Renee Zellweger – 20 years ago when she was top the world

  June 2003 By Philip Berk

Renee Zellweger is a strange amalgam of insecurities.

While making two of her earlier films, she became romantically involved with her creative partners.

She was engaged to be married to her director on The Whole Wide World, Josh Pate, and when she made Me Myself and Irene, she seriously considered becoming Mrs. Jim Carrey. 

But since then she’s devoted herself to her work and her dog.

She almost didn’t do Bridget Jones because of British travel restrictions.

Careerwise, she has gone from triumph to triumph coming close to winning an Oscar last year for Chicago and likely to repeat this year for Cold Mountain. 

Her latest however, Down by Love, is no triumph.

Despite having Ewan McGregor as her costar and the producers of American Beauty at the helm, the film falls flat. What was intended to be a send-up of a Doris Day-Rock Hudson comedy from the 50’s, becomes an embarrassment lacking the innocence and charm of those early comedies.

Some critics have found merit in it, but audiences have stayed away.

Renee, at her press conference, absolutely loves the movie.

And I believe her.

But how good a judge of her work is she?

I remember her arriving for her press conference for Chicago in a state of abject fear. Only after I told her her performance as Roxie was not only astonishing but the best in the film, did she regain her composure; she looked into my eyes for reassurance and then she hugged me gratefully.

Her insecurity manifests itself in her legendary generosity.

When her cold Mountain costar Nicole Kidman beat her out for the Oscar this year, she was the first to applaud and give her a hug, and that was no act.

Alison Lohman (they played foster mother and daughter in White Oleander) couldn’t say enough nice things about her.

“Renee is the most giving person. She’s always thinking of everyone else. I loved working with her.” 

So at her press conference in New York for Down By Love, I can’t help asking her if she’s in danger of becoming overwhelmed by her generosity.

Like Ado Annie in Oklahoma, she seems to be a girl who can’t say no.

“It’s funny that you touch on that because it’s something I’m learning about, how not to exhaust myself by feeling obligated to anyone who asks for something. In the past when I’ve been approached by people I’ve never met before, I somehow believed that I should help them. If it mattered enough that they would ask you for help or money or a kind word, even an ear, then why not?  Kindness is worth a lot. But when you meet a hundred people a day, people you’ve never seen before  who don’t know you and who need your time, it starts to spill over into the time you need for people who count on you, your friends, even your mother, who’s going to have less time with you because you’ve spent time talking to people at the bus stop. So I’ve learned to distinguish between the two. I’m not good at walking away from these situations, but I’m getting better. I don’t want to change who I am, but it’s something I have to negotiate.”

The first time I met her, I asked about Josh Pate. She wouldn’t talk about him.

With Jim Carrey, she was a little more forthcoming until she ended that highly publicized romance abruptly.

But that was three years ago.

Her name was has been romantically linked with George Clooney but she sees him as a friend.

Last year I asked her if was she looking for love?

“I don’t know where I am right now in terms of love because I don’t really meet anybody. I meet stewards on planes.”

What had she learned about love?

“Each time out of the gate we learn a little bit more. But I think we learn more about ourselves, who we are, what we’re willing to sacrifice and what we’re not. We learn what it is we need, what we hope for. But at the end of the day, what it’s all about is heart.”

So is she ready to sacrifice?

“If you’ve made that choice in life, and you’ve married the man you love most in your life, who’s also your best friend in the world, and you have a wonderful family, obviously you are very successful in that respect. But there might be a lot you’ve missed out on. It’s not about making sacrifices. It’s about deciding what’s important to you, nurturing those sides of yourself that you value. It’s not about choosing blue and wishing you had chosen red when you’re ninety. It’s about knowing you like blue and you’re nurturing that. Right now I’ve picked my color, and it’s a good one.”

Does that mean she won’t be able to have both a career and a marriage?

“Not at all, but if it’s important that you want both then you have to make compromises.”

But would she be willing to make those compromises?

“I would. But right now my life has been so busy, I don’t want to make those compromises. There was a time when I had room for that. But in recent years it wasn’t  right for me to rush into a relationship. I had to think about it, process it, relearn about who I was, what my values were, what I was looking for in life.”

And then as if referring to her eighteen-month relationship with Jim Carrey, she adds, “I needed to do a little healing after my life changed so dramatically, sort out what I had learned from that experience, go out fresh, without feeling cynical or projecting old experiences on new ones. So I was happy to be busy. But  now I’m really open to meeting somebody to share my life with. I truly believe in love. It’s there some place. I know it. He’s born, I know that much.”

In Down by Love, her character accepts the idea of sex with and without love. When asked if she agrees with that, she blushes.

“A very inappropriate question,” she replies. “I’m very old fashioned, very, very, very old fashioned. If you called to ask me out, don’t have high hopes.”

Her character is also willing to undertake a huge deception to get her man.

How far would she go for love?

“Depends on the guy. I am not really good at compromising myself for any reason. I’ve learned a couple of things from my few (past) experiences, and I am not willing to compromise for love. That ain’t gonna happen. Life’s too short. Love may be wonderful, but not at the expense of all other wonderful things.”

Does she have male friends?

“I do have a lot of male friends, although I only have a few really close friends, men and women.”

She’s in her mid thirties and still not married. Does that worry her?

“Not in the least. I never grew up thinking I can’t wait to meet the guy who’s going to give me a great life. I dreamed of a life of learning and adventure. I wanted to meet new people, embrace new themes, new opportunities. I wanted to be creative. I didn’t dream about what my wedding would be like. I don’t conjure those images in my head. It would be great to share those with somebody, but it’s not an overwhelming need.”

Then suddenly she adds, “While filing White Oleander playing a character in an abusive relationship, I asked myself, ‘Why doesn’t she leave or something?’ It’s pretty great being on your own. I have people who understand me, who give me unconditional support in my professional life. People who have integrity and don’t lie to me. I have someone who will share my birthday with me, who will not forget me at Christmas time. I have people who will sit with me if I should get sick, people who know exactly how I want to be buried. I have a dog that I’ve had for fourteen years, I have a cat that sits on my chest when I’m reading my scripts and purrs. It’s a great life. If you told me in the second grade in Bay Town Texas I was going to be sitting here talking to you, I wouldn’t have believed you.”

Her last line in Chicago was, “I hate you, but we’re in the perfect business for that.” 

Has she ever worked with someone she truly hated?

“Oooh that’s a strong word, isn’t it. I don’t carry a lot of hate for anybody really.  For about a day I hated this girl who took my dog and lost her. I hated her for just that day, but I save that emotion for something that I haven’t experienced in my life yet, and I’m grateful for that. And I must say retribution is not high on my list either. I’ve never been wronged in such a way that I’ve wanted to see things set straight.”

Isn’t there anybody she envies?

“If I see something that someone can do that I can’t, I don’t feel envy. I derive inspiration from that.”

Is she still dating George Clooney?

“No I am not,” she jokingly replies. “I know it’s a terrible thing for all of us who aren’t dating George Clooney. But he’s a person that I love very much. We’ve been friends for a very long time. He’s a good man, and if you got to know him you would know why. He’s a cute friend, he’s a smart friend, and I’m keeping him.”

But not as a lover.

Her heart belongs to her dog who wasn’t allowed to accompany her to England where she made Bridget Jones’s Diary.

Now that the laws have been relaxed, she must be looking forward to making the sequel?

She stops me in my tracks.

“The funny thing is my old, retired dog could care less at this point about leaving the living room. It’s horrifying to me that they’ve loosened the laws so that now she can go anywhere she likes with me, and suddenly she doesn’t even want to go to the bank. She doesn’t want to get in the car anymore. We go out in the driveway and she’s like, ‘Just bring me a cheeseburger.’ She really is not interested in travel. It’s her old age. We’re just very busy enjoying her golden years, and she doesn’t want to travel anymore, ever since Toronto where we filmed Chicago. That was where she just started to slow down a bit.”

The Bridget Jones sequel, The Edge of Reason, starts shooting in September. Beeban Kidron has signed on as director and Hugh Grant and Colin Firth will reprise their roles.

Is she looking forward to it?

“I’m very covetous of that character. That experience meant a lot to me from the moment I picked up the book and brought it home. And everything that’s happened as a result of it. So it had to be special, and it had to be done with the same kind of soul as the first one. We wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t absolutely right.”

Is she prepared to gain weight again?

“When that question came out in one of the British papers, it kind of upset me because it’s a dumb and shallow thing to say. That’s not how I approach my work. If you love a project, it shouldn’t be a big deal to turn yourself into her. In fact that’s part of the joy of it. Anyone who knows me knows I am not going to do a sequel unless it’s right and unless we have the time to make it right,  inclusive of who she needs to be, even if it takes six months to make her look the way she’s supposed to look.”

Is this a good time in her life?

“How could it be otherwise? I’m never bored, that’s for sure, and I’m learning a lot. It’s a busy life, and it’s a rich life beyond my ability to explain it. “ 

Could she be referring to the $15 million she’s getting for the sequel? 

Plus a percentage of the gross!

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