The Real Renée

There’s a measure of Bridget Jones in all of us. Renée Zellweger is no different, but with her innate curiosity and a thirst for knowledge, she’s so much more.  

WORDS Jennifer Birn
February 2017

Photography by Brian Bowen Smith

PRIOR TO INTERVIEWING RENÉE ZELLWEGER, I receive an email from her publicist saying that the actress is on a deadline writing a paper for a college class she’s taking and that 20 minutes has been slated for us to talk. Panic. A cover profile generally requires at least an hour with the subject. Eventually, Zellweger agrees to an hour if we meet somewhere near where she lives.

The day of the interview, I arrive at our meeting point — Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica, California — a few minutes early. Zellweger is already at a table, nursing a water with lemon. She jogged about a mile to get there, she tells me, from the house she shares with her boyfriend of four years, musician Doyle Bramhall II.

The Katy, Texas, native is wearing a Longhorns baseball hat, an Austin City Limits T-shirt, workout pants and sneakers. She has an iPod Shuffle with her and nothing else. Not even a phone. We speak for 57 minutes, and I start to wrap things up by asking about her proudest accomplishment. “You tell me yours,” she says. And then: “You are so much more interesting.”

An hour after that, we are still talking. About me.
THE REAL REASON for our sit-down is Bridget Jones’s Baby, the third installment of the Bridget Jones series, which gets its U.S. theatrical release on Sept. 16. Zellweger has only made a handful of movies since the second Bridget Jones film in 2004 — she took a five-year hiatus from acting in 2010 — so I was curious to hear about that too.

Though she doesn’t explicitly say so, there’s a sense that Zellweger didn’t so much escape acting as she did escape the glare of publicity it entails. “It’s the part of the job I find most challenging,” she says. She is well aware that to run to the store without makeup is to invite a flurry of paparazzi shots, which will have been viewed by millions before she even gets home. “It’s more interesting not to know so much about people. The intrigue is disappearing.”

On the red carpet, Zellweger shines. In past appearances, she was usually outfitted in a Carolina Herrera gown, sparkling jewels and her megawatt smile. Even amid the glamour and polish, though, Zellweger insists that her on-screen alter ego has never been very far away. “I smile a lot on red carpets in the midst of those moments that hopefully people won’t know about,” she admits. “I smile through the Bridget Jones moments. There are a million of them, all day, every day. But, I’m hopelessly hopeful. I’m an optimist. I guess I just believe that you’ve gotta laugh; have some humor.”

That ability to make light of life’s painfully embarrassing moments is the quality that has endeared Bridget to millions of readers since Helen Fielding first published Bridget Jones’s Diary in 1996. All women, to some degree, can identify with the klutzy journalist who counts calories; will always be more cute than sexy; has luck that runs in extremis; is bubbly, kooky, and extremely likable — except to people who dislike her for that very reason.

The hugely successful film adaptations of Fielding’s novels, meanwhile, have benefited from the fact that Zellweger identifies with the character too. “I ruminate about the stupid things I’ve said that I wish I didn’t say,” she says. “If the worst possible thing could happen at the worst possible moment, it always does. That? Now? Yes! And deal with it.”

There are limits to the similarities. In conversation, Zellweger is deliberate and thoughtful. She thinks before she speaks and will say too little before too much. She is a planner. She likes to know every angle before making a decision and prefers to be armed with knowledge before stating an opinion. She’s also a news junkie, with an interest in politics and a strong desire to see change. That dovetails into what she thinks are the most striking differences between her and Bridget.

“I’m a little better prepared, which I think I get from my dad; I have his work ethic. I don’t leave much to chance,” she tells me, adding, “it’s probably one of my greatest weaknesses at the same time, that I take my responsibilities seriously … I could probably give myself a break sometimes.”

Clearly, Zellweger has a brilliant mind, one that doesn’t go into screen-saver mode very often. As with many highly intelligent people, her brain can torment her and make her persona a contradiction in terms. She doesn’t like to leave her house, but she loves to travel; she abhors idle chitchat, but she loves to talk; she doesn’t share much publicly, but her emails to friends are lengthy, well thought-out and could take hours to read.

Earlier this year, her Bridget Jones co-star Hugh Grant told an interviewer that he received a 48-page email from Zellweger. When I mention this, she laughs. “That’s the last bottle of whiskey you get from me, buddy!” she declares. “But, it’s true. I guess I do. I like my friends.”
IN THE FIRST FILM 15 years ago, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Hugh Grant and Colin Firth played dueling love interests to Zellweger’s Bridget. The film cost just north of $20 million to make and grossed almost $300 million worldwide. The sequel, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, from the book of the same name, brought Zellweger, Grant and Firth back together in 2004 and was also a box-office hit, making more than $250 million.

Now we have Bridget Jones’s Baby, which is notable in part for the absence of Grant, who opted not to be a part of this one, thereby pitting Firth against new arrival Patrick Dempsey. At the center of this rivalry is the question of who has fathered Bridget’s baby, a question that has been protected with airtight secrecy. Zellweger confirms that multiple endings were filmed and that the script says things like, “Bridget stands next to XX at the altar.” Even she and the cast don’t know who the daddy is yet.

There is, in fact, not that much that Zellweger is able to reveal about the new film, so talk turns to her five-year break from acting, which only came to an end a year and a half ago. “I planned to take some time off after Chicago (2002), but there kept being once-in-a-lifetime experiences in front of me that I didn’t want to miss out on,” she says. “Then I learned you can’t keep doing that forever, so I chose to see what would happen if I did let that once-in-a-lifetime experience that was ahead of me go and just be still and see what I could build.”

As for what she did with herself during her hiatus, Zellweger reveals that she traveled to Thailand, Cambodia and Liberia, the latter with a gender-equality charity called The Great Initiative which was started in London by her friend Mariella Frostrup. During the trip, the charity gave its first award to Liberia’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, for her work advocating for women’s rights.

Zellweger left Liberia in awe of the women there. “They’re so articulate and eloquent and have such focus,” she says. “No one would show up just off the boardwalk in a baseball hat. They turned it out. Their nails and jewelry were beautifully done, their dresses were immaculate, and I think I appreciated that because that is, of course, part of a woman’s power.”

She also told me the story of a woman she’d met at an event the previous night who works with refugees and Assyrian and Yazidi people. Despite her general lack of interest in wearing jewelry, she still has on the rubber bracelet the woman gave her with her organization’s name on it because she feels a connection with the woman’s cause.

Her travels, Zellweger says, broadened her horizons in ways she hadn’t expected, in large part because they weren’t to tourist-friendly regions. “I think traveling off the beaten path is a good idea for anybody because it’s essential for understanding not just the rest of the world but yourself,” she says. Zellweger is also in the midst of a college class, though she wouldn’t reveal where or what the subject is.

“I won’t share it, if that’s OK,” she says. “But it has to do with a lot of the things that we talked about today.”

One of the subjects that’s cropped up quite a lot today is the job I do. Zellweger was, in fact, a college student studying writing when she made her first films in the early ’90s and decided to become an actor. “If I waited until now to get a job, I probably would have ended up in journalism,” she says, adding, “I like telling stories in other mediums.”

It’s impossible to say if Zellweger would have made it as a writer, of course, but given how successful she is at accomplishing what she puts her mind to, the safe money is on “yes.” Early in her career, she had roles in cult classics like Dazed and Confused in 1993 and Reality Bites and Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, both in 1994.

She shot onto the A-list after appearing opposite Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire in 1996, was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actress for Bridget Jones’s Diary and Chicago, and won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Cold Mountain in 2004. To many, her extended disappearance from the screen came as a surprise.

It was shortly before the latest Bridget Jones film came on the radar when Zellweger decided to jump back into moviemaking. “I craved the creative process again. When I stopped making films, it was because it became more depleting than rewarding. It was because of the way I was living my life, and I don’t think you can be good in a creative medium if you aren’t grateful for the opportunity to participate. I started to miss it and I felt ready.”

The timing of Bridget Jones’s Baby solidified the move for Zellweger — a “no-brainer,” as she puts it — because, “there’s this great reunion waiting in London with this character I love and all my friends who I’ve adored for years. It was an excellent excuse to go back.”

It’s around here that we hit the 57-minute mark, and Zellweger decides to adopt the role of interviewer, a slightly odd role reversal that has me revealing everything from the details of a book I’m working on to how I indulged in too many Jell-O shots on my birthday. “You’re like Richard Branson or Oprah,” she says at one point. “You sparkle and leave fairy dust wherever you go. You say, ‘Screw it,’ and just do it.”

When Zellweger and I finally get up to leave, I thank her and joke that I’d probably do something like trip walking to the valet. “Your Bridget Jones moment,” she says. I don’t trip, but when I get home, I do notice the back of my dress has a three-inch tear on the seam.

Renée’s a friend you want on your Dream Team

Renée Zellweger is naturally benevolent and a fiercely loyal friend. She devotes herself to people and groups that make a difference, like Stand Up To Cancer, which raises funds for innovative cancer research. She has been an ally to the program since 2000, when her longtime publicist and friend, Nanci Ryder, was diagnosed with breast cancer. “I was over in London when she called and said, ‘I have this disease,’ ” Zellweger recalls. “When I got home, we went through the process of surgery. Afterward, her doctors at UCLA [who are among the ‘Dream Teams’ funded by Stand Up To Cancer to do high-risk projects and clinical trials with the potential for high rewards] discovered target gene therapy, so we did a lot of advocacy work to raise money and awareness. As women, we take for granted that we’re doing OK sometimes or we’re too scared to get checked. Breast cancer is one of those diseases that the earlier you know, the better your prognosis.”

Renée’s favorite...

Spaghetti bolognese for dinner, and breakfast tacos for lunch, both of which she eats a few times a week
A Farewell to Arms and The Sun Also Rises
TV channel
HGTV. “If they’re tearing down a house or putting it back up, or if they’re teaching me a new way to change a light fixture, I’m in,” she says.
Routine evening runs on the beach, as well as spin classes
Thing to do on a Plane
Catch up on writing emails and thank-you notes — which she still handwrites


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