Uma Thurman is bopping around a downtown Asian-fusion restaurant in Manhattan, a city she calls home, where she has 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 average-sized and -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.
"Everything got to me so much before," she said in an interview. "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."
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 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 before making 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 more than two years after the birth of her third child in 2012, Thurman -- who boasts an enjoyably diverse if not consistently successful resume -- is making a surprise return with the scene-stealing piece in the first part of the Von Trier epic.
And unlike in earlier phases, when 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."
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 didn't.
"I mean, 30 pounds up after the baby, that wasn't something that would be fun for anyone," she said, laughing.
Thurman spent weeks preparing to play the woman, named Mrs. H, and then on a single exhausting day went through 15 takes on set in Germany, 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.)
Thurman has had her own set of ups and downs in her acting career, from bad reviews in panned movies ("Batman & Robin") to stellar reviews in acclaimed ones (her Tarantino collaborations, "Pulp Fiction" and "Kill Bill Vol. 1" and "Vol. 2").
She is 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."
If it seems like a career with an exciting diversity but an erratic level of quality, Thurman said she can live with it. "I am a kind of diver. Let's see what happens. For all of its good and all of its danger." Plus, she said, if you like working and don't want to be selective to the point of inactivity, "you're going to make some bad movies, which is something people don't always understand."