NEW YORK, Aug. 8 (UPI) -- When she was growing up, Gwyneth Paltrow's Manhattan home was always filled with wonderful books and people who loved to read them. It is no wonder, then, that the 29-year-old, Oscar-winning actress has excelled in playing great literary characters.
The title heroine in Jane Austen's "Emma," the ice-queen Estella in "Great Expectations," the Bard's muse, Viola, in "Shakespeare in Love, " and even a tortured fictitious playwright in last year's contemporary comedy, "The Royal Tenenbaums" are among the roles she played.
Paltrow's latest role, as academic Englishwoman Maud, in the big-screen adaptation of A.S. Byatt's 1990 romance, "Possession," again plunges her into the familiar world of prose and poetry.
"I love to read. I love literature. I have great respect for it. I don't get a lot of time to read, but whenever I do I read as much as I can," the daughter of actress Blythe Danner and producer-director Bruce Paltrow tells United Press International.
"We weren't allowed to watch very much television when I was a child. My parents used to read to us and reading was really encouraged in my house. There were always books and literature and music."
Among Paltrow's favorite literary works are "Crime and Punishment," "Jane Eyre" and anything by J.D. Salinger. Interestingly, "Possession" slipped past her radar until she read Neil LaBute's script for the film. The actress says the intriguing story -- as well as the chance to work with the "Nurse Betty" writer/director -- was what enticed her to sign onto the project.
"He has a great brain ... and a really unique point of view," she muses. "He writes the way that people speak, not movie dialogue ... It's very honest. Sometimes movie dialogue is a barrier between what you're saying and what you're supposed to be feeling."
Of course, the fact that Maud is a plum role coveted by dozens of American and British actresses didn't hurt, either. Describing Maud as someone who has "obviously been through a lot in her life," Paltrow notes that playing a woman who is "closed down in an emotional way," but must also unravel a passionate mystery and sort out her own love life was a delicious challenge.
"Possession" is a lushly romantic study of both the transcendent power of language and the seductive nature of literary mystery. Paltrow plays Maud Bailey, a brilliant contemporary English academic, who is researching the life and work of Victorian poet Christabel LaMotte, played by Jennifer Ehle of "Pride and Prejudice" fame. Roland Michell ("Erin Brockovich"'s Aaron Eckhart) is an upstart American scholar in London on a fellowship to study the great Randolph Henry Ash ("Emma's" Jeremy Northam.)
The fictional poet laureate of Queen Victoria, Ash is now best-known for a collection of rapturous, late-life poems dedicated to his wife that are going on centenary exhibition. When Maud and Roland discover a cache of love letters that appear to be from Ash to LaMotte, they follow a trail of clues across England to the Continent, echoing the romantic journey of the impassioned couple more than a century earlier.
(For those English majors who don't recognize their names, the characters of Ash and LaMotte are both fictitious amalgams of a number of Victiorian poets with Robert Browning's works cited as a basis for Byatt's Ash poetry. LaMotte is a fusion of Christina Rosetti, Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.)
Upon accepting the role as Maud, Paltrow began brushing up on her Romantic and Victorian literature. She soon discovered, however, that she was even more intrigued with life during the era of late 19th century English history, than she was in the writing of the day.
"When I knew that I was going to do the film is when I really started researching more the period, but I researched more what was going on in Victorian society and this huge dichotomy between the one part of the culture which was all rules and skirting the table desks because even a leg of a desk was like provocative and how everything was so buttoned-up and sexuality was so under the surface that there was this unbelievable underworld at the same time -- just the seediest orgies and people completely inebriated and all this to balance out the very buttoned-up culture. It was a very interesting time," she notes.
According to Isobel Armstrong, a professor of English at the University of London and to whom Byatt dedicated "Possession," Byatt's description of life and love in Victorian England was right on the shilling.
"The Victorians had a fascination with the Gothic era due to its free form and inventiveness," Armstrong explains. "Ash's poems have this amazing sense of a world where proliferating ornament and ideas crowd upon one another whilst Christabel gothic element comes through in her creation of the mythic fairy landscapes. It's almost as if Byatt has created two opposite poles of Victorian poetry: one of which is absolutely covered in details, the other of which is refined and compressed in a beautifully symbolic, spare and economical way. Byatt's poetry provides amazing, imaginative insights into the world of Victorian poetry."
Another aspect of the film role that appealed to Paltrow was the opportunity to play something of a literary detective. The actress, who had just completed a brief run as a math professor's daughter in "Proof" in London's West End, points out that the parts in the play and the film are similar in that they are both set in the competitive world of academia.
"These academics have a lot of drama in their lives," the actress says. "There are tears... There are races against time. The world of academics is incredibly dramatic, especially when you're trying to solve mysteries and that's really what they do in their research. They're trying to discover things that other people haven't discovered."
Like many of her past roles, Maud "Possession" again calls upon Paltrow to speak with a British accent, a skill she mastered in the films, "Emma," "Shakespeare in Love" and "Sliding Doors."
"I'm lucky in that I was born with the kind of ear where I can imitate people and I can do accents," she explains. "I was born with a musical ear which I think really helps accents and I think I have the advantage of being American, who understands British culture. I spend a lot of time there, so I feel like I have a sense of the differences in the way people think and how they behave and their senses of humor. I like British people. I like working over there and I think I have insight into them because I've spent so much time over there."
Paltrow's next role will be playing another literary giant: Sylvia Plath, in an as-yet-unnamed project.
Asked if she would portray the doomed modern poet as a victim her poet/husband's ambitions as some critics have described her, Paltrow replies emphatically: "Not at all. I'm not interested in vilifying people. I just don't think that there's anything to be derived from that that is interesting or informative. It takes two people to compose a relationship and I want it to be like a documentary of their life together and have Ted Hughes' side completely represented, as well, and the truth is, they were incredibly in love. I think that he loved her always, as evidenced that he published her letters before he died. I think it was just one of those relationships that was so full of passion. It was like the 'classic can't live with you can't live without you' scenario and they both informed each other's work and I want it to be about them and what was between them and I don't subscribe to the point of view that he was a misogynist and that he was responsible for her demise. I think life is just far more complicated than that."
"Possession" opens in the United States later this month.