her own shots since the age of 15. Harvey Weinstein, the co-chairman of Miramax, which put out three of her last four films, has told a story of Uma's refusing a $2 million role that involved little more than standing around and looking decorative. "Young people admire her guts and integrity," Bob told me. "She isn't your usual blind-ambition type."
"Uma always seemed to know what she wanted to from the day she was born, practically," Nena told me. "Her sense of destiny was very much in place. She took acting classes and was in lots of plays. I tried to keep her back as long as I could, but when she started to show signs of the family restlessness, I really didn't feel I could say no, because I had done the same thing myself."
Uma unlocks the door to her loft, and we are greeted by Muffy, her purple-tongued, seven-year-old chow. She refills Muffy's dish with Evian and brews a pot of Chinese white tea. It's a big space, but the furnishings are spare. "I haven't moved in yet," she explains, "and am probably not going to be here much longer. In nine years I've lived in many strange places, about-let's see-eight I'm still nomadic, constantly shedding skin and home and trying over." I browse among the books that line one wall. Uma is a big reader; she loves Jane Austen. There are piles of scripts. On one shelf is a little box containing the ashes of Chi Chi, Uma's beloved Siamese cat, who lived with her for 21 years and died a few months ago.
"Socially I was not very confident and quite shy when I was growing up," she admits. "I went to a lot of schools, kept being changed from public to private ones, so I was often the new kid on the block. I found in acting a place where I could express myself free from my own inhibitions. I loved going to any performance-music, dance-was just transfixed, and my grandmother having been an actress made the vocation imaginable, feasible."
At 14, Uma entered the Northfield Mount Hermon School, half an hour north of Amherst. It has a different ethos from that of most New England prep schools and is known for its tolerance of nonconformity, as a place where kids can be themselves. But, even so, Uma hated it. Awkward, alienated, taller than most of her peers, she was unpopular and wasn't regarded as anything special in the looks department. "Adolescence," she now reflects, "is a painful time for everyone." That summer she went to New York with her best friend and took acting classes and did some modeling. Then she returned to the school and played Abigail in
The Crucible. The performance was noticed by some talent agents who had come up from New York, and they offered to send her to acting school. So, with this encouragement, Uma headed for the big city. To pay the rent, she modeled. A few introductions from her mother were all she needed to get signed by the Click agency and launched. Before long she was in Glamour magazine and was being shot by the top photographers-Arthur Elgort, Patrick Demarchelier, Sheila Metzner.
But her real interest, of course, was movies, and she broke into them with impressive ease. Within the year (1987) she had played the lead-a vamp who seduces, then robs, men-in a low-budget film noir originally called A Rose by Any Other Name and renamed Kiss Daddy Goodnight, "to make it more juicy," and had participated in a crude teen comedy called Johnny Be Good.
Terry Gilliam was looking for someone who resembled Botticelli's Venus for his new movie, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and he chose Uma, who made an unforgettable appearance as the naked goddess of love-strategically shielded by her long flowing hair-rising on a half-shell. She was 171/2. "I remember her mother was on the phone trying to get her to go back to high school, trying to get her back to a normal life, although I don't know if she ever had one," Gilliam recalled on the phone from London. "I said, 'Too late, Uma. You've got your clothes off. You're a fallen woman.' She was very nervous, having never done a nude scene. The technicians were all up on the scaffolding with their jaws dropping, so I had her look right into the camera, and she came through with wonderful innocence and directness."
Gilliam continued: "She has the ability to get people wound up, slightly wrong-footed. I'd look over between shootings and she'd be cuddled up in a corner like a little girl. An hour later she'd be sitting in a bar, this gorgeous woman. Her beauty depends on the angle you're looking from. From certain angles it falls apart very quickly, you see the ugly duckling lingering, but from some angles she appears the most stunning thing on the planet. She was freaked out by all the lusting after her, but on one side she liked it. She had a low opinion of modeling, but how much higher, really, are movies?"
Uma's move to Manhattan was a catalyst for the rest of the family. Bob recalls that he was "chafing somewhat in the comfortable provinciality of Amherst. It was time to return to my mother city." Besides, he needed graduate students to help him translate the 5,000-volume Tanjur collection of the scientific works of the Indian masters.
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen didn't hit screens until 1989, and there were problems in the way it was released, Uma tells me, "which was a pity, because it is an extraordinary movie." It was actually Dangerous Liaisons, shot a few months later but released the previous year and with far more eclat, that presented Uma as a fresh talent to the industry and the media. The prestigious mainstream movie of 1988, it starred John Malkovich, Glenn Close, and Michelle Pfeiffer. Just 18, Uma played Cecile de Valonges, an innocent convent girl whose virtue is stolen and reputation ruined by Malkovich's reptilian Viscount Valmont. The scene where she tears off her nightgown, exposing her breasts, and Malkovich brushes his lips down her heaving torso and says, "Now I think we might begin with one or two Latin terms," became the most talked-about footage of the year.
"That showing part of human body would have such an overwhelming effect and be the cause of such insane media amazed me. It was a shocking thing to be ripped out of my innocence, and suddenly put up as some kind of hot thing that had absolutely no translation for me in my vernacular whatever. It sort of stunned me," Uma laments.
In addition, Uma's love scenes with Maria de Medeiro's Anais Nin in 1990's Henry & June were among those that resulted in its being the first film awarded an NC-17 (No Children Under 17 Admitted) rating. By now Uma, far from her intentions, had become a classic Hollywood sex symbol. "We were deluged with phone calls and had to unlist our number," Bob Thurman told me. "People of various stripes kept trying to gain access to her through us. Weird people have fallen in love with her image. One guy from Brooklyn kept writing letters for a year. We kept ignoring them and letting them pile up. Finally he sent a switchblade with a note that said, 'Is this what you want me to do? Kill myself?'"
All this freaked Uma out. She started wearing baggy clothes and backed off the movie career. "I preferred not to work if I was going to be pigeonholed as the sexual flavor of the month," she explains. "I had too much respect for acting." She claims to be unaware that there are all these people out there fantasizing about her, but if there are, she shrugs it off. "We're human beings. We fixate, we dream. That's kind of what keeps us going."
Another reason Uma dropped out of sight was that she was involved in a turbulent relationship with actor Gary Oldman, whom she married in 1991 She now regards it as "a mistake, but you know, what can I say? He's a truly great actor. We met when I was 18. He was 12 years older. It was a crazy love affair that ended, as it needed to. He was my first love. I had no prior experience."
Was this, by any chance, a daddy trip? I asked.
"Not unless it was to make my father mad," her droll laugh slowly rises into the upper rafters.
Terry Gilliam recalled seeing the two of them at party for Bram Stroker's Dracula. "There was a great change in Uma. She seemed to be drawn to difficult people-maybe she was trying to prove something-and had somehow aged overnight, lost her youth, which she has since regained."
The marriage began to crumble after the fast-living Oldman was arrested for drunken driving. As a friend told an interviewer, "Gary will always be crazy. It takes a special kind of woman to put up with him." Oldman, for his part, likened Uma to Venus. "You try living with an angel!" he once groused.
Uma bounced back, doing three films in quick succession: Final Analysis, Jennifer Eight, and Mad Dog and Glory. In Mad Dog and Glory she played Glory, whom she describes as "an indentured servant, an unsophisticated, working-class South Side Chicago girl desperately trying to get some control over her life." Her co-star was Robert DeNiro.
"Everything I had heard about DeNiro, that he was totally concerned with himself, was opposite to my experience," she goes on. "He gave everything to me as a performer, shouted at me off-camera till he was hoarse to get me into the emotional state that the scene required and that I was struggling to get to. He was an absolutely pure and pristine professional, an actor who demands total concentration on the work. There is a wonderful empowerment, once he sets foot on the set, that he brings to any project. We became friends, though contrary to rumor never an item."
Final Analysis, with Richard Gere and Kim Basinger, was a lame Vertigo rip-off whose only saving grace was Uma. "It was bizarre, almost surreal, to work with Richard as an actress because of knowing him as a person," Uma recalls. They first met in the mid-1980s at the Thurmans' bohemian retreat in Woodstock, when Richard (himself a student of the Dalai Lama) and Bob Thurman decided to found Tibet House New York, an organization that promulgates Tibetan culture and occupies a brownstone on East 32nd Street in Manhattan. "Richard was horrified that I was hell-bent to be an actress." Whenever Richard and Uma are spotted having dinner, which is maybe once every two years, the tabloids go into a frenzy, but Uma emphasizes they're just friends.
Uma resumes her saga. "Then I took a lot of time off. I was 22 and had just spent almost a concentrated year of my life working solid. I felt completely washed clean. Whatever I had to offer had been excavated and spent. I needed to take a break; I didn't want the memories of my early 20s to be in a trailer, eating catered food. I was still pretty much sort of single and getting over Gary. My ambition was just to be free and young. Whether or not I dated, I needed a lot of space around me. I wasn't ready to go back into anything serious."
"I thrashed out whether I should go to college," she continues. "I had chosen this career as a young teenager, and the decision of a 16-year-old person is a lark, not a mature person's all-things-taken-into-consideration epiphany. But in the end I decided to stick with it. Gus Van Sant was making a movie out of Tom Robbins's novel Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, which I had read and loved as a teenager, so I jumped when he offered me the role of Sissy Hankshaw." This was Uma's first lead in a major film.
Uma performed with her usual aplomb, but, as she explains, "the script never really worked. It was just one of those things that was really ambitious, an adventure into unpaved area, one of those kinds of chances that I take. Sissy is a very Zen character. She is always observing, a witness to her own story, and there are many scenes when I don't speak. It's difficult to make a film where the central character is not active."
Reached at his home in Portland, Oregon, Van Sant explained why he had picked Uma for the role of Sissy: "She was very exotic, a kind of self-taught girl. Sissy is described in various ways, and one of the ways to go was a presence that Uma had. Uma is somewhat otherworldly, a kind of divine presence."
Uma survived Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, but, as she puts it, "every time you haven't worked in a while and you do a bomb, it's like pouring cold water on yourself." A year went by, and nothing materialized. Finally, Quentin Tarantino sent her a script called Pulp Fiction. Uma had qualms when she first read it. "I didn't get it at first, but when I met Quentin, I realized he was an artist who was using violence and profanity in a painterly way, not a brutal, ghoulish one, like the bold colors of the pulp fiction of the 30s, so people could experience it but not have to confront it."
Tarantino and Uma, too, have been linked romantically, but Uma says there is nothing to it. ("I've been linked to everybody I ever had coffee with.") "The great thing about Tarantino is that he listens to his own instincts and does what he wants, including casting me as Mia Wallace, the coke-snorting failed-actress gangster's wife who is a handful, like a cat in a bag." The movie earned Uma a best-supporting-actress Oscar nomination. She stunned the audience at the awards ceremony in a Prada gown; she came with her father.
There was a certain satisfaction to her success in this comic role after being turned down by Brian De Palma for The Bonfire of the Vanities. De Palma had said, "Uma's a great actress, but she isn't comedic. She didn't have the comic timing-you either have it or you don't. Tom [Hanks]'s a natural comedian, and he wasn't able to play off her." Those were fighting words. She showed him.
Besides her family, Uma has a small group of intimate friends. Among them are Uma's acting coach Cindia Huppeler and her husband. One day, on the way up to the loft, we stop at an antiques store to pick up a silverware set Uma has bought for her godson, the Huppelers' 16-month-old son, Edgar. Later that afternoon the Huppelers drop by. A graduate of the Drama Division of the Juilliard School, Cindia is classically trained, and she finds Uma "a complete delight to work with because she's so open and keen on learning. She's really quite chameleon-like. I've been working with her for eight years. The relationship really became grounded with Henry & June. We had a whole discussion about how the character would breathe differently from herself. Both smoked, so that was a start."
In A Month by the Lake, filmed on Lake Como during the summer of 1994, Cindia helped Uma with the period upper-class American accent and mannerisms required to become Miss Beaumont, a bratty, petulant, self-absorbed young woman who has just been expelled from a Swiss boarding school and hired as a nanny. Uma gives "such a large, animated performance for the screen," Cindia tells me. "Most don't dare go that far." The movie's star, Vanessa Redgrave, told the Los Angeles Times that Uma was "special-a fantastically good actress as well as being very beautiful. She has a marvelously individual sense of character and comedy."
Cary Woods, the producer of Beautiful Girls and one of Uma's early agents (she is now with CAA's Bryan Lourd), has known her since a few months before she turned 17. "My initial reaction was I'm not interested in meeting some 16-year-old model from New York. But everybody kept telling me she was really special, and she was. She was astonishingly poised and confident for her age, just the way she is now. I don't think there was a time from when she came to town that people didn't consider her something special as an actress. The feedback on Uma was always these glowing things. When men fall in love with Uma, her image is 30 percent of the package. It's the other 70 percent-something much deeper than her beauty-that sends you off the deep end."
Back at her loft Uma pours more tea and fires up a Marlboro Light. "I feel much more childlike enthusiasm now," she tells me. "I was definitely much older and more tired when I was 19. I guess I'm a late bloomer; at 25 I feel like I'm finally just coming out of my teens. I need to raise the stakes now, to become more disciplined. I've been too much like a monkey with a typewriter. At the moment I'm looking for some interesting kind of character to sink my teeth into."
Last spring Uma was supposed to start shooting a movie in which she was to play the young Marlene Dietrich. She naturally possesses some of Dietrich's sultry allure, and this would have been the perfect role for her, but Louis Malle, the director, became seriously ill and has been unable to work. Uma says she wouldn't think of doing Marlene without him-he had a completely original take on her-but, as Adam Brooks pointed out, Uma has many years to play Marlene. Terry Gilliam remarked that "being so smart could be Uma's downfall, because acting is about letting go of control." But Uma, in fact, dreams of someday tackling a role that requires her to really bare her soul.
The topic of her love life is clearly irksome. "There's someone I've been seeing for six months, that's about it," she reveals reluctantly. Could that someone be Timothy Hutton? She nods. The gossip columns this summer were buzzing with tidbits about Uma and Tim frolicking in the Hamptons. "I don't really talk about any of that stuff. Let them write what they want. Most of the things you just ignore. You don't let anything filter into your life- you pack yourself in cotton." (In fact, Tim and Uma were in the process of breaking up, and they are no longer seeing each other.) When I ask whether she sometimes feels that she gives so much of herself on the screen that she doesn't have much left for love or her personal life, she says, "I wouldn't blame the work. Everybody has to work on the planet, most probably a lot harder than I have ever had to and for a lot less, so I find it hard to hide behind that. You learn as much as you can from every relationship-most aren't meant to last a lifetime-and you keep looking for the one."
I ask if there is a danger in acting of losing track of who you are. I mention a remark by Peter Sellers her father told me about. Sellers lamented that he had played so many roles that he no longer knew who he was, and Bob Thurman said it was unfortunate that Sellers had been upset about this, because "that statement is the very definition of enlightenment. Selflessness-the central concept of Buddhism," he explained, "doesn't mean that you don't have a self, but that you understand the self is a constantly changing, interdependent process, that you don't have a fixed, rigid identity. Selflessness erodes racism, sexual and nationalistic differentiation. There is no male or female self in relationships, for instance." It was natural for actors to be drawn to Buddhism, he went on, because "flexibility of the self is an important professional tool for the actor, who must have the ability to develop many identities."
Uma says she isn't a Buddhist, although she has learned a lot from her exposure to Buddhism through her father. "I'm not particularly religious. I'm more of a cultural intriguist." She agrees flexibility is an invaluable quality for an actor to possess, not just for slipping into your character, but because "you put a tremendous amount of energy and love into a project, and it just evaporates. This has happened to me a lot. You have to absorb a lot of praise and criticism and rejection and separation. It teaches you a lot about letting go and getting your ego out of it, because it's not about you."