Renee Returns

The internet is bigger, more opinionated and definitely meaner since Renee Zellweger’s last Bridget Jones movie. Which may explain why the Oscar winner, the subject of recent (many say sexist) scrutiny, is guarded about almost everything—except society’s inequity: ‘Why are we [still] talking about how women look?’

By Laurie Sandell
Photos by Miller Mobley

“MY MAIN GOAL,” SAYS RENEE ZELLWEGER, curled up in an oversized club chair in a private VIP room off the lobby of Santa Monica’s Hotel Casa del Mar, “is to avoid any negativity that might enter my consciousness. If I’m not aware of it, then it’s not real. It doesn’t exist.”

For the past six years, Zellweger has been avoiding it like crazy. She’s taken a self-imposed hiatus from acting, enjoying the Zen-like peacefulness of living “under the radar,” as she calls it. She spent some downtime at her 40-acre farm in Connecticut, chilled out in her beach house in the Hamptons, then holed up for a while at her home in Santa Barbara. She enrolled in screenwriting courses at UCLA, even co-wrote a TV pilot with one of her professors that she pitched to Lifetime (it passed) and pursued a range of other soul-nourishing endeavors.

“I wanted to grow,” she explains. “If you don’t explore other things, you wake up 20 years later and you’re still that same person who only learns anything when she goes out to research a character. You need to grow!”

In September, however, Zellweger, 47, returns to the acting business, emerging from her hiatus to star as Bridget Jones in the long-awaited third installment of the series, Bridget Jones’s Baby (out Sept. 16)—and it appears as if her chakras already are starting to fray. Sipping pineapple juice, dressed in low-key workout gear and running shoes, her hair long and loose, she still is the same pretty, perky actress she has always been—but I’ve interviewed Zellweger three times over the past 11 years, and this is the first time I felt like she was mentally vetting her every word before speaking. Thanks no doubt to the recurring controversy over her appearance—most recently stirred up by a much-pilloried commentary on her face by a Hollywood film critic; more about that later—she’s more cautious and cagey with the press than she’s ever been before. At times, as she casts a wary eye at the digital recorder on the coffee table, there is even a slight whiff of warning in her voice.

“I’ve never seen the maturation of a woman as a negative thing,” she answers with a tight smile when asked about aging in Hollywood. “I’ve never seen a woman stepping into her more powerful self as a negative.” She leans forward in her chair and chooses her next words pointedly. “But this conversation perpetuates the problem. Why are we talking about how women look? Why do we value beauty over contribution? We don’t seem to value beauty over contribution for men. It’s simply not a conversation.”

In other words, change the subject.

ZELLWEGER WAS 32 WHEN SHE FIRST slipped into the title role of Working Title’s adaptation of Helen Fielding’s best-selling British novel about a hapless book publicist looking for love in London. By that point, she already was a rising star thanks to a career-making turn opposite Tom Cruise in 1996’s Jerry Maguire as well as some other notable performances (she earned a best debut award at the Independent Spirit Awards for her role in 1994’s Love and a .45, the same year she starred opposite Matthew McConaughey in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation). But it was landing the lead in 2001’s Bridget Jones’s Diary—a part that every British actress under 40 had been lining up for, including Kate Winslet, Tilda Swinton, Elizabeth Hurley, Helena Bonham Carter, Rachel Weisz and Kristin Scott Thomas—that launched her onto the A-list. The film grossed more than $280 million worldwide, earned Zellweger her first Academy Award nomination for best actress (the year Halle Berry won for Monster’s Ball) and almost immediately spawned a sequel, 2004’s Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, which grossed more than $260 million.

From the start, Zellweger’s enthusiasm for the character was legendary: She gained 25 pounds for the role, took a three-week job at a London publishing firm to learn the book business and trained like an Olympian with a dialect coach to turn her Texas twang (she was raised in tiny Katy, Texas, by European parents who immigrated to the U.S. during World War II) into Bridget’s chirpy British brogue.

There was some grumbling in the British press about the part going to a Yank, but her English co-stars give Zellweger props for mastering the subtleties of their mother tongue. “I’m always a little thrown by her American accent—sounds like she’s putting it on,” says Colin Firth, who reprises his role of Darcy in Bridget Jones’s Baby (whether the baby is his turns out to be a major plot point). Patrick Dempsey, who plays Jack, Bridget’s new American love interest (and the other possible father) also is impressed with Zellweger’s devotion to her British accent. “We were at a junket last week,” he told THR early in August, “and it was the first time I’d heard her speak in her real voice in a year. It’s crazy how committed she is to the character.”

That commitment to character isn’t limited to Bridget. Between the first two films, Zellweger was Oscar nominated for her performance as Roxie Hart in 2002’s Chicago and won a best supporting actress Oscar for her role as Ruby Thewes in 2003’s Cold Mountain. She went on to star opposite Russell Crowe in 2005’s Cinderella Man and did voice work with her best pal Reese Witherspoon in 2009’s Monsters vs. Aliens. She also became a regular fixture in gossip columns, beginning (and ending) several high-profile, headline-grabbing relationships. She dated singer Jack White in 2003, was briefly married to singer Kenny Chesney in 2005 (she’d been engaged once before, in 1999, to Jim Carrey) and dated Bradley Cooper from 2009 to 2011. Today, she’s with guitarist Doyle Bramhall II, 47, an old friend she met while attending the University of Texas (where she first got her SAG card for doing a Coors Light commercial), with whom she reconnected in 2012.

Sometime around 2010, though—right after finishing a straight-to-DVD indie called My Own Love Song—Zellweger’s enthusiasm for acting must have cooled (it happens a lot to actresses entering middle-age in Hollywood, where interesting roles for over-40 females are few and far between; just ask Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts and Jennifer Aniston). After making nearly 40 movies—some well received (One True Thing; Nurse Betty; Me, Myself & Irene), some not so much (The Bachelor)—she decided to take that break from acting and concentrate on other creative outlets. In particular, writing. “Writing is something that has always been part of my life,” she says. “I’m tapping into it because it makes me happy. There are so many women now who are answering their creative calling—writing, producing, directing. I have a lot of girlfriends who would like to produce material that matters in some way.”

Most of her friends, she says, are writers—although she declines to name names. And just the day before this interview, she was attending a daylong seminar on “Great Female Voices” at the home of another friend (again, she declines to give a name). Even when talking about that pilot for Lifetime—it actually got made; it was about a bunch of young songwriters coming of age in Los Angeles during the 1960s—Zellweger is careful not to reveal too much. “It’s so boring when people talk about what they’re going to do, or what they might do, or the thing that they want to do,” she says, explaining her reticence. “It’s so much more interesting when you just do it and say, ‘Here it is.’”

These past six years, she indeed has lived more like a writer than a movie star. She recently sold the farmhouse in Connecticut and the beach house on Long Island and has settled down in West L.A. She has no social media presence, hasn’t done many interviews and has steered clear of gossip columns. But she has kept up with her Hollywood friends, particularly her former publicist Nanci Ryder, rushing to her side when she was diagnosed with ALS in 2014. “I met Renee before the premiere of Jerry Maguire,” Ryder says in an email to THR (she mostly is unable to speak). “We bonded right away. I had 10 great years of being her friend and publicist. Then I got breast cancer, [and] she was beyond supportive. Then I got ALS, [and] she was beyond supportive. She cried with me and laughed with me. She is intelligent, with a wicked sense of humor and a great friend. I love her. Write this.”

Not surprisingly, jumping back into the limelight for Bridget after so many years—and so many sea changes in media—has been jarring for Zellweger. She obviously is a little rusty interacting with journalists. “I’m not great at press,” she says. “It’s the part of my job I’m least comfortable with because I’m a really private person.” She’s more than willing to chat about politics (“to boring degrees, at the expense of everyone around me”) and why she’s supporting Hillary Clinton (“There’s never been anyone better prepared in our lifetime”) over Donald Trump (“The language that he uses perpetuates a particular way of communicating that standardizes cruelty and mean-spiritedness as a culture norm”). But ask her about Bramhall, or anything else personal, and she freezes up. “We have shared history, the same mutual friends from eons ago, before either of us was doing anything public,” is about all she’ll say about her boyfriend. Pressed further, she smiles icily. “I appreciate you asking,” she says. “But let’s stop.” A lot of movie stars claim to be “really private,” but this one may actually mean it. And given recent events, it’s perhaps not all that surprising.

About the only time over the past six years that Zellweger publicly surfaced in a big way, it did not go so well. It was in 2014, at Elle’s Women in Hollywood party. Something about Zellweger looked noticeably different to many covering the event in the media, sparking rumors of plastic surgery. Numerous news outlets called her “unrecognizable,” while Twitter exploded with arguments over whether Zellweger had surgically altered her appearance or merely had grown older, the way normal humans do. The noise got so loud, the star felt compelled to respond in a statement to People magazine. “I’m glad folks think I look different!” it read. “I’m living a different, happy, more fulfilling life, and I’m thrilled that perhaps it shows.”

Zellweger’s face made headlines again when Variety film critic Owen Gleiberman penned a June 30 review (of Bridget Jones’s Baby’s trailer, mind you, not the movie) titled, “Renee Zellweger: If She No Longer Looks Like Herself, Has She Become a Different Actress?” The piece, largely eviscerated for its sexism, touched off a firestorm online and off, inspiring actress Rose McGowan to lash out against Gleiberman (“vile, damaging, stupid and cruel”) in an essay for Ultimately, Zellweger responded with a column of her own for The Huffington Post. “Not that it’s anyone’s business,” she wrote, “but I did not make a decision to alter my face and have surgery on my eyes.”

At least one of Zellweger’s castmates was horrified by the controversy. “She should not have to face such scrutiny,” says Dempsey, 50, whose own more senior and weathered appearance in the trailer thus far has inspired not a single film critic to speculate about whether or not he’s the same actor who once played “McDreamy” on Grey’s Anatomy. “Hollywood can be unsparingly brutal—and it’s always worse for women.”

OF COURSE, THE CULTURAL CLIMATE has changed quite a bit in the 12 years since the last Bridget Jones film was in theaters, back when Tony Blair was prime minister. Small, plot-twisty rom-coms set in quaint London flats have given way to superhero franchises in which cities like London get flattened. Nobody is making modestly budgeted romantic comedies anymore (Bridget Jones’s Baby reportedly cost $35 million), which no doubt is part of the reason why it has taken more than a decade for another Bridget Jones movie to get made. “All my girlfriends are waiting to go to films that are relatable, and I don’t know why we’re not making movies for [them],” complains Zellweger. “Whatever else may have changed in the world, we still have conversations with ourselves about how we might improve, or things we’re insecure about, or our failings.”

In truth, it wasn’t entirely a changing zeitgeist that kept Bridget Jones’s Baby on the back burner for so long. Creative differences among the cast and others also have played a large part, with different directors (Paul Feig was in talks at one point, as was Peter Cattaneo) and writers (like One Day’s David Nicholls) playing musical chairs for the better part of a decade. Ultimately, Sharon Maguire, who helmed the first Bridget movie, was hired to direct the film, with Fielding, Borat scribe Dan Mazer and actress Emma Thompson writing the script. But Hugh Grant passed on the chance to reprise his role of Bridget’s rakish boss, Daniel Cleaver, saying he couldn’t get any version of the script to “work for me” (the writers get even by writing Grant’s character out of the film with an offscreen accident in the first act, although they do leave wiggle room for him to return in a Bridget 4). Zellweger typically is vague about the backstory behind the delay—“My understanding is that the script wasn’t ready, and then Helen wrote another novel [Mad About the Boy, which veers dramatically from the film’s plot] and revisited the screenplay afterward”—but says she was always eager to return to the character. “We never ever, ever, ever considered casting someone else,” says Eric Fellner, co-chairman of Working Title. “When I think of Bridget Jones, I think of Renee, and when I think of Renee, I think of Bridget Jones. Renee and Bridget are synonymous. It’s not like James Bond or some other franchise.”

Once the film finally got a green light, Zellweger threw herself back into the role with the usual gusto. She shadowed a producer on Good Morning Britain (Bridget, who’s 42 in the film, has a new job in television), spent hours talking to a midwife, watched countless birthing videos on YouTube and, of course, repolished her English accent. “She’s in every scene and has a huge amount to do,” says Maguire. “She could put her feet up for five minutes when she’s not on camera, but she never does.” Firth also remains somewhat in awe. “When I first met Renee, my sense was that she thought the role was a challenge,” he says. “Perhaps it was. If so, she hid it well. She’s so convincing that I tend to get a jolt of surprise at how different Renee is from Bridget.”

Still, 12 years is a long time for audiences to wait for a sequel. And who knows if Bridget Jones still will be as charming to her old fans, let alone a whole new generation of younger filmgoers whose idea of a romantic plot twist is when you swipe the wrong way on Tinder. On the other hand, both Bridget’s resurfacing and Renee’s come at a time when consciousness about gender equality and female representation on the screen never has been higher in Hollywood. One person who believes the character still has legs is (predictably) Fielding. Indeed, the author thinks her body image-obsessed heroine is more relatable than ever, especially when played by the age-appropriate actress sipping pineapple juice at Casa del Mar. “Increasingly, we inhabit a world where the external—beauty, fame, thinness—is celebrated more than being human, warm and kind,” says Fielding. “It’s great that Bridget seems to have a following amongst young teenage girls. I hope [the character] helps them remember that being a good person is more important than having a big handbag and a bottom like two snooker balls.”

Zellweger has high hopes for Bridget’s third act as well. “I love this character,” she says. “Bridget makes imperfection all right.” Spoken like someone who just might know from experience.