Uma Thurman all set for test on stage

Plays were actually Uma Thurman's first taste of acting. As a sophomore at a Massachusetts boarding school, she played the female lead in the Crucible.
Plays were actually Uma Thurman's first taste of acting. As a sophomore at a Massachusetts boarding school, she played the female lead in the Crucible.PHOTO: NYTIMES

The actress will play a pleasure-seeker with a workaholic husband and a carousel of lovers in The Parisian Woman

NEW YORK • Uma Thurman knows that there are no retakes in theatre, no post-production fixes and no chances to dub a line.

When she strides onstage for The Parisian Woman, a play by House Of Cards creator Beau Willimon, on Nov 30 at the Hudson Theatre, no flattering lenses or editing trickery will help her.

"Of course, it's exposing," she said over dinner recently. "But you can't test yourself in safety."

How many more tests does Thurman, 47, have to pass? An Oscar nominee for Pulp Fiction (1994), she has been a high-voltage presence in films from Dangerous Liaisons (1988) to the Kill Bill movies of the early aughts and the Nymphomaniac movies of 2013.

But she is a 1.8m-tall woman with a pre-Raphaelite face and a spiky wit. The movies have not always known what to do with her. And vice versa.

"A great cinema role comes along a few times," Thurman said dryly. "Maybe for some people, more often. But not everybody."

This goes a long way towards explaining the wild incoherence of her IMDB page, which bounces from A Muppets Christmas: Letters To Santa (2008) and My Super Ex-Girlfriend (2006) to The Golden Bowl (2000).

Of course, it's exposing. But you can't test yourself in safety.

UMA THURMAN on taking on a stage role

It also suggests why an actress of Thurman's starry rank, with only one previous professional theatre credit, will be on stage for every second of every scene as Chloe, a chic pleasure-seeker with a workaholic husband and a carousel of lovers.

With a career spent trying "to be decent and work hard" amid what she described as Hollywood's contempt and dismissiveness towards women of all kinds, it comes as a relief to find a role like this one.

Yet, even this opportunity has been shadowed by outside forces - allegations of sexual harassment against Miramax co-founder Harvey Weinstein, who produced several of Thurman's movies.

She learnt of The Parisian Woman two years ago when an entertainment lawyer brokered a coffee date between her and Tonywinning director Pam MacKinnon.

Thurman had always meant to return to the theatre and was finding quality film roles thin on the ground. MacKinnon mentioned Willimon's script, inspired by La Parisienne, an 1885 play by minor French writer Henry Becque that melded boulevard comedy and daring realism.

Another coffee date was arranged, this time with Willimon.

An earlier version of the play had its premiere at South Coast Repertory in 2013. Speaking with Thurman, he had an uncanny feeling, "as though, almost impossibly, I'd written the play for her - her poise, her charm, her sense of playfulness and humour. All those things that Chloe needs to exist, Uma has naturally".

Plays were actually Thurman's first taste of acting. As a sophomore at a Massachusetts boarding school, she played the female lead in the Crucible. Some agents she had met while modelling the summer before came to see it.

Their interest helped persuade her parents to let her transfer to Manhattan's Professional Children's School. By 17, she had booked her first four film roles, including that of the convent girl in Dangerous Liaisons.

Will Thurman's old-Hollywood style play on Broadway?

Her 1999 off-Broadway outing, as film star Jennifer in Martin Crimp's version of Moliere's The Misanthrope, did not dazzle critics.

For now, Thurman and Willimon have both found themselves in the news for reasons unrelated to the play. As rehearsals began, accusations against Weinstein broke.

As to whether she had personally been subject to abuse, Thurman gave the clipped response: "I will discuss it when I want to discuss it."

Though The Parisian Woman trafficks in questions of sex and power, any discussion of these real-world events "never made its way into the rehearsal room", MacKinnon said.

Rehearsing a play has required some adjustments in the ways Thurman attacks a role.

Her style is still what Tarantino described as motivated by an emotional connection to a character and "from the inside out".

But she has translated a habit of multiple takes on movie sets into rehearsal-room exploration, playing with different tones and stances.

Eight shows a week can wear an actor down. Yet, Thurman was not too worried about keeping Chloe fresh.

In the Kill Bill movies, she had lived with her character, the Bride, for a year, and still managed to find variation. "Acting has never felt routine to me," she said.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 13, 2017, with the headline 'Uma Thurman all set for test on stage'. Print Edition | Subscribe