Gwyneth Paltrow turns 40: How she got her big break

Meriah Doty
Movie Talk

You may have a sense that Gwyneth Paltrow, who turns 40 today, grew up in a Hollywood power family, but you may be surprised to learn of one its most influential members.

Paltrow's godfather is legendary director Steven Spielberg (he is also Drew Barrymore's godfather). And it was Spielberg who gave Paltrow one of her first major acting opportunities.

[Related: Gwyneth Paltrow's 40th birthday: celebrate her career highlights and lowlights]

One night in 1991, Spielberg, his wife, actress Kate Capshaw, and Paltrow's late father Bruce took a teenage Paltrow to see "The Silence of the Lambs." On the way back, as Spielberg drove, he caught something in his rearview mirror that piqued his interest -- the horrified facial expression of Paltrow who was questioning Spielberg about the film.

Spielberg recounted what happened that night [via an Entertainment Weekly interview]: "Bruce and Kate and I had taken Gwynnie to see 'The Silence of the Lambs"… We were driving back from the movie theater, and I was going back to work [on "Hook"] the next day. I was looking in the rear-view mirror and she was talking about the film and she had this really frightened look on her face, and it suddenly clicked, and I said, 'Hey, you could be the young Wendy! You could be the young Maggie Smith [who plays ].' ...I turned around and said, 'Do you want to make a movie?' She got a SAG [Screen Actors Guild] card because of it."

And that's how "Gwynnie," who was 18-years-old at the time, was cast in Spielberg's swashbuckling retelling of the Peter Pan story in the star-studded 1991 adventure film "Hook." In the film, as young Wendy, Gwyneth had a British accent -- something that surely later came in handy for her Oscar-winning role as the fearless Viola De Lesseps. Her gender-bending character pretends to be a man to get cast in a play put on by Shakespeare himself in "Shakespeare In Love." The film won six other Academy Awards that year including one for Best Picture.

[Photos: Gwyneth Paltrow's Style Evolution]

Paltrow's late father Bruce was a director-writer-producer, most famously for the hit '80s show "St. Elsewhere." And her mother is actress Blythe Danner -- who has been experiencing something of a career renaissance ever since her appearance in "Meet the Fockers" in 2004. Paltrow has worked with her parents on a few projects over the years -- her father produced and directed karaoke-themed film "Duets" (2000) and Danner played her mother in "Sylvia" (2003). Ironically, both films were poorly received by critics.

After her role in "Hook," Paltrow appeared in smaller roles in a string of films until she appeared in an unforgettably integral part in David Fincher's spooky serial killer hit "Se7en" (1995). And it was that role, along with her high-profile off-screen romance with costar Brad Pitt, that turned her into a '90s film darling. Yet that didn't guarantee her a spot in the 1997 megahit "Titanic" -- she lost out on the leading role to Kate Winslet. Oh well, Paltrow made up for this year by appearing in her biggest hit to date in "Marvel's The Avengers."

Watch Gwyneth Paltrow in some of her key film roles:
'Shakespeare In Love': Kiss 'Shakespeare In Love': Poet 'Iron Man': Very Tasteful 'Iron Man': Spread

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