Uma Thurman: A career with plenty of plot twists

The star of the Kill Bill films eludes Hollywood typecasting, but there's one role she loves: motherhood.

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Uma Thurman's rise to fame has been anything but ordinary. The daughter of a professor and model, she spent some childhood time in India and became a household name with the violent Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill series. Being a mother has softened the edges. Faisal al Yafai explains
"Now I wanna dance, I wanna win, I want that trophy. So dance good." With those words, Uma Thurman, barefoot, her hair styled in a simple black bob, her arms in a white shirt twisting to Chuck Berry, danced her way into public recognition, in a scene from Pulp Fiction that remains a cult classic.
Thurman's turn as a spoilt, pouting gangster's moll in Quentin Tarantino's violent, bloody, darkly comic gangster movie catapulted her into Hollywood's A-list. By the time Pulp Fiction was released in 1994, Thurman had been acting and modelling for six years but was still largely unknown.
Her portrayal of Cecile in Stephen Frears's Dangerous Liaisons brought her some recognition and her starring role in the 1993 adaptation of Tom Robbins's Even Cowgirls Get the Blues deserved a wider audience - but it was to be Pulp Fiction that was her breakthrough role, catapulting her to an Academy Award nomination.
But then - as with so much in Thurman's career - she did the unexpected.
But for someone with such an unusual backstory, a penchant for the unexpected should come as no surprise. The daughter of a respected professor of Indo-Tibetan studies at Columbia University, Buddhism played a central role in Thurman's early life and the actor spent some time living with her father in India. Robert Thurman, widely considered a US expert on Tibetan Buddhism, went on to found Tibet House, a charity dedicated to preserving Tibetan culture and on whose board his daughter now sits.
Thurman's remarkable looks can be attributed to her mother, a former model who was at one point married to the US counterculture author Timothy Leary. Thurman's looks, such an asset on screen, were the subject of playground teasing, a tall, awkward girl growing up on America's East Coast.
"People talk about beautiful actresses," Tarantino, the director whose roles for Thurman have most defined her career, told Time magazine. "Uma Thurman is a different species. She's up there with Garbo and Dietrich in goddess territory."
After the acclaim of Pulp Fiction, Thurman was expected to follow Tarantino and her co-star John Travolta to even greater Hollywood heights. Instead there followed some years of little-seen movies (Chelsea Walls, anyone?) and some best forgotten roles (as the leather-clad Emma Peel in The Avengers and Poison Ivy in the cartoonish Batman and Robin). At this point she took on the two roles that have defined her - a real-life role as mother to her two children, and a fictional role as the murderous Bride in the two volumes of Kill Bill.
Thurman's personal life has been much discussed by the celebrity media. She was just 20 when she was first married, to the English actor Gary Oldman, but they divorced a couple of years later. A few years later she married the actor Ethan Hawke, meeting him when they starred in the forgettable science-fiction film Gattaca. The film sunk but the marriage thrived and the couple went on to have two children.
Since her divorce from Hawke in 2004, she has been linked with various men, most seriously the French financier Arpad Busson, to whom she was engaged until late last year. The breakup with Hawke was played out through the media and Thurman learnt her lesson: she has since kept her liasons as private as possible, talking publicly about her children and role as a mother.
Motherhood seemed to suit Thurman and she has spoken in glowing terms about being a mother. "It's the greatest gift I've ever been given. Having children flips the game from being about you to about what you can create in a home and what your responsibilities are. I've thought about quitting acting, but I love what I do so much; it's the big conundrum of my life. So I'm fighting to keep my foot in the business, be creative and stimulated, and still take care of my children."
Those feet in the business, after the birth of her first child in 1998, were hardly critical successes. She received a Golden Globe in 2003 for Hysterical Blindness, a TV movie about a woman looking for love, but beyond that, very little of her cinematic work until 2003 was critically successful.
But in 2003 she exploded back on screen in her greatest success to date. Playing the Bride, the never-named protagonist of the cult blood-fest Kill Bill: Vol 1, brought her enormous box-office success as well as appealing to the cult demographic that Tarantino inspires.
The two films of Kill Bill revolved around the Bride's search for vengeance. Instead of the intricacies and pop-cultural references of Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill was mainly Thurman running around in a yellow track-suit wielding a Samurai sword. It was - as with so much of Tarantino's work - spectacularly bloody, riddled with violent humour. But Thurman played the Bride sympathetically so that, despite the violence she dishes out, the audience is on her side.
The constant in Thurman's career - apart from the propensity of the public to love her in her most violent roles - is how few memorable films she's made. She attributed this to her familial duties - after she separated from Hawke, she took most of the responsibilities of raising their two children herself. "Trying to raise kids on your own is not easy," she told a magazine last year. "It's why I haven't worked as much as I should or could have. It's why I haven't made a film in a year. But let's face it, whoever you are, a girl's got to make a living."
One of Thurman's latest movies, Motherhood, follows one day in the life of a New York mother, an aspiring writer who spends most of the movie trying to compose a short essay on the nature of motherhood, while battling the small tests of motherhood that make writing impossible. It opened to extraordinarily bad reviews: in Britain, it opened at just one cinema screen and grossed a worrying £88 (Dh509) on its opening weekend.
There is a certain irony in a film about Thurman's most successful real-life role becoming her least successful on-screen one. But Thurman has not fitted easily into Hollywood and has avoided the benefits of being typecast.
Thurman still has a long career ahead of her, though it could take off in any direction. She has not carved out a niche for herself in the way that so many actresses have. If she inhabits any such space within Hollywood it is as characters with the curious mixture of violence and vulnerability that she brought to Mrs Marsellus Wallace and the Bride.
Indeed, it is still possible she could return as the latter: last year, Tarantino told Italian TV that he might resurrect the Bride in a third installment of Kill Bill. "I love the character and I think she deserved 10 years of peace. She deserved 10 years with her child, Bibi. But after 10 years something will happen that makes her fight again."
What is certain, given her form, is that Thurman will one day return to the big screen to spill blood, her slim frame dishing out violence in the way only she can.