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The Type You Can't Type : From 'Pulp Fiction' to 'Month by the Lake,' Uma Thurman's at Ease With a Range of Roles

October 11, 1994|DAVID GRITTEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

TREMEZZO, Italy — At the age of 24, Uma Thurman has an enviable acting career. She has played a wide range of roles and has been noticed for all the right reasons--for her versatility and skill as an actress.

Sure, she was once on the cover of Rolling Stone's 1989 Hot Issue, and Mademoiselle magazine once called her "a thinking man's sex symbol," but Thurman herself has done nothing to pursue such hype. Yes, she did appear in some steamy bedroom scenes in playing the bisexual wife of novelist Henry Miller in "Henry and June"; but, hey, that was an art-house film, so it was all for a higher purpose.

Truth is, Thurman's work hasn't been dogged either by scandal or controversy in the eight years she has been acting.

Until now, that is.

She plays Mia, a gangster's wife, in "Pulp Fiction," the Quentin Tarantino film that opens Friday. It is fair to say that one particular sequence involving Thurman is destined for infamy.

Mia is escorted on an evening's date by John Travolta, a sidekick of her violent husband, who is out of town. In a retro '50s restaurant they dance charmingly together; she flirts with him. He frets because his boss is jealous; the last man she tried to seduce ended up dead at his hands.

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Back at her place she snorts what she thinks is cocaine but is really a deadly heroin cocktail, and lapses into a coma. Fearing for his life, Travolta carries her to his car and takes her to the home of his drug dealer. The two devise a way to save her life, in a jarring, hilarious and unforgettable scene.

"I wondered about doing it at first because the script was so shocking," Thurman says now. "I haven't made a habit of doing films with a lot of violence, and from what was on the page it was hard to tell, because in anyone else's hands it could become a sick movie.

"But I let Quentin talk me into it, and I believe in him. It was a matter of finding out what was in his heart, and what was in it was good, nothing malicious or full of hatred or exploitative. He has a pure, wild, crazy sense of humor, and a passion for filmmaking. And the film's funny. Horrifyingly funny, perhaps, but still funny."

She also enjoyed working with Travolta. "That dance scene was so camp, I couldn't pass it up. To dance with Travolta was like being able to do a Western with John Wayne; you'd happily play some barroom slut just for the opportunity."

She relates all this sitting on a hotel terrace overlooking Lake Como, a place of tranquil beauty where she is making a very different sort of film. In "A Month by the Lake," directed by John Irvin, and based on an H. E. Bates novella, Edward Fox plays a middle-aged English major vacationing in the late 1930s at an Italian lakeside hotel who becomes stupidly infatuated with the young American nanny played by Thurman. She toys with his affections, then becomes swiftly and openly bored; this sends him on the rebound toward an English woman of his own age, played by Vanessa Redgrave.

Crew members are tiptoeing around Redgrave and cater to her every whim, trying not to incur her ill humor. Due homage is paid to legendary Italian actress Alida Valli, who has a small part in "A Month by the Lake"; she is now 73 and in her sixth decade of filmmaking. Cinematographer Pasqualino de Santis, who made Visconti's "Death in Venice" look ravishing, must be addressed as "maestro"; he and his camera crew sit separately from the others at meals and eat with their own cutlery, china and linen; none dare to draw near.

Yet all the talk on set is not of these people, but of Thurman. The crew discuss her comings and goings, wonder out loud if she will be difficult or easy during the coming day, and speculate on the possible cause of her occasional mood swings. She is an object of infinite fascination.

At one point, Thurman poses for a photographer in the banquet hall of an 18th-Century villa. She wears a long 1930s-style dress, which accentuates her tall, slim frame; her hair has been gathered into frizzy curls at the back. Something seems to happen to her before a camera's unblinking lens; she softens, warms and glows.

The sight of her reduces Fox to incoherent British schoolboy slang. "Stunning, isn't she?" he hisses. "Crikey. I'll say. Yes. Stunning. A . . . a knockout, really."

The attention Thurman effortlessly commands is, on the face of it, puzzling. In eight years as an actress, she has never starred in a hit film, and in fact has appeared in notable flops. The one unqualified success to her name was Stephen Frears' "Dangerous Liaisons," in which she played a 15-year-old virgin in 18th-Century France, but her role was subordinate to those of Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer.

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