Surprise! Uma Thurman’s back

Actress Uma Thurman is returning to acting with a scene-stealing turn in Lars von Trier's "Nymphomaniac."
(Jennifer S. Altman / For The Times)

NEW YORK — Uma Thurman is bopping around a downtown Asian-fusion restaurant in this city she calls home, having just enthusiastically ordered some of the fried specialties (“I never met a dumpling I didn’t like”), her 6-foot-frame and luminous skin incongruous among the normal-sized and average-complected people around her.

Thurman has a demonstrative personality that some would call actress-y, though it seems less like a put-on than simply the grand way she chooses to go through life. The laugh is loud; the voice is confident.

It is an attitude that, at least internally, is newly earned.


Uma Thurman film: In the March 19 Calendar section, an article about actress Uma Thurman said that the opening day of the film “Nymphomaniac: Vol 2” would be April 18. The film is opening April 4.—

“Everything got to me so much before,” she said. “I was just like a hairless cat in a snowstorm half the time. I was so thin-skinned. Anything negative people said I would latch onto.”

PHOTOS: Behind the scenes of movies and TV

Thurman is making a comeback of sorts in Lars von Trier’s explicit-yet-talkie sex-addiction drama “Nymphomaniac: Vol. I,” which opens Friday. Unlike her landmark roles in several Quentin Tarantino movies, Thurman’s imposing presence is scaled down here, as she plays a puffy-eyed cheating victim who has turned up to confront her husband and his mistress (Stacy Martin) at the mistress’ home.

With three children in tow, she lets loose in the scene an eight-minute monologue that would make anyone who’s ever been jilted stand up and cheer, providing a jolt both acidly comic and emotionally enlivening.

“Would it be all right if I showed the children the whoring bed?” she says with lacerating wit. Then, to the kids, “You should try to memorize this moment: It will stand you in good stead later in therapy,” before saying of the mistress to no one in particular, “I have a hard time picturing her enjoying loneliness.” At the end, she emits a desperate Shakespearean scream and makes her exit.

It’s Thurman’s only scene, but a striking one, not only because it shifts the movie’s moral trajectory from dour nihilism to soulful consequence but also because Thurman’s character brings in a complex vitality from literally out of nowhere.

The same might be said of the latest phase of the actress’ career.

After sitting on the sidelines for nearly three years following the birth of her third child in 2012, Thurman — who boasts an enjoyably diverse if not exactly consistently successful resume — is making a surprise return with the scene-stealing piece in the first part of the Von Trier epic.

PHOTOS: Celebrities by The Times

And unlike in earlier phases, when she says she was racked by self-doubt, Thurman says she is approaching this chapter differently.

“I’m finally getting so much more calm than I used to be,” said the actress, 43. “I don’t think I ever allowed myself to look forward to things. There was always anticipatory anxiety, and unfortunately, that had too much say in my reaction. But everything feels different now.”

Von Trier’s call

“Nymphomaniac: Vol. I” tells in flashback the coming-of-age tale of a sexually compulsive woman named Joe (Martin and Charlotte Gainsbourg play the character as younger and older woman, respectively) as she narrates her story to the academic Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), who’s prone to analogizing her exploits to patterns in fly fishing and Bach sonatas. (Vol. II opens April 18.)

Thurman received a call from Von Trier just weeks after she had given birth to her child, with French significant other Arpad Busson. Most actors — even someone who made an early mark as a nude Venus, as Thurman did in Terry Gilliam’s 1988 hit “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” — might worry what lasciviousness the provocateur had up his sleeve. Thurman was less concerned.

“I mean, 30 pounds up after the baby, that wasn’t something that would be fun for anyone,” she said, giving one of her trademark laughs.

Thurman spent weeks preparing to play the woman, named Mrs. H, and then on a single exhausting day in Germany went through 15 takes on set, expressing the full range each time out. “The whole scene,” the actress said, “is kind of a gear shift between defiance and defeat.” (Von Trier, still under a self-imposed media ban after his Cannes “Nazi controversy” in 2011, would not comment for this article.)

PHOTOS: Extreme celebrity weight transformations for roles

Thurman has had her own set of ups and downs in her acting career, from bad reviews in panned movies (“Batman & Robin,” “The Avengers”) to stellar reviews in acclaimed ones (her Tarantino collaborations, “Pulp Fiction” and “Kill Bill Vol. 1” and “Vol. 2”). She was last seen in a feature as a soccer mom in the Gerard Butler 2012 light drama “Playing for Keeps,” which she shot in the spring of 2011. It’s not that a comeback is unexpected, per se; it’s just that she hasn’t worked for years, and hasn’t done the kind of dramatic work she does in “Nymphomaniac"--which in its seriousness of purpose calls to mind early pieces such as “Dangerous Liaisons"--in longer than that.

Through her roller-coaster career, Thurman has been nothing if not adventurous in her choices, taking on all manner of screen genres — comedy, costume drama, science fiction, superhero movies, romantic dramedy, even the Broadway-themed NBC series “Smash” in which she riffed on her actress persona (though with all this she says her heart lies with harder-core drama). She did make what to some was a more perplexing choice when she took a lead role — her last — in a modestly budgeted slice-of-life picture from a little-known director, titled “Motherhood,” that went on to gain only a niche release in 2009.

If it seems like a career with an exciting diversity but an erratic level of quality, Thurman doesn’t disagree. “I am a kind of diver,” she said. It’s ‘let’s see what happens. For all of its good and all of its danger.” (And, she notes, “if you’re someone who likes to work, you’re going to make some bad movies,” since there are only so many top-notch scripts out there and more than a fair share of worthy actors.)

(It does still seem to bother Thurman, it should be noted, that her work is judged in the context of her personal life, particularly the high-profile divorce from Ethan Hawke about a decade ago that kept tabloid writers busy for years. Asked whether her experience as a victim of marital infidelity informed her choices as the cuckolded mother in “Nymphomaniac,” she said tersely that the subject “doesn’t really deserve any more breath.”)

As part of her hoped-for comeback, she is next eyeing a role in “American Ultra,” a genre mash-up starring Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart in which she would play a CIA operative. There is time, she said, before her 2-year-old daughter is older and can’t travel with her as easily, so she wants to get back to work, an experience after so many years away that she likens to “feeling like you’re reentering the kingdom of filmmaking, with its studio kings and princesses and whole fantasy world.”

PHOTOS: Box office top 10 of 2013 | Biggest flops of 2013

To fans, a Thurman comeback inevitably calls to mind a potential Tarantino collaboration — it was with him, after all, that she had perhaps her most memorable role, as the Bride in “Kill Bill: Vol. 1,” just after her last pregnancy-induced hiatus of several years in the early 2000s. But she is reticent about the possibility of working with him again.

“He’s sort of my oldest friend,” she said of Tarantino. “We talk to each other about work all the time, but not together,” she said, adding somewhat obliquely: “There’s the man and there’s the movies.”

Whatever shape her return takes, she may not need a lot of time to get back into midseason form. “Nymphomaniac’s” Martin said that on that movie, Thurman “was there just one day and she’s immediately in the scene; it’s fascinating to watch.”

Thurman seems serious when she uses words like “refreshed” and “jolly,” beaming when her teenage daughter Maya, one of two children from her marriage to Hawke, walks into the restaurant to go over an array of car pickups and homework schedules.

But Thurman laughs at the suggestion that this means she’ll be jumping into her earlier pace of as many as three or four movies per year. “I don’t want to make stupid decisions. I mean, surprise, who does?” she said. “But really.”