A BUSY, MULTI-TASKING
mum sits in a north London café, mid-morning. Soy latte, please, but no, no muffin, thanks. This mum "doesn't do breakfast". One of her kids is off sick today. How to cope? Especially when Mum has caught the same bug her son has Quick, a second coffee please. Still, at least her daughter has been dropped off safely at school.
Schools. Don't talk to Gwyneth Paltrow about schools. "It's unbelievable," the actress says of the pressure she has experienced in London, trying to make sure Apple, four, and Moses, two, are at the right place with the right teachers and the right, well, vibe. "It's pretty cut-throat in New York but here I didn't realise that when they're born you basically have to put their names down. I mean, I was so panicked," she laughs.
There was an added challenge for this Los Angeles-born, New York-raised 36-year-old actress who has lived in London with husband Chris Martin since they married in 2003: "You're in a country where you don't know what the experience of being a child in that country is. I looked at every school in north London, and everywhere else. I just wanted to make sure that I felt like I would want to have gone there."
Did Paltrow also have to be alert for schools who might be keen to enrol her children because they were more interested in "enrolling" an Oscar-winning, Hollywood actress mum (with a multi-million selling rock star dad thrown in)?
"Right, yeah. Although I have to say that I feel in Britain there's less of that. In America I think money, position, all of that kind of stuff, can really help you break down doors." Britain, she feels, has a fairer, more "levelling system. It is what it is. I like that". Still, she was incredulous when Apple had to sit an entrance exam for her preferred school. "I was like, my God, she's two'. And it's so complicated."
Now she is going through the same procedures for Moses. And such is the competition among north London's moneyed set for private school places, there's no preferential treatment.
"They definitely make me stick to the rules. I just had to cancel a trip to India" - she was due to visit in her role as an ambassador for Save The Children - "because Moses got an interview to go to the school next year, and it was in the middle of the week when I was meant to be in India.
"The form says, If you can accept the appointment, sign here. Or if you're withdrawing your application '" She laughs. "There's no flexibility. I'm like, high-pitched panic, OK, I'll move the trip.'"
You see? Paltrow, the girl with the golden hair and the golden life, the face of Estée Lauder who is friends with Madonna and Stella McCartney, has stuff to deal with, too. Panics about children, worries about schools, fears that she's not doing the right thing.
And here's another surprise: over the course of a long and wide conversation she reveals herself to be far from the rarefied, glacial superwoman so often portrayed in the press. Gwynnie does jokes, and she does swearing. And give her half a chance, she'll do a bottle of red wine.
Sure, she watches her diet and exercises daily. But I have no sense that she is going to break out macrobiotic Diptyque candles and suggest a quick cupping session for the good of my karmic balance.
Exactly 10 years on from that blubbing Oscar acceptance speech, when she won Best Actress for Shakespeare In Love, Paltrow is a right good laugh.
The entry of her children into the English school system marks a new phase in her life and work. She had opted to stay home until Moses was a year old. But now Paltrow is slowly, gingerly going back to work. Last year she starred in Iron Man, an undemanding, fluffy role in the surprise comic-book blockbuster. And this month she's in Two Lovers, a low-key, low-budget Brooklyn-set film which required less than three weeks work from her.
She plays Michelle, the dazzling but damaged young woman who bewitches her equally damaged neighbour Leonard (Joaquin Phoenix) and is also the mistress of a married Manhattan businessman. Leonard is dating - with his parents' encouragement - Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the daughter of his father's new business partner.
It's a tense, intense love triangle. The film is downbeat and in places grinding to watch. But, in her edgiest role since 2001's The Royal Tenenbaums, Paltrow is brilliant as Michelle, a woman on the edge - an obsessive who, because of her obsession, has no control.
"Right. We've all been there, haven't we?" Paltrow says, arching her eyebrow. "I like to ricochet back and forth between characters," she says, when I ask her about the appeal of playing Michelle. "Obviously there are things about her that I have or have had in my life. So I understand. But it's very thrilling - it's almost like you get that adrenalin of falling in love when you play somebody very different to where you are in your life now. It's almost cathartic in a way. You're bringing in old parts of your life that you didn't think you would ever go back to. There's something kind of romantic about it."
"What I love about Gwyneth as an actor is that she has a wonderful vulnerability," says Two Lovers' director James Gray. "To think of her as vulnerable seems utterly preposterous. But it's true. And I wanted to exploit that quality in the movie. There's a certain quality of longing and pathos in Gwyneth. I think it might have come from her father's death."
Bruce Paltrow, a film director, died in October 2002 (her mother is the actress Blythe Danner). He had suffered from oral cancer and then double pneumonia. He was advised by a nutritionist that he could help his ailing system by changing his diet. But her father, being a fiftysomething and a man, wasn't about to change the eating habits of a lifetime. In any case, eating was a "nightmare" after the surgery he'd had for the cancer - the radiation had destroyed his salivary glands. The doctors told her that the double-pneumonia proved fatal because the cancer had come back in his bronchial tubes.
The manner of his death in part explains Paltrow's enthusiasm for healthy living. Which in turn goes a long way to explaining why last year she set up Goop, a monthly e-mail newsletter featuring instructions on how to live/dress/eat/shop/pray in order to "nourish your inner aspect".
A keen cook who has had personal lessons from her friend Jamie Oliver, Paltrow puts a lot of emphasis in her newsletter on how quality food improves quality of life. "If you're making food from scratch, even if it's not complicated, but it's just delicious and fresh, it's organic if you can afford it - you will not be obese. You will not have type-two diabetes. Plus, it brings good energy into the home."
Goop has been much derided. Few people can afford the time or money to live by its elysian code. "Money, at the end of the day, it doesn't mean anything," she counters. "If money is determining your happiness or your stress levels, then you're in the completely wrong head space."
Sure, but then she would say that "Well, you have money so you can say that' - right," she interjects with a firm nod. "But I've also had " She stops. "It's not only money. It's anything material, or any relationship. I have my fair share of struggles every day. I constantly have challenges."
Some of these involve the media aggro that is regularly directed at Paltrow. Goop is slagged off, her fashion sense is criticised, the solidity of her marriage is questioned. On the latter point, she is bullish and dismissive. And for what it's worth when, a few weeks later, I see her and Kate Hudson watching a Coldplay concert in London, she is the picture of obsessed matrimonial enthusiasm throughout the show. I ask her about the soothing, balming Coldplay song Fix You. I suggest that Martin writing that song for her, and using a keyboard that belonged to her dad, was perhaps the most loving thing ever.
"I know," she says, giggling and blushing. "It's funny. It's true. It's amazing. It's incredible because when I go to a concert, I spend half the time watching the audience. Everyone feels it's written for them. I've seen the song start and it's like, OK, here we go, this got you through a bad time, I'm gonna hold you. Or the stroking of the hair It's incredible. It gives me chills."
But in terms of the broader criticism she receives: "I understand it if you're being a loudmouth and you're criticising people and you're drunk in public - you're a lightning rod. It's obvious if you're wild you're drawing the attention, like any of these girls, Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears or whatever. But I feel like I just get a lot more than a lot of my contemporaries for some reason. I live a very quiet life. I don't do anything scandalous - not that I wouldn't, I just happen not to."
She gives a what-can-you-do shrug. "The other day, in Grazia, I saw a picture of Amy Winehouse, poor thing - every time I see her I just wanna like I don't know what."
"Yeah. And she was about eight pounds, she looked absolutely ill. She was covered in a rash. And the article was about her new hairstyle." Paltrow's voice rises in disbelief. "I thought, has it gotten to this point, where somebody can be that ill, and the paparazzi are stalking them to this degree - and they're talking about her hairstyle? Is that really what's going on in the world?' Paltrow's first response to abusive criticism is, like most people's, to be hurt and angry. But then, she proves that, in some fundamental ways, she is different from the rest of us. "All I think is: that poor writer, imagine the state of heart and mind you would have to be in to get to the point where you would do that I can guarantee that person does not have a good and happy life."
That's very empathetic and charitable of her.
"It's not charitable at all! That person is suffering."
Doesn't she just think: what a ******?
She sighs. "I used to. But now, I just feel the person is pathetic. I feel sad for them."
Sniffing and spluttering into the dregs of her coffee mug, Paltrow wails that - God, like the rest of us right now, she could use a holiday. Her last proper break was Easter last year.
"In theory I had a summer vacation. We have this fantastic beach house in Long Island, but ..." - she stops to cough, twice - "when I go there it's my time when I'm in America so all my friends and family come. So I was cooking at least one meal a day for anywhere between eight and 18 people, and worrying about soaps and guest rooms and plumbing and lightbulbs. I ended up getting pneumonia at the end of the summer. It was really not a holiday. So this year I'm going to take a completely different approach."
No, she's not going to Center Parcs. The Paltrow-Martins will return to Long Island (they also have an apartment in New York) but she's "going to try and get some help. One of my worst qualities is that I think I should do everything ... to the point of being run down and sick all the time. Not that clever."
This working mother doesn't want to admit she can't cope. No, honest, I can do everything, from holding down a job, to wiping the snotty noses and tidying the kitchen "Right, right," she nods enthusiastically. "Well," Paltrow adds with a laugh, "I've gotten over the tidying of the kitchen "
Two Lovers is released on March 27