Gwyneth Paltrow is on the phone from London, sounding very down-to-earth, whimsical even — in sharp contrast to some of the more literary characters she has played, such as the suicidal writer Sylvia Plath or the solipsistic Margot of “The Royal Tenenbaums.”
In Paramount’s upcoming “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,” she plays another kind of writer, Polly Perkins, a newspaperwoman of the hardboiled variety, who teams with an old flame, Jude Law’s Sky Captain, and his old flame, Capt. Franky Cook, played by Angelina Jolie. Together they follow the trail of mad scientist Dr. Totenkopf (literally “deadhead”) in a faux-’40s New York that is both authentic and simulated.
The film, opening June 26, is a marked departure from Paltrow’s usual brand of character-driven movies — usually serious dramas — with nary a CGI-heavy credit among them.
She spent the early stages of the project’s development in a warehouse in London, sitting next to Law on a crate painted blue surrounded by blue walls and the most minimal of props, as they interacted with a makebelieve universe that would be literally painted around them by a crew of cyberartists in yet another warehouse-turned-production facility in Van Nuys, Calif.
To Paltrow, the experience was a revelation. “The whole process was really unlike anything I’d ever done,” she explains. “I had done kind of half a day on greenscreen, but I had never worked to that extent with computers and all that.
“It was great in one sense because they had the movie kind of edited and done beforehand with the animatic,” she adds, describing the CGI process developed by director Kerry Conran that allows him to shoot an entire feature on a bluescreen and fill in the backgrounds with images — a kind of virtual garage-band paintbox style of filmmaking.
“So you kind of watched the scene already before you started shooting,” she continues. “It made the shooting of it very concise because there wasn’t a lot of lighting changes or set changes or turning the camera around. It was great because we did the whole thing in six weeks or something.”
The compressed timeframe worked well for a star who has averaged three pictures a year since 1998’s “Shakespeare in Love” earned her an Oscar. The fact that she’s expecting a baby this summer with her husband, Coldplay frontman Chris Martin, also gives Paltrow a sense of urgency.
That she’s being honored for a Decade of Achievement in Film by ShoWest seems to be questioned by no one, since nobody at the National Assn. of Theater Owners will comment (“We have a policy of not commenting on stars, movies or awards,” responds NATO president John Fithian). But the change in language appears to have cleared up whatever questions dogged past star of the decade honorees, when it wasn’t clear as to whether that laurel reflected the previous decade or the one to come.
The distinction is firmly in the tradition of ShoWest kudos to celebrities who have used the occasion to playfully cajole exhibitors into rewarding them for their presence. In 1993, Arnold Schwarzenegger received the International Star of the Decade trophy. His comment that year: “I’ve gotten many awards, but without any doubt this one is the most recent.”
Nevertheless, Paltrow has exhibited remarkable taste in a business that seems to force stars to up their per-picture quote as a yardstick for success, often at the expense of aesthetic consideration. She graced not one but two of Vanity Fair’s recent covers, and her regal bearing stems partly from her Hollywood-royalty lineage — she’s the daughter of Tony-winning actress Blythe Danner and film director Bruce Paltrow — and her poise and professionalism.
“When we were getting into the casting of this second character, after we got Jude,” says “Sky Captain” producer Jon Avnet, “I suggested to Kerry that Gwyneth would be a good Polly. I thought she looked good in period clothes and I thought she and Jude would have good chemistry.”
The pair had worked together in “The Talented Mr. Ripley.”
It took a while for Avnet to sit Paltrow down in front of the six-minute reel that Conran had created on his Macintosh computer to demonstrate his “World” of tomorrow, but after a call from Law, the meeting took place.
“Jon was trying to get this short film to me for a while,” Paltrow recalls, “but he kept saying, ‘I need to be with you when you watch it.’ I went over to Jude’s office and I was completely sold on it just from what the short looked like. And also, I really adore working with Jude. He’s such a great guy.”
Adds Avnet: “She is such a quick study. She would just look at these animatics that Kerry had put together, and she inhabited them. Her talent is to work within the world he had created. The biggest problem with Gwyneth is that she’s so good, so professional, that she tends to make things look easy. She suffers from having an extraordinary gift.”
This year, Paltrow’s burdensome talent also will be on display in “Proof,” set for Christmas, in which she stars with Anthony Hopkins in a drama directed by her “Shakespeare” helmer, John Madden.
Madden also directed her in her British stage debut, the Donmar Warehouse production of the play on which the film is based, and which turned out to be one of London’s hotter plays of the 2002 season.