Filming that stretched over 155 days. Needing to become proficient at a whole host of martial arts. Keeping up with the whirling dervish that is Quentin Tarantino. Learning to drive a stick.
Uma Thurman tries to make it sound like no big deal, but surely the filming of Kill Bill was no picnic for her - not when filming took twice as long as originally planned, the swordfighting techniques she had to master involved muscles she didn't even realize she had, and enough fake blood flowed during the shoot to fill a big-city reservoir.
"Well, survival was an issue," the 33-year-old actress says over the phone from New York. This was supposed to have been a few-minute break in what she admits has been a "ruthless schedule" of promotional appearances and interviews on behalf of Kill Bill -Vol. 1, which opened in theaters yesterday (with Vol. 2 to follow in February). But when another opportunity to plug the picture arises, Thurman cheerfully takes to the task.
Watching Kill Bill, Tarantino's ode to the samurai flicks of yesteryear that helped inspire his rise from video-store clerk to Oscar-winning director, it's hard to miss the fun he had putting the film together. With only the bare essentials of a plot - Thurman plays a former samurai assassin out for revenge on the ex-allies who tried to kill her - the film is propelled by his clear enthusiasm for the project, that of a film geek left alone in a candy store of celluloid.
But what about his star? Was it fun for her?
"Fun wouldn't be the right word," she says with a hearty Uma Thurman laugh, a throaty, rumbling thing anyone familiar with her film work should recognize. "It was the most difficult, challenging, physical, extraordinary stretch I've ever had to make, in all those wild regards. Ultimately, it's very gratifying to have done it and to have made it through it, and to be there on the screen holding that sword and not have people laughing in the wrong moments."
Then again, if Kill Bill proved more of a load than she expected, she has only herself to blame. The whole thing sprang, after all, from her idea, one she gave voice to during a barroom conversation with Tarantino while they were filming Pulp Fiction.
"That was sort of the seed of the idea," she explains. "All the martial-arts aspects, all the grindhouse cinema influence, all that he created later. But the seed idea, of the wedding-chapel massacre and my character, an ex-assassin being wiped out on her wedding day, and then the blood-splattered bride returning for revenge, that was the original conversation that he and I had."
Of course, that conversation took place a decade ago, and a lot of blood has flown through everyone's veins since then (talking about "water under the bridge" in the context of Kill Bill is way too tame). With the release of Pulp Fiction in 1994, Tarantino became Hollywood's most adrenalized hotshot; any other director who, over the past nine years, has released only one film, would have fallen off the cinematic map, but the call for a new Tarantino film has only grown hotter. Thurman, although the movie earned her an Oscar nomination and a shot at big-time stardom, faded from the spotlight, her career a mix of major-studio disappointments (Batman & Robin, The Avengers, Les Miserables) and smaller films that, regardless of their quality, never found an audience (Beautiful Girls, Sweet and Lowdown, Tape). If nothing else, Kill Bill should get her noticed again.
Thurman's original idea lay dormant for a few years, until Tarantino met up with her at a dinner party and promised to finish the script in three weeks, as a present for her 30th birthday. The process took a little longer than that - 18 months - but Tarantino proved true to his word. Now it was up to Thurman to meet the challenge, of starring in a genre she'd never really experienced, and of meeting the role's enormous physical demands.
"I was a novice" to samurai films, Thurman says (Tarantino seems to prefer the term "grindhouse," referring to the seedy, skid-row theaters in which the films were often shown). "I know some girls that get into that stuff, but it's a very boy-related passion, the king-fu movies and all this stuff. I don't know that many women are truly tuned into it to that extent - not that they wouldn't like it if they were exposed to it. It's not usually marketed toward women."
A crash-course in Tarantino's world of cinema injected Thurman with the necessary passion for the film. ("His enthusiasm can be infectious," she says.) And being involved with the project from its inception, she realized, provided an opportunity not to be missed.
"Somebody that knows you well, creating a movie in which you will be asked to do or be something that no one would normally ask you to do - going out of your own water like that is kind of what an actor lives for, in a way," Thurman says. "To go someplace you've never gone before, it's what's exciting about it."
That, and handling a few physical challenges that proved, perhaps, most daunting of all.
"It definitely, for the first time, forced me to be athletic, in a way that I've never, ever had any reason to be competent in," she says. "I feel so much more able to do anything - because I had to do everything - than I ever was before."