An actress noted as much for her exotic, almost otherworldly beauty as she is for her considerable talent, Uma Thurman is one of the most renowned actors of her generation. The daughter of celebrated professor of Buddhist studies Robert A.F. Thurman and Nena von Schlebrugge, a model and psychotherapist who was once married to Timothy Leary, Uma was born in Boston on April 29, 1970. Raised with three brothers in Amherst, where her father taught at Amherst College, she enjoyed a fairly bohemian upbringing, one that was marked by visits from Eastern holy men and Tibetan refugees. Encouraged to think for herself and be independent, Thurman, who had been interested in acting from an early age, left her Massachusetts boarding school at the age of 15 to pursue an acting career. Moving to New York, she earned a living by washing dishes and modeling, though the latter means of support never agreed with her.
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The fledgling actress made her debut in Kiss Daddy Goodnight (1987), a forgettable film that cast her as a teen vamp who seduces and robs unsuspecting men. She had a starring role in the teen comedy Johnny Be Good (1988) and also made an eye-catching appearance in Terry Gilliam's underseen fantasy adventure film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988). But it wasn't until her casting in Stephen Frears' Dangerous Liaisons (1988) as Cécile de Volanges, the impressionable convent girl deflowered by John Malkovich's slimy Vicomte de Valmont, that Thurman first gained recognition. Her scenes with Malkovich, particularly the one in which he offers to teach her a few bedroom terms in Latin, proved to be some of the most memorable of the year, resulting in a sizable helping of fame for the young actress. Further recognition followed with Thurman's portrayal of Henry Miller's wife -- and the object of both his and Anaïs Nin's affections -- in Philip Kaufman's Henry & June (1990). Unfortunately, the actress' role in the NC-17 film -- which required her to take part in explicit love scenes with Maria de Medeiros -- inspired a great deal of unwelcome, stalker-like attention from any number of "fans," causing Thurman to shy away from doing a subsequent number of films. The projects she did take part in all proved to be forgettable affairs: Robin Hood (1991), Final Analysis (1992), Jennifer 8 (1992), Mad Dog and Glory (1993), and Gus Van Sant's Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1994).
By the time Thurman received the script for Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, her career was in great need of resuscitation. Fortunately, Pulp Fiction provided just that. A huge, unanticipated success, it was the most talked-about film of the year, eventually becoming recognized as one of the most influential films of the decade. For her part, Thurman gave a sly, smoldering performance as Mia Wallace, the coke-snorting wife of gangster Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), and soon found herself enjoying both a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination and an accompanying resurgence in Hollywood popularity. She followed the success of Pulp Fiction with three relatively modest romantic comedies: A Month by the Lake (1995), The Truth About Cats & Dogs (1996), and Beautiful Girls (1996). The 1997 future dystopia Gattaca did little for Thurman but introduce her to co-star and future husband Ethan Hawke. (The two married in May of 1998 and had a daughter later that year; Thurman had been married once before, to Gary Oldman). Batman & Robin, that same year, was less than a high point in Thurman's career. 1998 proved to be similarly disappointing, with both The Avengers, which cast the actress as the cat-suited Emma Peel opposite Ralph Fiennes' John Steed, and Bille August's Les Miserables experiencing swift deaths at the box office.
Thurman resurfaced in 1999 in Woody Allen's widely acclaimed Sweet and Lowdown. The story of a famed jazz guitarist (Sean Penn) whose talent is inversely proportional to his merits as a human being, the film cast Thurman as his worldly, unfaithful wife. The following year, she had starring roles in two lavish period dramas, Merchant-Ivory's The Golden Bowl and Roland Joffé's Vatel. The former, a Henry James adaptation that premiered to great acclaim at the 2000 Cannes Festival, featured Thurman as a commoner caught up in a forbidden love affair with an impoverished prince (Jeremy Northam); the latter, which also premiered at Cannes, cast Thurman as a French noblewoman during the reign of King Louis XIV. Supporting performances in Richard Linklater's Tape and husband Hawke's Chelsea Walls (both 2001) were soon to follow, and though Thurman's performances were solid as ever, the limited release of both films found her gaining minimal exposure. Though Thurman was virtually unrecognizable in her role as a lovelorn Jersey girl in the HBO feature Hysterical Blindness (2002), her bravado performance earned her a Best Actress Golden Globe and the downbeat drama found audiences once again compelled by her marked versatility. Little did audiences know that her next role couldn't be more different.
Thurman may had done action before in such efforts as Batman & Robin and The Avengers, but her role as the vengeful Bride in Quentin Tarantino's eagerly anticipated Kill Bill nevertheless found viewers' jaws planted firmly on the popcorn-littered multiplex floors. With the production initially delayed due to Thurman's pregnancy, the two-time mother quickly shed her excess weight shortly after giving birth to son Roan; after a vigorous training program, the violent revenge epic was back on track. Even though Thurman made no secret of the fact that balancing the difficult tasks of motherhood and superstardom often took their toll on her during the production of Kill Bill, the dedicated actress pulled off the physically demanding role without a hitch. Debuting in October 2003 to overwhelmingly positive reviews, Kill Bill Vol. 1 (the film was split into two halves after being deemed too long by studio Miramax) still managed to split audiences due to its virtually nonstop, extremely graphic violence. With Kill Bill Vol. 2 scheduled to roll into theaters four months later, fans wasted no time in speculating on The Bride's carnage-laden quest to even the score with the titular Bill (David Carradine) after the ruthless killer gunned her down on her wedding day.
In the wake of the Kill Bill extravaganza, it seemed that Thurman was having an especially difficult time finding her footing at the box office when the Get Shorty sequel Be Cool, the romantic comedy Prime, and the musical comedy remake The Producers failed to make any real impact with viewers. Her career in serious need of a pick-me-up after three notable misfires, Thurman would make yet another grab for laughs when, in the summer of 2006, she starred as needy superhero who uses her powers to seek revenge against an ex-boyfriend attempting to move on in My Super Ex-Girlfriend.
In 2010, Thurman joined the cast of Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief in the role of Medusa, the snake-haired gorgon who could turn a man to stone with no more than a look. The actress played a decidedly different type of character in Ceremony (2010), a critically acclaimed independent comedy that featured Thurman as a woman in her late thirties with a tendency to date the wrong type of guy. In 2012, Thurman co-starred in the period drama Bel Ami and had a recurring role on the musical TV series Smash. She had a supporting role in Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac in 2013. ~ Rebecca Flint Marx, Rovi