Gwyneth Paltrow explains how she rigorously prepared for a different kind of role as a down-and-out diva in her new film, Country Strong.
Fried chicken? Country music? This is not the Gwyneth Paltrow you know
Gwyneth Paltrow wants you to know that playing the broken-down, hard-drinking country star Kelly Canter in Country Strong is "much closer to the real me" than her image of a maven of a macrobiotic diet and a clean-living lifestyle.
In fact, she says with a sly grin, while making the film in Nashville, Tennessee, last winter, she became a devotee of crispy fried chicken layered on buttermilk biscuits and generously splashed with gravy. She even wrote about it on her Goop website, a place that helps her loyal followers "nourish the inner aspect" by championing green living and getting tips on balancing work and motherhood, exercise and healthy eating.
The greasy treats certainly did her no harm; Paltrow looks fantastic as she chats with the media in a luxury Beverly Hills hotel, the French doors open to show the Hollywood Hills in the bright sunshine. Slim and lightly tanned, she's wearing sky-high boots and sequined, bronze-coloured short-shorts by Diane von Furstenberg, the better to show off her lean legs. A draped, three-quarter-sleeve T-shirt in the season's hot shade of greige is layered with lots of bronze necklaces, while her pale blond hair is up in a perky ponytail. She wears only minimal make-up on her glowing skin.
If a handful of reporters is a tough sell for Paltrow to explain her being able to play an alcoholic diva beset by demons, you can imagine the battle the 38-year-old, Oscar-winning actress (for Shakespeare in Love) faced to convince Hollywood brass that she had the right stuff to play a bad girl. Even the Screen Gems studio head Clint Culpepper dismissed her as "so wrong for this part", Paltrow recalls with a smile that all but says "I showed them!"
Others involved with Country Strong defended Paltrow's ability to play a reckless drunk working her last chance at saving both her career and marriage to her manager, James (played by the country star Tim McGraw), while she's distracted by the charms of an up-and-coming country star Beau Hutton (Tron: Legacy's Garrett Hedlund). Adding to the strain on Kelly's marriage is the arrival of the ambitious young singer Chiles Stanton (Gossip Girl's Leighton Meester), who has her eye on James and makes it clear she'll do just about anything to make it to the top.
As she chats with reporters, Paltrow is perched on a chair sipping a green smoothie, constantly shifting her long legs. The addition of banana to her drink means it isn't macrobiotic, she observes with a smile. When it is pointed out all has not been lost to the siren's call of fried chicken, she laughs heartily.
But the bad diet she adopted was in part a necessity to help her gain 20 pounds after the Country Strong director Shana Feste said she wanted Paltrow to look heavier for the role; she needed her to look like she hadn't taken care of herself.
"'Let's get rid of those yoga arms,'" Feste tells reporters she advised Paltrow. "'You've just been in rehab. Let's soften you up a bit.' And she was right there eating fried chicken with all of us."
But Goop fans know that Paltrow is devoted to the celebrity personal trainer Tracy Anderson and her system of specialised exercises that work on making the body toned and lean. That meant the pounds were slow to accumulate.
"Unfortunately — or fortunately for Tracy's method, but unfortunately for me — it worked so well that it took me basically until the end of the movie for everything to fall apart," Paltrow says. "I still kind of look like myself for most of the movie."
There was no doubt Paltrow could pull off the vocal duties for her character. Her starring role as a karaoke queen in Duets in 2000, directed by her father, Bruce Paltrow (her mum is the actress Blythe Danner), who died two years later, earned her solid reviews for her singing skills. She also sang onstage with Jay-Z in 2006 at London's Royal Albert Hall.
(Paltrow and her husband, Coldplay's Chris Martin, have become close friends with Jay-Z and his wife, Beyoncé; when Paltrow's mobile phone went off during this interview, her ringtone was Jay-Z's Dirt Off Your Shoulder.)
Country Strong is Paltrow's first big studio picture starring role since Proof in 2005. She says that's intentional; she's careful about which projects she takes on because her family comes first. She eased up on movie work for several years with the birth of her daughter in 2004, making small-budget films until taking the role of Pepper Potts in the Hollywood blockbuster Iron Man in 2008 and the sequel, Iron Man 2, last year.
The devoted family woman was once one of young Hollywood's most visible singles. Paltrow dated Brad Pitt for a number of years in the mid-1990s and they planned to marry, but she called off their engagement in 1997 and they split. Romances with Ben Affleck and Luke Wilson followed. But she found her soulmate with the handsome Coldplay frontman Martin when they met backstage at a show by the British band in 2002. The following year they were married. The couple live in London with their six-year-old daughter, Apple Blythe Alison, and four-year-old son, Moses Bruce Anthony.
Paltrow has never made a secret of the fact she suffered from postpartum depression after Moses was born.
"I felt like a zombie. I couldn't access my heart. I couldn't access my emotions. I couldn't connect," Paltrow told Good Housekeeping magazine. "It was terrible, it was the exact opposite of what had happened when Apple was born."
She credits her husband with recognising all wasn't right and encouraging her to seek help for her depression.
Now back on track, Paltrow is happily working as much as motherhood allows. She's careful not to spend too much time away from her brood and that means picking the few roles she does with care.
"I try to do things where I'm gonna feel challenged in some way," Paltrow says. "I only really do one movie a year. I did this one at the beginning of the year and I did a tiny part in this movie called Contagion [directed by Steven Soderbergh and co-starring Matt Damon and Marion Cotillard]. I want to do something where it's either short or with someone great like Steven Soderbergh or one project. I just want to work with good people and push myself and challenge myself. But I'm very open. I'm just so grateful and excited about where I am right now."
Lately, Paltrow has been just as much in the spotlight as a singer, thanks to a guest appearance as the supply teacher Holly Holliday on the TV hit show Glee in November. She was such a smash with the show's millions of fans, she'll be back on the show this spring. And despite a bad case of nerves, Paltrow pulled off a solid take on the title song from Country Strong with Vince Gill accompanying her at the Country Music Awards in November 2010 and earned a standing ovation for her live performance.
"It was a real amazing, bizarre, exhilarating experience," Paltrow says of performing in front of a huge crowd at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena. "I feel like I'll look back on that always and just be like, what a moment in my life — I can't believe I was there and I did that."
She also just performed the film's title tune at the Academy Awards in Hollywood, where it was a Best Original Song nominee but failed to win the Oscar.
Prior to shooting Country Strong, Paltrow spent months working with a singing teacher in London and took guitar lessons, devoting herself to the task with such enthusiasm that she worked her fingers until they were bloody.
"I was excited about the music but I was nervous, you know, because I always sang and had a fine voice. I was nervous about playing someone who was such a huge star, which is different than playing someone who has a guitar and is trying to make it. It's a huge difference.
"I obsessively watched Beyoncé perform because she's 'it' in terms of a performer," Paltrow adds. "I thought if I could just get a little bit of that incredible self-belief and abandon that she has onstage — that's what I was focusing on for that final performance of the movie where you see Kelly Canter."
She didn't have to worry. Her co-star, McGraw, describes Paltrow's voice as "fantastic", and credits her with having a sound that is pure country.
Although she asked husband Martin and McGraw for pointers on playing a singing superstar, she also went to her gal pals in the music industry for advice, including McGraw's wife, the country star Faith Hill.
"I picked the brains of my girl singer friends more, because I think it's a very different thing to be a male in a band as opposed to a lead, like Beyoncé or Faith Hill just there by yourself," Paltrow says.
"They were amazing. They were both so supportive of me. Beyoncé was in London, she helped me so much before I went. When I got to Nashville, Faith helped me so much. Faith said to me: 'Thirty days before you do it, just start singing it. Sing it every day so you know the vocal parts are in your muscle memory. Don't worry about vocal.'"
Hill also told her to leave one of her monitor earpieces out "so you can hear the room".
"I just did everything she said," Paltrow says. "She got me through it."
But she didn't need similar coaching when it came to working with her two leading men, says Paltrow.
"They are both total hunks. I love both of them," she says of Hedland and McGraw. "Garrett's sweet; he's so big and tall and strong, but he's got such an incredible sensitivity and Tim is just great. He's got so much in there and when you look in his eyes, it's there so much."
In addition to her family, Paltrow's passions involve charity work. She's an artist ambassador for the humanitarian organisation Save the Children, raising awareness about World Pneumonia Day. And as the face of Estée Lauder's Pleasures perfume, the cosmetics company donates US$500,000 (Dh1.84 million) yearly to breast cancer research from sales of the Paltrow collection.
Not surprisingly, given her passion for local eating in Nashville, Paltrow is also a dedicated foodie who loves to cook. In 2008 she co-starred in a PBS series, Spain... on the Road Again, with the celebrity chef Mario Batali where the two ate their way across the country. And this spring, she'll publish My Father's Daughter, a cookbook of family recipes and her favourites.
She even puts her most recent accolade, getting a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame the day after we talked, in terms of family.
"I'm very honoured," she says. "I feel shy about it. It's like: what? Really? Did someone bribe the mayor of Hollywood? But I think about my kids and grandkids. I think about my kids being grown-ups and taking their kids... It's like, gosh, well, that might be there for awhile and it's kind of cool."
Country Strong is due to be released in the UAE on March 24. For more stories about new and upcoming movie releases, visit Film.
The Paltrow file
FULL NAME Gwyneth Kate Paltrow
BORN September 27, 1972, Los Angeles
SCHOOLING Private schools in LA and New York, briefly attended University of California, Santa Barbara for art history
FAMILY Father Bruce Paltrow, the film and TV producer (died 2002); mother Blythe Danner, the actress
FIRST JOB Shout in 1991, opposite John Travolta
BEST MATES Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Faith Hill
BEST ONSCREEN KISS Tom Cruise in Austin Powers in Goldmember
CAN'T LIVE WITHOUT Daily yoga
Great Gwyneth: five important roles
EMMA (1996) In her first starring role, Paltrow won critical acclaim playing the revered title character from the Jane Austen novel. Critics and moviegoers, especially in the United Kingdom, were impressed with the American's spot-on British accent.
SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (1998) Paltrow plays Viola, the fictional love interest of William Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes), in this much-honoured romantic comedy. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress.
THE TALENTED MR RIPLEY (1999) Sharing the screen with Matt Damon and Jude Law, Paltrow bares her emotions in this complex psychological thriller based on a Patricia Highsmith novel.
PROOF (2005) Paltrow earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress for her portrayal of a daughter in the shadows of her genius mathematician father (Anthony Hopkins). She earlier played the same role on stage in London in the Pulitzer Prize-winning play.
IRON MAN (2008) Persuaded by Robert Downey Jr, who stars as the Marvel Comics superhero, to "appear in a movie that people see", Paltrow plays his secretary and budding love interest, Pepper Potts. She reprised her role in the 2010 sequel, Iron Man 2.