As the sequel to the 1999 hit Get Shorty, Be Cool, which opens in theaters March 4, begins eight years after Chili Palmer’s (Travolta) arrival in Los Angeles. Both films are based on Elmore Leonard novels; the author revealing he was inspired to write a sequel to Get Shorty after watching Travolta in the film.
This time around, Chili has had enough of the movie business and is looking for something new. He decides to give the music industry a spin after a friend – portrayed effectively by an uncredited James Woods – is killed by Russian mobsters, but not before he arranges a meeting between Chili and a talented singer-songwriter (Christina Milian) looking for her big break.
With the help of Woods’s widow Edie Athens (Thurman), Chili dons the role of music manager and finds the industry even more treacherous than the one he left. Getting in Chili’s way are a host of shady characters which include a gun-toting hip-hop producer (Cedric the Entertainer), a trigger-happy rapper (Andre Benjamin, aka Andre 3000 of Outkast), a sleazy music manager (Harvey Keitel) and his moronic musclemen (Vince Vaughn and The Rock).
Thurman’s decision to take the role was easy.
"In general, I really like [Leonard’s] characters; I think they are incredibly defined. You know they’ll make acting a little easier," she says.
Edie is actually an amalgam of two different characters in Leonard’s novel, a thought to which Thurman deadpans, "Yeah, they combined two characters from the novel into a hodgepodge to make Edie. Why have extraneous female characters in the film when you can have more men?"
There are things about Edie that Thurman can identify with but she usually doesn’t think in those terms about the characters she plays.
"I guess there is a certain kind of vulnerability mixed with a kind of toughness. Her swagger, which I guess I could relate to, which she [uses to] keep hidden that she is actually a softie. But I don’t know, I don’t really think about characters in any way of them being parallel to me," she says.
Although Thurman did spend time thinking about Edie’s wardrobe, which is a collection of low-slung jeans, funky belts, berets and baby tees with clever slogans.
"I think [clothes are] a big part of character for me … I kind of have to really collaborate in that area to fit – it’s how I get into the character," she says.
The chemistry Travolta and Thurman ignited in Pulp Fiction continues to burn in Be Cool, culminating in a sultry dance number set to a live performance of "Sexy" by the Black Eyed Peas.
"I couldn’t possibly pass on the challenge, the thrill, the joy of doing a dance with John Travolta," says Thurman. "It seems so sort of tongue-in-cheek and wonderful to get back together and dancing again."
"I wanted to dance but only with a caveat of what would be the correct dance for the character," says Travolta, who isn’t concerned about any comparisons that will be made to Pulp Fiction. "And, for me, the correct dance was something very cool, very low key. A Samba, Bossa Nova, Cha-Cha – you know, Brazilian sound.
"I just trust Uma and I to dance in character because, if you look at Pulp Fiction, we were dancing higher than a kite [as] people that were hoping for death. And in this movie we’re dancing for life," Travolta continues. "That was novelty dancing. This was more traditional dancing."
Thurman, who divorced from actor Ethan Hawke in 2004, is discovering how to balance family life and her career.
"I have thought about quitting, but then I think I can’t quit because I love what I do so much and it is the wrong signal," Thurman says. "Now I am a single mother so I also can’t quit. I don’t want to give up, so it is just something I am fighting for. To keep my foot in the business satisfactorily and still be creatively stimulated and take care of my children."
One actress who seems to have figured out the proper balance is Meryl Streep, with whom Thurman just wrapped filming Prime, a romantic comedy scheduled for release this fall.
"[Meryl] seems to have a very successful home life and obviously a more than satisfactory professional career," says Thurman. "But having a broken home puts other challenges and stresses on the situation. It is the big conundrum of my life. I hope I am not failing as a parent as a result of being a professional woman."
Thurman, who was raised in Massachusetts, is a huge fan of musical theater and is currently working on a film version of the musical "The Producers," in which she will play Ulla.
"I am wild for the experience; it really is so wonderful," she says. "The people I am working with right now are all basically the blood and flesh of Broadway, and their discipline and their attention to detail in their work ethic is so unlike anybody in the movies. I look at them and go, ‘Boy, you do realize you work very hard. People who make films don’t work this hard!’ Which is really hard to say because people do work hard in films, but these people put that to rest."
Thurman will also sing in her next role.
"I made a poor, but hopefully, passable singer. They haven’t suggested that anyone sing for me yet. So I feel like, ‘Phew!’" she says. "And when I signed on, they said they would have someone if I needed it. But no one has mentioned it, so I feel I must be passing with some tiny check box in the corner of my vocal chart."
Be Cool releases in theaters March 4.