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Still Cool

After killing Bill, Uma Thurman returns to the dance floor

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It's actually a sequel to the 1995 comedy Get Shorty, but you might think Be Cool (opening this Friday) was some kind of follow-up to Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, based on how much the trailers and TV spots have been playing up a particular scene that reunites former dance partners John Travolta and Uma Thurman. The new film (based on another Elmore Leonard novel) shifts its focus from the movie industry to the hip-hop music scene. Travolta reprises his role as the smooth-talking Chili Palmer, with Thurman playing the hardly grieving widow of a murdered record-company executive. They join forces to outwit various shady characters, including ones played by Harvey Keitel, Vince Vaughn, Cedric the Entertainer and The Rock.

Following the one-two punch of Tarantino's high-velocity, action-packed Kill Bill films — to say nothing of the recent dissolution of her seven-year marriage to actor Ethan Hawke (the father of her two young children) — the 34-year-old actress admits she was ready for a bit of levity. Thurman spoke about the state of things — both professionally and personally — during a recent interview in Los Angeles.

CL: Prior to reading this script, were you familiar with Elmore Leonard's book? What appealed to you about it?

Uma Thurman: In general, I really like his characters. They're incredibly well-defined and very distinct. I've always thought of him as being like a contemporary Damon Runyon-esque kind of writer.

What are some of the differences between your character in the movie compared to the character in the original novel?

Well, they've combined two characters from the novel into an amalgam to make this character I'm playing. It's like, why have extraneous female characters in a film when you can just have more men?

Talk a little about reuniting with John Travolta. Your dance scene in Be Cool is a highlight, just as it was in Pulp Fiction.

I always said about Pulp Fiction that I couldn't possibly pass on the challenge, the thrill, the joy of doing a dance scene with John Travolta. I mean, I'm very much of that whole Grease era. I guess I was seven or eight when that came out, and I had the same experience a lot of young girls had at the time of falling in love with him and with musicals in general. Growing up in Massachusetts, I wasn't really exposed to a lot of musical theater, but now I love it and I'd do basically anything to dance in a movie. In the origins of Be Cool, it seemed so tongue-in-cheek and wonderful and irresistible to get back together with John and dance again.

And now you're getting ready to film The Producers [the screen adaptation of the Broadway smash]. Is that sort of full-blown musical like a last frontier for you, in terms of new and untested movie genres?

I'm absolutely beyond being overjoyed about playing Ulla. I'm dancing every day now. I don't know if I'd call it a "last frontier," though. That would be a sad day, like menopause, crossing my last frontier as if there was nothing left for me to do, you know? Having said that, though, it has been a lifelong dream of mine to be a song-and-dance girl.

The Kill Bill movies required you to get into great shape. Have you kept up your workout?

I've scaled it back considerably. You know, there were about 10 adorable Chinese men who used to work me out every day, swinging at me six days a weeks, for many hours a day, where I was always having to defend myself. I try to work out whenever I can, but I don't have a consistent regiment. I just do my best. I don't really have the time, but I try to squeeze in some physical things whenever possible.

Back when the Kill Bill movies were just coming out, did you ever have any discussions with your father (Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman) about the violence in those films, given some of his own non-violent beliefs?

Anyone who's familiar with the iconography of Tibetan Buddhism would see that it's absolutely riddled with expressions of worldly violence, of fierce conflict, but it's ultimately about the transcendence of all that. Listen, people who think that expressions of anger or violence are promotions of anger or violence are people you can't really argue with. If that's what they really think, then that's what they really think. To me, I think it's important that we need to express it and look at our violence, to think about it. Just doing la-dee-dah movies isn't going to help us at all. I guess what I'm saying is, if my father saw me in some kind of chainsaw-massacre movie, something unartistic or grossly exploitative, intentionally full of malice and cruelty, or something that stank of sadism, then he'd probably have every right to say, "What's your problem?" But I guess my work hasn't come across to him that way, at least not to date.

Is there any truth to the rumors that Tarantino is planning a third Kill Bill movie?

I don't know whether or not he is, or whether or not I'd be in it. I certainly haven't heard about any of those plans, so who knows? I mean, Bill has been killed, you know?

How hard is it for you, balancing a successful movie career with motherhood?

It's practically impossible, or, at the very least, really, really hard. My husband — I mean, my ex-husband — said to me the other day that I was clearly someone who wanted to be a full-time mother and still wanted to be an actress, too — that I kept insisting I could do it all when in fact I really couldn't. I really try to give all of myself to everything I do. This past year has been really lucky in terms of the work. I've refused to read any script that didn't shoot in New York, because I felt it was important to be at home for my kids. I guess I don't want to give up anything. Both the family and the career are things I feel are worth fighting for, worth finding a way to maintain both of them.

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