One evening not long ago, the director Quentin Tarantino picked at a Greek omelet inside a Los Angeles diner and suddenly found himself at a loss for words and unwilling to explicate. This is astounding, of course, and has probably never happened to him before. Normally, he will talk until your ears bleed and you beg for mercy, and he had already said much tonight.
He had said that for breakfast he typically alternates between Special K and oatmeal; that one of his first orders of business upon getting out of bed is "taking a piss" (and this noted, an elderly woman sitting nearby barked, "Could I please ask you to keep it down?"); that Kill Bill Vol. 2, his latest movie and the follow-up to last year's hack-'em, slash-'em Kill Bill Vol. 1, is "much more emotional and much more tragic, with much more depth"; that he became so feminized during the writing of the Kill Bill series, with its supersexy woman-warrior main character, that "now I can buy a girl a dress, and she'll wear it and like it, not because I bought it but because I developed good taste"; that one time, feeling in need of redemption for a bad deed done, he seriously thought about cutting off a finger ("The knife wasn't poised ... but I did have it out"); that "if anybody were to break into my house, I'd kill them, no questions asked, no nothing"; and that "if I went to prison, I would not be butt-fucked. Let's say it's Mike Tyson. I can bite his lip off. Bite his nut sack off. I could rip it open. Those are the things that I could do. And I would do them."
He also said he has a set of lavender sheets for his bed but that the ones on the bed now are light blue.
So he said many different things on many different subjects with no trouble. And yet he found himself stumped when it came to talking about Uma Thurman, the star of the two Kill Bill movies as well as of Pulp Fiction, and the question of how it is that she operates as his muse, which is what he often calls her: "my muse."
"I don't know," he said, a hand poised to pull on his long Tarantino chin. "It's just this cool connection that happened while we were doing Pulp Fiction. I mean, von Sternberg had Marlene Dietrich, Hitchcock had Ingrid Bergman, André Téchiné had Catherine Deneuve. It's a special bond that I'm proud to have, and hopefully, one day, people will reference me and Uma like they do the others. But the thing about it is, it just kind of is, and there are certain things I don't really want to understand subtexturally. I just want it to be and do."
It seems, then, that there's a reason for his reticence. Delicate forces are at play and must not be disturbed. As it happens, however, we are not Tarantino; consequently, we share none of his concerns. Moreover, we are fascinated by this muse business, having never had one ourselves, and would very much like to glimpse its inner workings. We don't know if such a thing is possible with Thurman. But we hope that it is and, if it is, we hope that we won't be at a loss for words to explain it, subtexturally speaking.
Tarantino: movie geek, loud-talking barroom brawler, high school dropout, wildly gesticulating raconteur, apparent foot fetishist, working-class movie-mayhem madman genius. Thurman: poised, cool, finger-thin, terribly tall, deliquescent, discreet daughter of spiritually aligned Manhattan intellectuals. It's been eleven years since the two opposites first set eyes on each other, to make Pulp Fiction, the sophomore-effort movie that made his career (as if his first one, Reservoir Dogs, already hadn't) and that turned hers around (following dismals such as Johnny Be Good and Jennifer 8). Afterward, he seemed to disappear, resurfacing only to be underappreciated, as a scene-chomping actor in From Dusk Till Dawn and as the director of the vastly entertaining Jackie Brown. Thurman, meanwhile, mainly went in for little-seen art-house-type roles, with the occasional stab at the big leagues (The Avengers, Batman and Robin), which also ended up being little-seen. Then, during a chance meeting of the two in 2000, he warmed to a revenge-saga idea first postulated by her during the Pulp period, called it Kill Bill, took eighteen months to write it (with Thurman always in mind as the lead, playing the revenge-seeking, sword-wielding, yellow-jumpsuited Bride), took fifty weeks to film the damned thing, saw that it could not be contained in one movie and split it in two, the first installment being nonstop buckets-of-blood action, an homage to Tarantino's love of kung-fu flicks, spaghetti westerns and the like, and the second being much more.
Offscreen, Tarantino does as he wishes, with few consequences. He shows up obnoxious on the Tonight Show With Jay Leno, potted on four tasty apple martinis. He drops Ecstasy in Beijing. He punches a cab driver for some hazy transgression. Globe-trotting, he hooks up with girls left and right, savoring the benefits of being a famous director. In some quarters, all this may be frowned upon, but he could care less. Everything accrues to his great glory and reputation.
Thurman, however, has not had it so easy. Her breakup with her husband, actor and novelist Ethan Hawke, came right as Kill Bill Vol. 1 hit theaters and provided much fodder for the tabloids, since he allegedly cheated on her but only because he thought she'd cheated on him, with Tarantino. It was ugly business, though in the aftermath Thurman tried to take the high road, as seems to be her way. "It got a little scandalous this year, but I have a 'you play, you pay,' philosophy toward celebrity," she told reporters. "I suppose it's my fate that my highs are undercut by lows."
As for any romance between Tarantino, 41, and Thurman, 33, they both say it's never happened. According to Tarantino, it's true that he once told a reporter, "I'm not saying that we haven't, and I'm not saying that we have" but that the comment was taken totally out of context. "We've talked about it," he recently said. "She knows I wouldn't say anything like that. The easiest way to piss Uma off is to talk about her personally to the press." And as we all know, if you've got a muse, the last thing you'd want to do is piss that muse off, because if that happened, then where would you be?
When Thurman arrives at Manhattan's Gramercy Tavern for an evening meal, she arrives in a kind of breathless whoosh, lank blond hair a-dangle, wearing a jean jacket, a fetchingly low-cut white blouse and cool herringbone-pattern sailor pants. She orders a cranberry juice and soda with a twist of lime, and, after a few light pleasantries, leans forward, smiles and says, "OK, let's do this, because time is so precious. How much of the movie have you seen? You went into the editing room? What did you see? What section?"
We take this in stride, because this is the Uma Thurman we have been led to expect, the firm-voiced straight shooter, with two children at home (by Hawke: Levon Roan, 2, and Maya Ray, 5) waiting to be tucked into bed. She comes off as being entirely matter-of-fact and slightly chilly, and is apparently that way with most people. "She's one of my best friends on the planet," Tarantino says, "but if she doesn't know you, she's private and reserved. The feeling with Uma is, she's got to let you inside." That's all very well and good, but we need to get inside sooner rather than later. So, leaning back and turning sideways, we gaze at Thurman from a distance, appraising her, and say, "Well, aren't you Little Miss Businesslike."
She looks at us like no one has ever called her this before. "Yeah," she says finally. "You have no idea. No idea!"
And then, just like that, she starts laughing that throaty, babbling-brook laugh of hers. It's almost too melodious for words, public and intimate, both at the same time, and tends to occlude all other sounds in a room.
We say, "How do you feel about being Quentin's muse?"
She says, with an airy wave of her hand, "Actually, I don't know how I feel about it. I mean, what does muse mean? Someone who inspires? I am serious. I don't know what it means. Anyway, I don't think I did any musing. I think I listened to a lot of scenes and gave Quentin my opinions and killed myself trying to help him make the movie great. But I didn't spend a lot of time on a pedestal, musing. It's great if he finds me inspiring. But it doesn't really relate to what I did."
Without much further ado, she flips open her menu. "Would you like a little snack?" she goes on smartly. "What would you like that's snackish? The food here is very good, but it is a little special. How about an artichoke salad for you? I'll get one, too, and maybe a few oysters, just to be celebratory, and take in a few heavy metals and get excited.
"Yes," she says pleasantly, "it'll be a little mercury for us."
And so this is our introduction to Uma, who apparently is as skittish about being Tarantino's muse as Tarantino is about saying what kind of muse she is. In many ways, we are lost and don't know what to make of her and her words. Snackish? Heavy-metal oysters? A little poisonous mercury? Excited? It's pretty unsettling. But we kind of like it and decide to just go with the flow; maybe it'll get us somewhere in the long run.
Tarantino's introduction to Thurman took place over a meal, as well, and it too was a pretty unsettling experience. This was in 1993, while he was searching for an actress to play Mia Wallace, the gangster's wife in Pulp Fiction. He'd recently seen Thurman in Mad Dog and Glory and Final Analysis and didn't think she was right for the part. In fact, he had no intention of even meeting with her. But her agent insisted, and one night Tarantino joined her for dinner in Los Angeles.
"Every other person I'd talked to had ideas about the script," Tarantino recalls. "Maybe Uma didn't like the material, maybe she hadn't even read it, but she made it a point to not talk about it much." Instead, she talked about her life, and he talked about his life, and in Tarantino's mind it suddenly seemed like they were acting out one of the most memorable scenes in the fictional world of Pulp Fiction, the one where Vincent, the hitman, has to take Mia, his boss's wife, out to dinner, and they wind up at some retro juke joint twisting the night away.
"If you remember that scene," Tarantino goes on, "the two people don't really know each other. It's a strange situation, kind of unusual, why they're there together, but in the course of having to suffer through this thing, a connection happens. They click into each other and begin to appreciate each other. And Uma and I were doing that scene. We were living the movie, all right? I left thinking, "Wow, who is that girl? God, she could be Mia!' "
They next met in New York, had dinner again, hardly talked about the movie and wound up back at Thurman's apartment, where Tarantino asked her to read a scene for him. She downed a few shots of vodka to loosen herself up, went at it and was quite great.
"I was still meeting with a bunch of people, however, and I didn't know Uma was Mia until the next time I went out on a meeting," he says. "It was with this terrific actress who totally got the piece. But I'm sitting there giving her my private thoughts about Mia — stuff that Uma and I had talked about that's not on the page — when all of a sudden I felt like I was cheating on Uma. It felt like I was having an illicit affair. 'How can I talk to another girl about Mia when Uma is Mia?' And that's when I knew.
"And then Uma turned it down! I kind of flipped out. But her agent said, 'You know, Quentin, she just had a really bad experience with Stanley Kubrick, and she's rejecting you before you can reject her.... Call her up and talk to her.' " He did, and the next day Thurman said, "I'm in. I'm your girl. I'm ready to go."
And so Tarantino found his muse.
A noise, like the snapping of a tree branch, comes from the vicinity of Uma's hands. "Actually," Uma is saying between oysters, "I turned it down because I didn't know him and the script freaked me out. Also, we drank wine, not vodka, I'm pretty sure. And it was a very weird audition. It was not normal. Anyway, he's never shy with embellishment, though I was in kind of a fragile place, and Pulp Fiction ended up being a great experience for me. I mean, he made it a great experience for me."
"What was that noise?" we ask her. "Did you just crack your knuckles?"
"I don't know," she says. "Maybe I was nervously fiddling with my hands."
We look at her, head cocked, pondering the space between words and among actions. We know a thing or two. We know, for instance, that during the shooting of the Kill Bill movies, Tarantino liked to put Uma through hell on the set. In fact, David Carradine, who plays Bill, told us about a conversation he had with Uma, during which Uma said something like, "Why does Quentin do these things to me? He's always cutting me up, and getting me covered with mud, and having me tied up and shot in the face with a shotgun. What the hell is this shit? I mean, he says he loves me, but what kind of love is that?" This might only be a bit of light banter. But it occurs to us now that maybe some kind of weird unstated psychodrama is playing itself out in the director-muse relationship — does he secretly love her, does she secretly feel the opposite? — and we suddenly find ourselves saying, "Do you like being around Quentin?"
"Umm, I have in the past" are the first words out of Uma's mouth, and we know we are on to something. But then Uma takes them back, sort of. "Yeah, I do, of course," she says. "I've spent lots of time with him. He can calm down, especially when he's one-on-one. You have to interrupt him sometimes. He might say, 'I didn't finish my point!' and get all flipped out. But that's fine. I come from a very interrupting family, so overbearing, intense, verbose people are completely familiar to me. I can handle it."
"And is it really true that he has a foot fetish?"
Uma laughs. "I think he does, yes. I think he rather coyly likes to deny it, so I haven't had an in-depth conversation with him about it. How long could the conversation be, really, especially if you don't share the fetish? I mean, is it toes? Is it heels? Are there shoes involved? What is it? But he shot everybody's feet, not just mine. Every scene had coverage on feet. The whole joke was, you could actually release an entire movie with dialogue, what there is of it, overlaid on the feet, and you'd probably have a fairly comprehensive narrative."
Secrets of a sort are being revealed, we think. But why? Maybe Uma is tiring of her muse role and no longer wishes to entirely contain her feelings. It must be odd for her, being a man's muse. Even if it isn't a sexual thing, it is intimate; and it's probably a little creepy, too, her having to know that while she sleeps, Tarantino is no doubt thinking of her ... and of her feet, most certainly, above all others. We turn sideways in our seat and stare.
"What? What?" Uma nearly shrieks. "Why do you keep looking at me like that?"
We are prepared to answer, but before we can, she maneuvers a lemon over an oyster and some of the juice squirts us in the face, causing us to exclaim, "A shot of acid!"
"Oh, what, did I get you? I'm so sorry!" Uma says, giggling. "Is it in your eye? No. You have glasses. Thank God. Or else you'd be weeping now. You'd be crying."
We say nothing.
"Ask away," she says.
"Do you miss Quentin when he's in the editing room and you don't hear from him for weeks on end?"
"I talk to him sometimes," she says. "But he and I have a little joke. Actually, I think I said it to him. The joke is, 'When the phone's not ringing, that's me thinking about you.' "
And once again she laughs that occluding, melodious laugh of hers.
Actually, Tarantino and Thurman seem like such different people, it's hard to see how they can tolerate each other — or, rather, how she can tolerate him. As she intimates, he is overbearing, intense, verbose, as well as a loose cannon on the set, while she is anything but. In fact, while making Kill Bill, they often did get into fights. "And when we did," Tarantino says, "the whole crew would be kind of traumatized until it was over. It was almost like, 'Oh, shit, Mom and Dad are mad at each other, and it's never going to be OK until they're not.' "
Unlike her, he's open about everything and, for instance, has no problem talking about his sexual history, strange though it has sometimes been. He lost his virginity when he was sixteen and says, "I think I came the second dick hit pussy, voom" — standard stuff. The second time he had sex, however, he was seventeen, and it was with an out-call prostitute. This took place at the house in Harbor City, California, where he lived with his mom, who was gone for the day. "The girl was very nice, very cute, but it was kind of a degrading experience, and I feel like she took something away from me. Anyway, we did it in my mom's bed." Pause. "In retrospect, that was probably the best part about it."
Tarantino and Thurman are worlds apart. On the loss of her own virginity and when it happened, Uma will only say, wistfully, "Too young. Too young."
We do, in fact, spend a lot of time glancing at Uma obliquely, but there's nothing to it; it's only us trying to look around the corners of her marzipan-colored skin to see more of what might be inside, because words only go so far and she can be so discreet.
"What's it like being single?" we ask.
"It's pretty weird," she says. "The last time I wasn't married, I was twenty-five, and I didn't have two children. So it's a whole different situation. I can't really relate to it."
"Have you been on a number of dates?"
"No. I met one person, and I've been seeing that one person."
We already know his name, wealthy hotelier André Balazs. We say, "Are you serious about him?"
"OK. But you're very lucky."
"To have met one person? Very."
"So you didn't go out on a number of dates before meeting that one person?"
"But let's say someone were to approach you, maybe in a bar, what line might work?"
" 'Hey, are you Uma Thurman? I thought you were so cool in high school!' Ha, ha. Not really. Actually, men don't approach me," she says, warming to the subject. "Very rarely, even when I was younger. Celebrity weirds people out. Most people wouldn't want to ask a celebrity out, because they'd feel stupid — because of course you're going to say no."
"And would you say no if it wasn't another celebrity? Think Hugh Grant and Notting Hill."
"What, a regular human being? Well, I have dated people who have not renounced their privacy. But their friends comment on it in a weird way. It's not like they have a nice new girlfriend. It's like they're Doing That. You know what I mean? It creates a kind of social awkwardness. At least, that's what I remember."
Leaning back, we say, "When somebody gets Uma Thurman as a girlfriend, what do they get?" Uma gives us a cross look.
"No, no, not sexually," we say. "That's too weird. Like, we met this girl in Los Angeles and — "
"Don't tell me you fell in love with an actress," Uma says, coming forward in her seat, showing genuine interest.
"No, a lesbian," we say out of the blue and for no reason other than we are still half charmed even after being jilted for a girl named Kim.
"That's no good for you," she then says, softly, with an even softer bemused giggle.
And with the saying of those five little words, in just the way that she said them, we suddenly feel ourselves released from the lesbian's charms. At the same instant, we also, for the first time, at least partially glimpse how it is that Uma must operate as Tarantino's muse.
But we'll have to get back to that later, because there's precious little time to dwell on it now. We have to inflict some unfortunate torture of our own on Uma, involving the end of her marriage to Hawke.
"Let's approach it this way," we begin. "You once said, 'It's better to have a relationship with someone who cheats on you than with someone who does not flush the toilet.' "
"Oh, that's an old quote," she says, not unpleasantly. "I mean, I don't know what sense it makes today. I don't obviously know what's better, or I'd still be married."
"And then, on Howard Stern, it seems you suggested that all men cheat...."
"I didn't really say that. But I think I was still trying to defend him in a way, saying, 'Don't make such a big deal out of it.' "
"Well, cheating is horrible," we say, "but what may not be so horrible is stuff of the heart that you have no control over."
"Yes," she says. "That is true. Like most actions, it's really the intent that's important."
"Do you know what Ethan's intent was?"
"It's so unfair of me to talk about it," Uma says, her lips and eyelids beginning to puff up a little. "It's not good for my kids. His intent is ultimately to be a happy person. And I hope he succeeds in achieving that. And I'm sorry if he wasn't happy before. I don't know what else I can say."
We can see water starting to collect in the corners of her eyes and say no more about Hawke. We have gone far enough. You never want to make a muse cry. Muses need to sit above the ruckus of common, everyday life, looking down and carrying on with their cool muse thing.
When putting the finishing touches on a movie starring Thurman, Tarantino is never far from her, even when she is far from him. Just recently, she was in New York and he was in Santa Monica, inside a mixing room, pacing around while on a screen in front of him flashed images of Thurman, as the Bride, suffering any number of indignities. She's getting her arm twisted nearly to the breaking point, hitting a stone wall with her fist until flesh drops away and finding herself cruelly bopped on the head with a cane.
Studying this last vision, Tarantino says to a sound technician, "When she gets hit on the head, I want more of a Three Stooges ponk."
"A witty ponk?" the technician asks.
"Yes," Tarantino says. "A witty ponk is exactly what I'm looking for."
And a few minutes later, that's exactly what he gets: a kind of hollow, funny, Three Stooges ponk for Thurman, right on the noggin. Sometimes, working like this, Tarantino talks out loud to the Thurman he sees on the screen. Even though she can't hear him, he says things like, "Good one, Uma" or "Oh, my God, you did it, that's great, thank you, fantastic!" or, if displeased by some action of hers, "Goddamnit! Oh, fuck! Goddamnit!"
"When I'm in postproduction," he says one evening after work, "I'll go through a whole long time without talking to Uma. But, really, I'm working with her every day. I see her every single day. It never occurs to me that I haven't talked to her in real life or seen her, because I'm working with her just like I was on the set. I am with her every single day."
This may be a common experience among directors and actors, but in the case of Tarantino and Thurman it's an especially interesting one to contemplate, particularly in light of what else David Carradine also had to say about them: "I don't think they were ever lovers or that he's in love with her. He says, 'I want to be directing her for the rest of my life,' so he's made that choice, and the thing is, you don't shit where you eat. Anyway, he doesn't need to be in love with Uma. He always has these gorgeous girls. In other words, that part of his emotional attachment to her has to be light. Movies are what he's serious about."
But to a large extent, Thurman is his movies — only she could be Mia in Pulp Fiction, only she could be the Bride in Kill Bill — so if he's seriously emotionally attached to one, he's also got to be seriously emotionally attached to the other. He might not be in love with Thurman. But he could be obsessed with her. Indeed, before separating from Thurman, Ethan Hawke once lamented that he'd probably never get a chance to work with Tarantino if only because, he said, "I think he's so obsessed with my wife that I don't think I ever will." And contemplating this, you begin to realize just how much psychodrama there might be to the Thurman-Tarantino relationship and why Tarantino might not want to look into it too deeply or, at least, might not want to examine it anywhere but in the privacy of his own head.
The more we talk to Uma during our oyster evening together, the more outer qualities of a fine, delightful muse we find. She eats raisin bran for breakfast. She's a terrible teller of lies and almost always gets caught ("I think it comes from a profound sense of culpability. I don't wear deception well"). When deeply embarrassed, her cheeks and ears tend to flush red. Her only real vice is smoking the occasional Marlboro Light. She has a favorite cuss word but would rather not reveal it, under the theory that "adults shouldn't cuss." (It is, however, "motherfucker.") As regards a seventeen-year-old guy who bangs a prostitute in his mother's bed, she says, "Well, he has it going on!" In the past, she has been called Schmoo, Ooms, Oom and Booma. She has a fear of heights and is somewhat claustrophobic, but, she says, "I really have to be put in a coffin for it to come out." She'd rather not tell embarrassing stories about herself in high school, believing that no one would care, but if you say something like, "We do care. We care deeply. You don't know how much we care," she will laugh and giggle and flap at you with her hands.
From our perspective, this is all too much fun. But it's a little more than that, too, because, just as Tarantino and Uma once had their meta-weird scene-from-within-Pulp Fiction dinner, so does it now seem to us that we are having ours.
"Here's a question," she says toward the end. "Why have you been looking at me sideways from the moment we sat down?"
"Just because you've been looking sideways, too."
"But that's just because I'm sitting adjacent to you. I mean, I think you are purposefully looking at me sideways. Like, I'm getting this whole jaw-toss thing."
"No, no. It's just the angle."
"Perhaps it is," she says, looking us in the eye and knowing better.
"Perhaps it is," we say, looking her in the eye, too. "Have you ever given a name to a man's penis?"
She scrunches up her nose. "No, I never have. It doesn't strike me as very sexy, naming penises. But maybe in the future I will, and if I do, I'm going to name each one of them — " And here she says our name four times.
On the one hand, we are flattered. On reflection, however, she could also just as easily be saying, "You're a dick, you're a dick, you're a dick, you're a dick." But if that's the case, she's the subtlest muse there ever was, and the smartest, too.
We glimpse her once more, the next day, in a building on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Tarantino is there, too. We don't see them talking much. He is in a kitchen, declaiming on what he has heard about Iceland, that the girls there are beautiful, that they love him and that he'd be a fool not to go there for a look-see. Uma, meanwhile, is behind some walls, temporarily sealed off from view. Since last night, we have thought a good bit about her possible subtextural ways as a muse and now think we have a deeper understanding of why Tarantino says he'd rather not talk about it, because we feel the same way. It's a delicate thing she offers, made all the more delicate because she offers it unknowingly. "That's no good for you," she'd said about our lesbian dalliance in L.A. and, for that instant, she was our muse, doing what all good muses do: inspire, correct and instruct with such plain, easy words as send you back to the drawing board, scratching your head and promising to do better the next time. We remember hearing that she sometimes operates in a similar fashion with Tarantino. While writing Kill Bill, he would often read parts of the script to her. She never had much to say, forcing him to say, "So you don't really like that?" and then she would mumble something, after which he'd return to his notepad, to fix what needed fixing, though she hadn't exactly said anything needed fixing at all. So maybe that's all he means when he says she's his muse, that she brings out the best in him without even trying. Maybe it's as simple and rare as that and reason enough for him to want to direct her in films for the rest of his life.
We move to an inner-room window and look down at the floor below, at Uma and Tarantino standing there. After a moment, Uma looks up, grins at us and waves. Then, a few hours later, she sees us again and says, "You know, I've been thinking about you all day." She laughs and says, "Not really." She laughs again and begins poking us in the chest, backing us down a hallway. "You and your penis inquiries, and your sideways glances. What are you up to, anyway? What is your agenda? What the hell are you thinking? And why were you lurking up there? Dear, I'm not blind. But go ahead, hang me, lynch me, put nails in me...."
In a way, we would like nothing better, of course. But she already has Tarantino in her life, and he is already taking care of all that.