We’re waiting on the roof terrace of an exclusive French restaurant for the actress who’s been voted the sexiest woman in the world by Vogue magazine. She was here 10 minutes ago but the cool Mediterranean breeze was playing havoc with the slip of a dress she had on so she’s gone to change into something more “appropriate” – much to the dismay of the two journalists from Spain. Males, obviously.
Every since Uma Thurman starred opposite John Travolta in the wife-sitting-from-hell mission in Pulp Fiction, men have daydreamed about a night out – or in – with her (sans the heroin of course!). It’s ironic that Uma made such an impression when squeezed into that jet-black wig as she’s utterly gorgeous with her natural blonde hair – witness her latest movie, The Truth About Cats And Dogs, now on circuit in SA.
The testosterone-driven journalists from Spain can vouch for that. They fumble clumsily through introductions when 25-year-old Uma finally resurfaces. It’s a normal reaction. I once watched Robert De Niro reduced to schoolboy giggles when he had to address her at a press conference.
The script for Cats and Dogs called for someone “drop-dead gorgeous who, without even trying, can turn the most stalwart of men into helpless, eager-to-please bumpkins.” Enter Uma Thurman.
Now clad in anti-breeze jeans swathed in a long white cotton shirt and bereft of make-up, she still looks sexy. Damn. With exquisitely long, manicured fingers she tugs at the strands of blonde hair that blow across her face and apologizes for her tardiness with a smile that stretched further than her bank balance. Tucking her endless legs beneath her she sits down and fires up the first in a succession of cigarettes, admitting that she’s addicted, just as she’s addicted to water, air and conversation.
Aside from her amusing effect on men, Uma shares little else with her Cats And Dogs character, Noelle. While Noelle is confident about her looks but insecure about her mind, Uma is verbose on any topic under the French sun but insecure about her looks, describing herself as “oddball looking.”
Cats and Dogs is a Californian-style Cyrano De Bergerac (or Roxanne for the non-culture vultures) except this time around it’s two girls joining forces to seduce a guy. Abby (Janeane Garofalo) is a homely radio talk-show vet who borrows Noelle (Uma), her good-looking airhead neighbor, to pose as her to hook the unsuspecting Brian (Ben Chaplin). Cats and Dogs lulls its audience into a haze of romance and optimism. The movie takes a look at the nature of true beauty and the infinite possibilities offered by love and friendship, with a few truths about men and women emerging too.
Paying the delectable and ditzy Noelle took Uma back to a time when she was 16 and having to model and wash dishes to make a living while she waited for ehr big acting break. Although her mother was once Sweden’s top model and one of her best friends is Cindy Crawford, Uma is scathing of the ‘profession.’
“I found it a very uninteresting way to spend time. Modelling is basically about saying ‘buy more stuff – it’ll make you look ten years younger and guys will like you.’ If I had wanted to be a sales person, I would have got a job selling!”
Fortunately for esteemed directors who hanker to work with her and her millions of fans – many of them Playboy subscribers who voted her one of their ‘one-night-stand fantasies of the decade’ – repping was never high on Uma’s list of things-to-do-in-life.
“I started so young I never seemed to have the chance to make an adult decision about what I wanted to do. Acting snuck up on me and took me by surprise.” she explains.
As a child she’d loved acting in school plays and at 15 was “discovered” on stage in The Crucible by two New York agents. After an inauspicious start in a couple of her forgettable movies, she got her first big break in The Adventures Of Baron Munchausen and then shot to teen stardon in Dangerous Liaisons.
“All of a sudden I was a working actress without any benefit of drama training and a massive guilt complex about never finishing my education. I was brought up in a very academic environment and sent off to boarding schools. Films and plays were considered frivolous and empty, and I certainly never believed movies were the most interesting thing in the world.”
Her complex is understandable when you take a glance at her parents. Her mother got a degree in psychotherapy after her brief modelling stint had been followed by an even briefer marriage to ’60s drugs guru Timothy Leary. And her father, previously married to a New York heiress, is a professor of Eastern religions. He speaks Tibetan fluently and counts the Dalai Lama as a personal friend.
Uma and her three brothers were surrounded by academia, as their father’s job took them from one American university campus to the next and even to India in Uma’s first and 11th years. How their daughter turned out to be an actress will always mystify Mr and Mrs Thurman, but they’ve moved from Woodstock to New York to be closer to her.
Perhaps Uma became and actress because acting freed from her inhibitions. “I was an incredible self-conscious child, and just racked by all the things that were wrong with me.”
These things included her name. As a child she cursed her parents for naming her after a Hindu goddess – Uma means Bestower of Blessings, and Karuna, her second name, means compassion. She toyed with the idea of adopting names like Karen or Linda. She is, however, eternally grateful to her parents for giving her an outlook on life that is a million miles removed from the shallow values of Hollywood.
Uma has an aversion to Hollywood, sniping that “even the air is dishonest in LA,” though she isn’t repelled by Hollywood’s male stars. In her teens Uma was romantically linked with Nicolas Cage and Judd Nelson, and went so far as to tie the knot in September 1991 with Gary Oldman, her co-star in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. The marriage was doomed when, just weeks after the ceremony, Gary was arrested for drunk-driving after a night on the town with fellow bad boy Kiefer Sutherland.
For 18 months Uma suffered Gary’s wild parties, endless drinking and rumored affair with Winona Ryder. Finally she could take no mare and removed herself and her personal belongings out of their LA and London homes and back into her New York apartment. Gary and Uma were divorced in April 1993 and have kept to their pact to never discuss each other. All that Uma will say is that they’re still friends and that she greatly admires his acting. Gary has since quipped “you try living with an angel.”
The failed marriage left Uma emotionally bruised and she leaned heavily on her close-knit family for emotional support. “I did not feel light for a while. The girlish laughter had gone,” she says pensively.
But rather than shy away from another relationship with an actor, Uma rushed in where angels fear to bed, though this time she was more discerning. Sylvester Stallone asked for her phone number but didn’t get it. Allegedly, however, she did continue to play out romantic scenes with Robert De Niro long after the director of Mad Dog And Glory had shouted his final “cut”.
Then there were the rumors that she was secretly dating the then-married Richard Gere. The news hit the headlines after Gere and Thurman (co-stars in Final Analysis) were spotted dining out in a London restaurant. Gere retaliated with a faxed message to the tabloids declaring that they were old family friends – he a friend of her father’s and she a friend of his wife’s.
Following a brief interlude with a wealthy British publisher, Uma returned to the kind of man she knows best when she met actor Timothy Hutton in March 1995 on the set of the romantic comedy Beautiful Girls, in which they co-star. He moved into her apartment until Christmas, when she warned him that she had no desire to repeat another failed marriage. Tim huffed and puffed and moved on out, heartbroken. In January the relationship was back on the track and the two seemed firmly ensconced together at Beautiful Girls‘ premiere. Will they marry? Uma’s not saying and Tim’s afraid to bring the subject up.
Since becoming an unmarried woman once more, Uma has relished her freedom. “I’ve spent most of my time travelling,” she says. “I prefer being outside America. I find it stressful being in the States. I’ve been totally independent – just getting up and leaving everybody behind and flying off from one day to the next without stopping.” India retains a fascination for her. “It’s so real but I am not horrified by reality. There are people with their noses falling off from leprosy.”
Noses are of particular interest to Uma since her’s is rather prominent. “People used to look at me and wonder aloud if I should get a nose job,” she laughs incredulously. “Yet I’ve seen hundred of gorgeous girls who want to act but aren’t succeeding. Why? Because outer beauty alone obviously isn’t enough,” she states emphatically, echoing the maxim of Cats And Dogs: It’s what inside that counts.
And, as beautiful as Uma might be on the outside, she certainly doesn’t fall short on the “what’s inside” stuff either. After Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarantino observed that Uma was a “25-year-old with the soul of a 40-year-old.” Keanu Reeves wimped in after Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, saying he was terrified of her because “her character is so powerful,” and John Malkovich (Dangerous Liaisons) gasped admiringly that she has “a horrifyingly great brain.”
He added that she has “the body of Jayne Mansfield,” but Uma swears that directors prefer to use body doubles in scenes where she’s apparently baring all. “Oops,” she laughs loudly, “I suppose I out not to say that!” One suspects she deliberately let that one slip in yet another attempt to shake off the sex symbol tag she so detests.
Her physical sexuality is undeniable – 1,8 meters tall, willowy blonde with startling blue eyes and lips made for kissing – but equally alluring is her wit, sarcasm and honesty. This is a girl who seldom goes to the cinema “because I’d rather talk to my friends that sit in silence with them during a movie,” and who’s never thrown a spoilt-star tantrum on set.
“The way one is, is a decision – right? Behavior is a choice. Sometimes you go crazy, someone drives you nuts or something, but if someone’s at the point when they can’t decide any more, then they’re in trouble,” she laughs. It’s a breathy laugh that’s picked up by the breeze and floats across the terrace far out to sea. Where it goes, nobody knows. And where Uma’s future lies, nobody will know until she gets there. She has no career strategy.
“I think a life is made up of a lot of things, not just a career, and it’s very unfortunate that these days everyone values their whole life through their work. For me there are a lot of things that are fulfilling – you don’t make money out of them necessarily and you don’t get patted on the back for them, but they’re actually what matters in life.”
And that’s the truth from Uma Thurman.
PERSONALITY February 28 1997