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Break From Reality 

Gwyneth Paltrow's flight of fantasy

Just at a time when she says she most needed an escape from the realities of her own life, it was Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow to the rescue for Gwyneth Paltrow.

From a professional standpoint, the 32-year-old actress was still recuperating from having invested "absolutely everything I had to give" into an ultimately failed biopic about the suicidal poetess Sylvia Plath. On a more personal level, she was a daughter still mourning the death of her father, television producer/director Bruce Paltrow, who had recently lost his bout with cancer.

"I'd had such a hard time of it while we were making Sylvia," explains Paltrow during a recent interview in New York. "Even though I'm glad I did it, even though it's one of the two or three things I'm most proud of in terms of my work, it was just so dark. I never really expected it to be a blockbuster or anything like that, but I was still disappointed that more of its own audience didn't seem to find it or see it. It's a beautifully made film, but it's a hard film, a tragic story, and I guess the feeling among a lot of people was that their lives are difficult enough without seeing some movie about a woman going mad and killing herself.

"On the one hand, I could definitely relate to that, because on top of it all I was also in heavy grief over the loss of my dad," she continues. "So to be able to run off and do something like Sky Captain, to just jump in and embrace the whole escapist aspect to a movie like that, I can't tell you how fantastic it was. It was terrific therapy, essentially getting to play dress-up and forget about everything else, because it helped me cross over to the next phase in my own life. In a strange way, it confirmed for me that this wasn't the end of the world, that I had to keep going. Frankly, it was just nice to be having such a good time again."

Owing as much in tone to Buck Rogers serials as it does in style to Fritz Lang's Metropolis, novice director Kerry Conran's Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (which opens this Friday; see Film Clips for a review) casts Paltrow opposite Jude Law as bantering former flames battling world-dominating robots circa 1940. She's a gutsy newspaper reporter (think Jean Arthur) and he's an intrepid fighter pilot (think Cary Grant), and together they traverse the globe from the film-noirish streets of New York to the sub-freezing mountain ranges of Nepal to the sweltering jungles of South America -- all without ever leaving the confines of a London sound stage, where the film was shot entirely employing blue-screen special effects.

As Paltrow recalls, "I thought if there was ever a time for me to do an action-adventure movie, then this was probably the coolest way to do one. Working with special effects was such unfamiliar territory for me, but I really got into the whole technical challenge of it all.

"I mean, the last time I worked with Jude [in 1999's The Talented Mr. Ripley], we were on location in the Italian Riviera, living it up on yachts and all that, you know? As an actor, you're used to feeding off of your environment and incorporating it into your performance. Here, we were basically surrounded by nothing, adrift in this sea of blue [screens], and if we're trekking through a jungle or a blizzard or whatever, well, everything's all in our own heads. That could be a little bit daunting, because sometimes you felt kind of silly or stupid reacting to all these things that weren't really there -- Kerry would keep saying things like, "No, no, it's a really big robot' -- so I just had to trust him to know what he wanted from me, and how it was going to fit into the overall context he obviously had in mind."

Indeed, in what she can only describe now as a "blind leap of faith and imagination," Paltrow entrusted herself to Conran even without seeing a finished script for the film. ("A finished script? I don't think he'd started the script yet," the actress quips.) With Law already on-board as one of Sky Captain's producers, but with nothing more to show for himself than a six-minute "extended trailer" he'd designed on his home computer, Conran nevertheless made a believer out of her: "It was such a unique vision, so unlike anything I'd ever seen before, I could just tell it would be something worth doing."

Finding similarly worthwhile acting assignments may become more infrequent for Paltrow, in the recent wake of marriage (to Coldplay front man Chris Martin last year) and motherhood (their daughter, Apple, was born earlier this summer). Although she jokes that her only upcoming project is "breast-feeding," she's serious in noting a definite shift in her priorities.

"It's a whole new ball game now," she concedes. "In the past, I've always just kind of gone with my instincts, or else I've been talked into doing this or that movie, but I'm not going to be talked into things quite so easily anymore, and I certainly won't be doing multiple films in a row like I've done before. It's going to take a lot to get me out of the house and working again. I still want to do things that are ostensibly risky, but only if I really believe in something, as opposed to working just to be working."

Fortunately for her fans, the actress was able to complete one more film prior to redefining those priorities. In Proof (due out in December), she recreates the role she originated in the London stage production of David Auburn's family drama, reuniting with director John Madden (who guided her to an Academy Award for 1998's Shakespeare in Love) and co-starring alongside Jake Gyllenhaal, Hope Davis and Anthony Hopkins.

Paltrow cites Proof among a handful of her personal favorites -- which also include Shakespeare, Emma, The Royal Tenenbaums and that ill-fated Sylvia -- but she's cautiously pooh-poohing the early Oscar buzz. "It's funny," she replies with another smile. "I mean, on the one hand it's flattering to hear people tell you that, but on the other hand, that's what people were saying about Sylvia, too, so you just never know."

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