'I've just finished reading this long article in your paper on the corrosion of the American empire," declares Gwyneth enthusiastically from her perch on a hotel-room couch. Actually, if couches were countries, she's got this one pretty well occupied -- slim legs, clad in black capri pants, tucked captivatingly beneath that elongated body; blond hair tumbling in golden tresses past those cornflower-blue eyes down upon a white silk blouse. Gwyneth, needless to say, looks immaculate. But she sounds engaged, very engaged. Having read this paper, Gwyneth dearly wants to talk about the Article. Paid to write for this paper, I dearly need to talk about Gwyneth. With only 15 minutes at our disposal, one of us is bound to be disappointed.
The world, of course, is on a first-name basis with Gwyneth, and has been for much of her 32 celebrated years. But I can't claim to know her that well. Her work, yes. Her life, not really. Just the usual stuff. To the Hollywood manor born -- her mother an accomplished actor, Blythe Danner; her late dad the TV producer, Bruce Paltrow. Close enough to King Spielberg to call him "Uncle." Educated, albeit briefly, at a posh New York prep school. Enjoys a macrobiotic diet, whatever that might be. Had romantic liaisons with various Bens and Brads just as famous and almost as lovely as her. Married a Brit rocker with a band called Coldplay; soon thereafter gave birth to a baby called Apple. Or did I reverse those names?
Anyway, you knew all that, and it's a bit humdrum. Her work, however, is another matter entirely, because this daughter of privilege also inherited a commodity often denied to her aristocratic kind: Gwyneth has real talent. More interesting still, this all-American beauty has often deployed that talent in non-American ways, slipping on a credible British accent for many of her most notable roles -- the title character in Emma, the put-upon Helen in Sliding Doors, her Oscar-winning turn as Viola in Shakespeare in Love, the academic-minded Maud in Possession.
Now add to that Brit list her other substantial parts -- the nervous Margot in The Royal Tenenbaums, the poetic Plath in Sylvia, now the anguished Catherine in Proof (the reason for her appearance at the Toronto International Film Festival) -- and the common denominator isn't hard to find. All these characters are fighting the same interior battle.
All harbour the same competing mix of fragility and strength, emotional vulnerability and forceful intelligence. That's Gwyneth's patented on-screen persona, that's her dialectic, and the camera adores her doing it. She can play darkness lightly, without seeming lightweight.
"Yes, I hadn't thought of it before, but you're right about those characters," she concedes, diverted momentarily from the Article, "But we're all like that, aren't we, a mixture of frailty and fortitude. It's fun to play people with that sort of universal complexity."
Or, more accurately, it's occasional fun. Asked if movie acting is still enjoyable -- she's been doing it since her teens when Uncle Steven cast her in Hook -- Gwyneth is candid: "Sometimes. I loved it at the start, but there was a long, long time in the middle when I didn't. I was pregnant when we were shooting Proof, but afterwards, giving birth to my daughter and losing my father has caused me to re-examine my priorities. So I haven't gone back to work full-time yet. I will, but only when the elements are aligned properly."
That alignment could be hastened by her more efficient approach to acting: "It's cleaner, more economical now, with fewer theatrics and neuroses. I have the technique to know what's cheating and what's not. And I'm not a method actor, I don't take the part home." Also, her eventual return may well come with a major change in direction: "I'd like to do a musical one day. It's one of my goals."
Don't dismiss it. Gwyneth sang well in Duets, an otherwise off-key flick, and has a brief cameo as Peggy Lee in an upcoming biopic of Truman Capote (not Capote, but "the other one"). What's more, there are even rumours of her taking the lead in an "untitled Marlene Dietrich" project. "That's still in development," she muses, "We'll see."
Still, the mention of Dietrich takes us back to the non-American application of her talents, and to her current residence in London as the proud Mrs. Coldplay. "Yes, well, I went to Spain in an exchange program at 15, and I've always been drawn to Europe. America is such a young country, with an adolescent swagger about it. But I feel that I have a more European sensibility, a greater respect for the multicultural nature of the globe. And it's a strange time to be an American now."
Oh, that Article does loom now -- it's the Paul William Roberts piece that ran in the Focus section last weekend. Alas, in dodging the discussion, I may have won the battle yet lost the war. It's 5 p.m. and, in the stifling corridor outside the hotel room, scribes have been huddled like homeless wretches since the wee hours of the morning, parched scores of them all waiting for their precious draught of fame. But the fountain is drying up. Understandably, Gwyneth is getting tired of talking about Gwyneth, and her answers to me, while always polite, have grown shorter, almost clipped.
Something similar happened at an earlier press conference for Proof. Upon entering the conference room, she immediately faced a human wall of photographers, at least 20 wide and two deep. Oh, she smiled dutifully, and responded to questions amiably, but when others on the panel were speaking -- like her director John Madden, or her co-star Anthony Hopkins -- you could almost see Gwyneth building a counter-wall around herself and, with those blue eyes slightly glazed, retreating well behind it.
That fortress is precisely what's facing me now. I can only capitulate: "So, uhm, what did you think about the Roberts article?" The change is instantaneous. The voice regains its spark, the eyes lose their glaze and the fountain pours forth: "I totally agreed with it. I feel like we're really in trouble. I just had a baby and thought, 'I don't want to live there.' Bush's anti-environment, pro-war policies are a dis. . . ." Well, you can guess the rest. Her speech is deeply felt and not unintelligent, yet entirely predictable and ill-suited to these pages, where analysis of American domestic affairs is confined to the highly partisan manoeuvrings of Brad and Jennifer. Sorry. Gwyneth's wall may be down, but the game, and my time, are up.