When you become a mother, a lot of dignity goes out the window. You may find yourself regularly sleeping with a toddler’s foot in your face, singing the brain-addling anthem “D-d-dora, the explorer! D-d-dora, the explorer!” or, as Uma Thurman is doing tonight, nibbling at your offspring’s partially gnawed corn on the cob. To any other adult, someone else’s half-eaten corn qualifies as garbage, but for a lot of moms it’s dinner. “Don’t mind me,” says the blond screen goddess as she leans over the kitchen counter to polish off the scraps on her seven-year-old son, Levon’s, plate. “The worst is when you eat their dinner and your own, too. That’s when you know you’re really in trouble.”
It’s a balmy August evening, and at the moment all is calm in Thurman’s home in New York’s Greenwich Village, which is decorated with a cozy, eclectic mishmash of worn Oriental rugs, carved wood chairs and a wood-and-rope swing in the center of the living room. Less than 10 minutes ago, however, the town house was pulsating with activity: Levon and his 11-year-old sister, Maya, had friends over and were scrambling to finish dinner in time to catch a movie; Thurman’s personal assistant, Erin, was making sure her boss had everything she needed for the rest of the evening; a chef was starting on dinner for Thurman and her fiancé, Arpad “Arki” Busson (who was hanging out on the terrace, smoking); and Thurman’s Chihuahua, Sophie, was sneaking a drink from a reporter’s water glass (and being scolded by the nanny). There was another able-bodied young man of no clearly discernible position standing at the ready, plus a car and driver waiting outside. Team Uma in action is an impressive sight.
Now, almost everyone having retreated, the house is quiet. Thurman checks in on Busson with a few hushed words and a discreet kiss, and soon afterward he also makes himself scarce.
Up close, the nearly six-foot Thurman, 39, is somewhat unearthly in appearance. She’s string-bean lean, and her starkly pale, makeup-free skin is striking against her ice blue eyes. Settling into one of the chairs at her long dining table, she pours a bottle of raspberry soda into two glasses and explains that she’s just back from two weeks’ vacation in India with Busson. “I was in Rishikesh, which is where the Ganges comes down from the Himalayas,” she says. “It was beautiful, and because hardly anyone travels there during the monsoon season, it was mostly Indians.” A few weeks earlier she spent some time in Africa, where she was doing research for Girl Soldier, a film she’s planning to produce and star in, and just before that, she was in Vancouver, filming her part as Medusa in Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, an action-adventure movie based on the best-selling children’s books. “It was a summer of interesting travel, but I’m very, very happy to be home. August always feels like New Year’s to me, a time when I feel a turning—a tightening,” she says, pressing her long fingers together for emphasis. “Like I have to get everything lined up for the fall.”
This fall Thurman’s main point of business will be promoting Motherhood, an independent film opening in October that she describes as a “little love project.” The story follows a single fraught day in the life of a New York mother of two and blogger as she prepares for her daughter’s birthday party, enters a writing contest, navigates playground politics and clashes with her best friend (played by Minnie Driver). Along the way, she wonders whether she has lost her identity in the course of parenting. The film, by writer-director Katherine Dieckmann, was shot last spring in downtown Manhattan on a shoestring budget of about $5 million. “Everything was bare-bones,” says Thurman. “We even shot a little of it in Katherine’s apartment. It was the most truly guerrilla independent filmmaking I have done, I think, ever.”
A vanity project it is not. Thurman’s character, Eliza Welch, spends much of the day in a shapeless dress, her hair disheveled, a toddler strapped to her back. Although she doesn’t scavenge her kids’ leftovers, she does take a swig from her son’s sippy cup. There are no sex scenes, glamour moments or high-speed car chases. There are, however, several shots of Thurman typing on her computer, accompanied by her voice-over—think Sex and the City without the sex or the shoes. “I took the script with me on a night flight to England, thinking I’d read just a little bit of it, but I just fell in love with the writing. I was screaming out loud laughing,” says Thurman. “It was so real and so honest about how hard it is to be a mother and also a full person who’s true to herself. It was like seeing five years of my life.”
While Thurman, unlike her character, wasn’t exactly hauling her kids up several flights of stairs to a cramped apartment, she was, she notes, as emotionally overwhelmed as any other mom. Motherhood, she says, “captures so much of the joy and frustration and the weird tension between your old self and your new self. And the loneliness of parenting, too. I’m a single mother and certainly have been for quite a few years. Even though the character in this piece has a husband, it’s also about how she and he aren’t connecting.”
Neither groundbreaking nor overflowing with mass appeal, the movie isn’t exactly Pulp Fiction, but Thurman isn’t pretending otherwise. “I find this movie to be very deep, but for other people, it misses them entirely,” she admits. And did anyone close to her suggest she pass on the role and wait for something bigger, considering her recent string of less than blockbuster releases? “Well, there is sort of a general opinion of that kind,” she says tartly. “But I got into a place a couple years ago where I wanted to work in a way that had some kind of meaning for me. Otherwise it wasn’t time I wanted to take away from being home. So this was kind of perfect. I couldn’t stand the idea of being on a set in New Mexico, pretending to, like, detonate a nuclear bomb.”
It has been more than five years since the actress, dressed in that blazing-yellow jumpsuit, claimed her place as Hollywood’s fiercest heroine, in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies. Whether you loved, loathed or just didn’t get them, nobody could deny Thurman’s performance was a tour de force. “Uma managed to pull off being an action star better than most men,” says Chris Columbus, who directed her in Percy Jackson. “Put her up against Indiana Jones, James Bond, even Spider-Man, and she will kick their ass.”
The two-part opus raked in more than $300 million worldwide, upping Thurman’s subsequent asking price to a reported $12.5 million per film. Unfortunately, the movies she has made since—among them the 2005 film version of The Producers, the action comedy My Super Ex-Girlfriend and the Columbine-tinged drama The Life Before Her Eyes—haven’t approached that level of success. Although critics were almost uniformly kind to Thurman, the movies received lukewarm reviews and generated very little box-office heat. The last project her fans were able to catch her in was the television special A Muppets Christmas: Letters to Santa. “I was just dying to work with Miss Piggy,” she quips.
To be fair, Thurman has had a few personal issues to deal with in recent years. In 2005, after seven years of marriage, she and Ethan Hawke divorced, and Thurman soon found herself at the center of a humiliating domestic soap opera when the tabloids detailed Hawke’s alleged infidelity with a 22-year-old Canadian model while shooting a movie in Montreal. On the heels of their breakup came Thurman’s stalker ordeal. Jack Jordan, a schizophrenic, sent Thurman a series of threatening notes between 2005 and 2007 and later camped out in his car on the street near her town house. (He was sentenced to three years’ probation and ordered to undergo psychiatric treatment.) Then, last year, Hawke set tongues wagging again when he married his pregnant girlfriend, Ryan Shawhughes, Maya and Levon’s former nanny.
Not surprisingly, Thurman doesn’t relish talking about any of these events, offering a terse “I don’t really want to get into that” (or some version thereof) when any of the topics come up. “As someone once said, no new damage, that’s all you can do. Be positive and move forward,” she offers. “You kind of owe it to your children to not leave a lot of mess. They didn’t ask for it, and they don’t need to hear about it.”
Dieckmann, with whom Thurman became close while working on Motherhood (their children are about the same age, and the two live just a few blocks apart), says the actress tries to live her life “as normally as humanly possible” given her circumstances. “I look at Uma and I see someone who was thrust into the limelight as an object of desire when she was 18,” she says, referencing the famous scene in Thurman’s first major film, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, in which she emerges nude from a giant seashell. “That’s really young to get attention in that way.” Any aloofness Thurman may project, Dieckmann says, is a “coping mechanism.” Adds the director, “She does not take a lot of people into her inner circle, but the people she does take in she would lay down in front of a train for. She’s just selective about where she directs her energies.”
Perhaps because Motherhood is partly about mourning one’s youth, or perhaps because she’s on the cusp of turning 40, Thurman has been doing some reassessing of late. “I can’t say my 30s were the easiest time. And I had thought my 20s were hard!” she says with a laugh. “You know, that’s the worst mistake a woman can make, to think, Oh, I’m 32 and I’ve had two kids and I’ve worked since I was 16 and now it’s going to get easier. Because as soon as you think that, you’re doomed! You’re absolutely doomed!
“I feel like I lived my life backwards,” she continues. “Like Bob Dylan said, ‘I was so much older then; I’m younger than that now.’ Getting older has been a process of realizing that I wasn’t as grown up as I had thought. When I was a teenager people often referred to me as jaded or knowing. It’s a classic teen illusion to think you know it all, but I’ve certainly learned I don’t. I’ve certainly learned the hard way. And that’s kind of nice, to realize that just when you think you’ve figured it out, life surprises you.”
Five years ago, for instance, she didn’t necessarily think she’d ever remarry. “Yeah, that’s what’s great,” she says with a little smile. Thurman is an expert at projecting a cool, in-control exterior, but it’s pretty obvious she is smitten with Busson, the dashing French multimillionaire hedge fund honcho. The two met at a dinner in Milan in 2007, not long after Thurman’s three-year relationship with hotelier André Balazs came to an end. Busson, 46, who is no stranger to celebrity (he has two children with Elle Macpherson), has also built a reputation as one of London’s most prominent and well-connected philanthropists. Last June, after announcing their engagement, the couple threw themselves a glittering party at Busson’s home in London with a guest list that included Elton John, Sting, Claudia Schiffer and Damien Hirst.
When the topic turns to the engagement ring Thurman is wearing, the actress gives an almost puppy love–ish giggle. Although the diamond has generated a fair amount of ink due to its enormous size (one source told the New York Daily News it’s so big, “she can’t fit it through the sleeve of her coat”), what’s probably most extraordinary about the bauble is that it somehow manages to be understated at the same time. Not shiny or polished in the least, it’s a gorgeously rough-looking piece of jewelry that is totally Thurman. Although it resembles an antique, she reveals that it’s by JAR, the Parisian jeweler who makes only a handful of extremely expensive pieces a year. “This is a better piece of jewelry than I deserve,” she says, practically blushing.
But as to when or where she and Busson will tie the knot (tabloid reports had suggested they were planning a wedding in the Caribbean), Thurman is prepared to give up nothing. “I’m happily engaged, but we haven’t set a wedding up,” she says, brushing the matter aside. “I’m not in a rush to do anything. One day we’ll do it, when we’re ready.” Thurman does say, however, that she has zero intention of leaving New York. “We can’t live anywhere else because my children’s father lives here,” she says flatly. Whether that means Busson, who is based in London, will relocate, Thurman won’t say. “We’ll figure that out. I don’t really want to comment on some of these things, because there are other people involved.”
What Thurman is quite open about, however, is her desire to refocus on her career. “When my son turned seven, I felt myself stand upright and realize that I wasn’t going to be bending over so much,” she says, getting out of her chair and comically throwing her arms to the floor as if tending to a small child. “I realized I had been kind of in this position for years! It’s nice to think that everybody’s getting more independent and now I can kind of maybe, slightly selfishly, think about work again.” The echo with the themes of Motherhood is almost uncanny. “You know, I do care about my work, and it is part of me. And I am a mother, but I need to do what I’m good at doing,” she says. “You really can’t let go of all of yourself…. Even your kids need you to be who you are.”
To be near her children, she says, she has lately taken projects that don’t require a lot of time away from New York, something that has clearly limited her choice of roles. “I’ve been living at home for work for a long time,” she acknowledges. “If I don’t leave soon, I’m going to literally choke my career to death.”
Thurman may be exaggerating a bit, but her calendar is surprisingly wide open. Now that Percy Jackson (scheduled for release in 2010) has wrapped, she has nothing else set to shoot—a state of affairs she’s clearly not satisfied with. Eloise in Paris, a film based on the Kay Thompson book that she was meant to star in, has “met with a tremendous number of problems,” she explains, and is currently on hold. And Girl Soldier, based on the true story of a nun who rescued more than 100 Ugandan schoolgirls kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army, is still in development. “Everyone always hopes we’ll start shooting sooner rather than later, but until you have a draft that really functions, I don’t think you should consider it a go picture,” she says a bit wearily. “There are always these odd elements…. But there are a number of scripts I’m looking at. I just haven’t put my finger on the next one yet.”
Which takes us to another piece of jewelry Thurman is wearing tonight. On her right hand she’s sporting an ornate silver ring in the shape of an elephant-headed figure. “This is my Ganesha,” she says. “It was given to me by the costumer from Percy Jackson, who had actually picked it out for another character.” In Hindu mythology, explains Thurman, Lord Ganesha is the son of Uma. (She should know: Her father, a noted scholar of Eastern religions, named his daughter after the Hindu goddess.) “And I had actually been looking for some Ganeshas to wear for good luck because Ganesha is known as the remover of obstacles,” she says. “Remover of obstacles—I think that’s something to pray to.”