Renee Zellweger


Not many Hollywood actresses would show such commitment to a role that they would be prepared to on put 17lbs in order to play it, let alone then claim they actually enjoyed it.
“It was a Great experience !” gushes Renee Zellweger who put on the weight as part of her preparation to play Bridget Jones in the movie version of Helen Fielding’s best-selling phenomenon, Bridget Jones’s Diary.
“It was fantastic. It didn’t get me down remotely. I felt like I was a success, because I was doing what I needed to do. Every time I had to change up a size, I was so Excited !”

In an age when audiences take the sight of anorexic actresses like Ally McBeal star Calistra Flockhart for granted, and when Uma Thurman can reveal that she considers herself overweight, it’s unlikely that Zellweger’s example will start a stampede of LA starlets falling over themselves to emulate her.
After all, I have to say the benefits – no matter how enthusiastically she tries to sell them – seem rather limited.
“If you’re a person of my stature, which is not so substantial, it was very exciting to change my shape,” she thrills looking down at her pretty bird-like frame.
“It was very Exciting in the morning to need to put a bra on before I went out, you know what I mean.”
Um, not really.
“I was very, very excited. I was very sad to see that part of my life go away.”

It seems safe to say that if Renee Zellweger can get so excited about needing to wear a bra to work, she probably gets excited about most things.
Zellweger who must be the only Hollywood star who comes to London and excitedly has her schedule changed so that she can pay a visit – not to Harvey Nichols or Voyage – but the Boots store on High Street Kensington.
Where most Hollywood beauties these days try to perfect an immaculate, but aloof, state of grace during interviews, Zellweger is an altogether more kooky cookie.
She is both as flighty and feisty as any pretty girl from Texas should be.
5ft 5″ and tiny (an American size 2), she is immediately so flirtatiously friendly and engaging that it is easy to see why she is regarded in Hollywood as a character actor inside the personality of an ingenue.
(She missed receiving an award for her part in Nurse Betty from Elizabeth Taylor at this year’s Golden Globes ceremony because she was in the ladies.)
She is dressed down (grungy jeans, cowboy boots, and a simple black jumper short enough to show off a sliver of skinny white flesh) but her charm factor is turned up high enough to be irresistible.
She speaks in a coy/cute breathy whisper worthy of Monroe, from bee-stung lips to match Julia Roberts’.
Her knowingly adorable twinkly smile is somewhere between Julie Christie’s and Ellen Barkin’s.
But at the same time, she is not averse to dishing out an admonishing slap when I venture my theory that Bridget Jones is essentially a feminine icon, an Everywoman figure, A Women’s Thing and not someone that men are very interested in.
After all, I continue blithely, she’s neurotic, self-obsessed, socially embarrassing, fat.
“I cannot believe you said that !” she erupts, actually being propelled out of her chair by her ire. “That is so unfair. (Whack.) That is an awful thing to say. I can’t believe you would really think something like ?”
It’s only when she finds that she is now conducting the interview on her feet, standing over me, laughing that some cultural differences – such as our more cynical sense of humour – cannot be so easily replicated.
“Oh right ! Are you, like, joking ?”
In short, she is not very Bridget Jones; not very Hollywood.
She is, understandably excited about the film and her performance in it.
Robert de Niro may have become a hero to (male) Method Actors everywhere after he famously transformed himself to play boxer Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, but Zellweger is probably the first (and last) actress to make a bid for the female equivalent title, Raging Cow.
For two months before filming, she was barred from doing any exercise as she submerged herself in British culture (the Spice Girls, Sky News and the soaps) and dedicated herself to what is probably the Celebrity Diet from Hell.
Every day, her breakfast consisted of a cheese omelette with a bagel with peanut butter on the side. A (non-low fat) yoghurt and coffee with cream rounded it off.
Mid-morning snacks were compulsory – chocolate bars or a chocolate protein shake with ice-cream and what she calls “weight-gain powder.”
A traditional British lunch (Burger King) would follow. Dinner was pizza washed down by a few pints of Guinness. Pudding was compulsory.
A case of: Do Not Try This At Home.
“It was no big deal, no big deal at all. It was purely scientific. It was just a question of doing the maths. A doctor went through the food I needed to be healthy and said, this is what you could add if you wanted to see some fat accumulating on your body because this would be in excess of what you need.”
“It was great,” she marvels, doing a Method-like impression of The Eternal Optimist. “One plus side was that I made a lot of friends at the Italian restaurant I used to go to every night !”
While such dedication is commonplace among male actors like Daniel Day Lewis or Brad Pitt, it is difficult to think of any actress who would want to even look as if she had put on weight (even using padding, make-up or special effects) – yet alone one who regards it as relatively straightforward and downplays it as much as Zellweger.
“It was no more of a stretch than changing the way you speak or changing the way you walk,” she insists.
“It was just part of the job in the way that learning your lines is part of the job or showing up on time is part of the job. It was part of the challenge, part of being creative. What easier way than show up for work and play someone who is not you when you don’t even feel like you. I mean that’s more helpful than anything.”
Fortunately, her endeavours were rewarded.
It is particularly to her credit, that against considerable odds, and given the fact so many people in the industry were waiting for, and almost willing, her to fail, that Zellweger pulled it off.
While a lot of people greeted news of her casting by saying “Renee Who ?”, after the film is released, I’m confident it quickly become difficult to think of Bridget Jones as anyone else.
Perhaps the pressure of playing such a high profile figure drove her on. (Bridget Jones’s Diary has been a bestseller all over the world.)
After all, not only was the 31 year old blonde relatively unknown in this country (despite her part at Tom Cruise’s love interest in Jerry Macguire), she seemed to be as unlike Bridget Jones as she could get.
She is from Texas for a start, not the Home Counties.
Like most Hollywood starlets, she does not smoke or drink much (unlike Bridget), and fervently follows a healthy lifestyle of salads and Evian, yoga and exercise. (She likes walking, running and other non-Bridget Jones concepts.)
She was also conspicuously not single – but engaged to funny guy/mega-star Jim Carrey at the time.
For two years, the film’s producers, as well as various sections of the British press, had been lobbying for a number of British Bridget-esque stars to play someone who one columnist described as “a national treasure.”
Kate Winslet, Helen Bonham Carter and even Patsy Kensit were popular candidates while there were persistent rumours that co-star Hugh Grant (who plays Bridget’s boss, Daniel Cleaver) was threatening to walk out unless a bigger international name was given the part.
Cate Blanchett seemed one obvious choice, while Cameron Diaz was also mooted, although it’s hard to see her putting the 17lbs on if she tried.
Helen Fielding campaigned for an unknown to play her creation but left the script to Richard Curtis (Notting Hill, Four Weddings & A Funeral) and Andrew Davies (Pride & Prejudice) when she heard Zellweger had got the part.
Zellweger herself is the first to recognise the (fairly obvious) differences between her and her character but never felt that they made any difference.
“I could understand the negative reaction. I don’t really share her lifestyle. I’m drawn towards physical activity. I like to be outside. I’m more of an athlete. That’s always been part of my life. I don’t drink as much, except on certain occasions. I don’t smoke. But the experiences in the book are universal. What woman over 30 isn’t concerned about the same things: men, body image, work, relationships ? Or women under 30 for that matter.”
“All the women who have read this book – and it doesn’t matter where they are from – can really relate to her and what she is going through whether that period is in the future or the past or they are living it now. There’s that self-deprecation that a lot of women tend to have about trying to aspire to achieve certain things in terms of successful careers, finding love and meeting the sort of paragon that the media presents to us as the right person. That’s what’s so lovely about Bridget is her honesty and how she’s so earnestly trying to find happiness. And we can all relate to that.”
The film’s director Sharon Maguire admitted: “don’t think I didn’t have a lot of nightmares and sleepless nights. When she came in, I thought: ‘she’s perfect, but she’s Texan. What do we do ?”
While The Evening Standard said that getting someone with her looks to play Bridget Jones was a bit like making The Elephant Man with Jude Law, the casting turned out to be inspired thanks to what Maguire called “her outward vulnerability and goodness and her inner irreverence.”
We can understand why Cleaver (Grant) and Darcy (Colin Firth) fight over her, but at the same time are not surprised that she is, for the most part, single.
It is the same quality that Jerry Maguire director Cameron Crowe compared to Shirley Maclaine in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment – “that strange mixture of innocence and ballsiness.”
As with Bridget Jones, the part in Jerry Maguire was viewed as a choice that came out of nowhere.
Tom Cruise backed her over the lines of hot properties of the time such as Winona Ryder and Bridget Fonda and credited her with “revealing the core humanity of the movie” that made $ 240 million at the box office.
The daughter of a Swiss engineer and Norwegian mother who emigrated to the states in the early 60s, Zellweger had only moved to LA three years earlier, on December 6th 1993. (She, rather sweetly, remembers the date.)
She had done some acting in high school, back home in Katy, although she says: “my drama teacher talked me out of it. I wasn’t all that interested in acting. I never saw myself as an actress.”
She studied English at the University of Texas at Austin choosing acting over the choir to complete her Fine Arts degree and ended up in well-received independent films such as Reality Bites and Dazed & Confused.
When she got to LA, like most wannabe starlets, she got more offers for bar work than acting.
“I could just about pay the rent on a grungy one-room apartment, but couldn’t afford things like a television.”
Acting-wise, Reality Bites, Love and a .45, and The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre were about as good as her career looked as if it would get.
Then her agent rang to say Tom Cruise wanted to see her.
“I thought it was a joke. I didn’t really know him, so I went to meet some friends instead.”
The day of the second meeting she remembers pointedly: “I had exactly one dollar in my account. I probably looked insane. The previous day I had had to quit the launderette because I had ran out of money. Most of my clothes were still drying in my grungy little apartment. I just kept saying to myself over and over, ‘I am on my way to meet Tom Cruise’. My only thought on entering the room was ‘oh please God, don’t let me puke and let me remember my lines.”
Perhaps the experience of Jerry Maguire explains why she knew that for Bridget Jones, she would have to go that extra mile to win people round.
She agreed to work on her English accent with voice coach Barbara Berkery, who tutored Gwyneth Paltrow for Sliding Doors & Shakespeare in Love, before the role was secured.
“I worked with Barbara Berkery for a couple of weeks and she was reporting back to them about whether or not this was a good idea. It was a kind of an unconventional audition process. I could see them thinking: ‘is she going to blasphemise this character ?’ I was glad to do it because if they didn’t think it was going to be right, then I wouldn’t want to do it. I felt a responsibility to Helen Fielding who created this beautiful character who means to much to so many people, including me !”
Determined to make the accent absolutely perfect, besides continuing her work with Berkery, she lived in London for months before filming started “to come over here and understand her. Her social references, her cultural references, her London-specific references.”
She gorged herself on British culture – immersing herself in a life of the Spice Girls, Sky News and TV soap operas.
“Programmes like Dream Team, Neighbours. I watched EastEnders for research. I loved it. I liked the busy body lady that ran the pub, with the big hair. I liked her.”
In one final De Niro-esque move, Zellweger then took a 9 to 5 job working ‘undercover’ in the publicity department of Picador, which published the book. She even called her Bridget (Bridget Cavendish).
Part of her job was to file all the press clippings claiming she was wrong for the part.
“Oh ! It was invaluable ! An invaluable experience !” Zellweger gasps when I ask what precisely she got out of it. “It was the first opportunity with my accent where I had to sink or swim. It was really, really important to be in a scenario when I couldn’t turn it off when I felt like it, or slip up and have a laugh about it.”
Her cover story was that she was from Hampshire, had been away to America and had come back to do work experience.
“Imagine how it felt to get a Hollywood actress to do your photocopying !” trilled her boss in the department, Camilla Elworthy, the only person in the office in on the ruse.
During lunch-breaks, she would work with her voice coach, then return to work at Picador until 5pm, then rehearse, learn her lines or study “The EastEnders” (sic) in the evening at home.
Every activity was of course accompanied by copious attempts at eating.
“I’d find myself forcing down a chocolate bar if I felt guilty about not having enough for lunch.”
I ask her if the weight changed her personality, made her feel differently about herself, when she saw herself.
“I didn’t look at myself,” she snaps back straight away. “I didn’t look in the mirror in the shower.”
This, she insists, was not because of any negative feelings she has towards the idea of a bigger size, but “because I didn’t want to judge it. If I looked at myself and thought I hadn’t maintained what I was trying to achieve with the character, I would feel like a failure. I didn’t check myself out and say: ‘oh god, look, how terrible.’ I was like, yeah ! It’s happening !”
There must have been some down side to it though, I suggest.
“I was tired,” she concedes, “because I couldn’t do any exercise or any of the things that energise me. And I was eating a lot of fatty foods which make your body tired.”
It is rumoured that Harper’s Bazaar magazine took her off the cover because of her extra weight. The magazine claimed she looked “uncomfortable” with it and that this stopped it from making an “inviting” cover.
“I was at my heaviest when we did that shoot. I was tired, so it could be that I looked like a haggard road-kill,” she suggests, not sounding convinced.
Still, it’s noticeable that, whatever she says about it, she didn’t lose any time in losing the weight again (she lost it all in six months) which she claims was straightforward because it wasn’t her weight in the first place.
“I just stopped throwing on the excess that I didn’t need and didn’t want anyway. I did a lot of running. It was more about I wanted to get back to what felt familiar to me. There was no panic, no. My agent didn’t care, absolutely not.”
Although she knows some members of the office secretly asked Elworthy about her, and one even commented that she “looked a bit like the girl in Jerry Macguire”, no one replicated Bridget Jones’ own experience of office romance and asked her out.
“No, dammit,” she mutters, momentarily wanly. “Actually, I was taken at the time.”
That wouldn’t have stopped them, I offer.
“Well it would stop me.”
The subject of her love life is the only one to dim Renee Zellweger’s vivacity.
She is single – “yes I’m a single girl right now” – having split up from Carrey at the beginning of the year. They dated for a year having got together while shooting Me, Myself & Irene.
“I was fascinated by him,” she admits candidly. “Underneath that façade he is a very genuine, quite serious man with lots of levels. I think he has problems expressing himself when it comes to romance. In the end, I was the one who said ‘look, you know I am shy but are you trying to suggest that we date ? Because if you are, that’s fine.”
She was seen sporting a £40, 000 engagement ring and there were rumours they were going to get married on Christmas Day.
A few weeks before they split up, she had accompanied Carrey to the London premiere of The Grinch, and introduced to the Queen, which if nothing else was handy for her research into the Queen’s English.
“No, definitely not. Definitely a very different accent. She’s very tiny ! We had a little chat. She said ‘and you…?’ ‘Have absolutely nothing to do with this film whatsoever’. I didn’t think it would be that big a deal to me as it was. It was quite an honour. It turned out to be a really emotional night.”
A good man is hard to find, I sympathise, sounding as if I am apologising on behalf of all men.
“I don’t know. I’m a hopeless romantic. I believe in them. I’ve met them. I have a bunch of them who are really friends of mine. Good men.”
She has not, though, been out with anyone since Carrey.
“I’m not right there yet. I can do semi-romantic, but not romantic.”
I ask her if she feels comfortable being single, liberated.
“God, I wouldn’t say liberated. But I’m not any less happy.”
In this way at least, perhaps in the end, Renee Zellweger had more in common with Bridget Jones than anyone realised.