IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Renee Zellweger defies expectation

She stars as a self-sufficient Southern woman in “Cold Mountain”
/ Source: The Associated Press

Renee Zellweger keeps quietly defying expectations.

In the mid-1990s, with mostly TV movies and small independent films on her resume, she beat out big-name Hollywood actresses for the lead role opposite Tom Cruise in “Jerry Maguire.”

When Zellweger, whose voice retains a bit of the twang from her Texas upbringing, was cast as England’s favorite lonely heart in “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” fans were outraged that a Yank got the part. Her endearing performance and impeccable British accent won naysayers over, with the 2001 romance becoming a worldwide hit and earning Zellweger a best-actress Academy Award nomination.

Critics scoffed when she was cast as scheming moll Roxie Hart in last year’s musical “Chicago,” with doubters wondering, could she even sing and dance? Zellweger proved a showstopper, earning her second-straight best-actress nomination as “Chicago” became a smash hit and won the best-picture Oscar.

“Chicago” co-star Catherine Zeta-Jones won last year’s supporting-actress Oscar. This time, it could be Zellweger going home with the supporting-actress prize for “Cold Mountain,” co-starring with Jude Law and Nicole Kidman in Anthony Minghella’s Civil War epic.

As dauntless Southern handy-woman Ruby, the 34-year-old actress deftly blends humor and touching drama, bringing a sweet sense of comic relief to the somber film.

Looking ahead to the Oscars is not something on her to-do list for Zellweger, who is busy filming “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason,” due out next fall.

AP: Mel Brooks once joked that while shooting “The Twelve Chairs” in Yugoslavia, all of Belgrade was lit by a single 10-watt bulb. Did you feel you were roughing it in Romania while filming “Cold Mountain”?

Zellweger: There were certain things that made you feel more creative than you might have before. There were interesting things that you’d get used to doing, or doing without. But it’s also wonderful, because it makes you really aware of the excess that we get used to, that we would consider to be normal. It just reminds you of how little you really do need.

AP: That sounds a bit like your character Ruby’s attitude.

Zellweger: Yes. It’s a place where women would just grab things and do things, very much like this Ruby character, and not hesitate thinking about the difficulty of the task at hand. I saw an old lady who clearly had osteoporosis, probably in her 80s, carrying a bundle of thatched wood on her back. A massive bundle, massive. About twice, three times her size. Walking on the side the road, slowly, taking her time, but she needed to get that parcel somewhere, and so it’s going to get done.

AP: Ruby’s practical and upfront about everything, Roxie Hart is duplicity incarnate, and Bridget Jones is somewhere in between, letting herself get pulled every which way. Which character comes closest to the real you?

Zellweger: That’s hard to say. I’m sure there’s elements of all of them on different days, depending on what we’re facing that day. I don’t know. I relate to Ruby. I relate to her curiosity, and I liked how rational she was. I find myself to be a pretty logical person, as well. And I share her need to understand how things work and her need to take care of herself.

AP: Gossip columnists love to write about how you gained weight for the “Bridget Jones” movies. Were you dreading or looking forward to putting on the feed bag again?

Zellweger: I thought about changing the diet and how my body’s going to react to it, because it goes through a little bit of a gastrointestinal sort of apocalypse when you change things so dramatically so quickly. But the thing that I probably was not looking forward to was the talk about it and how blown out of proportion it gets. It saddens me. I don’t understand the fascination with it. It’s just my job. You’re supposed to look like the characters you play, and that’s all I’m doing. And it opened up a lot of, I don’t know, speculation about the contractual elements of my experience that just simply were not true. That I was paid by the pound. It just superficializes something that is so much more important to me personally, artistically, than that. It’s silly, the 20 doughnuts a day rumors.

AP: Is there sexism at play? When Robert De Niro gained weight for “Raging Bull,” people praised him for his devotion. In your case they’re saying ...?

Zellweger: Does she look good? Does she look better Bridget-y or better bony? You know? It’s crazy. I don’t know if that’s sexist. To me, it’s just boring. It’s interesting to me that it’s perceived as some sort of sacrifice that you’re making. It’s not a sacrifice to get to play Bridget Jones. That’s part of the reward, to get to go through that transformation. The more extreme the transformation, the more creatively satisfying the experience is. The easier it is to believe her experience yourself as you bring it to life.

AP: You showed up the doubters who questioned whether you could pull off a believable British accent for “Bridget Jones’s Diary” or handle the singing and dancing in “Chicago.” Do you feel people have underestimated you?

Zellweger: I really don’t think about it. Most everything that isn’t really significant in your life personally and professionally disappears. There is no time to worry about people’s perceptions of things. I don’t have time to sit down and say, ‘Wait, I wonder if I’m being underestimated.’ I’m just blissfully unaware of that. I like it that way.