Plays, however, were Ms. Thurman’s first taste of acting. As a sophomore at her Massachusetts boarding school, she played the female lead in “The Crucible.” More than 30 years later, there was swagger in her throaty voice when she said, “It was an achievement for a sophomore to get the role that usually a senior gets.”
Some agents she’d met while modeling the summer before came to see the play. Their interest helped persuade her parents, Robert Thurman, a professor of Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, and Nena von Schlebrügge, a former fashion model who now helps to run Menla, a retreat in the Catskill Mountains, to let her transfer to Manhattan’s Professional Children’s School. By 17, she had booked her first four film roles, including a clamshell-born Venus in “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” and the convent girl Cécile in “Dangerous Liaisons.”
“It wasn’t very difficult to cast her,” said Stephen Frears, the director of “Dangerous Liaisons,” speaking by telephone. “She was so striking, so beautiful and so fresh.”
She was also, as Mr. Frears said, “very formidable.” That’s a hallmark of her career and also maybe a clue to why that career has been so eclectic. Ms. Thurman isn’t a delicate actress or a melting one or the kind who comes right to the front of a movie screen and invites you in. There’s a remove in a lot of her best work (“Henry & June,” “Kill Bill”), a sense that she has emotions and ideas that are hers alone.
She has refused to be typecast as a siren or a femme fatale and has struggled to find roles that attract her. It isn’t that she won’t play wives and girlfriends — she will, she has. But these are women as likely to steal a scene as to yield to it.
Credit Miramax Photo
Credit Andrew Cooper/Miramax Films
Quentin Tarantino, who directed her as a gangster’s wife in “Pulp Fiction” and wrote the “Kill Bill” movies for her, compared Ms. Thurman to golden-age luminaries like Greta Garbo and Bette Davis. “There’s this year’s blonde and there’s last year’s blonde. Interchangeable. But to me, Uma has a quality that could rank with a Marlene Dietrich,” he said in a phone interview. He also called her, with affection, “a big, tall willow.”
Will Ms. Thurman’s old-Hollywood style play on Broadway? Her 1999 outing, as the film star Jennifer in Martin Crimp’s version of Molière’s “The Misanthrope,” didn’t dazzle critics. “She brings to mind a beautiful, sheltered girl at her first grown-up dance, putting on airs and hoping against hope she’ll get away with it,” Ben Brantley wrote in The New York Times.
Did the tone of the responses surprise her? “I don’t expect anyone to pat me on the back,” she said. That script, a series of rhymed couplets barnacled with topical quips, “was so impenetrably difficult,” she said. “It was madness.”
Credit Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Since then, the closest Ms. Thurman has come to a stage role was a guest-star arc on the first season of the NBC show “Smash,” in which she played Rebecca, a movie star trying to conquer Broadway, felled at an out-of-town tryout by a tainted smoothie.
Nothing so dramatic has affected “The Parisian Woman,” but Ms. Thurman and Mr. Willimon have both found themselves in the news for reasons unrelated to the play. As rehearsals began, accusations against Mr. Weinstein broke wide. As to whether she had personally been subject to abuse, Ms. Thurman gave the clipped response, “I’ll discuss it when I want to discuss it.” (In an “Access Hollywood” interview, which has since gone viral, she offered a similar answer, though in more obviously indignant tones.)
In late October, the allegations against Mr. Spacey also surfaced and production on “House of Cards,” was halted. (Mr. Willimon left the series in 2016.)
Though “The Parisian Woman” traffics in questions of sex and power, any discussion of these real-world events “never made its way into the rehearsal room,” Ms. MacKinnon said firmly.
Inside that room, a few days before the actors were to move into the theater for technical rehearsals, Ms. Thurman clacked onto the temporary set in teal heels, prop phone in her hand, gemstone glint in her eye. With mischief and languor, she subdued her lover (Marton Csokas) and teased her husband (Josh Lucas). (Mischief extended to her downtime, too. When this reporter slunk into the room, Ms. Thurman called brightly, “Write some fake news for us today!”)
The blocking for the scene wasn’t set yet; the pacing juddered. But when Ms. Thurman lobbed a line like, “I can’t control who falls in love with me,” it landed.
Ms. MacKinnon occasionally stopped the action to offer a suggestion. Sometimes the suggestions were Ms. Thurman’s. Maybe she could speak an early line more lightly. Maybe she should cross the stage later. She asked Ms. MacKinnon if she could sit during an argument with Mr. Csokas’s character, the better to soothe him. “It’s physical de-escalation on an oppositional line,” Ms. Thurman explained with typical hyperarticulacy.
Rehearsing a play has required some adjustments in the ways she attacks a role. Her method is still what Mr. Tarantino described as motivated by emotional connection to a character and “from the inside out,” he said. “She’s not surface, right?”