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Strangers in Good Company

Amy Wallace is a Times staff writer

The ladies had lunched, and it had done them good.

Emerging from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences luncheon honoring this year’s 157 Oscar nominees, Gwyneth Paltrow and Kathy Bates agreed that the event--instead of adding to their pre-award-show craziness--had somehow helped put it in perspective. For a few hours, the two actresses said, they had enjoyed feeling like members of a community of artists, not just isolated Oscar contenders in the center of a publicity hurricane.

“It can feel pretty weird and disconnected,” Bates said. “But today I got to meet Eugenio Zanetti, who did the art direction for ‘What Dreams May Come.’ It was so cool to be able to actually say to the person behind all of that: ‘Wow, that was great.’ ”

Paltrow and Bates sat down together at the request of The Times, meeting in a private room at the Beverly Hilton Hotel to talk about acting, filmmaking and the deliciously stressful experience of being nominated for Hollywood’s most prestigious award. Paltrow, 25, is up for best actress for her role in “Shakespeare in Love"--her first nomination. Bates, 50, who won a best actress Oscar in 1990 for “Misery,” is nominated again for her supporting role in “Primary Colors.”

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Paltrow, the daughter of actress Blythe Danner and producer-director Bruce Paltrow, was born in Los Angeles and has been on movie sets all her life. She first appeared on the big screen in 1991, portraying the Young Wendy in Steven Spielberg’s “Hook.” Two years later, she got noticed in her first substantial role, as a waifish shoplifter in “Flesh and Bone.” In 1996 came her first leading role, in “Emma.”

Bates’ first speaking part in a movie was in 1978 opposite Dustin Hoffman in “Straight Time.” But she’d been on stage for years, winning a Tony nomination for her starring role in the Broadway play “ ‘night Mother.” A native of Memphis, her film career has often been marked by startling performances, whether as a murderous mother in “Dolores Claiborne,” a thwarted housewife in “Fried Green Tomatoes” or the unsinkable Molly Brown in “Titanic.”

The two women had never met, but they quickly established a rapport. Though seen as very different actresses, both expressed a frustration with Hollywood typecasting. For nearly an hour, they compared notes--and laughed--about everything from couture to co-starring with James Caan. But mostly they seemed relieved to be speaking to one of the few people on the planet who could understand what it’s like to be a nominee.

Bates: Do you feel isolated a little bit?

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Paltrow: I do. I feel a kind of pressure that I’ve never felt before. Pressure to make all my friends and everybody around me comfortable with it. When you’re going through something like this, you want to rely on everyone you know and love to say, “Hey, we’re all normal. You’re still normal. This isn’t a big deal.” But everyone’s going, “Oh, my God! It’s such a big deal! What are you going to wear?” And I’m just going, “Oh, no!”

Bates: What happened my first time [attending the Oscars] was that I came in a day before the ceremony, tried on my dress, went to the show. And then I saw all these people I had worked with like Dustin Hoffman and Jodie Foster. And it sort of grounded me. That all felt very easy the first time. It was the subsequent times going, as a presenter, that it began to feel really, really wacky.

Question: OK, Gwyneth opened the door--what are you wearing?

Paltrow: I have no idea. Literally no idea. I got faxed these articles about “What is Gwyneth Paltrow going to wear?” I thought this is a horrible thing to put somebody through! I’m trying to relieve the pressure and just say, “You know what? I’m just going to wear what I like and it’s not a big deal.” But I can’t find anything right now. [to Bates] Have you?

Bates: Well, I have a friend--I’ve been wearing her clothes off the rack for five years--Dana Buchman. I really love her stuff. Her brother and I were in the same class in high school. So I’m going to go [see her] this week. But you know what I really want to wear? I probably just don’t have the balls. But there’s a pair of red flannel pajamas that [costume designer] Ann Roth made for me for “Primary Colors.” And I wore them on my 50th birthday last year at home because I thought, you know, I just love these pajamas. And I thought if I just put a little black beaded shell under that and wore that to the Oscars, I’d be comfortable, it’ll have enough glitz, it’s me.

Paltrow: Come on! Do it!

Bates: And I could be setting a trend, because everybody’s really tired of this black-tie stuff. If I get the nerve, maybe I will.

Q: Does being nominated affect your work?

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Paltrow: My first day of shooting my father’s film [“Duets,” in which Paltrow stars] was the day that the nominations came out. And it hadn’t sunk in and I never thought about it in terms of my work.

Bates: There’s a pro for you.

Q: Does it change your life to win?

Bates: Well, when I won back in 1990, somebody in the press asked, “What does this mean?” And I said, “It means I have to work harder.” My friends just tore their hair out when I said that on TV. They said, “Why can’t you just enjoy this? Why does there have to be such Sturm und Drang?” But I really do feel like after you get through all the hoopla about it--and the year of not working after you win, which always happens somehow--I do think you feel a certain sense of responsibility. You’re validated, and it’s the highest award the industry can give. And you feel like you have to live up to that.

Q: Is that part of the reason you don’t work for a year? Because you’re more picky?

Bates: No. [laughing] I think sometimes they say, “Oh, well, you know, she won’t do that. We won’t even ask.” So they don’t even send you anything. And you’re saying, “Wait a minute!”

Q: Was anyone overlooked by the academy this year?

Bates: Patricia Clarkson, I thought, deserved a supporting actress nomination for “High Art.” I thought she was fantastic in that part. And also Joan Allen in “Pleasantville.” There’s two I can think of.

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Paltrow: Joe Fiennes [her co-star] is one of mine. Bill Murray, I thought, was brilliant [in “Rushmore”]. I loved that movie. It was the most tragic performance--really beautiful and raw.

Q: [to Bates] You’re the only American in your category. Do you think that helps?

Bates: God, I hope so. [laughing] But you know it’s heady to be with four Brits because when you’re an actor, you always think, “Oh, it’s the Brits who are more well-trained.” You look at [best supporting actress nominee] Judi Dench, who’s probably played every Shakespearean role known to man. She was like an archer in “Shakespeare in Love.” She had these arrows, and she just hit the target every single time. It was amazing. And Lynn Redgrave took a part in “Gods and Monsters” and made it so special. And I’ve been watching Rachel Griffiths since “Muriel’s Wedding.” She’s a great actress. And Brenda [Blethyn], who I met a couple of years ago when she was nominated, is such a lovely lady. You never know which way it’s going to go, though.

Q: [to Paltrow] And you’re the only American actress nominated for playing a Brit. [Everyone laughs.] You’ve talked about the honor of being among such a great community of filmmakers, but what about your rivals--Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep, Fernanda Montenegro and Emily Watson? I would think you must take stock of yourself when you see who you’re considered the equal of.

Paltrow: I can’t even go there.

Bates: I don’t know if I feel “equal.” I feel in good company. I don’t think there’s an equality in actors. It’s as much what role you’re playing. It’s as much the role that’s being honored, too.

Paltrow: I think that’s really true.

Q: [to Bates] You are the pinnacle of character actors, having had so many different extreme characters, many of them touched by madness.

Bates: [laughing] Some of which you’ve seen here today.

Q: And you [to Paltrow], we’ve seen such a steep career trajectory, and already such a range. But you’re not viewed as a character actress. Would you like to play someone more odd and peripheral--less of an attractive character?

Paltrow: It’s interesting because when I started, I did several character-y roles. “Flesh and Bone” was very against type. And “Hard Eight” was not a glamorous part: a prostitute. I feel like I’ve done a lot of different kinds of things, but . . . people don’t associate me with those parts. After “Emma” and “Sliding Doors” and “Shakespeare in Love,” it would be nice to work back toward some things that people would, I guess, characterize as against type. I would like to be open to anything.

Bates: I would love to see these categories disappear altogether. It dismays me that--and I’m not taking any of this personally with Gwyneth and me specifically--but I think that oftentimes women are seen as mad or beautiful. And sometimes beautiful and mad, but Isabelle Adjani gets all those roles. [laughing] There are these two extremes. But to me all acting is character acting. This kind of craft should defy categorization. It should be glorious in all its variety. I personally would love to play Puck one day, you know? I would love to do something really different because you don’t know what you would bring to it.

Paltrow: What a great idea.

Q: [to Bates] You are the center of the pivotal scene in “Primary Colors,” when your character, Libby Holden, discovers that the presidential candidate and his wife have forsaken their ideals and broken her heart.

Bates: I liked the range of Libby, and I liked the challenges she presented. I loved the problem of having to go and kiss another woman on screen, and I’m not gay. The things that make you scared are what I like to rush right into, to try and understand what all of that means. And the technicalities. My last scene in the truck, we shot the inside in June and the exterior in August. So it was a challenge fitting both together and making it look right. [she turns to Paltrow] Can I ask you--had you done Shakespeare before?

Paltrow: Never.

Bates: So did you work with somebody to help with the iambic pentameter? That’s what would make me so nervous.

Paltrow: Yes, we had somebody from the Royal Shakespeare Company come--this really gentle, smart man who would work with us and do scenes and voice work. And then my dialect coach, Barbara Berkery, she had done lots of Shakespeare so she really helped me on a daily basis. . . . It was a gift to have her on set.

Bates: I did Shakespeare for $15 a week in Washington, D.C., before I got my Equity card. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.

Q: Are there any particular scenes of one another’s that you particularly admire or wonder about?

Bates: Other than all of “Shakespeare in Love”?

Paltrow: [to Bates] Well, first of all, I’m amazed that you got through doing a whole movie with James Caan. He played my boyfriend in “Flesh and Bone.”

Bates: [laughing] Did they have the guy that played basketball with him on the set? No? Maybe that was the problem. He idles a little high, but he’s got a good heart.

Paltrow: Yeah, he does have a good heart. But he’s out of his mind. Anyway, I have a couple of questions. In “Misery,” when you had to sustain that hysteria, what was your course in plotting that out? Was it an intellectual way that you got there, or was it all emotional? Did you have it in your mind that at a certain point you would snap?

Bates: My mother would say I was born that way. But I worked with Rob [Reiner, the director] at the beginning. It was really important that we have a sense of logic about her madness. She couldn’t just be generally mad. There had to be things that would set her off. So we plotted that pretty carefully.

Paltrow: For the viewer, it was that amazing marriage of completely understanding your logic and being totally terrified at the same time.

Bates: Oh, good. That was important to Rob.

Paltrow: And in the famous truck scene [in “Primary Colors”], did you have to do that a lot of times? [Bates nods and Paltrow sighs sympathetically]

Bates: I know. I was in bed for three days after that. It was so great to sit there and do it the first time, and Mike [Nichols, the director] came over and he was so thrilled with it. And I thought, “Oh, great.” And then I saw him moving the lights and I thought, “Oh, no.”

Paltrow: I know! I was watching the scene and I thought, “That’s a new shot. That’s a new angle. Wait. Whoa!”

Bates: I know. [During shooting], I had to go off in a corner and--I have this phrase that I use--keep the pot on the back of the stove. Do you do that?

Paltrow: For something really emotional like that, I do. I have to.

Bates: You can’t just come in cold.

Q: Explain that. You two are speaking your own language.

Bates: Well, if you have a big emotional scene, like [to Paltrow] I loved that film you did with Michael Douglas, “A Perfect Murder.”

Paltrow: [derisively] Oh, God.

Bates: [laughing] You didn’t like it? Let’s pick another example. How do you sustain big emotional stuff?

Paltrow: What I do is I sort of clear out everything else, all the other noise in my head. It’s like you try to match your emotional frequency to that of your character. Sometimes it’s hard for me to keep my head out of it. I can do three really good takes, and then I know that this fourth one is just going to suck. I’m not going to get there.

Bates: Right. You know going in.

Paltrow: I find I’m my own worst enemy during those times. Because I listen to my own stupid inner dialogue. It’s difficult to explain.

Bates: You start torturing yourself. That’s what I do. When you can’t get it, I feel like I’m someone on the outside, trying to get in. It’s such a horrible feeling. Dustin Hoffman used the phrase “plugged in.” If you’re not plugged in, or really centered, then you really can’t do it.

Paltrow: It’s all about that, I think. I mean, you have to do your work and sit down and think it all through and plot your course. But then, it’s about accessing the right energies.

Bates: There’s been a big fight about this in acting for years. About whether you stay in the moment and imagine what’s really going on in your character or whether you use something in your own life to beat yourself up with so you can get into the moment. I’ve always thought it’s much healthier and more imaginative to stay in the moment. [to Paltrow] When you first started doing film, weren’t you struck by how fast it goes?

Paltrow: I couldn’t believe I was on a movie set to begin with, and I felt really intimidated. . . . I kept thinking, “How am I going to ever not be self-conscious? I can do it great in my honey wagon, you know. But how am I going to be able to be present and not let all of this external stuff affect me?” I guess it’s just practice.

Bates: It’s a scary place at first. And it goes so fast that you feel like you’ve got to sink one in. That’s what I mean about keeping the pot on the stove: You’ve got to be ready to go from a dead stop to full out when they’re ready. I’ve learned to start taking a little time, though. [to Paltrow] Do you take time, like a half a minute, to get ready?

Paltrow: I try to, but I get self-conscious that now people are waiting for me and, like, “Oooooh, now it’s actress-y time.” I hate that. But I should, because if I start when I’m not ready it wastes more of everybody’s time.

Q: [to Paltrow] It’s interesting that you talk about hitting an emotional frequency, because everyone I know who has seen “Shakespeare in Love” talks about your role in particular. You were glowing. You remind people what it feels like to be in love.

Bates: You know what I loved about it? She was a complete woman before he came along. She was full of her own joy. She was full and ready and just about to bloom, but she didn’t need him to be who she was, either. And that’s what attracted him.

Paltrow: Which is a good lesson, you know? I feel like I learned a lot from playing that woman. I think that when you’re relying on somebody else in any way to satiate who you are emotionally, it’s backward. I loved that quality in her. But it was hard to sustain. She was so there to me, so present and so pure.

Bates: It’s just as hard to sustain that as any other emotional broad-jump.

Paltrow: Absolutely. There was no easy day or slacking off.

Q: Was it hard at all to play a woman playing a man?

Paltrow: It wasn’t because the audience was complicit with me in the whole thing. It wasn’t like I had to fool the audience that I was a man. Then I would have been more nervous about it. But since I only had to fool the other guys in the movie . . .

Q: Who were paid to be fooled.

Paltrow: Right. There was less pressure.

Q: The mustache didn’t rankle?

Paltrow: It didn’t bother me. Joe Fiennes, you know, it was a little weird for him. He didn’t like it at all. [Bates bursts out laughing] The first couple of times we kissed with that thing on, he’d pull away and say, “Oh, my God, that’s so horrible.” It really unnerved him.

Q: During the final days before the award ceremony, what’s your strategy? Do you try to keep busy to not think about it?

Bates: It’s hard to concentrate a little bit.

Paltrow: I just want to go home and go under the covers. I just thank God for my yoga practice. Seriously. But [the hysteria] creeps in.

Q: So what are each of you doing next? [to Paltrow] You recently wrapped “Duets” and you had already finished “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” What’s coming up?

Paltrow: I’m going to do a play at the Williamstown Theatre Festival [in Massachusetts] this summer. I’m looking at comedies. I want to go up to the Berkshires and lie in the grass.

Bates: And laugh your ass off.

Paltrow: Yes! And laugh! Hysterically! That’s what I want to do. [to Bates] How about you?

Bates: Well, I’m learning how to play the harp.

Paltrow: You’re kidding!

Bates: No. I saw this thing on PBS about harpists and I went out and bought a harp. I had my first lesson last week. And other than that I’m going to go do a part on “Third Rock From the Sun.” And I have a film coming out I directed last fall, “Dash and Lilly,” which is about Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman with Sam Shephard and Judy Davis. This is my first full length feature for cable.

Q: Any plans for a rematch with your “Waterboy” co-star, Adam Sandler?

Bates: Well, yes, [laughing] only the next time with a percentage.


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