GWYNETH Paltrow was in the middle of shooting Iron Man 2 when the script for Country Strong found its way into her hands. Even though writer/director Shana Feste had tailored the part of self-destructive country crooner Kelly Canter for the actress, Paltrow decided to take a pass without so much as cracking open the screenplay.
"I knew that Shana had me in mind for it but I didn't read it because I never read scripts," she admits.
Fortunately, her friend Jenno Topping (executive producer on titles such as Charlie's Angels) was producing. "Jenno called me up and said, 'You better read this script, now,'" recalls Paltrow with a laugh. "So I did and then I couldn't get it out of my mind. There was just something about it that I found really haunting and cool and beautiful."
That same description isn't far from how Paltrow herself can appear on and off screen, whether it's in moody indie flicks such as Two Lovers with Joaquin Phoenix a few years ago, serene appearances on the red carpet, or her ongoing insistence that her private life is kept that way - to the extent that a paparazzi shot of her and Chris Martin together is like gold dust.
However, the past few weeks have seen her re-emerge in to the spotlight more candid than ever, and more willing to have fun in public. The actress hasn't graced our screens since last April, in the aforementioned Iron Man sequel, but has most recently been trading on her lungs in the US with an appearance in the hit show Glee covering Cee-Lo Green's hit Forget You. The rendition had the show's fans in raptures and spawned a Saturday Night Live repeat collaboration only last week.
In the press, too, Paltrow has been speaking out about her post natal depression and giving the teeniest of insights into married life with the Coldplay frontman and the pressures an existence in the media glare can produce. But it's to singing and performing that Paltrow's attention is mostly turned at the moment, as she promotes Country Strong and her Glee cameo.
While the film is filled with music, it is essentially a character study of a washed-up singer struggling to pump new life into her ailing career. Aiding and abetting Paltrow's Kelly Canter are her manager/husband (Tim McGraw), an up-and-coming songwriter who also happens to be her rehab sponsor (Garrett Hedlund) and a fast-rising country-pop singer (Leighton Meester).
With the 2000 film Duets, which was produced by her father, Paltrow proved she could sing but Country Strong demanded she trill like a hillbilly superstar. The actress didn't lack for coaches. She's married to Martin and counts Beyonc and Madonna among her best friends. But it was country singer Faith Hill who provided the most useful advice.
"I have a lot of people in my life who do this (singing] job and, of course, my husband was very supportive but I kind of picked the brain of Faith Hill the most," says Paltrow, 38.
"When I was doing all my research I noticed that most of the great female stars of country music are very petite. I was like, 'Oh, my gosh, they have such a low centre of gravity. How am I going to do this? I'm so gangly and tall.' But Faith is as tall as I am. So I would study her a lot and then I asked her a million questions. She was the most amazing, generous friend."
Paltrow relied on another famous friend - Iron Man co-star Robert Downey Jr - for insight into the mindset of a recovering addict. "I understood what it was like to be very addicted to something because I was very addicted to cigarettes," says Paltrow, who famously squirreled away that same addiction in her dark and sulky role in Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums. "Obviously, that's very different than Kelly's addiction (to controlled substances]. But I had this thing with cigarettes where I'd think, 'I know this is potentially going to give me cancer and I know it's given my dad cancer but I'm going to smoke it anyway.'
"So I tried to extrapolate that (feeling] out as much as possible, but what I didn't understand was how you could wreck someone's life, wreck your own life and then just keep going. So I wrote to Robert. I had a really tough scene, and I wrote to Robert Downey, and I said, 'Explain this to me: how you can cheat on your person, be a total disaster and really hurt people and then just wake up and have a cup of coffee? How does that work?'
"He explained it to me really well and I credit him with helping me to understand how addiction is in the present, in the physical."
The daughter of actress Blythe Danner and producer Bruce Paltrow (St Elsewhere), she grew up wanting to be an actress. In 1993, she stole the crime thriller Flesh And Bone from Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid and began her ascent to A-list. She aced roles in Emma, Seven and A Perfect Murder before netting an Oscar for her part in Shakespeare In Love in 1999.
Even as a child, Paltrow was curious about her mother's career. "I remember asking my dad about it when I knew I wanted to (be an actress] and he said, 'I do not remember a time when you didn't want to do this. When you were a year old, you were trying to memorise your mother's lines in her plays. You always wanted to do it.' I think when your mom does it, and she's so good - and I'd see how much it fulfilled her - it made me want to do what she did."
Since marrying Martin in 2003, Paltrow has worked infrequently, preferring to stay close to her two children, Moses, four, and Apple, six. "I keep it pretty separate," she says of her personal and professional lives. "My kids have never seen me in anything. They don't know what I do. Actually, Apple does now because people in her class know and they say, 'Oh, I saw you in a magazine.' My kids know that I work, but they think that I do singing, which is hilarious."
Paltrow credits her parents with teaching her the importance of always putting family first. "I was raised by people who were very focused on family," says the actress, who divides her time between London and New York. "(Your family] is where you get real richness in life. Success is great but it's kind of an illusion. When your kids are at the kitchen table making jokes about their butts, and you're laughing, that's the best thing about life. That human interaction and connection."
Paltrow might have scaled back her workload since having a family but she did respond to a call from old friend Ryan Murphy about guest-starring on Glee. "I did a little part in Ryan's movie Running With Scissors a few years ago and he just e-mailed me saying, 'If I wrote you a part on Glee, would you do it?' I was, like, 'What is Glee?' I literally live in a cave. My brother said, 'You have to do it. It's this amazing show.'"
After saying yes, she decided to tune into a couple of episodes. "I got totally obsessed with it, to the point that when I got on set, I was kind of star struck," says the actress, who is scheduled to return to the hit series again in 2011.
Paltrow also caused a sensation at the Country Music Awards last year by crooning a song from the Country Strong soundtrack. It was such a positive experience that she hasn't ruled out recording an album of new music.
"Maybe, maybe," she says. "If you'd said to me three years ago, 'Would you ever sing at the Country Music Awards?' I would've said, 'Never.' So you can't say never.
"I've really loved this whole process, learning how to sing and play guitar properly. And I still do it every day. I may make a record. Or I may just sing to my kids." n
Country Strong is released 25 March. The second series of Glee, featuring Gwyneth Paltrow, is on E4, Mondays, 9pm
• This article was first published in the Scotland on Sunday on January 30, 2011