Interview: Uma Thurman

Inspiring lust in audiences, Sylvester Stallone and gossip columnists alike, the starlet tries to cope with all the attention while keeping her sense of self

Uma Thurman at the premiere of the movie 'Baron Munchlansen' on March 8th, 1989. Credit: Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty

It is two o'clock on a Tuesday in February, and Uma Thurman has just walked into the Russian Tea Room, in New York City. The lunch crowd is beginning to thin out, but Uma, who is dressed in jeans and a black cotton turtleneck, does not escape notice. Heads turn as she makes her way across the room. Before settling at a banquette next to Walter Cronkite's, Uma says hello to a prominent director.

"I was here last week at the same table," she says, after returning from her brief chat. "Sly Stallone was at the next table. He was with a woman, and as soon as she left to go to the ladies' room, he asked me for my phone number. I said I didn't have a phone. I kept putting him down. Finally I said, 'Look, I'll go skywriting and write my number in the sky.'"

Uma actually does have a phone number. It rings at the home of her parents (her father is a professor of Asian religions at Columbia; her mother, a former model, is a psychotherapist), a cavernous apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Uma, who turned nineteen last month, was raised upstate in Woodstock and also in Massachusetts, with occasional field trips to India. She was sent to Northfield Mount Hermon, a New England boarding school, when she was twelve but left it four years later, making her way to Manhattan to start an acting career. She modeled, attended the Professional Children's School and got roles in two forgettable films: Kiss Daddy Goodbye and Johnny Be Good. Last year she gave up her own New York apartment after returning from Europe, where she had filmed eye-catching supporting roles in two more-substantial efforts: The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Dangerous Liaisons. "I couldn't live in my apartment anymore," she says. "It had gotten too externalized."

The prominent director suddenly appears at Uma's table. "Can you ice skate?" he asks her. It seems there may be a part for Uma in his new movie, and he asks for her phone number and address. "I think that's so inelegant," Uma says later. "To go up to someone in a restaurant and ask for their phone number. I only wrote my address, which I must have done subconsciously on purpose."

After finishing her meal – over sixty-five dollars' worth of beluga caviar, blini and champagne – Uma heads home. She doesn't want to take a cab. "I love taking the subway," she says, as the train pulls into the station. "Another busload of reality! I love it." Once in the apartment, she makes tea and listens to her many phone messages. One is from John Malkovich, saying, "I just wanted to hear your voice."

Malkovich plays a rake who seduces the virginal convent girl played by Uma in Dangerous Liaisons. Uma's performance and her remarkable face and figure – gasps have been heard in cinemas nationwide when her breasts are exposed in the film – made quite an impression on both audiences and the actor. "She's essentially without training, but she's a natural," Malkovich says. "Every scene I did with Uma was effortless. She's an extraordinary girl, a particular favorite. She has this Jayne Mansfield body and a horrifyingly great brain. I normally don't spend a lot of time talking about the cosmos with eighteen-year-old girls. And it's not because she's pretty.

"She's a very haunted girl, much too bright for her age. Every human being looks at some point for something to believe in. I'm afraid that Uma may not only think there isn't anything, she may know it. She sometimes reminds me of a line from a Tom Waits song – 'It's a battered old suitcase in a hotel someplace in a wound that will never heal.'"

Uma, who is five eleven, blond, blue eyed and curvy, is often asked by the press to name her boyfriend. She is usually quick with an answer. This time she says, "There's nobody right now. I'm a walking tragedy in that department." Even better is what she said to People: "What? Do you think I'm a lesbian? … I'm a neuter. I'm not dating anybody right now. I like my jade plant, Henry."

Uma was joking, and she is, it's quite clear, besieged by persistent admirers. And the press gets everything wrong. In one item, she was linked with Robert Downey Jr. Reportedly, she stole him away from his girlfriend and took him down to Mexico for a week of sun and, presumably, sin. Well, Uma was horried – she and Downey are buddies, and they never went down to Mexico together. Besides, Uma says, "I'm not someone who needs to pick up men in airports."

So, Uma being Uma, she called up the journalist who'd written the item to set him straight. He listened. He then asked her for a date.

It's tough to be the hot girl of the moment, and Uma has little patience with the subject. "What did it say about me in Mademoiselle?" she exclaims. "'The thinking man's sex symbol'? I don't get off looking in the mirror. I don't get excited. It's just ridiculous. It's all for everybody else."

Uma leaves the apartment for a trip to nearby Riverside Park. One of her favorite pastimes, she says, is feeding nuts to the squirrels and birds. After one toss, a squirrel tears into a nut with ferocious vigor. "People are like that too," Uma says. "Unfortunately, I'm the prey."