Ah, Uma. Those solemn eyes. That delicious mystique. That bulging belly!

If 28-year-old Uma Thurman seemed lit from within before her pregnancy, these days the actress is glowing like a klieg light. She's serene, settled, stunning."I'm just having a child!" she says, mockingly. "Everyone does it. It's a very natural thing to do."

The mother-to-be, who has launched an endless stream of gossip, pads over to a hotel sofa, shucks off her sensible leather moccasins and puts up those aching feet. Then, with a sliver of a smile worthy of Mona Lisa, she cocks her head as if to ask: Now, what's all this fuss about?

"I'm having a wonderful time, you know?" she says. "I was really ready for this life-change. I was getting a little bit lost in my professional life. You know, change is usually preceded by some kind of drift."

Now, she says, "I'm looking forward to meeting my baby."

All sorts of good things are happening to Thurman these days. In addition to the baby, due to arrive in July, she has two major movies - "Les Miserables," which recently opened, and "The Avengers," opening in August. Plus, of course, she's madly, deeply in love with actor Ethan Hawke, whom she married last week.

When Thurman first burst onto the Hollywood scene in the late 1980s, the former model was quickly thrust into a raft of provocative, sexually charged roles.

Her major screen debut in 1989 set the pace: As the goddess Venus in Terry Gilliam's "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen," Thurman rose out of the sea on a seashell.

A year later she played a 15-year-old convent-raised virgin who was all too easily seduced by the predatory John Malkovich in "Dangerous Liaisons."

That same year Thurman took on the role of author Henry Miller's combustible, bisexual wife in "Henry and June." While not a hit, the film's frank sexual themes provoked an uproar, earning it the industry's first NC-17 rating.

Soon dubbed America's No. 1 art-house sex symbol, Thurman was compared to Lauren Bacall and Marlene Dietrich.

"I was always resistant to the bombshell stuff when I was younger," she says. "By the time I got over that, I stopped caring. I stopped being oppressed by what other people saw."

Up close, Thurman is a swan of a woman with wide-set blue eyes, an inviting throat and slender lips. Her face is flawless, as if only the finest items had been selected from a supermodel Identikit and then slapped together.

The effect is strangely exquisite: "Her screen presence is electrifying," says "The Avengers" director Jeremiah Chechik, who tested Gwyneth Paltrow and Nicole Kidman for the part of the catsuit-clad Emma Peel before deciding on Thurman.

"I wanted somebody smart and sexy who would be able to deliver a certain modern sensibility," he says. "That's Uma. She is both quirky and odd, funny and interesting."

In other words, a lot like her career. Until her hair-raising turn as an unpredictable moll in "Pulp Fiction," Thurman had never starred in a huge hit.

Instead, Thurman has sought out more offbeat fare like the bizarre "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues," the gentle "A Month by the Lake," and the mockingly ironic "The Truth About Cats and Dogs."

"She is very brave," says Billie August, the director of "Les Miserables." "Uma's very courageous. She's taken a lot of risks."

"I'm a deeply ingrained, contradictory person," Thurman says, shaking her long, blond hair.

Thurman has been underestimated before. Several years ago, director Brian De Palma turned her down for the lead role in "The Bonfire of the Vanities," claiming she lacked the skills of a natural comedian.

Challenged - "I kept saying, `What is it that I'm not doing?' " - Thurman rose to the bait. Her Academy Award nomination for "Pulp Fiction" was a personal victory.

Now, Thurman - whose Buddhist name Uma means Bestower of Blessings - is awaiting her newest challenge.

"Ethan and I have never wanted to provoke attention," she says, smiling. "Now, having a baby promotes interest. There's nothing I can do but we don't try to stir it up around us. We do what we want.

"I'm glad I'm doing it now. I'm glad I didn't wait. As usual, I'm living my life at my own pace."