Uma’s Grand Debut
“I’ve been chomping at the bit to get back to acting,” says Uma Thurman. While the 6-foot-tall actress has appeared in dozens of movies and television shows over the first 25 years of her career, from “Dangerous Liaisons” (1988) to “Pulp Fiction,” (1994) to “The Producers” (2005) to “Smash” (2012)—earning Oscar, Golden Globe and Emmy nominations along the way —she has worked far more sporadically since her daughter Luna (from actor-director Arpad Busson) was born five years ago.
In her 47 years, Uma Thurman has seemingly lived numerous lifetimes. Born in Boston, she grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts—along with siblings, Ganden, Dechen, and Mipam—where the Dalai Lama would visit her father, the famed Buddhist scholar, Robert Thurman, and her mother, Nena, a fashion-model-turned-psychotherapist who had been previously married to Timothy Leary.
She came to New York as a teenager, where after a brief modeling career, she began acting in films at age 16. For all her prodigious talent, though, her personal life has made the statuesque, startlingly beautiful actress almost as famous as her films; most notably, her marriages to actors Gary Oldman and Ethan Hawke and her romance with hotelier André Balazs But now, Thurman (also mother to Maya, 19, and Levon, 15, from ex-husband Ethan Hawke) is back in the spotlight. She has four films in production and is taking her first turn on Broadway as Chloe, the deceptively smart political wife in “The Parisian Woman,” by Beau Willimon (“House of Cards), about political maneuvering in Washington, D.C.
How did you make the transition from modeling to acting?
I was in boarding school in Boston and needed spending money, so my mother suggested I become a model. And then it just happened that my modeling agent decided to open an acting agency and asked me to join it. So I thought, “that’s perfect.” By the time I was 16, I had already made a couple of movies, and then everything changed when I made “Dangerous Liaisons.” I was only 18 when that film came out.
Now, it’s almost 30 years later, and you’re finally making your Broadway debut. What took so long?
First of all, this is something I’ve wanted to do for years; in many ways, it was just circumstances that prevented it from happening. But I admit some of it was my own hemming and hawing about getting onstage. Ultimately, all of my life experiences have delivered me here right now. My youngest child is now 5, and I feel it’s finally the right time to take back my passion for acting.
So how did you actually end up in “The Parisian Woman”?
A couple of years ago, my lawyer suggested I meet this great stage director, Pam MacKinnon, who was also his client. And we got along enormously well and talked a lot about me making the transition from film acting to stage acting. At the end of our meeting, I told her, if you have any ideas, just point me to something. And then she paused and said she was working on something with a great writer. She didn’t say what it was. And I couldn’t believe it when she sent me the Beau Willimon script. I read it in one gulp and knew I wanted to do it.
Are you scared at all about taking on this challenge?
Of course. I am terrified about the results. Even before rehearsals started, I had all those famous actors’ nightmares and woke up in the sweat of anxiety. Some people have tried to scare me about Broadway, but I figure if you get torn to pieces, it should be by the finest people in the world. But I also often forget what I can do until I do it. I also know I am the luckiest person alive to be directed by Pam, to have Beau writing this script and to be working with great actors like Josh Lucas and Blair Brown.
Tell me what you love most about your character, Chloe?
I think she is fascinating, because she is so liberated in her life, in a way not many women are. It’s not often you see women pictured in such a multidimensional way. I also love the unusual depiction of marriage and what the play says about love.
The play is set during the Trump presidency, and Beau is going to constantly update the script as things happen in real life. How do you feel about that idea?
That’s an added pressure. With all the things going on, there’s no telling if the play will just be adjusted a little every week or if it could turn into large, even full-scale renovation. It’s possible things will get so crazy that we’ll just have a TV on the stage running CNN, and we all will just be talking back to it!
Do you have role models in your profession?
Don’t laugh, but Doris Day was one of my true heroes. If I could have lived in any other time in history, and if I could’ve been Doris Day, I would have taken it. Of course, I admire so many working actresses, especially Meryl Streep and Sissy Spacek.
How does being a mother affect playing a woman like Chloe?
Motherhood has been my master in the best sense of the word. But I believe that the concept of living for yourself is just as valid. I admire Chloe, who hasn’t suffered over the decision she made in not having had children.
Your daughter Maya is following in your professional footsteps. Are you happy about that?
She’s conquering the world and having this meteoric rise in acting. I will admit I wanted her to get a bachelors of arts from a traditional college rather than going to Juilliard, and I was not listened to. As a parent, you have to guess what’s best for your children, and I may have guessed wrong. In fact, I’ll be happy if she proves me wrong. I am not the author of her life, and, as a mother, I know deep down I have to be fluid and flexible and provide support.
Many people think of you as a quintessential New Yorker, even though you were raised in New England.
What I most love about New York is its diversity. It forces an integration that some other places don’t. People here all feel they’re New Yorkers, no matter where they started. Ultimately, whether you’re standing in the rain at the Lincoln Center fountain or just driving by the statue of Duke Ellington in Central Park, you feel the magic of New York.