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PALTROW, GWYNETH: Great Expectations

Gwyneth Paltrow is one of the most sought after actresses in Hollywood, but don't expect her to play by the Hollywood rules - when talking about one of her latest films, the critically maligned Great Expectations, she's fairly frank and honest, as Paul Fischer discovered when he met the actress at this year's Sundance Film Festival.

In the midst of the cold and chaos of the Sundance Film Festival, Gwyneth Paltrow's presence at this event creates a media frenzy. But inside the cosy Italian restaurant in which Paltrow is conducting her slate of interviews, she seems unfazed. Hovering in the background are her agents, her protective publicist, her latest love, Ben Affleck - Hollywood at its most crowded. Yet Paltrow, at Sundance to promote the low budget Sundance film, Sliding Doors, is not wearing any movie star image.

The film's British director, Peter Howitt, confirms this: "When we were shooting Sliding Doors, Gwyneth put all that behind her. To us, she wasn't a movie star, just plain old Gwyneth." And here lay the dichotomy: despite her success, she'd rather be hanging around with these guys, than "participate in the glaring spotlight of Hollywood." The long, flowing hair, cut severely short, is bleached blonde yet looks natural.

The name Gwyneth Paltrow used to precede such phrases as "Brad Pitt's former fiancée" or "the daughter of Blythe Danner." These days, however, the name clambers up onto the movie screen all by itself, thank you very much. Paltrow's burgeoning résumé includes scene-stealing performances in a steady stream of high-calibre projects, which led up to her first title role, in the film adaptation of a Jane Austen classic, Emma. It's Paltrow the actress, not the stuff of tabloids, that preoccupies her, and she rarely, if ever, talks about her love life. Before her relationship with Affleck became public knowledge, she was asked how tough it might be for her to date, having come off such a high profile relationship.

"But it wasn't high-profile. There were pictures of us all over the place, but that doesn't give anybody insight into my relationship. So I feel like it was completely private and nobody knows anything about it. They think they do. That's their prerogative, you know what I mean? I'm a public figure, and he is, and there are pictures of us and people projected all kinds of things onto us. That doesn't mean it has any basis in reality. I can still go out and do my own thing completely - it's great. I've had a little life do-over, and it's great." This explains why this fiercely private star refused to allow photographs to be taken of her and Affleck together, at the various Sundance parties. "That stuff's so meaningless to me."

"I just refused to say any of the unsayable words"

Paltrow has no less than three films due for release this year, beginning with Great Expectations, which many critics have labelled Dickens for the MTV generation. Paltrow doesn't entirely disagree. Indeed, what attracted her to the less Hollywood-like Sliding Doors "was its literate script and sayable dialogue. I spend my life on my movies saying: this is unsayable dialogue." This was particularly prevalent in Great Expectations, she confesses. "There were a lot of problems with that script, and a lot of 'unsayable' dialogue."

Her solution, was a simple one: "I just refused to say any of the unsayable words, and insisted it either be re-written or cut", Paltrow says emphatically. And so it was. For the rest of it, she's reasonably pleased, and the film gave her the opportunity to work with close pal Ethan Hawke. "It was great for me, because we'd been friends for a really long time. He's so sensitive, talented and sweet. And he has a really interesting way of seeing the world."

Describes her Great Expectations as a "really perverse romance."

Very loosely based on the classic Charles Dickens novel, Hawke plays Finn-a variation on Dickens' Pip-who leaves his life as an orphaned fisherman to go to New York and conquer the art world.

Paltrow's character, Estella is defined by the actress "as a seemingly cold bitch" and tough to play. "She was hard to understand in a lot of ways. But once I did understand her, I felt tremendous compassion towards her because even though she's not the most likeable character that you've ever seen in a film, I think that she's a very good person deep down. But she's obviously been horribly misguided and taught to ruin men's lives. That's a harmful life objective. I think she feels tremendous conflict about it, but it's very difficult for her to express."

Critics have derided the film for turning classic literature into a modern film where even some of the characters' names have been changed, but Paltrow defends the idea. "I was really excited, because it was like a classic on acid. You turn it on its head. We took the didacticism, a few relationships between the characters and some other elements, and the rest was up to us." She laughingly describes her Great Expectations as a "really perverse romance."

"I was protected by modesty at all times."

Paltrow further explains that her Estella is "constantly stringing Finn along, trying to fulfil his image of her, and he's trying to figure out what she wants him to be. This is all a recipe for disaster in a relationship."

Great Expectations also required Paltrow to be nude, accentuating her character's sexuality. Though no body double was used, Paltrow insists that "I was protected by modesty at all times."

As Paltrow wraps up her Sundance media onslaught, she concedes that though Hollywood has invaded Utah's Park City, she'd rather do without what Hollywood represents. "It's not great, the whole Hollywood thing." But she copes - reluctantly. "I don't know how I cope; it's tough." It was partly for that reason that she turned down Titanic in favour of the far smaller Sliding Doors, and on that score, she has no regrets. "Are you insane? I couldn't have imagined going through what they did, and working with Cameron all that time."

In "Sliding Doors," a funny, luminous story of fate, time and love, Paltrow plays Helen, a hip, English PR executive living in London. Fired from her job, Helen is on her way home when she misses her train. From this point, the film centres on the possibilities of life. What happens in the world in which Helen catches her train? If she doesn't miss her ride home, she learns that her boyfriend is cheating on her. She leaves him, cuts her hair, meets a charming man and begins her life anew. Instead, the Helen who misses the train is assaulted, oblivious to her cheating lover and doomed to struggle to make ends meet. Down the line, the two Helens collide in a wild and entertaining ride.

Originally Sliding Doors, in which Paltrow sports a perfect British accent, was set to open virtually the same time as Great Expectations, meaning that the smaller film (but clearly the one she prefers) may have been lost in the shuffle. The actress doesn't necessarily agree with that assertion. "The film is so good, so original and such a sweet, complicated, beautiful film, I feel that people are sick of things exploding or sinking, that they want to see a movie about people."

'Oh God, this sucked,'

It's testament to Paltrow's intelligence and unHollywood demeanour, that despite the power she has attained, she'd choose to do a very small, British film, as against something with Hollywood teeth. Pressure to star in blockbusters does not concern her. "My agent and I are very close," Paltrow says. "He's been my agent since I've been 18, and he really understands my sensibility. There were 10 movies that I had to decide on, but he said, 'The movie you're going to want to do is Sliding Doors - a little British movie. I know you're going to love it.' And he was right. I fell completely in love with it and was desperate to do it. There was no comparison between this script and the other ones."

She says that making this film in London, which she shot while escaping the Brad Pitt break-up media frenzy, was a dream come true, and a fulfilling experience for the actress. "Yes, it was a dream--clever and funny and so romantic. I've never had that experience. I always watch my movies and say, 'Oh God, this sucked,' or, 'There's a problem here,' or, 'I'm terrible in this scene!' This is the first time I've watched a film I'd been in and just went with it." Paltrow was just as excited to be seeing her film premiere at Sundance. "It was such a thrill," she says. "It screened in this huge theatre, and everyone seemed to really like it. I had been there two years before with Hard Eight, and my brother had written and directed a short (screening this year.) It was a different way to go back - I was really excited."

What makes Paltrow such an impressive actress is her ability to portray ice-queens, aristocrats or ordinary people - all with equal aplomb. "Sometimes I'll read something and have an implicit understanding of how to play that person. It doesn't take a lot of thought. I emotionally understand it," Paltrow says. "It was that way with Estella. I felt like I really understood how to play her, but it was difficult because it wasn't something I connected with very easily. With Helen, it's me in a different light, with a different accent. That was easier." She also found Sliding Doors' Helen easier to relate to on a personal level. "She's just so much more open and nice than Estella."

"Turned down Boogie Nights 'for the sake of my grandfather'"

Sliding Doors also marks Paltrow's second incarnation as a British character (after her star-turn as Emma). One wonders whether or not the actress harbours some fierce desire to be secretly British off the screen. "I'd LOVE to be British: as long as I could come to the dentist in America I'd be British in a second," she adds laughingly.

In the meantime, Paltrow the actress returns to mainstream Hollywood fare with the remake of Hitchcock's Dial M For Murder, now called A Perfect Murder. "It's a Michael Douglas thriller - it was directed by Andy Davis, who did The Fugitive. It's a very smart, scary movie. Michael Douglas plays a really bad guy - he's really good. And Viggo Mortensen's in it, who's a terrific actor. It was fun. It was a really different kind of film for me. To work with somebody like Andy Davis, who's really technical... it was such a Hollywood movie. It was strange. Plus I had to hold a gun, something I swore I'd never do."

"There's a difference between being completely naked ... as opposed to using your sexuality as an intellectual weapon"

Paltrow remains fiercely selective in what she'll do, and has no regrets about the choices she's made - or not made, as the case might be. As well as turning down the Winslet role in Titanic, she turned down Boogie Nights "for the sake of my grandfather", and the film's nudity. This despite her nude scenes in Great Expectations. "There's a difference between being completely naked, and completely sexually explicit on screen, as opposed to using your sexuality as an intellectual weapon against somebody, and using it as part of your psychological make-up."

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See Helen Beck's FEATURE on the making of Great Expectations

and our REVIEWS

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"She rarely, if ever, talks about her love life."

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"I felt like I really understood how to play her (Estella), but it was difficult because it wasn't something I connected with very easily."

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"He's so sensitive, talented and sweet." on Ethan Hawke

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"I was really excited, because it was like a classic on acid."

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"Are you insane? I couldn't have imagined going through what they did, and working with Cameron all that time." on turning down the role in Titanic

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"The film is so good, so original and such a sweet, complicated, beautiful film," on Sliding Doors

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"I'd LOVE to be British: as long as I could come to the dentist in America"

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Sliding Doors opens nationally in July/August; Great Expectations opens on March 26, 1998.

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