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.”