“It’s really nice to get such a pat on the back for the work that I’ve done. I’ve always liked material that people call quirky, odd and hard to make,” says Uma Thurman, recipient of the actor kudo at this year’s IFP Gotham Awards. (Past honorees include Frances McDormand, Kevin Kline and Christopher Walken.)
From a hitchhiking lesbian with elongated thumbs in “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues” to a thrill-seeking gangster’s wife in “Pulp Fiction,” the 31-year-old actress has never been hung up on playing America’s sweetheart, and her roles reflect her idiosyncratic spirit.
“Personally, I’m drawn to movies that aren’t built to please on every level,” says Thurman, who reportedly turned down the Kate Winslet role in “Titanic.” “I like to do films that question and probe. They can be just as entertaining but not as black-and-white in some ways.”
Named after the goddess of light and beauty in Indian mythology, the Boston-born actress began her career as a model (she posed for the cover of Vogue at 15). Well-regarded directors such as John Boorman, Terry Gilliam and Merchant Ivory, who’ve worked with her, are quick to mention that her stunning looks are accompanied by a fierce intelligence.
Past to the present
After starring in a pair of lavish period dramas (“Vatel,” “The Golden Bowl”), Thurman will be seen in contemporary roles in her three upcoming films.
In May, she co-stars with Juliette Lewis as a pair of neurotic Jersey girls in “Hysterical Blindness,” a black comedy for HBO directed by Mira Nair (“Mississippi Masala”).
“It’s a really odd piece, maybe more of a chartreuse comedy than black,” she says, with a laugh. “It was a lot of fun. I developed it from a play. I loved doing the accent and we shot in lovely Bayonne.”
But first up are two digital video collaborations with her husband, actor-helmer Ethan Hawke. In Richard Linklater’s “Tape,” the two star with Robert Sean Leonard as a group of Gen-Xers who reunite in a cheap Michigan motel room for the first time since high school to settle their dark, unresolved past. In Hawke’s directorial feature debut, “Chelsea Walls,” Thurman plays an aspiring poet who waits tables while pining for her next-door neighbor (Vincent D’Onofrio).
“These are even beyond independent films,” Thurman says. “They’re made for like a hundred grand each. With digital video, the lighting is so minimal and the camera is so flexible. You have to design the shots very cleverly but otherwise its incredibly loose.”
When asked if she prefers no-frills filmmaking to some of previous studio projects such as “Batman & Robin” and “The Avengers,” Thurman replies, “No frills acting is really what’s most exciting to me. Getting to just do things where you feel the blood flowing through the material. When we shot ‘Tape,’ it was like doing a play for a week but on a soundstage on 15th street. It was heavy on the acting, light on everything else. I love that.”
Thurman’s next big production is her pregnancy; already the mother of a 3-year-old daughter, she’s due to have a second child in January.
“I’m out of work at the moment,” she says. “Or hard at work, depending on how you look at it.”
In 2002, the actress will star as planned in “Kill Bill,” her second collaboration with Quentin Tarantino in which she’ll play a femme fatale who hunts down the men who have wronged her and kills them one by one.
In past interviews, Tarantino has compared his creative partnership with Thurman to Josef Von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich.
“I had so much fun working with Quentin,” she says. “He’s a great writer and I can’t wait to work with him again.”
As for future projects, look for Thurman to continue to segue between indies and studio efforts.
“It sounds like such a cliche, but it’s really all about the work and if the work is satisfying, then that’s it,” she says.