IN STYLE MAGAZINE
She’s the successful child star turned Oscar-winning actress, the stunning face of Balenciaga and Revlon, and the mum of two, married to handsome, funny Brit actor Paul Bettany. In our exclusive interview, the usually very serious Jennifer Connelly reveals her lighter side (and a penchant for Scooby-Doo). By Lucie Young.
New York is in the grip of a summer street parade and downtown Manhattan is one heaving mass of partying people. But somehow, Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Connelly manages to walk through SoHo and slip unnoticed into her favourite little restaurant near the Hudson River. “New Yorkers are so nice. They don’t hassle you, unlike in LA,” she says.
Although the maître d’ told me that Jennifer, 39, likes to sit by the window, she is instead sipping an iced coffee at a table away from the noisy street, so I can record her every word. She’s naturally beautiful, with her black hair tied back in a ponytail and is wearing what she describes as her “daily uniform” – a much-loved pair of old biker boots, figure-hugging jeans and an acid yellow T-shirt from American Apparel. “I tend to recycle. I have Doc Martens I’ve had since I was 15 that I still wear. I have to retire them soon because they are falling apart,” she says laughing.
Over the bar, there’s a flat-screen TV showing football. When I ask if that’s part of the attraction for husband (Brit actor) Paul Bettany, who is also a regular of this restaurant, she laughs. “Oh, I’ve never seen him watch soccer. Although he does get very excited if he sees someone wearing an Arsenal shirt.”
Evidently, Paul (whom Jennifer met on the set of the film A Beautiful Mind in 2001 and married on New Year’s Day 2003) is a typical British lad. And life with him has lightened her up. Not so long ago, interviewers described her as aloof and “an untouchable enigma”. Even Darren Aronofsky, her Requiem for a Dream director, commented that she was “hard to get to know”.
But today, Jennifer is warm and thoughtful, if somewhat intense, and the conversation is punctuated by regular bursts of self-deprecating humour. “I’ve gotten less introverted and earnest since Paul and I have been together,” she admits with a grin.
Her husband teases her so relentlessly that when they signed up to co-star in their new movie Creation, Jennifer’s main worry was that they would crack each other up. “Paul tore me apart from my earnestness,” she says.
She’s changed Paul too. When they first met nearly seven years ago, he “smoked a lot and ate a lot of cheese”, but she’s coaxed him into developing a passion for her favourite activities: hiking, camping and skiing. They’ve even bought a family getaway in Vermont (where they spend most weekends). “He still eats a lot of cheese,” she says. “It’s usually somewhere in his backpack, but he quit smoking. I don’t think it was my influence. Kids will do that to you. You want to stick around to see what happens with them.”
Her children (Kai, 12, and Stellan, six) are a source of great pleasure – and amusement – to her. “They are both magnificent in different ways,” she says, proudly. Kai (her son from a previous relationship with photographer David Dugan) “is a brilliant skier and musician, who wants to be an architect or engineer”, while Stellan recently announced he is, “either going to be an actor or a man of leisure”, she says rolling her eyes.
Growing up as an only child, Jennifer feels spending quality time with her children and husband is crucial – “It’s precious time for us”. Going to the park, playing baseball, cycling and doing projects together are all part of their daily routine (when not filming). “We all love to muck around with art. And we do music too – Paul plays the guitar.” In their old house in Brooklyn, they had an art room. They moved to a Manhattan loft, partly because the house felt too big. “It didn’t feel homey. We would always end up in the same room, usually the kitchen. Now we are all on one floor. It’s much easier.”
Jennifer is a rare thing in the movie industry – a successful child star turned top-grossing Hollywood actress. At 11, she starred in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America, then made ten movies, including Labyrinth, in quick succession. After a period of juggling work and university (she studied English at Yale, then later transferred to Stanford), she considered giving up acting altogether. “It wasn’t until my late twenties that I realised acting could be a creative experience,” she says.
Just as well – she earned serious acclaim for her performance in the gritty Requiem for a Dream (2000), then, two years later, she won the best supporting actress Oscar, Golden Globe and Bafta for A Beautiful Mind. Recently, she wowed the critics in Blood Diamond and He’s Just Not That into You (her first comedy).
This month, she and Paul show off their dynamic on-screen chemistry in Creation – the true story of Charles Darwin’s struggle to publish his theory of evolution The Origin of Species (which was contradictory to his wife’s and society’s Christian beliefs) and how his grief over the death of their beloved daughter Annie nearly destroys him and their marriage. “Darwin [Paul] and his wife Emma [Jennifer] knew each other since childhood,” says Jennifer. “They were first cousins, so the relationship I have with Paul and our degree of intimacy supported the ease and comfort our characters have with each other.”
As it turned out, the first day of filming was one of the saddest of her life. Her beloved father Gerard (who had been living with them) died of cancer. “I was very close to my father,” she says, the pain evident as she fiddles with the brown glass beads on her wrist. “Without having Paul on set, I don’t know if I could have done it at all.”
But she soldiered on, the miserable weather in Cornwall (where they were shooting) reflecting her overcast mood. “It’s weird how much his death has affected me, especially how I feel now. I am much more conscious of how precious time is and I strive to find joy in everything. I catch myself quicker now when I start wasting my time worrying about silly things.”
That must be hard for a woman who has confessed to being a worrier and a perfectionist from an early age. Despite a childhood love of Evel Knievel, The Fonz and Scooby-Doo (“He was great – the cowardly hero”), she was generally so serious and work-oriented that her parents had to tell her to stop doing her homework.
She’s also admitted that at university she studied so hard, she had no social life and on film sets, she is so driven that her Reservation Road co-star Joaquin Phoenix once remarked: “Jennifer was the first person I’ve worked with where I thought, ‘F***. I’m not working hard enough’.” When asked about this obsessiveness, she freely admits, “I bore Paul with my incessant conversations about whatever movie I am working on. I am always thinking about it”.
Every aspect of Jennifer’s life receives the same laser-like attention. Designing the family’s Manhattan home took nearly a year because, “I want the perfect furniture”, and buying clothes is a task because, “I like nice things and I’m quite considered in my taste and thorough in my decisions. I have little patience for shopping because I get overwhelmed. There is too much stimulus and choice.”
Jennifer’s no stranger to style, however, and has been parading some sharp looks on the red carpet. Last year, she signed up as the face of Balenciaga. The relationship with the fashion house began at the 2002 Oscars, when she wore the label’s beige strapless gown with a scarf flipped casually over one shoulder. Afterwards, she and designer Nicolas Ghesquière became friends (“He’s a wonderful man, so kind and so talented”). In 2003, she wore a black Balenciaga dress when she married Paul (also in black).
It’s not just the fashion world applauding her taste – cosmetics giant Revlon has also nabbed her to be a brand ambassador. “I’m used to seeing images of myself,” she says with a shrug. But “I’ve a really hard time watching movies I’ve been in. I make myself see them, but I certainly don’t watch them for pleasure”.
Talk turns to where she and her family would like to live – eventually, perhaps, in Europe. Jennifer’s fantasy would be New Zealand, presumably for all the outdoor activities she could do. But for the moment, “New York makes sense. Kai’s dad lives here and it is important he has that connection”. Asked how laid-back she is as a parent, she says, “Things like bedtimes and cursing don’t bother me. I’m not offended if Kai is laughing and says something like, ‘That was f****** hard!’ or if I drop something and say, ‘S***!’ But I make it clear that other people might find it offensive. And I won’t stand for cursing at someone or rudeness. I am quite strict about manners.”
We’ve strayed past our allotted time, but Jennifer’s happy talking about her family, especially Paul. “He is a really good person – he is funny, he’s smart and he’s kind.” She is also proud of his acting. “He will surrender without vanity or ego to the story, which I really admire.” When I ask what he would say about her, she looks stumped, then laughs. “You know, we don’t really spend a lot of time admiring each other, saying, ‘Do you know what’s marvellous about your acting?’” she mugs in a posh Brit accent.
Her mobile phone beeps and she realises she’s running late for a family dinner. “We’re in New York this weekend and I promised everyone we could go out for sushi.” Discreetly, she excuses herself and without causing a stir, slips out into the throng.