The Girl Can’t Help It

John Clark is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Steve Kloves has a vivid Gwyneth Paltrow memory. He’s a big fan of hers, having directed her in a movie called “Flesh and Bone,” which nobody saw but nonetheless had a lot of Hollywood insiders talking--talking about her. She was 20 at the time.

“She had this almost Holly Golightly thing,” Kloves says. “She used to say this one thing that would just kill you. She’d be in the middle of a conversation and she’d say, ‘I’m just a girl.’ It used to slay people: ‘But then, I’m just a girl.’ ”

Now, three years later, Paltrow glides into a midtown Manhattan restaurant with the girlishness left somewhere--though not too far--behind. She sits down and orders a tomato juice, something she normally does on an airplane, and this leads to the sort of musing that Kloves was talking about.


“You’re so busy all day, stuck in your head and your own life,” she says. “Did I feed the dog? When do we have to wake up in the morning to go to work? You get on a plane and it all stops. I’m like the tiniest thing, and I’m about to go into the sky in a 50-billion-ton metal structure. I understand aerophysics and everything, but as a mammal it terrifies me.”

Her blond hair is pulled tight away from her forehead. She’s wearing a loose black sweater and a gray ankle-length deconstructed skirt (meaning it looks as if it needs to be hemmed). On her feet are what appear to be sports sandals. On her fingernails is chipped lavender nail polish.

These details are important because to some arbiters of taste she’s the epitome of cool. This coolness is the latest in a series of roles she’s assumed, though not entirely of her own volition. First, she was known as the daughter of actress Blythe Danner and television producer Bruce Paltrow (“St. Elsewhere”). Then--and this is a continuing role--she became known as heartthrob Brad Pitt’s significant other. And now--and this may partly be related to Pitt--she “reigns supreme,” according to Vogue magazine, as Hollywood’s “Ubiquitous Blonde of the Minute.”

“It’s very bizarre,” she says, “being part of the pop culture.”

Paltrow has been stuck with these various roles because until recently she hasn’t found one to measure up to Ginnie, her nasty con artist in 1993’s “Flesh and Bone.” She played a Tallulah Bankhead type in “Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle,” Thomas Jefferson’s father-fixated daughter in “Jefferson in Paris,” the naive chain-smoking sister in “Moonlight and Valentino,” Pitt’s long-suffering wife in “Seven,” an ethereal object of neurotic affection in “The Pallbearer” and a prostitute in the still-unreleased “Hard 8.”

Kloves explains her relatively limited roles after “Flesh and Bone” this way: “She’s strong. If you cast her, you’re really making a choice. There’s nothing generic about Gwynny. The other problem was she was 20 years old and she was reading for parts sometimes for 25- to 30-year-olds. I mean, 20 is 20. How many interesting parts are there for 20-year-old women?”

Well, now there’s “Emma.”

“Emma,” opening Aug. 2 with Paltrow in the title role, is yet another adaptation of a Jane Austen novel, following last year’s “Sense and Sensibility” and “Persuasion.” It’s similar to those two in that the heroine has to negotiate her way around convention and false suitors to find true love. The difference is that there’s much more to her than just finding a man and that a lot of that complexity is irritating.


“One of the many great things about Gwyneth is she plays all sides of it,” says the film’s director, Douglas McGrath. “She doesn’t soften the unpleasant things in Emma’s character, nor does she inflate her good qualities. She has everything a young woman that age has, all the petulance, the vanity, the self-confidence that can only come from youth and ignorance. The tenderness, the repentance, the honest desire to help someone even though in her case it always seems to turn into harm. Because she doesn’t always try to make herself look good, that makes her all the more endearing.”


Few, if any, of the qualities seem to have been drawn from Paltrow’s own personality, although aspects of it push the movie along.

“The amazing thing about her,” McGrath says, “is that as a rule she can be running around the set, singing, dancing, curled up like a cat, and then the minute action is called, she completely changes. She adopts every feature of a young woman in 19th century England of that breeding and station.”

“She’s well in touch with her instincts, which is a great skill to have,” says Jeremy Northam, who plays Emma’s conscience (and a good deal more). “She just sails through and seems to have a blast doing it, and I think it shows on the screen because there’s a real sense of fun and mischief.”

In person, Paltrow is open, animated, New Yorker-ish. As with most actors, her emotions are very near the surface. She’s visibly pained when she talks about a scene in “Emma” in which her character cruelly cuts down a poor spinster. She warms up while reminiscing about her first location shoot, in Texas, for “Flesh and Bone.” She speaks highly of so many of her “Emma” colleagues--McGrath, Toni Collette, Juliet Stevenson, Sophie Thompson, Phyllida Law among them--that you can’t help but think she likes people as a general principle. She’ll philosophize in a collegiate way about gay men, the French, art, the insularity of Hollywood. (“The importance they place on what a movie grosses and who’s hot and who’s it and who’s getting what out of what studio,” she says. “The whole thing makes me nauseous.”)

“She’s an actress,” says Donna Gigliotti, executive producer of “Emma.” “She can do that silly thing, the ‘Let’s talk about hair and makeup and clothes.’ But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll find a very serious person. She happens to be packaged in someone who is beautiful and talented.”

This, Gigliotti acknowledges, makes Paltrow almost sickeningly accomplished.

“There were several young women who used to watch the rushes with me,” she says. “They would turn to me and say, ‘When did Gwyneth learn to shoot a bow and arrow?’ I’d say, ‘She knew how to do it.’ In the singing scene they said, ‘Whose voice did you dub for Gwyneth?’ ‘It’s her own.’ They said, ‘OK, she’s beautiful, she can do this accent, she’s a good actress, she can sing, and she can shoot a bow and arrow. And Brad Pitt’s her boyfriend. Isn’t there something wrong with her?’ ”

Whatever is wrong or right with Paltrow has its origins partly in her bicoastal childhood. She spent the first 11 years of her life in Los Angeles and then moved with her family to New York. This uprooting was not as abrupt as it might seem, she says, because she spent much of the second and third grade in New York while her mother worked on Broadway, and many of her relatives on both sides live in the metropolitan area.

“It was very important to my mother that we be raised for the latter part here,” she says. “I think she found so many aspects of L.A. superficial. There’s so much culture here, the museums and the theater. Just walking down the street here you’re exposed to everything.”

“You feel it with Gwynny,” Kloves says of her cosmopolitan upbringing. “She was a remarkable 19-year-old, and I think some of that had to do with the fact that she’d spent an enormous amount of time in New York. There was a sophistication and an intelligence that came from that. She could have had a real Beverly Hills lifestyle.”


Instead, she had a preppy lifestyle at Spence, a fancy private school for girls, and spent part of a year of high school as an exchange student in Spain. It’s the sort of life that was satirized in Whit Stillman’s “Metropolitan,” which she says she could relate to, with “the balls and everybody going to hang out at somebody’s house and drinking and talking. There was that kind of ‘Oh, Vanessa, listen to what Samantha thinks about the interpretation of. . . . ‘ It doesn’t make any sense. It’s mental posturing.”

Alongside this posturing was a genuine desire to act, which her parents discouraged. After she graduated from Spence, she went to UC Santa Barbara, majoring in art history, but she was constantly cutting classes so that she could go to auditions in L.A. She also made a very brief appearance in “Hook,” having been cast by family friend Steven Spielberg while standing in line for a screening. At this point, she says, her father issued a kind of ultimatum: “Either you should go to college or not. This middle ground is not productive.”

The decision was made when Paltrow appeared with her mother onstage in a production of “Picnic” at the Williamstown Theater in Massachusetts. Her father attended the dress rehearsal and then went backstage, where “he was being very effusive about my performance, and he said, ‘I don’t think you should go back [to college],’ ” she says. “It’s probably the one moment in my life that was truly one of the most amazing things and at the same time was really a definitive thing.”

She then knew where she was going, and her confidence--or ignorance--was such that she had no concerns about getting there.

“I knew it was just a matter of time,” she says. “When I was starting, I thought, ‘Well, when is it going to happen?’ But I knew it was going to happen.”

It happened when Kloves cast her in “Flesh and Bone.” He had seen her in “Cruel Doubt,” a miniseries that she appeared in with her mother.

“I had a gut feeling she was the one,” Kloves says of her audition. “She walked in wearing this little sundress and she’s all sunshine, and then we started to read and it was like a veil came down over her face and she was Ginnie. And it was chilling, because Ginnie was a chilling character.”

Unfortunately, neither the studios nor the public knew what to do with “Flesh and Bone” or Paltrow, so the media identified her not as an actress in her own right but as Blythe Danner and Bruce Paltrow’s daughter--and kept doing it. What’s odd about this is that very few people outside the industry know who Bruce Paltrow is, and Blythe Danner, though she has many admirers, is not exactly a household name either.

“It’s funny,” Gwyneth Paltrow says. “Like you read articles on Ben Stiller, and I think they say less about his parents, that he’s the son of Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller. I think people would know more who they are. Why don’t they do it with Ben?”

This was just the beginning of Paltrow’s complicated relationship with the press. After “Flesh and Bone,” she did a slew of movies that would have earned any other promising young actress a degree of attention, but because she was somebody’s daughter, and then somebody’s girlfriend, she received a sort of third degree of attention.

“They literally make things up,” she says of the tabloid coverage of her relationship with Pitt, whom she met around the time they made “Seven.” “They’ll be like, ‘A pal says that Gwyneth said, “I’m just not yet ready for marriage. I want to pursue my own career. Look at all the couples in young Hollywood that don’t survive this madness.” ’ Unbelievable. They just lie and say, ‘Gwyneth says yes to marriage after saying no to three proposals.’ It’s just garbage.”

Most of this is written by people who have never met her. But, she insists, even the ones who have don’t get it right. One writer said that her ambition was fueled by the death of several friends (she says she takes on projects for a lot of reasons: money, because she likes the scripts and the people involved in it). Another reporter implied that her manner was manufactured and that she was a party animal. (“I never go to clubs,” she says. “Ever.”) And then there are the questions about what she and Pitt do together.

“I don’t understand what people expect,” she says. “I’m not going to sit down with a writer and divulge intimate and private things. I’m in a very happy relationship. We’re the best of friends. We go out on a date together. We go to the movies. I make dinner. We go out to dinner. We have friends over. Beyond that, I don’t know what else people expect me to say.”

She thinks that some of her treatment by the press, especially the reports that she’s a club-hopping, drug-taking, rock ‘n’ roll chick, has its roots in jealousy.

“Women get crazy over Brad,” she says. “You’ve never seen anything like it. Women are like, ‘I will marry him.’ And I’m not talking about 14-year-old girls--28-year-old women. They’re obsessed.”

She describes her own initial interest in him in much more prosaic terms. In fact, it wouldn’t make a bad romantic comedy.

“It would never occur to me to flirt with somebody, even if I had a crush on them,” she says, describing herself as a bit “oblivious.” “I wouldn’t know if somebody was flirting with me. When Brad and I met, he says, it was obvious that he liked me and that I was an idiot. But I had no idea. I thought he was just really friendly.” She laughs. “And then I started getting a crush on him. I’m like, ‘Are you insane? You can’t get a crush on Brad Pitt. Get hold of yourself.’ It’s funny to think back into that mind now. Now it’s so different.”

“Emma” is not going to change this state of affairs, but it may give the press something else to talk about. McGrath brought her in for the part at the suggestion of his agent, Boaty Boatwright (who also happens to represent Blythe Danner), and after watching “Flesh and Bone.” She was the right age, which was important, and she was a few other things besides.

“The thing that actually sold me on her playing a young English girl was that she did a perfect Texas accent,” McGrath says. “I know that wouldn’t recommend her to most people. I grew up in Texas, and I have never heard an actor or actress not from Texas sound remotely like a real Texan. I knew she had theater training, so she could carry herself. We had many actresses, big and small, who wanted to play this part. The minute she started the read-through, the very first line, I thought, ‘Everything is going to be fine; she’s going to be brilliant.’ ”

It was after this read-through that Miramax Co-Chairman Harvey Weinstein decided to green-light the movie, although Paltrow says it wasn’t quite that simple. He had another movie he wanted her to do. . . .

“When he saw the reading, he was like, ‘OK, let’s do it,’ and then he was kind of up in the air and then he said, ‘If you do “The Pallbearer,” we’ll make “Emma.” ’ He knew I really wanted to do ‘Emma’ and that I was less keen to do ‘The Pallbearer,’ ” she says.

Meryl Poster, who is senior vice president of production at Miramax, confirms this. In fact, the director, writer and producer of “The Pallbearer” were present at the “Emma” reading and wanted her on the basis of it.

“Harvey really wanted her to do ‘The Pallbearer,’ ” she says. “And so I think that in his unique way he was saying, ‘Do “The Pallbearer” and I’m going to make “Emma” and that will make you a star.’ Because a lot of people talk about Gwyneth and there’s so much hype about her, but you hadn’t really seen her carry a film before. . . . We didn’t even open up the audition process, and a lot of actresses were miffed about it.”

Paltrow says that she tried not to think about the fact that the project was riding on her performance. She did, however, get nervous when she tried out her English accent during the second read-through, which took place with the English cast members. Jeremy Northam says she wasn’t the only one who was nervous, that all the actors were, though not for her but for themselves. McGrath has a slightly different understanding of this occasion.

“I’m sure they all thought, ‘We have to help the American girl,’ with that slightly patronizing ‘We are the gods of the English theater,’ ” he says. “After the read-through, not only were they excited to be in the movie with her, but I’m sure it actually made them a little insecure. You could see it as the read-through went on, because the energy kept picking up from the next person.” Here McGrath imitates them laughing nervously. “They were like, ‘Wow, she’s really good.’ ”

“If you’re another actor,” Kloves says, “you’re a fool if you don’t take her seriously, because she’ll smoke you.”

Cross her creatively and she might smoke you too. She makes no bones about the treatment accorded her next movie, “Hard 8,” and its director, Paul Thomas Anderson. She says that the studio, Rysher Entertainment, fired Anderson and re-cut the film, despite the fact that it had been well reviewed and well received at some of the film festivals. They also changed the title from “Sydney.” The new one, she says, sounds like “a porno movie.”

“If they don’t release his version,” she says, “I will be on a personal crusade to murder these people for the rest of my life.” (According to Rysher, the dispute has been resolved, and the director’s cut will be released early next year. Anderson says he prevailed in part because of Paltrow. “She was so tough and so strong to stand up for me and to help support me,” he says. “She took her job to another level by being there for me in the editing process, by constantly supporting me and giving me advice on how to deal with the situation.”)

The rest of Paltrow’s life shapes up as follows: She just finished a thriller called “Kilronan,” playing Jessica Lange’s daughter-in-law. This month she’ll begin an updated version of Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” playing the icy Estella opposite Ethan Hawke. After lunch, she is going to meet with David O. Russell, director of “Flirting With Disaster.” And this fall, she plans to become--a woman.

“I’ll be 24 in September,” she says. “I feel like that is a woman’s age. Twenty-three is still kind of on the border. To me, at 23 you can still really be a kid. I just mean in terms of a number, because obviously everybody is different. For example, if somebody said they were 24, you’d know they would have to be a woman, right?”

She laughs, knowing how this sounds but determined to explain why she’s not “just a girl” anymore--as if there’s ever been any doubt.