NEW YORK When Gwyneth Paltrow made the rounds to promote "Iron Man," the buzz wasn't about the Oscar winner's return to the screen after an extended hiatus. It wasn't about the curious casting of a serious actress as a superhero's secretary.
It was about her shoes.
Paltrow's sky-high stilettos, shoulder-length curls and up-to-there skirts were seen as a sign: She's shedding her stay-at-home mom sweat pants and is ready to reclaim her throne in the celebrity pantheon.
"In England, there were pages in the newspaper on my various footwear," she says. "I think there's some excitement that I'm back in high heels and, you know, being glamorous."
She says this while decked out in another pair of killer pumps, with no sense of surprise that a change of clothing could set off a minor tempest of speculation about her life.
Paltrow has what might be called a conflicted relationship with Hollywood. Even when she's not working, she's tailed by paparazzi and scrutinized for her fashion, her mothering and her marriage to a famous rock star, Coldplay frontman Chris Martin.
That union is one she works hard to keep private. She calls the latest gossip about the state of her marriage, fueled by her daring outfits and the couple's refusal to appear on red carpets together, "hilarious."
The fascination with her private life has been frustrating but also meant she lost little luster in the few years that she's focused on her daughter Apple, 4, and son Moses, 2.
"There were some days where I thought, after I had my son and I couldn't lose the weight and I was in sweat pants and I was depressed and I was thinking, you know, will I ever be able to go back? Will they take me back?" she said.
Those feelings were exacerbated by the postpartum depression she says she experienced after the birth of her son.
She left Hollywood a few years earlier following the death of her father, director Bruce Paltrow, with the feeling that she had already finished what she set out to accomplish. She'd done star turns in critically acclaimed movies. She'd won an Academy Award for "Shakespeare in Love." She'd been the "it" girl on the arms of Brad Pitt and Ben Affleck.
It was time for her to focus on her family.
"You know, they change so quickly and the idea of somebody else being there when they do their first this or say their first that is just like, it makes me die," she says.
Her kids know her only as Mommy. "They've never seen me on-screen or anything. They have no idea."
But Hollywood years can be like dog years three of them offscreen can seem like a decade, enough to torpedo a star's career.
"I think especially in my own business it confounded people that I was willing to walk away from that and to lose my place on the A-list and say, it's not important to me right now in my life," she says.
"Iron Man" marks her big comeback after small parts in "Running With Scissors" and her brother's film, "The Good Night." In the first of the summer blockbusters, she joins an all-star cast of Robert Downey Jr., Terrence Howard, Jeff Bridges and director Jon Favreau.
"As soon as we heard she was interested, we put her in the movie," Favreau says. "Gwyneth is refined, classy, smart and mature. She seemed a good pairing for Robert (Downey Jr.). It was a very quick decision."
For Paltrow, the supporting role of Pepper Potts, the dutiful assistant and possible love interest, was a good transition, allowing her to work two or three days a week while the rest of the cast went off to blow things up in the desert.
She spent time with her children at the family house in California that her mother, actress Blythe Danner, subsequently sold. "It was just sort of reliving my own childhood again but with them, and it was just kind of a magical time."
Working with Downey was also invigorating.
"He would come into the trailer in the morning when we were going to read the scene and he would literally ball up the script and throw it against the wall and say, 'This sucks, let's start over,"' she says. "So it was like, 'OK! Well! What are we going to do today?"'
Downey insists there were no hurt feelings about the give-and-take: "I don't think 'genius' and 'superhero script' belong in the same sentence," he says.
Both stars have indicated they are open to sequels.
So Paltrow is back, but on her terms. After shooting the upcoming "Two Lovers" with Joaquin Phoenix, she's taking the rest of the spring and summer off.
"I don't think I could go back to ever doing three, four, five movies a year. There's just no way. There's no way," she says. "Maybe when they're in college. But by that point no one will want me in a movie anymore, probably."