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'Proof' is in the friendship

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TORONTO -- Being next to Gwyneth Paltrow and Hope Davis is akin to eavesdropping on two gregarious, giggly girlfriends.

"You look so beautiful!" Paltrow tells Davis as they greet each other.

At the Toronto International Film Festival, you'll find them instantly catching each other up on their kids: Paltrow's daughter Apple, 16 months, and Davis' Georgia, 3, and Mae, 8 months. "We've got to get them together," Davis says as Paltrow gets her makeup touched up before a photo shoot.

Minutes later, as they strike poses, Paltrow, 32, leans up against Davis, 41, pats her on the back and recounts her aborted flight to the Venice Film Festival, which was grounded after problems with the plane's navigational system. The uneasy flier describes how the incident shook her up as Davis sympathizes.

Does Davis have her husband, actor Jon Patrick Walker, with her? wonders Paltrow, whose daughter is back at the hotel with the nanny while her husband, Chris Martin, tours with his band, Coldplay. "Everyone's here," Davis announces. "We travel in a huge pack."

Their warm relationship couldn't be further from their contentious one in Proof, opening in New York and Los Angeles on Friday.

Though they are in Toronto to promote the film, Proof -- shot more than two years ago -- has been an orphaned child in Miramax's restructuring as the company parted ways with corporate parent Disney. Harvey Weinstein, the co-chair of the new Weinstein Co., was not available for comment.

In a year of brooding superheroes, killer aliens and candy factories, director John Madden's film adaptation of David Auburn's Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning play is a solidly adult film about sparring sisters coming to terms with their father's death. Paltrow's Catherine is an emotionally shaky student who dedicated years to caring for her mentally ill dad (Anthony Hopkins), a once-brilliant mathematician she now has to bury. Davis' Claire is the type-A control freak who arrives for the funeral but stays to straighten out Catherine's life. The two are about as compatible as polka dots and plaid.

Fortunately for them, life in no way imitates art,

"It's tricky with actresses, but we have such an easy chemistry," Paltrow says. "I feel like with us, it was really easy. I can't think of another actor I've had that kind of experience with. And I'm not just saying that because she's here."

Adds Davis, making mock clawing motions in the air with her nails: "The character felt like a tricky job for me. The scenes aren't necessarily a laugh riot. Some of them are heavy and intense.

"But it just felt like we were on the page together. It felt exhilarating."

Like the film's sisters, they've carved different career paths. Paltrow, despite her penchant for oddball niche films such as The Royal Tenenbaums, Sylvia and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, is the undisputed movie star, a woman whose outings with Apple and trips to the yoga studio are chronicled by the paparazzi.

Davis is the character actress who, in Paltrow's words, "got famous when (she was) 30," seeing her career ripen steadily with age. After a role in 1990's Flatliners, she worked mostly on stage and in smaller movies like The Myth of Fingerprints and Next Stop Wonderland until American Splendor caught critics' attention in 2003. This year, she's in The Matador with Pierce Brosnan and The Weather Man with Nicolas Cage in addition to Proof.

"I thought the 20s were really hard," Davis says of her career.

One of Proof's themes is the "sell-by" date of genius. You peak early, in your 20s, and it's all downhill from there. Paltrow won her best-actress Oscar at 26 for Shakespeare in Love, but despite her spotty track record since then, she has no desire to fill her resume, preferring instead to deliver supporting turns in the upcoming Love and Other Disasters and Running with Scissors.

"We're busy right now," Paltrow says. "My husband's on tour. Apple's walking and talking. When it's the right thing, I'll know, and I'll do it, and we'll make it work."

Davis and Paltrow's collaboration has translated into critical plaudits. "Paltrow," Variety said, "is entirely persuasive in a vulnerable performance low on vanity or showy moments," and "Claire is a role that easily could be unsympathetic and one-dimensional, but the always wonderful Davis softens her intrusiveness with genuine concern for her sister."

Davis plays pushy, patronizing Claire. In truth, Davis insists she's more madness than method.

"I'm so deeply disorganized," she says. "(Claire) is obsessed with her lists, but I don't even have a planner. I barely got to the airport on time today."

Paltrow played the part of a grieving daughter while mourning her dad, Bruce Paltrow, who died in October 2002 from complications of pneumonia and a recurrence of throat cancer.

"I had the first anniversary of his death while we were in Chicago shooting," she says. "It was still really raw." Still, don't analyze her performance for signs of her sorrow, she says. "I'm not a method actress. I'm not using the pain of my father's death to connect with the pain of the character."

But certain lines can be especially hard, Davis says.

"Once you've lost your father, and I have as well, to have to say the word 'dad' -- it's really heavy."

"It's weird," Paltrow agrees. "Now it's easier for me that my husband is a father. I call him Daddy, and it's in a different context."

For Paltrow, being secretly pregnant during filming didn't help. "I was physically not well. I felt terrible, and I couldn't tell anyone. I was pretty bummed out. I'd go home, and I'd be like, to Chris, 'I can't make it. I don't feel well.'"

But, Davis says, "she never complained."

Did Davis ever suspect her co-star had a baby on the way?

"Near the end. There was a lot of yawning," she says with a laugh.

Says Paltrow: "I started to kind of show near the end. I wanted to tell (Hope) so badly, but (Chris and I) had a pact."

Today, the two working mothers want only to gab about their children. "Can she talk now?" Davis asks of Apple.

Paltrow lights up. "She says 'Chop, chop' for helicopter. She doesn't know that a helicopter and airplane are two different things."

Her first words?

"'Mama' and 'Dada.' 'Agua' was her first word. She says a lot of words in Spanish. She says, 'Check it out.' For hummus, she says 'hummy.' I speak to her in Spanish sometimes because I want her to learn."

Turns out Davis is old friends with Paltrow's mother, actress Blythe Danner, and performed at the Williamstown Theatre Festival with her. These days, Paltrow and Davis get together whenever Paltrow, who splits her time between New York and London, is in New York. Paltrow attended Davis' surprise baby shower. Davis turned up in the Big Apple for Apple's first birthday party.

In unison, they lament about kids who are raised on chips and soda. Davis says the macrobiotic Paltrow "really affected my food habits," and now, she's addicted to the vegan birthday cake she had at Apple's party.

In their down time, they both hang out with their children.

"(Apple) is sort of her own person," Paltrow says. "She's not very patient, which she gets from me. But she also has this showman, comedian little side. She does these funny things to make you laugh, which reminds me of my husband."

Talk shifts to child care. Davis tells Paltrow she doesn't have a nanny, just a babysitter she hires when she and her husband want to go out or when they travel.

Apple sleeps through the night and has since she was 4 months old. Mae, to Davis' dismay, does not. But, Davis says, "I wasn't rested before I had children. I'm not rested now." Both moms struggle with leaving their daughters to go back to work. "I don't want to spend six weeks making (a bad movie) somewhere to make money. I'd rather be home," Davis says.

"I think it's great you're able to do so much," Paltrow, who has worked selectively since Apple's birth, tells Davis. "If I did one film a year, that would be definitely sufficient. I'm not going to waste my time and be on a set, totally miserable, when you could be home with your kid."

Still, Davis says, "I like to work. I enjoy once a year, doing a film. What was hard was when I came to London for (Proof) rehearsals, (and) I had to leave her. But it's good for her to see that I work. I'm home all the rest of the time. It doesn't feel sad now."

Davis, who's rarely in any of the gossip magazines, lives a quiet, paparazzi-free life in Manhattan. "It's the way I want it to be."

Paltrow, a tabloid fixture, looks at Davis with unabashed longing. "That's so great. That's a dream."

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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