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Boogie-Woogie and Blues: Small Can Be Sweet

Fresh Air's jazz critic reviews a new CD box set, Boogie Woogie and Blues Piano, featuring remastered recordings from such greats as Chicago's Jimmy Yancy, Meade Lux Lewis, Pete Johnson and more — all solo or in small ensembles.

07:13

Other segments from the episode on April 15, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 15, 2008: Interview with Uma Thurman; Review of “Boogie woogie and blues piano.”

Transcript

DATE April 15, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Actress Uma Thurman discusses her life and career
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of "Pulp Fiction")

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. UMA THURMAN: (As Mia Wallace) Tell you what. I'm going to go to the
bathroom and powder my nose. You sit here and think of something to say.

Mr. JOHN TRAVOLTA: (As Vincent Vega) I'll do that.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's my guest Uma Thurman, with John Travolta, in a scene from "Pulp
Fiction." This 1994 film, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, was one
of the most influential movies of its decades and turned Thurman into a star.
She also starred in Tarantino's two "Kill Bill" movies as an assassin and
martial arts expert out for personal revenge. Thurman has been in all kinds
of films from period dramas, like "Dangerous Liaisons," to romantic comedies,
like "The Truth About Cats & Dogs." She started her career as a model,
following in the footsteps of her mother. Her father, Robert Thurman, is a
well-known scholar of Tibetan Buddhism.

Uma Thurman is starring in the new movie "The Life Before Her Eyes." As the
movie begins, a high school student named Diana is in the school's girl's
bathroom, talking with her best friend, when they hear shooting and screams.
One of the students is massacring teachers and fellow students and is about to
break into the bathroom. The movie flashes forward 15 years later. Diana is
now a wife, mother and teacher, having great difficulty facing the anniversary
of the massacre. The movie alternates between the teenaged and the adult
Diana, with Thurman playing the adult. In this scene, she's at home in the
bathroom weeping because earlier in the day she thought she saw her husband
with another woman. Her husband is played by Brett Cullen.

(Soundbite of "The Life Before Her Eyes")

Mr. BRETT CULLEN: (As Paul McFee) Diana, you need some sleep.

Ms. THURMAN: (As Diana) Mm. Mm.

(Soundbite of sobs)

Ms. THURMAN: (As Diana) That's right. I so loved you. I so loved all of
it. I thought if I lived a certain way, cared for my daughter, help my
students, loved you, then I could make everything all right.

Mr. CULLEN: (As Paul McFee) What?

Ms. THURMAN: (As Diana) You can't understand.

Mr. CULLEN: (As Paul McFee) No, I don't understand. I'm your husband.

(Soundbite of thunder)

Ms. THURMAN: (As Diana) You're not my husband.

(Soundbite of slammed door)

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Uma Thurman, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Your new movie, "The Life Before Her Eyes," is in a way like the opposite of
"Kill Bill" in the sense that "Kill Bill," you know, it's a revenge fantasy
and so the deaths aren't quite the same as in your new movie in which these
murders in a high school changed everybody from the school, everybody in the
whole town, and certainly your character's life. Would you talk a little bit
about the contrast for you?

Ms. THURMAN: Well, it's a, you know, it's a beautifully sensitive drama,
although not without devices, it's trying to sort of reflect and examine life;
whereas "Kill Bill" is just, you know, it's a wild fantastical visual orgy on
some level. But it's also--Quentin's sort of humor and his impression of
things is very, very different, and it's not meant to be realistic except when
he uses realism as an effect. Whereas I think this film was trying to reflect
and study something, you know, with a responsibility to, loyalty to realism, I
think.

GROSS: You play the mother of a daughter in the movie. Is this your first
role as a mother? I know you have two children yourself.

Ms. THURMAN: I do. I'm trying to think. Where have I had kids before? You
know, it's a scary thing when you start working as a teenager and then you
literally can't even count how many movies you've made. But I liked playing a
mother in this movie. I really crave getting to play more real characters and
I haven't often been cast through my career as a very naturalistic actress, I
guess, because I was kind of good at doing very sort of stylistic things; and
you know how you usually get kind of pigeonholed or pushed in one direction or
another. So for me to get to sort of put my hands around an earthy, human
story is incredibly gratifying.

GROSS: You've done three movies with Quentin Tarantino, "Pulp Fiction" and
"Kill Bill 1" and "Kill Bill 2." I'd like to hear how you ended up auditioning
for "Pulp Fiction." How you found out about it or how he found out about you.

Ms. THURMAN: I was actually--what was I? Twenty-three. And I was staying
in a hotel in California. And I'd been kind of a shut-in because I had an eye
infection I got in the pool and it went from one eye and into the other, so I
hadn't really left the hotel in like 10 days. And I kept putting this meeting
off with Quentin, who I didn't really know who he was and I hadn't really seen
"Reservoir Dogs" properly. And we ended up finally meeting, once I didn't
look like a rabbit, and going out to dinner at the famous Ivy Restaurant, I
think it was. And we just sat down and talked for about, I don't know, three,
four hours, I think, until they closed the restaurant; but I hadn't really
read the script but I was pretending that I had. So I kind of had to kind
of--I think I'd read some of it but I was sort of faking that I'd read the
script. And I hadn't really seen "Reservoir Dogs," although I knew what it
was. So I was sort of faking that, too, like, `Yeah! I liked that, loved
that. Yeah, that's the thing.' You know, I'd read the breakdown so it was a
very funny meeting. So pretty much I was forced to entertain him with every
other subject to hide--conceal the fact that I hadn't done my homework, which
I don't think I succeeded in doing. He busted me on many, many years later,
but that was our first meeting.

GROSS: So you probably had no idea what you were getting yourself into, then?

Ms. THURMAN: Pretty much no idea, but Quentin's scripts are--they're an
experience to read. And I find them--the reality or the production of them,
where his vision ends up looking and what it ends up looking and feeling like,
to be very unique and distinct so...

GROSS: What did...

Ms. THURMAN: Who would have guessed?

GROSS: Did he have you do an audition or did he just decide he liked you?

Ms. THURMAN: Well, it was funny actually. I kept frustrating him because I
think I passed on the movie in some way or I wasn't chasing it, and I think he
was fighting to cast me and then I was sort of resistant. The gimp and the
whole rape scene of the boys kind of freaked me out. I was concerned about
that, where that was coming from and so on. So anyway, he came over to my
house and I think we read the script together. He was really nice to me. I
was in a kind of--I was a little bit fragile as an actress, I think, at that
time. I'd had some difficult experiences in work or something. And it's a
long time ago, but I remember that he really did a lot to make me comfortable
and enjoy doing the work. I really got back to the joy of acting at that
time.

GROSS: I'm wondering if Quentin Tarantino saw something in yourself that you
hadn't seen in yourself. I mean, even just the way he dressed you for it, you
know, with the black wig and the bangs, and you have this kind of seductive
and cynical way of speaking in it. Had you seen yourself that way before in
movies?

Ms. THURMAN: No. No, I hadn't. You know, a lot of the films I did before
that were--many were period films, and so I always felt that I had been
trapped in a corset for a long time, and I was trying to break those cords and
get into the current day, the present day; and he let me in, you know, into
something ubermodern. But you know, the design of the character, the look of
the character, we did very much collaboratively, costume and everything.

GROSS: If you don't mind, let me just play a clip with you and John Travolta
from "Pulp Fiction." And this is at Jack Rabbit Slims, the '50s-themed
restaurant that you're in. And your husband, a dangerous man, has asked
Travolta, a hit man, to take you out to dinner. And Travolta likes you but
he's afraid to get too close. He's telling you that he heard that your
husband, Marsellus, threw Tony out of a window because of something that had
happened with you. And here's where we pick it up.

(Soundbite of "Pulp Fiction")

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. THURMAN: (As Mia Wallace) Don't be shy, Vincent. What else did they
say?

Mr. TRAVOLTA: (As Vincent Vega) I'm not shy.

Ms. THURMAN: (As Mia Wallace) It involved the f-word?

Mr. TRAVOLTA: (As Vincent Vega) No, no, no, no, no. They just said that
Antoine had given you a foot massage.

Ms. THURMAN: (As Mia Wallace) And?

Mr. TRAVOLTA: (As Vincent Vega) And nothing. That's it.

Ms. THURMAN: (As Mia Wallace) You heard Marsellus threw Tony "Rocky Horror"
out a fourth story window for giving me a foot massage?

Mr. TRAVOLTA: (As Vincent Vega) Mm-hmm.

Ms. THURMAN: (As Mia Wallace) And you believe that?

Mr. TRAVOLTA: (As Vincent Vega) Well, I mean, the time I was told it sounded
reasonable.

Ms. THURMAN: (As Mia Wallace) Marsellus throwing Tony out of a fourth story
window for massaging my feet seem reasonable?

Mr. TRAVOLTA: (As Vincent Vega) No, it seemed excessive, but that doesn't
mean it didn't happen. I mean, I understand that Marsellus is very protective
of you.

Ms. THURMAN: (As Mia Wallace) A husband being protective of his wife is one
thing. A husband almost killing another man for touching his wife's feet is
something else.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: (As Vincent Vega) But did it happen?

Ms. THURMAN: (As Mia Wallace) Only thing Antoine ever touched of mine was my
hand when he shook it at my wedding.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: (As Vincent Vega) Really?

Ms. THURMAN: (As Mia Wallace) Truth is nobody knows why Marsellus threw Tony
out of that fourth-story window except Marsellus and Tony. When you little
scamps get together you're worse than a sewing circle.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's my guest Uma Thurman, and John Travolta, in a scene from "Pulp
Fiction."

"Pulp Fiction" remade John Travolta's career, and you were a child when
"Saturday Night Fever" came out.

Ms. THURMAN: I think I was like eight or something, eight or nine.

GROSS: So what were your images of Travolta? Did you have a strong
impression of him?

Ms. THURMAN: Well, I had a very strong Vinnie Barbarino impression.

GROSS: From TV?

Ms. THURMAN: Yes. "Welcome Back, Kotter." I used to watch that as a child,
so that was a big impression to me. And a huge impact was "Grease." I think I
had the record, or maybe my friend had the record. I remember, it was like
the one time that we, you know, we were girls and whatever--little girls in
upstate New York--but we had that record and we learned those songs, and
Sandra Dee was a lot of fun for us. So, you know, he was a big star of my
childhood, I would say, Travolta.

GROSS: One of the real classic scenes from "Pulp Scene" is the dance scene at
Jack Rabbit Slims, the '50s restaurant where there's an emcee dressed as Ed
Sullivan and the waiters are dressed as '50s people, like Buddy Holly, or
Marilyn Monroe; and you insist that you and Travolta enter the twist concert,
and he's reluctant but you kind of grab him and you go up there and start
dancing. And had you ever danced before? I mean, did you think of yourself
as somebody who dances much in public?

Ms. THURMAN: Well, not at all; and I'm still not, and I never will be
someone who dances in public. In fact, if you see me dancing in public, call
411, call my mother, because it's a bad sign. But no, that was actually
something so fantastic because I was, you know, I'm a tall person. I think
sometimes tall people can be late bloomers, I think, because we have to kind
of grow into our bodies and learn how to find some kind of center of balance,
so I always identified with feeling very awkward. And I was really nervous
about the dancing. And John and Quentin kind of choreographed it, picked the,
you know, the period dances and put them into sequence. But by the time I got
up there and started doing it, I didn't want to stop, because I am secretly,
you know, a big Doris Day fan and Ginger Rogers fan, and I always wanted to be
a song and dance girl on some level, which I didn't get to realize till "The
Producers." But that was sort of the beginning of feeling less awkward for me.

GROSS: Well, in this dance scene, you know, there's a little bit of the
Twist, the Monkey, the Swim. Did Quentin have you watch, like, '60s dance
shows or '50s ones like "American Bandstand" or a '60s one like "Hullabaloo"
and "Shindig"?

Ms. THURMAN: No, you know--well, there were two things. I think one was a
scene in "The Aristocats," the animated movie. And the other was--I think it
was a Roger Vadeen film. I can't remember which movie it was, where they do a
dance in a record store. Really cool scene, because I think he wanted me to
sort of see that this was very cool dancing, you know, very calm, very cool,
and very settled, you know, groovy. And then the actual doing of it was we
just were in these tiny little dinky trailers outside the soundstage in
California; and we, you know, we looked at these two bits of footage from
other movies. And John and Quentin were, `Yeah, what about the Batman? What
about this, what about that one?' You know, they kind of made a sequence. You
know, John's a pretty good teacher, I have to say. So you kind of have all
you need if he's there. In that regard, you're safe.

GROSS: What was it like for you when "Pulp Fiction" came out? It was such an
important film. I mean, it's like a landmark in independent cinema.
Everything about the film became immediately iconic. So I'm wondering if you
were surprised and what impact it had on your life?

Ms. THURMAN: I always thought it was going to be good. I was really excited
about doing it. I had the time of my life acting in it, but I think I was
still pretty insecure, to be honest with you, and much more so, you know. And
I think that the success of it made me quite nervous. And of course, I didn't
feel like any of it was a credit to me. You know, I was sort of just--I was
still on the tail end of my--even though I was 24, 25, I think I still had a
little bit of the insecure teenager in my personality taking hold. But, you
know, because I really missed out on feeling great about it. And I only
realized this later, when we were preparing for "Kill Bill," and Quentin and I
watched it again, and I saw what a great film it was, and I really was so
proud and I saw that I was actually--I was good in it. It wasn't just, you
know, the room around me. I also was a contributor. And I realized it was
too bad that I had been too, in a way, too kind of shy and frightened to
really enjoy the big boom of it when it happened.

GROSS: Yeah, your character is so not shy in it.

Ms. THURMAN: Mm-hmm. I rarely play shy characters. I have--my own like
fears or neuroses have been exposed in a few projects, but not many.

GROSS: Uma Thurman will be back in the second half of the show. She stars in
the new movie "The Life Before Her Eyes." It opens in several cities this
Friday.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Uma Thurman, and she stars in
the new movie "The Life Before Her Eyes."

From what I've read, there's a scene from "Pulp Fiction," that's directly
connected to how "Kill Bill" evolved, and so I want to play that scene and
then hear the story behind it. And this is a scene from "Pulp Fiction," back
in the '50s restaurant, Jack Rabbit Slims. You're sitting there with
Travolta, and you're talking about a TV pilot that he heard that you did.

(Soundbite of "Pulp Fiction")

Mr. TRAVOLTA: (As Vincent Vega) I heard you did a pilot.

Ms. THURMAN: (As Mia Wallace) That was my 15 minutes.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: (As Vincent Vega) What was it?

Ms. THURMAN: (As Mia Wallace) It was a show about a team of female secret
agents called "Fox Force Five."

Mr. TRAVOLTA: (As Vincent Vega) What?

Ms. THURMAN: (As Mia Wallace) "Fox Force Five." Fox, as in we're a bunch of
foxy chicks. Force, as in we're a force to be reckoned with. And five, as in
there's one, two, three, four, five of us. There was a blond one, Somerset
O'Neill. She was the leader. The Japanese fox was a kung fu master. The
black girl was a demolition expert. French fox's speciality was sex.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: (As Vincent Vega) What was your specialty?

Ms. THURMAN: (As Mia Wallace) Knives. The character I played, Raven McCoy,
her background was she grew up raised by circus performers. According to the
show, she was the deadliest woman in the world with a knife. And she knew a
zillion old jokes. Her grandfather, an old Vaudevillian, taught her. And if
we would have got picked up, we would have worked in a gimmick where every
show I would have told another joke.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: (As Vincent Vega) You know any of them old jokes?

Ms. THURMAN: (As Mia Wallace) Well, I only got the chance to say one because
we only did one show.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: (As Vincent Vega) Tell me.

Ms. THURMAN: (As Mia Wallace) It's corny.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: (As Vincent Vega) Don't be that way. Tell me.

Ms. THURMAN: (As Mia Wallace) No. You wouldn't like it and I'd be
embarrassed.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: (As Vincent Vega) You'd be embarrassed? You told like 50
million people and you can't tell me? I promise I won't laugh.

Ms. THURMAN: (As Mia Wallace) That's what I'm afraid of, Vince.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: (As Vincent Vega) That's not what I meant, and you know it.

Ms. THURMAN: (As Mia Wallace) Now I'm definitely not going to tell you
because it's been built up too much.

Mr. TRAVOLTA: (As Vincent Vega) What a gyp.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's my guest Uma Thurman with John Travolta in a scene from "Pulp
Fiction."

So Uma Thurman, how does "Fox Force Five" figure into the creation of your
movie "Kill Bill"?

Ms. THURMAN: Well, the "Fox Force Five" are the seeds of the Vipers, the
deadly assassination Vipers. So Quentin, you know, he has this world in which
they all live, you know, and these characters sort of--they're alive in his
mind, and they have all kinds of amazing back stories. You know, they exist.
The "Pulp Fiction" world and the "Kill Bill" world are slightly different
worlds; but some of the characters, as you can see, cross over and transfer.

GROSS: So in "Kill Bill" you were part of an assassination squad of women.

Ms. THURMAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And Bill, your former lover, finds you about to get married to
somebody else and shoots you. Four years later, you awake from a coma and go
on this revenge spree, just crossing off people on your list of people to
kill. So when Quentin Tarantino was talking to you about making this film,
and you knew that it would require an enormous amount of martial arts
choreography and...

Ms. THURMAN: Well, the film, it really grew. Like in the very, very
beginning of it, Quen and I were out with--all the crew would go out every
Friday night after work, you know, the crew and the cast. And so I think it
was one Friday night and we were all out someplace in Santa Monica, some sort
of sawdust bar, and we got talking. And he was always trying to educate me
about cinema--which it was clear to him, I think, I knew so little--and about
genres and this and that. So we got going about revenge movies, and that's
where the concept of Beatrix Kiddo came up. And the original idea was just
the idea of an opening of a church wedding massacre and the survival of this
bride, and her just driving into LA, you know, in a bloodied wedding dress
sworn to revenge. And that was kind of the original sort of idea that came up
in that bar.

And then there was a phrase where Quentin had her on her assassination
mission. Bill came up that night. Bill was created right then and there; and
then, you know, it really, it evolved over years. The whole Hong Kong aspect
happened later with him; and it was quite exciting because when he started
writing it, we spent a lot of time together or he'd call me up from LA and
read some outrageous scene that he'd come up with. And, you know, you're sort
of watching this thing unfold. And basically the creative process really
never ended all way to the point of splitting the story in half and having the
two films stand alone, which maybe was always somewhere in his mind based on
the material that was shot. But still, he was just constantly throwing out
ideas and building worlds and destroying them and building them again.

GROSS: Uma Thurman will be back in the second half of the show. She stars in
the new movie "The Life Before Her Eyes." It opens in several cities this
Friday.

I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Uma Thurman. The star
of such films as "Pulp Fiction," "Kill Bill," "The Truth About Cats & Dogs,"
"Henry & June," and "Dangerous Liaisons." Her new film is called "The Life
Before Her Eyes."

When we left off, we were talking about how she and Quentin Tarantino came up
with the idea for "Kill Bill," in which she plays an assassin and martial arts
expert out for revenge against her former lover, Bill, who shot her and left
her in a coma for four years.

"Kill Bill" is all about revenge and I want to play the opening monologue from
"Kill Bill 2." And we've just seen a flashback in which Bill shoots you at
your wedding and now it's the present day. You're driving in your car and
here's the voiceover.

(Soundbite of "Kill Bill 2")

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. THURMAN: (As Beatrix Kiddo) I looked dead, didn't I? But I wasn't. But
it wasn't from lack of trying, I can tell you that. Actually, Bill's last
bullet put me in a coma, a coma I was to lie in for four years.

When I woke up, I went on what the movie advertisements refer to as a roaring
rampage of revenge. I roared and I rampaged and I got bloody satisfaction.
I've killed a hell of a lot of people to get to this point, but I have only
one more. The last one. The one I'm driving too, right now. The only one
left. And when I arrive at my destination, I am going to kill Bill.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's Uma Thurman in the opening from "Kill Bill 2."

Before you started making the movie, could you imagine yourself starring as
this, you know, assassin in a martial arts form, being able to kill with
knives and swords...

Ms. THURMAN: No.

GROSS: ...and martial arts and...

Ms. THURMAN: No. I was really--it was really actually--you know, we--when I
went out there in my yellow jumpsuit and, you know, raised my sword, I still
had doubts. But by the end, I have to tell you, I felt like a pro. By the
end it was actually quite phenomenal what Master Yuen Wo-ping did to my brain
and my body. It was tough but it was kind of like--I sort of felt like the
"Bionic Woman." Like I had been killed and rebuilt myself. So it was an
amazing rewiring that took place there.

GROSS: This is the martial arts expert who trained you, who you just referred
to?.

Ms. THURMAN: Yes. He's a director and a choreographer himself, and one of
his choreographies he's most famous for is "Crouching Tiger."

GROSS: Oh, yeah.

Ms. THURMAN: And he's just a brilliant, brilliantly talented man, and you
know, special. Very special. We call him the Master and so I called him the
Master. He was my master. And his fight team, who made "Kill Bill" and who
are the Crazy 88--many of them--and you know they're really amazing guys. And
they're all based in Hong Kong, primarily, and I really miss them. I mean,
they really changed my life in very touching, strong ways. They're really
special people.

GROSS: Although you killed most of them.

Ms. THURMAN: I had to kill them. I had to hit them with things. I took a
few licks and hits, myself, I'll tell you that.

GROSS: You said the Master rewired your brain, not just your body. How did
he change your brain?

Ms. THURMAN: He turned me into a coordinated person for the first time in my
life. Well, I mean, I participated; but, you know, it's difficult to learn.
We forget when we kind of get into our adult lives and we, you know, we avoid
as much stress as we can; but we learn how to kind of avoid places where we
struggle. And when you have to go back and learn something from the very
beginning, it's humbling because you have to go into that place where you
struggle, where you can't do, where you're hurting and you're humiliated and
you want to stop; and you don't and you have to continue, and you have to find
strength to continue. And then you break through and you learn a little bit
more, and you learn a little bit more. And then, you know, in this case of
"Kill Bill," every time I could do one thing they gave me another thing to do.
So it was just a constant process of struggle and learning and, you know, it
really just changes your brain. I think they made my brain younger for a
while, because my brain just had to become razor sharp again, and it could go
back to a much more flexible state than pregnancy, gardening, and mothering
had sort of put me.

GROSS: What was his approach to teaching you? Was he encouraging or was he
more the authoritarian?

Ms. THURMAN: They were very encouraging to me because they could see I
worked hard. You know, it's like you're trying to do something and you can't
do it and you're swinging a stick around. It hits you in the face, hits you
in the head, you swing it around, do it again. You have tears running down
your face practically, and you keep trying. So they were very nice to me
because they could see that I really didn't give up and I wasn't a baby, too
much. I was a bit of a baby. So they were nice to me.

GROSS: Would you just list some of the things your character is subjected to
and some of the blows she takes and gives in "Kill Bill 1" and "2,"
particularly "1"?

Ms. THURMAN: Well, I mean, there's a battle, like, you know, where I kill
the 88; and then--but that went on literally, what seemed like forever. And I
do everything from jump off of balconies, land on tables, which I'm afraid of
heights. You know, I had wires on, but, you know--so finally I do it so I'd
jump off the balcony, land on the table. Finally I get that right. And then,
you know, the cameras are on. Got to do it again. Finally I'd do it again
and I get it right again, and they go, `Oh, good. She can do that. Let's
have three guys charge at her and she can now add seven sword moves to that.'
Which, by the way, is pretty scary because, you know, if you add, you know,
sword moves on short notice, the brain has to really process them, because if
the sword is in the wrong place at the wrong time, you either hit someone or
you get hit or, you know, all sorts of trouble breaks loose.

GROSS: Was the sword sharp?

Ms. THURMAN: They were sharp, but they were wood, the ones that you're
swinging really fast; but you know, if any slender thing, you know, hits your
face and you don't know, you know, you're going to open the skin.

GROSS: Yeah, yeah. You bet.

Well, "Kill Bill," I believe, was delayed because you were pregnant and you
shot it after you gave birth. So how soon after becoming a mother did you
actually shoot the first part of "Kill Bill"?

Ms. THURMAN: I think, about six months. I think Levon was almost six
months.

GROSS: That's kind of amazing because it's so difficult, I think, for your
body to get back into shape and...

Ms. THURMAN: It is.

GROSS: ...feel like yourself again after you give birth, and here you are
doing all this martial arts stuff that you've never done before.

Ms. THURMAN: Well, first of all, you never feel like yourself again after
you have a kid...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. THURMAN: ...because you aren't the same self. So that weird feeling of
`Where is myself?' is a permanent state of being, isn't it? I think many
mothers probably feel that. But it's actually kind of like, you know, the new
beginning of some other self. But yeah, it was really difficult, I have to
say, it really wasn't an easy thing to do.

GROSS: What were some of the movies Tarantino asked you to watch while making
"Kill Bill"?

Ms. THURMAN: We looked at "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." Clint Eastwood
was a big hero for me in this as the "Kill Bill" character because, you know,
he could have written me a piece where I got to really do what I love to do,
which is talk and emote and dissect things. But instead he gave me this sort
of very silent powerful emotional, physical. Like, you know, totally opposite
to what would be more comfortable for me to do, you know. And so I really
needed to figure out how to hold that person, that character and all these
crazy things that were around. You know, hold the movie together kind of
without a lot to say, without a lot of chance to let people in. So I kind of
was really into the Clint Eastwood trilogy characters because he barely said a
word but yet there was just such a world in his eyes. And...

GROSS: His eyes. Exactly, yeah. He's got that squint, too.

Ms. THURMAN: He has that squint, which I tried to impersonate, here and
there. But I think---and the dignity and the sort of awesome power of the
silence.

GROSS: You know, the opening scene of "Kill Bill," when you're lying there
and you've been shot and you're bloodied, there's blood all over your teeth
and your face. And it's shot in black and white, and so you really look like
death. Was it at all disconcerting to see that when you actually watched what
you looked like?

Ms. THURMAN: Well, I'm usually the one in the makeup trailer going, `Let's
put some more over there, and let's put some here.' There's actually a really
funny--there's an amazing little Polaroid that my makeup artist took of me in
the yellow jumpsuit and I'm covered with blood, and with my blond "Charlie's
Angels" kind of hair; and my daughter is there in a little mini yellow
jumpsuit that the beautiful Chinese wardrobe department and our wardrobe
supervisor, Helen, had made for her; and then there's my baby son, who's six
months old, in his mini yellow jumpsuit; and I've got my jumper pulled up and
I'm nursing him. And I'm just sitting there with my two kids, you know,
covered in blood, and all of us in jumpsuits, and it's really classic. So,
you know, call me crazy.

GROSS: My guest is actress Uma Thurman. Her new film is called "The Life
Before Her Eyes." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Uma Thurman, the star of such films as "Kill Bill," "Pulp
Fiction," "The Truth About Cats & Dogs," and a new film "The Life Before Her
Eyes." Here's a scene from her 1988 film "Dangerous Liaisons," set in 18th
century France. Thurman plays Cecile, a virtuous young girl who is being
forced by her mother into an arranged marriage with an older man, but Cecile
is in love with her music instructor. John Malkovich plays the Vicomte
Valmont, who pretends he wants to help her but intends to seduce her. In this
scene, he's just snuck into her bedroom where she's asleep. His touch awakens
her.

(Soundbite of "Dangerous Liaisons")

Ms. THURMAN: (As Cecile de Volanges) What do you want?

Mr. JOHN MALKOVICH: (As Vicomte Valmont) Well, I don't know. What do you
think?

Ms. THURMAN: (As Cecile de Volanges) No!

Mr. MALKOVICH: (As Vicomte Valmont) All right, all right. I just want you
to give me a kiss.

Ms. THURMAN: (As Cecile de Volanges) A kiss?

Mr. MALKOVICH: (As Vicomte Valmont) That's all.

Ms. THURMAN: (As Cecile de Volanges) And then will you go?

Mr. MALKOVICH: (As Vicomte Valmont) Then I'll go.

Ms. THURMAN: (As Cecile de Volanges) Promise?

Mr. MALKOVICH: (As Vicomte Valmont) Whatever you say.

Ms. THURMAN: (As Cecile de Volanges) All right.

(Soundbite of kiss and Cecile's protests)

Ms. THURMAN: (As Cecile de Volanges) All right.

Mr. MALKOVICH: (As Vicomte Valmont) Very nice.

Ms. THURMAN: (As Cecile de Volanges) No. I mean, will you go now?

Mr. MALKOVICH: (As Vicomte Valmont) I don't think so.

Ms. THURMAN: (As Cecile de Volanges) You promised.

Mr. MALKOVICH: (As Vicomte Valmont) I promised to go when you gave me a
kiss. You didn't give me a kiss. I gave you a kiss. Not the same thing at
all.

Ms. THURMAN: (As Cecile de Volanges) And if I give you a kiss?

Mr. MALKOVICH: (As Vicomte Valmont) Let's just get ourselves more
comfortable, shall we?

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: When you started your acting career, what kind of roles did you expect
to be cast in?

Ms. THURMAN: I wanted to get to do wonderful things, you know, like "Annie
Hall," like "Silkwood," like "Pillow Talk." You know? I mean those, I wanted
to get to do those kind of women and, you know, communicate the experience of
being a woman, both with humor and with drama. You know, that's all I wanted
to do.

GROSS: Well, you mentioned "Pillow Talk." I mean, a few of your early movies
are far more sexual in the bedroom than "Pillow Talk" ever was, and I'm
thinking like in "Dangerous Liaisons" when, you know, John Malkovich comes
into your bedroom and seduces you, and in one of those scenes you're topless.
And then you played June in "Henry & June," about Henry Miller, which was a
pretty sexual film, too. Were you prepared for that?

Ms. THURMAN: No, I wasn't. And I think that actually can be--I don't know.
I think because I was tall--well, in general, anyway, in my life, because I
was sort of independent and very precocious, you know, verbally and otherwise,
people often took me for being older than I was, or more knowledgeable, or
more womanly than I actually was; and I think that's something that was always
kind of challenging, you know. I was playing parts that the female, well, the
female experience had not happened to me. Do you know? And there you are.
You know, but like imagine that for any young girl. Like, all you want to do
is be taken as a woman, right? I mean, that's, you know, you don't want to be
taken as a kid. But you really don't know what you're doing or what it's
about. You're, kind of, you're imitating maturity. You don't really
understand it. So that can be hard because you don't really control it, like
having people find you very sexy or something like that. It's one thing, I
think, if you're kind of in your own skin about that. But if you're not, it's
kind of weird that people project onto you stuff that you're not really--you
can't handle or don't really know what it is.

GROSS: Were your directors sensitive to that?

Ms. THURMAN: Sometimes. Some were. Some were. Some weren't. You know,
being a director requires, I think, a little bit of ruthlessness or brings it
out, because directors are trying to corral and, you know, coerce so many
people in this death-defying act on a day-to-day basis of either getting a
scene or not getting the scene. And so many people can screw it up. And so
much pressure is on them that I think it's difficult for directors to worry
about sensitivity training because it's very stressful.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Uma Thurman, and her new movie
is called "The Life Before Her Eyes."

You were brought up as a Buddhist or at least by a father who is Buddhist.
Your father, Robert Thurman, is a scholar of Tibetan Buddhism and was the
first American to be ordained as a Buddhist monk. So were there certain
Buddhist principles you grew up with?

Ms. THURMAN: Yes. Oh yeah. All over the place. And, you know, the whole
conversation was about that. Buddhism as a philosophy is a really good one,
the simple guidelines and responsibilities of cause and effect and karma. And
I think they're really excellent, and so I was brought up with that.

GROSS: What was emphasized to you as a child before you were able to really
understand like the larger philosophy of the religion?

Ms. THURMAN: Yes. That's what I understood more as a child. I mean, I was
always--but, you know, I think, I always wanted to be normal like all kids.
You know? Everything that's came across as strange or set you apart from your
peers was kind of stressful for me, so I think that the Buddhism fell into
that category, you know. I think I wanted to go to church and sing the song
with everybody else and just feel part of things. But the prescription was to
be different than that, so I think maybe I could have gotten more out of it if
I hadn't wanted so desperately to be normal.

GROSS: Well, you spent part of your childhood in India. What did you find
most interesting about India?

Ms. THURMAN: Most interesting about India, there's no end to the interest of
India. But, what did I find--I was there as a baby, which of course I don't
remember; and I remember when I was nine, I guess, going back, and I really
think that it was an amazing experience as a child to leave America and spend
a long, protracted time in that culture. It certainly made you see the
condition of life on a very different level and the struggle of life, not to
take for granted. And then also to see the amazing amount of joy within
hardship, which is something you don't always see in sort of a white
middle-class background, that kind of celebration amongst having so many gifts
that we have, you know. So I don't know. It was a very powerful experience
for me.

GROSS: Part of what makes you so stunning as an actress is your height,
you're about 6 feet tall, your full lips. I'm wondering if those things were
things that kids picked on when you were young because, as you pointed out...

Ms. THURMAN: Well, of course. Specifically those two.

GROSS: ...being different isn't always good. Yeah.

Ms. THURMAN: Those two. The height was bad and the big mouth and the big
nose and the wide-set eyes, was all a problem. Was all a very big problem.

GROSS: But you started modeling when you were 15, so you had to know by then
that there was something, you know, uniquely beautiful about you. So how did
you start modeling if you were self-conscious because kids were mocking you
for the things that became your assets?

Ms. THURMAN: Well, what is an asset as a sort of exotic-looking model--which
isn't necessarily the definition of pretty in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1983.
I was not the definition of that there. But my mother, you know, my mother is
Swedish and German, and my mother was this sort of famous beauty and much more
than me. You look at her pictures and she was like a really exquisite,
exquisite, perfect-looking woman. And I was never a good model. I didn't
really have that much success at that, but at least I always knew that I
didn't really want to be a model, or that I also--I think I always knew that I
wasn't going to be a very successful one on top of it. But, see, the modeling
really was a means to have my independence and fund it and get to my acting
classes. My first film I made--I really only did it for two summers, too,
because I made--I went one summer, took acting classes and did some modeling,
and then I went back to school. And then I went the next summer; and by the
end of that summer, I was in my first film. So when I was 16, I made my first
movie.

GROSS: That's so young.

Ms. THURMAN: Mm-hmm. And I thought I wasn't a child actor. That's a funny
one. I remember that.

GROSS: Uma Thurman, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

Ms. THURMAN: Thank you very, very much. Have a great day.

GROSS: Uma Thurman stars in the new film "The Life Before Her Eyes." It opens
in several cities this Friday.

Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new box set of blues and
boogie-woogie piano.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Kevin Whitehead on new anthology of boogie-woogie and
blues piano
TERRY GROSS, host:

The music known as boogie-woogie was an early variety of jazz, a rolling and
complex style of blues piano with some syncopated Cuban rhythms thrown in. It
arose around the turn of the last century but became a national craze in the
late 1930s and early '40s. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new
anthology of boogie-woogie and blues piano.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KEVIN WHITEHEAD: A lot of New Orleans pianists learned that fancy bit.
That's "Yancey Stop, 1939," by Chicago's Jimmy Yancey, whose left-hand lope
could sound a little rough. Boogie piano was an early branch of jazz, and
early refinement of the blues, a sort of dialogue between the pianist's hands.
The left usually plays a steady bass pattern, while the right piles lines and
contrasting rhythms on top. The practice may have evolved out the dialogue
between a blues singer's voice and guitar. This is Yancey again, on piano and
singing.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JIMMY YANCY: (Singing)
I received one letter
Little girls all dressed in red
I received one letter
Little girls all dressed in red
Can you...(unintelligible)...
Jim, your baby's dead

(End of soundbite)

Mr. WHITEHEAD: Some of the earliest self-taught boogie pianists played for
tips in logging camps in the Deep South. They traveled from one camp to
another by rail, often as hobos. The mode of transport left its mark on the
music. As boogie developed, the endlessly varied click-clack of railroad cars
rolling over switches and bridges put polyrhythms in a pianist's ears. The
music also grew in speed and momentum until you could hear its distant roots
in West African percussion choirs, with their busy and layered roots. Here's
"Honky Tonk Train Blues" by Chicago's Meade Lux Lewis, a bit younger than
Yancey. He didn't ride the rods but grew up near the tracks.

(Soundbite of "Honky Tonk Train Blues")

Mr. WHITEHEAD: This music is from a three-CD minibox from Mosaic Records,
available from their Web site. I've been listening to it a lot. "Boogie
Woogie & Blues Piano" collects solos, duos, and even piano trios, pianists
accompanying singers, and boogie and blues combos led by Lionel Hampton, Benny
Carter, Harry James, and Red Allen. It skims records made for Columbia and
Victor between 1935 and '41, the years when boogie mushroomed into a national
craze. Its originators were specialists, but the music soon infected players
groomed in other styles. Kansas City blues man Pete Johnson, schooled in
ragtime, often worked with one of the stars of this set, singing bartender,
blues shouter, and proto-rock 'n' roller Joe Turner.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JOE TURNER: (Singing) Holy boy, let him jump for joy
Young man, happy had a baby boy
Here comes another brand new choo-choo toy
Yeah.

(End of soundbite)

Mr. WHITEHEAD: By the early 1940s, this African-American working class music
became a commercial property, and white bands hopped on the piano wagon. Will
Bradley had his "Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar," and the Andrews Sisters
their "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy." After World War II, boogie would invade
country music. Will Bradley's 1940 "Down the Road a Piece" anticipates that
trend, and drummer Ray McKinley's half-drawled, half-spoken delivery predicts
Bob Dylan's basement tapes. Freddie Slack is on piano.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. RAY McKINLEY: (Singing)
If you want to hear some boogie
Then I know the place
It's just an old piano
and a knocked out bass
The drummer man's a guy
they call eight beat Mac
You remember Doc and old Beat Me Daddy Slack
Mammy's selling chicken fried in bacon grease
Come along with me, boys, it's just down the road a piece

(End of soundbite)

Mr. WHITEHEAD: The boogie trend had run its course in American jazz by the
end of World War II, but its influence kept spreading, and not only to country
music and rock 'n' roll. Boogie woogie was the sound American troops had
brought to the world and became a post-war craze in occupied Japan and in
Europe. Dutch composer Louis Andriessen has written boogie passages into a
couple of works, including an homage to Jimmy Yancey. But then, you can hear
echoes of this patterned, textured take on the blues everywhere, from Jerry
Lee Lewis to Philip Glass.

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead teaches English and American Studies at the University
of Kansas, and he's a jazz columnist for eMusic.com. He reviewed the new
"Boogie Woogie & Blues Piano" box set on the Mosaic label.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of music)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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