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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In “Sliding Doors,” written and directed by Peter Howitt, Gwyneth Paltrow takes a trip through the looking glass--playing a woman who lives two parallel versions of the same event. In one scenario, she catches a London underground train, allowing her to arrive home and find her boyfriend in flagrante delicto; in the other, she misses the train and remains ignorant of his infidelity.

The whimsical look of the film, which opens Friday, at fate and choices we make struck a chord with Paltrow--the star of “Emma” and “Seven” whose life had no shortage of turns since the end of her engagement to Brad Pitt. She’s been seeing actor Ben Affleck (“Good Will Hunting”) and tackling film projects both adventurous and commercially savvy.

Over breakfast at Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica, the swan-like, 25-year-old daughter of actress Blythe Danner and producer Bruce Paltrow seemed relaxed, happy and confident about what career doors are opening for her.

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Question: “Sliding Doors” taps into feelings we all have about how one incident or choice can change our lives. As it ended, it made me think twice about which way to drive home. . . .

Answer: Good! The idea of the film is so unique, and the script was so clever and funny; I thought, whoever wrote this is a genius.

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Q: You play two parts, but they’re the same woman in variations of the same situation. Was that difficult?

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A: Not really, because for me, their experiences had so shaped where they were that it was like they were two different people.

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Q: Which was more fun to play?

A: The liberated one in the process of self-discovery. I hate to admit that, because I love the other woman. When we’re spying on her, she’s just at a bad place in her life.

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Q: Speaking of decisions, I heard you were in the running for “Titanic.”

A: I did meet with Jim Cameron. I remember walking in New York with Ethan [Hawke, Paltrow’s “Great Expectations” co-star]. He was like, “Are they talking to you about ‘Titanic’?” Yeah! “Are they talking to you about ‘Titanic’? What do you think?” And we both thought, it’s too big, too much.

I would’ve lost my mind. I have so much respect for Kate Winslet for getting through that, and saying only one bad thing about Jim Cameron!

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Q: You and she are among the few actresses your age who can hop through any century.

A: She can, I guess I can. Now I’m going back on “Shakespeare in Love.” Me and Joe Fiennes.

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Q: What’s he like? Intense, like brother Ralph?

A: He’s intense and quite beautiful. I’m excited. Tom Stoppard wrote it. . . . It’s about what’s going on in Shakespeare’s personal life as he writes “Romeo and Juliet.” I play the woman he falls in love with who’s his muse.

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Q: You seem attracted to films where the script counts.

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A: Well, I’ve made some strange choices, based on “good premise, this could get there"--and that’s always the wrong way.

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Q: For example, the recent movie you made with Jessica Lange, “Hush”?

A: [sighs] Ughhh . . . I don’t know what you’re talking about! [disingenuous grin] I’ve never even heard of that!

But the movie I just finished is a happy ending of that kind of thing. “A Perfect Murder.” At first I thought, I’m not going to do an Andy Davis Hollywood movie--but Michael Douglas was attached and the script was a page-turner. There were some problems with it, and they were like, “We’re going to fix them.” You always hear that--but they actually did fix them.

It’s so much fun to play. There’s one scene we call the “Gaslight” scene where Michael turns everything around. Even though you’ve seen all the events of the movie take place, you start to question what you know. It’s brilliant.

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Q: It seems you’ve done a little of everything--even a musical, if we count “Shout” [Paltrow’s 1991 debut].

A: I’m gonna do a musical! My dad’s directing a movie called “Duets,” about karaoke singers. I sing in that one.

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Q: You almost made your screen debut in another musical. Weren’t you offered the part of Vanilla Ice’s girlfriend in “Cool as Ice”?

A: God, can you believe that? [laughs, shakes head] Thank you for calling that back to my attention! I’d just started acting, I auditioned for “Cool as Ice,” and they offered me the movie! They said, “It’s an $80,000 offer"--and I was hostessing [at the Santa Monica Airport restaurant DC-3].

I was like, I can’t believe it--but my God, it’s Vanilla Ice! So I went straight to my father. He read five pages of the script and said, “You really could potentially hurt yourself by doing this film.”

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Q: So in the parallel universe, you did make that movie, and where would you be now?

A: Well, Kristin Scott Thomas did “Under the Cherry Moon"--doesn’t that count as her “Cool as Ice”? So you never know!

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Q: It sounds like you’re very close to your parents.

A: I am. One downside of being so close is it’s difficult to extract who you are from them. As an adult you want to be confident in the decisions you make, but it’s hard for me still to not have their opinion first and their approval. And I can’t, it’s not healthy, you have to live your own life.

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Q: Also, much of your life you’ve been defined by your relationship to someone--daughter of an actress and a producer . . . girlfriend of a star. . . . Was that hard, particularly all the media scrutiny of the last two years?

A: The truth is, I didn’t think about it. It was just my reality. I never stood back and was like, what’s going on? I was just trying to keep my head about me and keep going. If you try to stop and understand all of that--it requires an objectiveness that is not attainable.

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Q: It probably helped that you’d been around the business all of your life, with family friends like Steven Spielberg . . . which reminds me, is it true he cast you in “Hook” [as Wendy] when you were waiting in line together for “Silence of the Lambs”?

A: No, someone messed that story up. We weren’t in line--Steven and Kate [Capshaw] picked us up to take us to the movie and in the car he said, “Do you want to be in ‘Hook’?”

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Q: I couldn’t picture him standing in a movie line.

A: Oh no, he does that! But as soon as they see him, theater guys with walkie-talkies take him in.

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Q: Another film you’ve got lined up is “The Talented Mr. Ripley” with Matt Damon. . . .

[As if on cue, Damon’s pal--and Paltrow’s steady--Ben Affleck ambles to the table. Paltrow’s smile turns into a force-field beam as they embrace; they discuss their day plans in an intimate tone.]

Q: Join us. [Affleck does, friendly but a bit reluctant.] We were just talking about Matt Damon, and here’s another of the ‘90s Rat Pack.

Paltrow: [laughs] Is that what we are? This is so exciting! I always wanted to be Ally Sheedy.

Q: Not Brat Pack, Rat Pack.

Affleck: But there were no women in the Rat Pack. Except for Shirley MacLaine, and whoever popped up in “Ocean’s Eleven.”

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Q: So when are you two working together?

B.A.: I’m in “Shakespeare in Love,” actually.

G.P.: It’s a hilarious part.

[Affleck discusses his upcoming schedule but dodges questions about Paltrow. After more sotto voce conferencing, Affleck hugs and kisses Gwyneth and leaves.]

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Q: There was a nice energy between you two.

A: [beaming] I won’t comment on it! He’s just my friend. My good friend.

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Q: Whatever he is, you seem very happy.

A: I’m feeling really happy. Everything’s going kind of good.

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Q: How did you two meet?

A: Through friends in New York. Miramax.

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Q: I don’t know if they should pay you, or you should pay them.

A: They should pay me! More than they do! [laughs] I have to say, Harvey Weinstein’s known as a tough guy, but that man is extraordinary. I feel like I could only make movies at Miramax and be completely happy.

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Q: He’s said he’s jealous when you work elsewhere.

A: I know, he gets all pissed off and bitter! I said, “Harvey, I gotta pay my rent!”

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Q: Somehow that reminds me, you recently went swimming with sharks. [Last year, Paltrow spent three days solo on an island off the coast of Belize; she wrote of the trip in an issue of Marie Claire, which she guest-edited.]

A: I’d seen the shark from the shore. I was like, I’m on a deserted island, with shark-infested waters! But I just knew that I wasn’t going to get killed by a shark, so I went swimming. It was empowering--kind of a test. And the shark appeared right next to me. I was like, well, OK! Then I got out of the water and took a picture of it and I put it in the magazine.

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Q: If you’re not afraid of sharks, or Harvey Weinstein, what are you afraid of?

A: I don’t know--I feel really brave all of a sudden! But I’m not. I’m afraid of anger and I’m afraid of flying.

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Q: What do you look forward to?

A: My new thing is, no expectations. If you carve out what you expect, that’s how you end up getting disappointed, not living fully in the present. And I feel so present now. Like I’m really living.

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Q: So you’ll let the “Sliding Doors” choices take care of themselves.

A: I think it’s important to stay open . . . and see what happens.


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