NEW YORK — In her three decades working in Hollywood, Uma Thurman has learned a thing or two about the art of enduring. A radiant beauty who became the primary muse of director Quentin Tarantino, known for indelible roles in “Pulp Fiction” and the two “Kill Bill” films, Thurman says that if you go by Hollywood’s absurd logic, her sell-by date should have long since passed.
“People have been telling me that the end is in sight for my entire career,” says Thurman, 47, perched cross-legged on a couch in her dressing room at the Hudson Theatre, where she’s making her Broadway debut in “The Parisian Woman.” “As an actress, when you’re 21, they tell you your career will be over when you’re 30. When you’re 30, they tell you it’ll be over when you’re 40. When you’re 40, they tell you it’ll be over when you’re 45. When you’re 45, they tell you it was long over, honey!” she says, her voice rising to a defiant laugh. “But somehow, if you love something and you’re very practiced at it, you can hang in there.”
The daughter of a prominent Indo-Tibetan Buddhist scholar and a Swedish former model, Thurman was born in Boston and spent her formative years in Amherst. She became a bona fide movie star in the 1990s. But since the “Kill Bill” films, she’s struggled to find prominent parts that showcased her considerable talent. Her recent work includes a mix of auteur-directed indies (Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac” and his upcoming “The House That Jack Built”), big-budget fantasy (“Percy Jackson & the Olympians”), and television series like “Smash” and “The Slap.”
“Sometimes you have to make do with lean years — and lean parts,” she says. “Often you get a part that’s not written with very much insight or care, but you take it and try to turn it into something better. Or you do something just because you don’t want to get rusty — and I’ve risked rustiness sometimes waiting for something good enough to come along. But I don’t have any self-pity about it. I think I’ve been an extremely fortunate human being.”
She certainly feels fortunate about finding “The Parisian Woman,” written by Beau Willimon, who created the American version of “House of Cards.” It’s her first stage role in nearly 20 years. She was sent the script after hitting it off with the play’s director, Pam McKinnon, on a coffee date. “I read it and I loved it right away. It’s a real page-turner,” she says.
At the center of the play is Chloe, whose husband, Tom, is a Washington, D.C., tax attorney on the Trump administration short list for a prominent federal judgeship. Meanwhile, Chloe is having an affair with Peter, a wealthy businessman and Republican bigwig — it’s a dalliance of which her husband is aware — and is trying to suss out Tom’s prospects. “She’s a free spirit and quite a liberated character who has found herself a liberal marriage,” Thurman says.
She’s also forged a budding friendship with Jeanette, who’s just been nominated as the next Federal Reserve chairwoman, and Chloe hopes she can help Tom secure his appointment. Then there’s Jeanette’s daughter Rebecca, a smart, ambitious young liberal who clashes with her mother’s conservative politics.
The play is loosely inspired by a 1885 play “Le Parisienne,” by French dramatist Henri Beque, that scandalized Paris with its story of a married woman juggling two lovers. Willimon transported the action to present-day Washington. An earlier version of “The Parisian Woman” ran at South Coast Repertory in California in 2013, but after last year’s election, Willimon rewrote it extensively.
While Chloe claims she lacks the vaulting ambition of the people around her and admits she’s never felt driven by a grand purpose, she proves to be a real behind-the-scenes operator. McKinnon says Thurman was an ideal fit to play Chloe because of her inherent star quality. “Chloe is someone who everyone in the play gravitates towards, who everyone is in love with and wants to be loved by. She enters a room and kind of changes the molecules in it, and Uma just has that charisma naturally. She enters a room and your head turns to her.”
Twisting her hair up into a knot and taking the occasional puff from a vape pen, Thurman exudes a preternatural poise. A private person known for being wary around strangers, she evinces a cool, reserved demeanor and seems to steer away from territory that’s too personal, yet gamely answers any question lobbed her way.
Thurman’s last foray onto the stage came in 1999 when she did a contemporary adaptation of Moliere’s “The Misanthrope” at Classic Stage Company in the East Village. She always remained intrigued by the idea of returning to the theater, but “for one reason or another,” she says, “I didn’t find the right opportunity.”
With Thurman’s name up on the marquee, McKinnon says, “There’s a lot of pressure on her shoulders and a lot riding on this.” Yet Thurman is embracing the weight of being the headliner (the cast also includes Josh Lucas, Blair Brown, and Phillipa Soo). “Yes, Broadway is really daunting. But I feel like it truly tests me to the nth degree, and that alone is very exciting — to feel myself stretched to the limits as an actress.
“It’s truly invigorated me on a deeper level,” she says. “Even though I’m exhausted right now at this stage of the process, I’m not exhausted when I step on that stage.”
The theater is actually where Thurman scored her first big break. When she was a sophomore at Northfield Mount Hermon School in Western Massachusetts, she landed the plum role of Abigail in “The Crucible.” “I remember it all vividly! It was very exciting,” she says. “It was the first starring role of my life.”
‘I’ve risked rustiness sometimes waiting for something good enough to come along. But I don’t have any self-pity about it. I think I’ve been an extremely fortunate human being.’
Casting agents she’d met the summer before came to see her in the play. Afterward, they told her that if she moved to New York, they’d send her on auditions. By 16, she was booking film gigs, and by 1990, she had appeared in “Dangerous Liaisons” and “Henry & June,” roles that turned her into a household name and a Hollywood sex symbol. “My career started very quickly, and it pretty much didn’t stop.”
With her daughter Maya, from her marriage to ex-husband Ethan Hawke, now embarking on an acting career, Thurman hopes that society is truly in the midst of a sea change to stop sexual harassment and assault. “I’m really happy that whatever kind of business she goes into, she and her friends will be treated with more respect than we were,” says the actress, who also has a son with Hawke and a daughter from another relationship.
In recent interviews, Thurman has said she wants to wait “to feel less angry” before discussing disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein, who made several of her films, and her own experiences in the industry. Still, she says, choosing her words carefully, “I do feel there’s something really powerful that’s happening here. There is a moral outcry that’s not landing on deaf ears, because it’s too disgusting to just keep doing things the same way. The deep social ugliness — bigotry, sexism, sex abuse — that reached an apex in recent times is actually changing people.”
Just as the characters of Chloe and Tom in “The Parisian Woman” are changed by the seismic political and cultural shifts happening around them. “I think they’re both reacting to the time that they live in and finding themselves called to action in different ways. It’s a really important idea,” Thurman says. She adds with an ironic grin, “It’s one of the reasons I feel like I was very smart to do this play right now.”
The Parisian Woman
At the Hudson Theatre, New York City. Now in previews, opens Nov. 30. Tickets: 855-801-5876, www.thehudsonbroadway.comChristopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.