From breaking up with Brad Pitt to taking up the challenge of Great Expectations, GWYNETH PA LTROW knows what she wants and she's going to get it. .-.:~.-; David Giammarco

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’I DID THE smartest thing last night,’ Gwyneth Paltrow exclaims proudly the morning after a flurry of Tinseltown soirées on the arm of new beau Ben Affleck. ’I didn’t touch a drop of alcohol.’

Booze isn't the only indulgence exorcised from her life in the last few months: gone too is red meat, smoking and fiance Brad Pitt. In short, Paltrow’s 25th year marks a serious overhaul for the lithesome beauty who charmed audiences and critics in her breakthrough role as the meddling matchmaker in 1996’s acclaimed Jane Austen adaptation Emma. Paltrow is staying fresh today to push her two new movies: high- energy Dickens adaptation Great Expectations and Sliding Doors a fanciful romance which sees her cast as a bumbling ad exec thrust into parallel lives and infidelity.

Poured into black Donna Karan hip- huggers and stretch T-shirt, Paltrow slinks into a hotel suite sofa with poise and confidence at odds with her young age. ’I feel very centred now,’ she says, taking a sip of lemon water. ’Twenty-four was tough for me, but I’ve learned a lot of very good lessons this past year. I learned a kind of openness, but it was hard because I fluctuated between being very open and then getting burned in business and relationships. I think I found a way of staying open to the world without being so vulnerable.’

The frenzied media which formed a third party in her relationship with Pitt couldn’t have helped. From courtship on the set of 1995’s Seven, through engagement, to their break-up last year, the romance was lit by flash-bulbs. ’I don’t think I'll ever understand the ramifications of a public relationship,’ she 'says, before quashing rumours of infidelity with a simple statement: ’Brad never did anything wrong.’

However, Paltrow is discovering a new sense of self since the split. ’Being by yourself is both sad and empowering. It was nice to grow up and change the way I perceive myself. You have to understand who you are irrespective of the company you keep it’s part of becoming a grown-up.’ '

In Mexican director Alfonso'Cuaron’s sexy 90s spin on Great Expectations, Paltrow plays Estella, an aloof youngfwoman vengefully moulded by her half-crazed aunt (Anne Bancroft) to be an ice-queen heartbreaking machine. Ethan Hawke is struggling painter Finn, whose infatuation with Estella leads


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him in torturous pursuit until Robert De Niro’s mysterious convict sets destiny on course.

’Gwyneth was very courageous in portraying Estella,’ insists Cuaron. ’I was afraid that she was going to be extremely unlikeable because she plays this cold, manipulative woman. But the beauty of what she did is that you see all this warmth and pain inside. Gwyneth is this magical being. Forget about her beauty and sophistication, she has an ability

’It was all very sexually aggressive,’ she says. ’I felt uncomfortable because it was so highly charged and different from who I am. But I’ve been friends with Ethan for a long time; he’s so respectful and sweet and was really my protector. It ended up being a very wonderful experience.’

A wonderful experience which Paltrow might never have enjoyed. Both her parents are in showbiz - her mother is actress Blythe Danner, her father Bruce Paltrow, TV producer of St Elsewhere - but she was not expected to follow their lead. ’I always knew I wanted to act, but they never encouraged me,’ she smiles. ’They didn’t want their child to be heartbroken; they didn’t know if I was talentless.’

However, seeing his teenage daughter perform at the renowned Williamstown Theatre Festival in 1990 convinced Paltrow’s father of her abilities and he suggested she move to Los Angeles and start a film career.

Being by yourself is both sad and empowering. It was nice to grow up and change the way I perceive myself.’

that makes acting seem r th l I I effortless which struck me as *J‘Vine- Pa tION really special.’

’Great Expectations is a really perverse romance,’ says Paltrow. ’I just really felt that I understood how to portray Estella. But what I love is the end where she starts to undo what’s been done to her. Finn and Estella are both grown-ups back at ground zero, who find themselves having lived through enough and learned enough lessons to finally be ready for each other.’

Taking his cue from Baz Luhrmann's MTV- style reworking of Romeo And Juliet, Cuaron cast Paltrow and Hawke for his $40 million movie, switched the action to contemporary New York and Florida, hired David Mamet to beef up the narration and upped the rock ’n' roll credentials with a soundtrack featuring new tunes from Pulp, Iggy Pop and Tori Amos. He has infused the story with a torrid sensuality and dreamy atmosphere that is as far removed from Victorian England as the Mir space station.

’If this had been a traditional version of Dickens, I wouldn’t have done it; my attraction was that we could take liberties,’ enthuses Paltrow. ’I thought it was a great idea to extract a few key story points and the moral lesson, and - then completely turn it upside-down and make it our own thing: modern, sexy and complicated.’ '

In Great Expectations, Paltrow is painted nude. Although the portraits were actually created off-set by Italian artist Francesco Clemente, she found it hard shooting the painting scenes with Hawke.

There, following the success of Emma in 1996, she became the queen of indie cinema, knocking back cash-guzzling movies like Titanic for such projects as Merchant-lvory’s Jefferson In Paris and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight.

’lt's so much more exhilarating to work with someone who is fresh and just out the gate,’ she says. ’There’s a great enthusiasm when you work on independent films with new directors that you just don’t get with more seasoned, older guys. I think I’ve made some pretty good choices.’

Great Expectations opens on Friday 17 April; see page 27 for review. Sliding Doors opens Friday 1 May.