Gwyneth Paltrow: when she was 20, fame came knocking, and Gwyneth Paltrow opened the door. more than a decade later, there are still a lot of callers, but the actress may have other ideas in mind
Eleven years ago, a 20-year-old New Yorker by the name of Gwyneth Paltrow burst onto the scene with a small but indelible role in Flesh and Bone (1993), providing the action’s dark heart and effectively stealing the movie from her much more famous co-stars. That this young upstart had a true thespian pedigree–her father is the late producer-director Bruce Paltrow, her morn is actress Blythe Danner–only made the smell of success that much more enticing, and you could almost hear the film industry begin to smack its lips. Since then, Paltrow’s tabloid-ready romances (with Brad Pitt and Ben Affleck), Best Actress Oscar (for 1998’s Shakespeare in Love), and marriage to low-key yet big deal Coldplay front man Chris Martin (and the birth of their baby, Apple) have been well documented. But change is in the air, and as a notably more introspective Paltrow prepares for the next chapter in her life, it felt like the right moment to tune in on the actress once described in these pages as “Grace Kelly one minute and Giulietta Masina the next.”
BRAD GOLDFARB: So, is it official? Has the ultimate New Yorker become a full-time Londoner?.
GWYNETH PALTROW: Well, I’m only half a Londoner. We’re doing a few months here, a few months there. I spent my twenties being so peripatetic, and one of the things I imagined when I got pregnant was, now we’re going to settle down, and I’m going to start wearing clogs and never leave my neighborhood. But, luckily, this going back and forth has been really great.
BG: Has living abroad given you a different perspective on America?
GP: Yeah, because I’m exposed to everybody else’s opinion of it. I spend a good portion of my dinner-party conversation defending America because no matter what the political agenda, it’s still a fantastic, amazing place. Europeans are incredibly negative about America at the moment, and I think they lose sight of the fact that the country’s a very divided place right now. The amazing thing, though, is the lack of apathy, which I think is great–whatever you believe in, people have been galvanized.
BG: Jude Law was quoted recently as saying that he loves England, but that it’s nice to come to America because the press feels less invasive. Yet, it seems like your decision to live in London has insulated you in a way from all the tabloid stuff you were dealing with here.
GP: The idea is just to stay under the radar as much as possible. At all times. Whatever the city. It’s not always easy.
BG: Are you doing things differently than you did before?
GP: I’ve been very verbal about my intention to do whatever is within my means legally, so people in London have begun backing off a bit because they know I can do something about it there. I understand that if you set out to be a celebrity, then you asked for it, but all I wanted to be was an actor. I didn’t know that it was going to turn into this kind of thing. If I had, then I would have majorly reassessed my decision. Because I don’t think it’s good for a family or relationships.
BG: So, if not acting, what might you have done with your life?
GP: I was very interested in art and art history, so I probably would have pursued that somehow-working in a gallery or an auction house or something like that. Or I would have loved to train to be a chef, which I still may do.
BG: It’s been more than a decade that you’ve been on the so-called A list of big, big stars. But like everyone else, you were once a beginner. Do your very first movies feel like centuries ago?
GP: Oh, yeah. I can’t believe how much I’ve done since then.
BG: What, would you say, have been some of the biggest moments for you since then?
GP: My life sort of comes down to three moments: the death of my father, meeting my husband, and the birth of my daughter. It’s like everything I did previous to that just doesn’t seem to add up to very much. I recognize that I’ve had a very interesting career and that I get to do amazing things and work with amazing people and travel and learn languages–things that most people don’t get the opportunity to do. I’ve had an incredible career, and I’m interested to see how I’m going to address the rest of it, and if I’m going to keep going.
BG: You sound a little bit like someone who’s preparing tom
GP: Retire? [laughs] Well, I may; I don’t know. Of course, I just had a baby, so you have to take it with a grain of salt. But I do feel like I’m not going to work unless it’s something that’s really special and meaningful, because I can’t imagine missing all that time with my daughter. And I’ve done everything, you know? I’ve no ambition left in that arena. But I also recognize that I’m an artist, and the need to get inside myself and be creative and be other people is a part of who I am; so I don’t imagine I’ll abandon that completely.
BG: What about reports that you’ve signed on to play Peggy Lee and Marlene Dietrich in two upcoming films?
GP: Well, the Peggy Lee role involves one day of work on my friend Doug McGrath’s movie [Every Word Is True], and the Marlene Dietrich project is something that was put into development before I got pregnant. I would absolutely love to do it if the script gets approved, but it’s just being written now.
BG: Is it disenchanting to have already achieved your career goals?
GP: No. It feels like a giant relief. I was mistaken in thinking that a lot of my perceived identity was based on being an actor and how I was viewed in the world. That’s just ego-based and wrong. Starting out you make a list: It would be so great if I could support myself acting, if I could be in a real movie, if I worked with someone I really looked up to. And as you start to tick off the boxes, you realize that none of those things bring lasting happiness or insight. It’s great stuff, and yeah, I made a movie in Paris and all these other things I always wanted to do, but then you have a family and you think, “Well, this is it. This is really what I was looking for all along.”
BG: So this growing up in public has meant that the world has watched your search for meaning–or at least a meaningful relationship. For any of us, that process can be a trying one; I can’t imagine what it must be like with the cameras capturing every breakup and makeup.
GP: It’s pretty grotesque. But you sort of learn as you go along, and you discover, “Oh, that was a mistake. I shouldn’t have talked about that in public. That didn’t bring anything but negative fallout.” You try to protect what can stay yours and what doesn’t have to be in full view of the world.
BG: And how have you done that?
GP: Honestly, through real denial–just a complete unwillingness to believe that there was that level of scrutiny and interest in my life. You just have to pretend that it’s not happening; otherwise, it’s paralyzing.
BG: In preparing to speak with you, I came across a piece we ran on you in our November ’93 issue–one of the first, if not the first, pieces ever done on you. It came out around the time Flesh and Bone was released, which you received a huge amount of attention for. Go back to that critical moment. What was it like?
GP: I was just so thrilled I got a part, and I was completely starstruck by Meg Ryan [who plays Kay Davies in the film] because I loved When Harry Met Sally –I’d seen it, like, 500 times. I had a hotel room and my own rented car that were paid for by the studio, I had a per diem–I could not believe it!
BG: And the response to the film must have been exciting too.
GP: It was really fantastic. My parents came to see a screening, and they were kind of nervous because they didn’t know if I was going to be any good. But they were so proud at the end–it was very sweet. It all sort of changed from that point on. People started knowing who I was and asking me to audition, so it was kind of momentous.
BG: What about winning the Best Actress Oscar five years ago for Shakespeare in Love? It’s been said that an Academy Award can be kind of a curse because it can set up a whole pile of expectations that are really hard to meet, particularly for someone so young.
GP: Well, in my case, I think the only mistake I made was working too much afterwards.
BG: Because there were things that were too good to turn down?
GP: Because I didn’t stop to think about it all and measure where I was in time and space. It didn’t dawn on me that I could just say no, so I think I burned out a bit. It took me a while to reclaim my idea of who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do. But after doing five movies in a row, I took some time off, and then I did a play, Proof, in London, which realigned me with why I wanted to be an actor in the first place. It was a really fulfilling experience, and I felt so reinvigorated and rejuvenated by it that I was able to say to myself, “Okay, I’m going to shift my focus.” The great thing about winning something like an Oscar early on, though, is it takes the pressure off. You can try different things, you can make mistakes, but they can’t take it back!
BG: What about last year’s Sylvia? You got great reviews, it was an ambitious, serious movie, but it disappeared very quickly.
GP: That was really frustrating. It didn’t quite catch fire the way it deserved to. I think it’s the best work I’ve done, and when you give that much of yourself, you want people to see it. But listen, it’s a depressing movie about a poet who kills herself, so I don’t know why I thought it was going to be playing in malls. But, you know, it’s also kind of nice to have it stay a secret that people can feel they discovered for themselves. Sometimes when things you love get really commercial, you end up feeling betrayed by it.
BG: Similarly, I’d imagine you’re somewhat frustrated that the release of your latest film, Proof, which was originally scheduled to come out this month, has been pushed back until next year. It was supposed to be one of the big Oscar subjects, and word is that that’s still the plan, but not for this round.
GP: Who knows why these things happen. It’s a Miramax film, and obviously there’s a lot going on there at the moment. I know they want to put it in competition at Cannes in May, which I think is a good place for it, so we’ll see. I’m really pleased with the film, though, and think [director] John Madden has done an amazing job with it.
BG: You mentioned starring in the London production of Proof, in which you played the same role you take on in the forthcoming film version. What’s it like portraying a character on film that you’ve already done onstage?
GP: It’s so fantastic! The level of preparation I had under my belt when I started filming was just incomparable. And thank God, because I was newly pregnant, I was sick as a dog, and yet I knew all my lines from a year before. But it was a strange experience because in the theater, you go from point A to point Z, building your performance as the evening progresses, and you have to relinquish that control on a film. I had the same kind of experience when I saw Shakespeare in Love. I had worked so hard and prepared so much for that film, imagining that I’d transformed myself physically and otherwise, and then when I saw it, I just felt disappointed. Like, “Oh, it’s just me!”
BG: Proof deals with a complicated relationship between a daughter and her father. Did that echo your relationship with your dad at all?
GP: My father and I had a very different relationship than the one Catherine and her father have. She’s really the caretaker in the relationship, which was the opposite with my father. He was like at rock, the guy you went to with every problem. But the incredible love and devotion and loyalty that the characters have for each other, I had with my father. The one-year anniversary of his death happened a few days into filming, and that was very hard. It’s been two years now, and it continues to be the biggest struggle of my life.
BG: When did acting enter the picture for you?
GP: My dad always said he couldn’t remember a time when I did not want to act; but it was more something I wanted to do for real, so I wasn’t, like, the high-school play queen or anything. And anyway, neither of my parents would let me until I graduated from college. Once I was in this restaurant called Jackson Hole on the corner of 91st and Madison, where my friends and I would go to smoke cigarettes and eat french fries, and a casting director approached me and asked whether I’d be interested in auditioning for this film about the Sunny von Bulow case, called Reversal of Fortune . Of course I said yes. So, I went in and auditioned for the part of the daughter, and I got called back a few times.
BG: Did your parents know you’d done this?
GP: No! [laughs] But I guess someone saw my last name and put it together and called my mother’s agent about it, who then called my mother. I remember, my mom came to me with this big smile on her face, pleased that I had done well, but also chastising me. It was hilarious.
BG: So, did she put a stop to the role?
GP: No, I just didn’t get the part.
BG: Aha! The first rejection! [Paltrow laughs] How big a part did your mom play in your desire to act? Did you go to all of her productions?
GP: Oh, yeah, I saw everything she did. I was always so enthralled by her when she was working. In that arena she was like a god to me.
BG: During those years, you were a student at a private girls’ school here in New York called Spence. What do you think your classmates’ perception of you was?
GP: God, isn’t that interesting. I have no idea. I’d moved to New York from California when I was 11, so initially I was seen as the California person for a while. I didn’t feel like I was popular exactly, but I did feel confident–that was something my parents instilled in me. And three of my classmates are still my best friends.
BG: And what was your perception of yourself?
GP: It changed a lot. I was always trying to assess what was going on and changing to fit in while still being myself and finding my own style–all that teenager stuff. Toward the end of high school, I do remember feeling like an island unto myself because most of my best girlfriends had gone away to boarding school, and I was having trouble with some of the girls in the class. I had changed a lot physically between my sophomore and junior year: I had grown a lot and my hair was longer.
BG: So, was there jealousy?
GP: I don’t know. We were all pretty privileged people.
BG: Were you obsessed with pop culture and movie stars as a kid?
GP: Not really. One of the downsides of growing up in New York is that it’s very erudite and sophisticated, so you don’t really get to immerse yourself in Americana and enjoy it as much as other teenagers do. You’re expected to be talking about, like, Kierkegaard or whatever. I do remember having a crush on Keanu Reeves, and my mother worked with this makeup artist who was going out with him. So, they took a Polaroid of him and he signed it for me, but then I just felt retarded. It kind of ruined it.
BG: What about music? Did you romanticize the idea of the rock ‘n’ roll life?
GP: Not really–I was just more of a fan. Luckily, we listened to pretty good music in the ’80s, things like the Cure and the Smiths and the Pixies, though I definitely owned some Paula Abdul–I’m not going to deny it.
BG: And being married to Chris Martin, are you getting a taste of that life?
GP: Oh, yeah. I mean, obviously, I just see it by proxy, but the adrenaline of a live performance is unlike anything in film or theater. I can see why it’s so addictive.
BG: How will you guys balance things when he’s on tour and you’re working?
GP: I don’t know. It’s just worked out in the past. We’ll see what happens. That’s one of the upsides of me not being desperate to work, work, work.
BG: Last question: If your daughter announced at age 16 that she wanted to become an actress, what would you say to her?
GP: I’d probably do what my mother did with me, which is support whatever she wanted to do. But first I’d say, “Oh, no, you’re too smart for that! Be an anthropologist or something.”
Brad Goldfarb is Interview’s executive editor.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Brant Publications, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning