At first glance, it might appear that Gwyneth Paltrow benefited from Hollywood nepotism, given her pedigree as the daughter of director-producer Bruce Paltrow and actress Blythe Danner.
“She’s the closest thing we have to royalty,” quips Jon Favreau, who directed Paltrow as Iron Man’s love interest Pepper Potts in the two superhero blockbusters.
But Favreau, and others who have worked with Paltrow, insist that the actress’ charmed career — launched with a small role in the 1991 rock ‘n’ roll drama “Shout” — is the result of extraordinary talent, hard work and an unparalleled professionalism.
“She’s the full package,” adds Favreau of the multilingual thesp with the impeccable British accent. “She’s smart as hell. I keep going back to the banter in the two films. She was able to go toe to toe with Robert Downey Jr., which made him really respect her as an actress. And she’s classy on top of it all.”
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In fact, Favreau, who first worked with Paltrow as fellow supporting stars in “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle,” often incorporated Paltrow’s offscreen wit into Pepper Potts’ caustic dialogue.
“She would say something, and I would write it into the script,” Favreau explains. “She made a Jackson Pollock reference about how his Springs period wasn’t about the spring season but a period where he painted in Springs, N.Y. I used that line. She knows art so well that she actually corrected the art director about another painting used in the film.”
Paltrow’s refined demeanor — honed at the posh all-girl Spence School in Manhattan and later studying art history at the U. of California at Santa Barbara — made the American actress an ideal heroine for such early-career pics as “Emma,” “Sliding Doors” and “Shakespeare in Love.”
“Clearly the woman is talented, and her sensibility suited the movies we were making for a decade,” says Harvey Weinstein, who collaborated with the actress on eight Miramax films. “Plus she’s a New Yorker, so she fits right in with myself, Bob (Weinstein) and Donna (Gigliotti).”
And it’s that New York edge that adds dimension to Paltrow’s personal story, making her equally comfortable in the company of the mercurial Weinstein as buttoned-up British royalty. It also influenced her decision to eschew a strict diet of lighthearted roles and instead embody such broken women as Sylvia Plath, “Proof” grieving daughter Catherine and more recently Kelly Canter, the emotionally damaged songstress in “Country Strong” — a performance that is putting the actress back in awards-season contention.
“I relished playing someone who was so fucked up and reckless and who didn’t care about her responsibilities,” explains Paltrow, employing a vernacular that might make the queen blush. “It was very freeing and liberating. I was truly sad when I was finished.”
At the time “Country Strong” helmer Shana Feste was penning the music-themed drama, she admittedly never envisioned Paltrow for the female lead. But then the film’s producer Jenno Topping, an old Paltrow friend, suggested the actress.
“I knew she had the chops to pull it off, and I knew she had an incredible voice,” notes Feste, who capped off long days of shooting by attending a number of live performances with Paltrow, including a Carrie Underwood show. “But I didn’t know what to expect. … What I found is she’s not afraid to be dark. A lot of actresses are not willing to go to that place. And that comes from a place of fear. But she trusted me right off the bat.”
“Country” costar Tim McGraw, who has shared screen time with Sandra Bullock and Reese Witherspoon, says Paltrow is unique in that she simultaneously exudes vulnerability and strength.
“The thing about country music is if you’re not honest, it will come through,” says McGraw, who twice passed on the “Country Strong” role but eventually acquiesced after Paltrow came onboard. “She’s such a great actor and comes from such a believable place. … Great music is about interpretation. It’s about the ability to reach out and touch people. She has that ability. She has this warmth about her. For this character, that really played well. She really fell into the role. You believed it on set. And when she walked on set, everyone was better.”
As for Paltrow’s future ambitions, she would welcome the opportunity to work with directors Peter Weir and Sofia Coppola or re-team with her former helmers David Fincher (“Seven”) and Wes Anderson (“The Royal Tenenbaums”).
She is currently shooting the Steven Soderbergh-helmed thriller “Contagion” opposite Matt Damon and Kate Winslet, which happens to satisfy a long-held goal.
“I always wanted to be in a Steven Soderbergh film,” enthuses Paltrow. “So now I can check that box off.”
Miramax’s first true star
It’s difficult to imagine a thesp who better personifies the heyday of Weinstein’s mini-major. Paltrow made eight movies for Weinstein, including “Emma,” “Sliding Doors,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Proof.” But it was their collaboration on “Shakespeare in Love,” an upset best picture Oscar winner, that catapulted both into cinema’s highest echelons.
“I had the pleasure of making ‘Shakespeare in Love’ with her when she was 26, and it was a remarkable experience,” says Weinstein of the role that earned Paltrow a best actress Oscar. “I had already made three movies with her, so she was already family to me. But to see her grow up and have that kind of experience was amazing to behold.”
Though Weinstein’s aggressive Oscar campaign — which saw “Shakespeare” besting favorite “Saving Private Ryan” — prompted a Hollywood backlash against the Gotham-based mogul, Paltrow quickly became one of Hollywood’s most in-demand actresses. Still, she stayed loyal to the studio that took a chance on her at the age of 22 by casting her as the female lead in “The Pallbearer.” Post-“Shakespeare,” she lensed four more Miramax pics, forging a friendship with Weinstein that has been dubbed beauty and the beast because of the juxtaposition of Paltrow’s refinement and Weinstein’s gruff style.
Coming off her “Shakespeare” win, “I was offered a lot of romantic comedies,” says Paltrow, “which didn’t appeal to me at all at the time. But thankfully, I was also offered the more independent films, which is where I feel the most comfortable.”
Ironically, “Shakespeare” was the film that nearly never was, spending years in development at Universal. Julia Roberts was interested in playing the plum role of Viola De Lesseps, but only if Daniel Day-Lewis portrayed the Bard. Day-Lewis wouldn’t bite. Miramax eventually picked it up in turnaround. For years, a persistent rumor contends that Paltrow stole the “Shakespeare” script from Winona Ryder’s coffee table. The reality involved far less intrigue.
“Miramax couldn’t cast it; I think a lot of people passed on it,” says Paltrow, who also originally nixed the idea of starring in the period comedy. “It was a difficult time, and I just had a breakup. I was not interested. Then one day I saw (Brit producer) Paul Webster at lunch at Nobu. He said, ‘You’re out of your mind. You have to do that movie.’ ”
Paltrow had already convinced Weinstein of her ability to pull off a British accent — no small feat for American thesps. “?‘Emma (was) a treat because she really transformed before my eyes from this modern New Yorker to Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse, and in my memory it was effortless,” explains Weinstein.
Still, the two haven’t worked together since 2005’s “Proof,” a film that never quite lived up to the success of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play on which it was based. Nevertheless, Weinstein calls Paltrow’s turn as the devoted daughter coming to terms with the death of her mathematician father “sheer brilliance.” He also welcomes the chance to reteam with his one-time leading lady.
“Of course I (would) love and plan to work with Gwyneth again in the future,” Weinstein insists. “She’s a true friend and someone who when she’s on the screen I always marvel at.”