Uma Thurman was born in Boston, Massachusetts. Her mother,
Nena von Schlebrugg (b. 1941), is half-Swedish and half-German,
and was briefly married in 1964 to Timothy Leary after the two
were introduced by Salvador Dalí. She married Uma's father,
Robert Thurman, in 1967.
Robert Thurman, a professor at Columbia University of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies, gave his children a Buddhist upbringing. Uma is named after an Uma Chenpo (in Tibetan; Mahamadhyamaka in Sanskrit, meaning “Great Middle Way”). She has three brothers, also with names originating in Tibet: Ganden (b. 1971), Dechen (b. 1973) and Mipam (b. 1978), and one half-sister named Taya (b. 1960) from her father's previous marriage. She and her siblings also spent extended amounts of time in India as children, and the Dalai Lama would sometimes visit their home.
Since Professor Thurman moved between various universities, the family often relocated when Uma was a child. She grew up mostly in Amherst, Massachusetts and Woodstock, New York. Thurman is described as having been an awkward and introverted young girl who was frequently teased as a child for her large frame, unique angular bone structure, unusual name (sometimes using the name “Uma Karen” instead of her birth-name), and size 11 feet (Thurman's famously large feet would later be lovingly filmed by Quentin Tarantino in the films he made with her). When she was ten years old, a friend's mother suggested she receive a nose job, something that bothered her for years. It was undoubtedly one of the many incidents that led to her bout with body dysmorphic disorder, a mental disorder that involves a disturbed body image, which she discussed in an interview with Talk magazine in 2001.
Uma Thurman attended Northfield Mount Hermon, a college preparatory boarding school in Massachusetts, and received her first acting experiences in school plays. She was unathletic and earned average grades in school, but excelled in acting at a young age. It was after performing in a production of The Crucible that she was noticed by talent scouts, and was persuaded to act professionally. Thurman left her high school to pursue an acting career in New York City and to attend the Professional Children's School, but dropped out before graduating.
Uma began her career as a fashion model at the age of fifteen, following in the footsteps of her mother and grandmother who were also former models. Standing six feet tall with a naturally lanky frame, Thurman was a successful model, and would later be featured in a layout in Glamour magazine. In 1989, Thurman appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, for the annual “Hot issue”.
Thurman made her movie debut in 1988, appearing in four films in total that year. Her first two were the high school comedy Johnny Be Good and the teen thriller Kiss Daddy Goodnight at the age of seventeen, but both films were only marginally successful and failed to gain her notice. Thurman’s next role was in the film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, playing the goddess Venus alongside Oliver Reed’s Vulcan. During her entrance Thurman briefly appears nude in an homage to Botticelli’s painting The Birth of Venus. With a budget of $46 million USD and box office receipts of only $8 million, the film was a commercial failure, although it has since gained an enthusiastic cult following.
Uma Thurman's fourth role, as Cecile de Volanges in Dangerous
Liaisons, was her breakthrough role, which brought Thurman to
the attention of the film industry and the general public.
Actresses Glenn Close and Michelle Pfeiffer earned Oscar
nominations for their performances, and Thurman drew an
inordinate amount of attention, much more than a shy, insecure
teenager could handle. Her topless scene garnered the lion’s
share of the attention, and this proved too much for a
19-year-old who thought she was funny-looking. Thurman fled to
London for almost a year and wore only loose, baggy clothing
during that time.
Soon after the release of Dangerous Liaisons, magazines and other media outlets were eager to profile the actress, and new roles were available for her. Thurman also received praise from her co-stars for her professionalism with the role. Co-star John Malkovich said of her, “There is nothing twitchy teenager-ish about her, I haven’t met anyone like her at that age. Her intelligence and poise stand out. But there’s something else. She’s more than a little haunted”.
In 1990, the 19-year-old Uma Thurman starred with Fred Ward in the s--ually provocative drama film Henry & June, the first film to receive an NC-17 rating. Due to the film’s restrictive rating, it never played in a wide release but would attract more attention to Thurman’s career. Critics embraced Thurman in her first leading role, The New York Times wrote, “Thurman, as the Brooklyn-accented June, takes a larger-than-life character and makes her even bigger, though the performance is often as curious as it is commanding”.
Thurman’s first starring role in a major production was 1993’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (directed by Gus Van Sant), although the film was a misstep for her career. The film was both a critical and financial disappointment, and Thurman was even nominated for a Worst Actress Razzie. The Washington Post described her acting as shallow, writing that, “Thurman’s strangely passive characterization doesn’t go much deeper than drawling and flexing her prosthetic thumbs”. Thurman also starred opposite Robert De Niro in the crime drama Mad Dog and Glory, another box office disappointment. Later that year, she auditioned for Stanley Kubrick while he was casting a script named Wartime Lies, which was never produced into a film. She described working with him as a “really bad experience”.
Uma's character in the film was based on Danish actress Anna Karina.After Mad Dog and Glory, Thurman auditioned for Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Tarantino originally had no intention of casting her, after seeing her performance in Glory. He ultimately decided to cast her after having dinner with her: “And Uma and I were doing that scene. We were living the movie, all right? I left thinking… God, she could be Mia!” Pulp Fiction would become one of the most successful cult hits of all time when it grossed over $107 million on a budget of only $8 million USD. The Washington Post wrote that Thurman was “serenely unrecognizable in a black wig, and is marvelous as a zoned-out gangster’s girlfriend”. Thurman was also nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar the following year. Entertainment Weekly claimed that, “of the five women nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category this year, only Thurman can claim that her performance gave the audience fits”. Thurman also became one of Tarantino’s favorite actors to cast, whom he described in a 2003 issue of Time: “Thurman’s up there with Garbo and Dietrich in goddess territory”.
Films of varying quality and success followed Pulp Fiction. She starred opposite Janeane Garofalo in the moderately successful 1996 romantic comedy The Truth About Cats & Dogs as a ditzy blonde supermodel. In 1998 she starred opposite her future husband Ethan Hawke in the dystopian science fiction film Gattaca. Although Gattaca was not a major success at the box office, it drew many positive reviews and became successful on the home video market. Some critics were not as impressed with Thurman, such as the Los Angeles Times which stated she was “as emotionally uninvolved as ever”.
The two biggest film flops of Thurman’s career came in 1997 and 1998. She played Poison Ivy in Batman & Robin, the fourth film of the popular franchise. Batman & Robin was a large failure at the box office and became one of the largest critical flops in history. Thurman’s performance in the campy film received mainly mixed reviews, and critics made comparisons between her and actress Mae West. The New York Times wrote about Thurman, “like Mae West, she mixes true femininity with the winking womanliness of a drag queen”. A similar comparison was made by the Houston Chronicle: “Thurman, to arrive at a ’40s femme fatale, sometimes seems to be doing Mae West by way of Jessica Rabbit”. The next year brought The Avengers, another major financial and critical flop. CNN described Thurman as, “so distanced you feel like you’re watching her through the wrong end of a telescope”. She received Razzie award nominations for both films. She closed out 1998 with the powerful tale Les Misérables, a film version of Victor Hugo’s classic novel of the same name, directed by Bille August, in which she played the role of Fantine.
After the birth of her first child in 1998, Uma Thurman took a rest from major roles to concentrate on motherhood. Her next roles were in low budget and television films, including Sweet and Lowdown, Tape, Vatel, and Hysterical Blindness. Thurman won a Golden Globe award for Hysterical Blindness, a film for which she also served as executive producer. In the film she played an excitable New Jersey woman in the 1980s searching for romance. The San Francisco Chronicle review wrote, “Thurman so commits herself to the role, eyes blazing and body akimbo, that you start to believe that such a creature could exist — an exquisite looking woman so spastic and needy that she repulses regular Joes. Thurman has bent the role to her will”.
After a five year hiatus from any major film roles, Thurman returned in 2003 in John Woo's film Paycheck, and her next collaboration with Quentin Tarantino, Kill Bill. Paycheck was only moderately successful with critics and at the box office, but Kill Bill re-launched her career.
In Kill Bill she played one of the world's top assassins, out on a revenge quest against her former lover. She was offered the role on her 30th birthday from Tarantino, who wrote the part specifically for her. He also cited Thurman as his muse while writing the film, and also gave her a formal joint credit for the character of Beatrix Kiddo, whom the two conceived on the set of Pulp Fiction from the sole image of a bride covered in blood.
Production was delayed for several months after Uma Thurman became pregnant, and her part was considered for recasting, but Tarantino decided against recasting and delayed the film's production. The film reportedly took nine months to shoot, and was filmed on location in five different countries. The role was also her most demanding to date, and she spent three months training in martial arts, swordsmanship, and Japanese. The two-part action epic became an instant cult classic (although neither was a huge box office success) and scored highly with critics. The film series earned Thurman Golden Globe nominations for both entries, and three MTV Movie Awards for Best Female Performance and twice for Best Fight. Rolling Stone likened Thurman to “an avenging angel out of a 1940s Hollywood melodrama”.
The main inspirations for “The Bride” were several B-movie action heroines. Thurman's main inspirations for the role were the title character of Coffy (played by Pam Grier) and the character of Gloria Swenson from Gloria (played by Gena Rowlands). She said that the two characters are “two of the only women I've ever seen be truly women while holding a weapon”. Coffy was screened for Thurman by Tarantino prior to beginning production on the film, to help her model the character.
By 2005, Uma Thurman had become one of Hollywood's highest paid actresses, commanding a salary of $12.5 million USD per film. Her first film of the year was Be Cool, the sequel to 1995's Get Shorty, which reunited her with her Pulp Fiction castmate John Travolta. In the film she played the widow of a deceased music business executive. Later in 2005 she starred in the film Prime with Meryl Streep, playing a woman in her late thirties romancing a man in his early twenties. Thurman's last film of the year was a remake of The Producers in which she played Ulla, a Swedish stage actress hoping to win a part in a new Broadway musical. Originally, the producers of the film planned to have another singer dub in Thurman's musical numbers, but she was eager to do her own vocals, however it has not been confirmed if she performs all of the vocals in the film. She is credited for her songs in the credits.
With a successful film career, Thurman once again became a desired model. Cosmetics company Lancôme selected her as a spokes model. The company named several lipstick shades after her, but they were only sold in Asia. In 2005, she became a spokeswoman for the French fashion house Louis Vuitton.
On February 7, 2006, Uma Thurman was named as a knight of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres of France, an award for outstanding achievement in the field of art and literature.
While living in London to avoid the Dangerous Liaisons hype, she began dating director Phil Joanou, who had just produced U2’s acclaimed movie Rattle and Hum. While visiting his latest project, State Of Grace, she met British actor Gary Oldman. The two hit it off immediately — even Joanou later said it was obvious that Oldman and Thurman were meant for each other, so he stepped aside. The two were married in 1990 but the marriage only lasted two years, reportedly caused by the little time they spent together, due to their busy acting schedules.
On May 1, 1998, she married actor Ethan Hawke, after the two had met at the set of Gattaca. Prior to their engagement, Hawke had proposed twice before she accepted. Thurman herself acknowledged that they married early because she had become pregnant; at the time of their wedding she was seven months along. They have two children, daughter Maya Ray (b. July 8, 1998) and son Levon Roan (b. January 15, 2002). Hawke also dedicated his novel For Karuna to her.
In 2003, Uma Thurman and Hawke separated, and in 2004 the couple filed for divorce. Many news outlets reported that the cause of the divorce was because Hawke had cheated on Thurman with Canadian model Jen Perzow, after he had suspected Thurman of cheating on him with Quentin Tarantino. Hawke denied that the cause of the divorce was infidelity, saying that it was caused by their busy work schedules. In a 2004 Rolling Stone cover story, both Thurman and Tarantino denied ever having a romantic relationship, despite Tarantino once having told a reporter, “I’m not saying that we haven’t, and I’m not saying that we have”. When asked on The Oprah Winfrey Show if there was “betrayal of some kind” during the marriage, Thurman said, “There was some stuff like that at the end. We were having a difficult time, and you know how the axe comes down and how people behave and how people express their unhappiness”.
Uma Thurman currently resides in Hyde Park, New York. In 2004, she began dating New York hotelier Andre Balazs. At one point, they lived in a loft apartment in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood, down the street from Balazs’s Mercer Hotel. In March 2006, Thurman’s publicist announced that the couple had split.
Thurman also dedicates herself to a variety of political and social causes. Thurman is a supporter of the United States Democratic Party, and has made donations to the campaigns of John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, and Joseph Driscoll. She is a strong supporter of gun control laws, and in 2000, Uma participated in Marie Claire’s “End Gun Violence Now” campaign. She also participated in Planned Parenthood’s “March for Women’s Lives” to support the legality of abortion.
On June 21, 2006 she attended the Conference of Nobel Laureates, Petra II: A World in Danger in the Jordanian town of Petra. The conference was the second organized jointly by the King Abdullah II Development Fund and Wiesel’s Foundation for Humanity. Some 25 Nobel laureates and 30 celebrities, including the Dalai Lama, attended. It was also the setting for the first “informal” meeting between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
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