Keeping up with the Jones

Michele Manelis | MiNDFOOD – October 2016


Blonde beauty Renée Zellweger returns with a new instalment of the beloved Bridget Jones franchise and talks exclusively to MiNDFOOD about image pressures, the public scrutiny of women in Hollywood and how she chooses to handle it all.

Considering the “international outrage” over Renée Zellweger’s presumed plastic surgery when she appeared at the Elle Women in Hollywood Awards in 2014 – not to mention the deafening internet chatter that followed – I wasn’t sure what to expect when meeting her at the Universal lot in Los Angeles recently. It was almost disappointing that, on closer inspection, the 47-year-old actor looked only marginally different from the last time we met in 2009, when she was promoting My One and Only. At a rough guess, it seems she has committed the worst of Hollywood sins: she has aged a little. Perhaps she has undergone some minor procedures, but these days it’s extremely rare to find a Hollywood star, man or woman, who has not modified their appearance in some way.

In response to the power of social media, Zellweger says, “It makes the line between the truth and speculation very ambiguous. It diminishes women and perpetuates negative stereotypes and false information – that’s the bigger problem. Not whether an actress has her feelings hurt or gets slagged off. People say: ‘Oh, she shouldn’t have married him’, ‘She shouldn’t date that guy’, ‘She’s stupid’, ‘Why is she so skinny?’, ‘Why did she cut her hair?’ There’s a bigger consequence of that.”

Entirely fed up with the subject, Zellweger wrote an essay, “We Can Do Better”, published by Huffington Post. In her piece, she noted, “It’s no secret a woman’s worth has historically been measured by her appearance.” Her words echo Jennifer Aniston’s article published a month earlier about the objectification of women, a disheartening reality these two powerful women boldly address despite our living in a so-called post-feminist society.

Like Aniston, Zellweger is well versed on the subject of public scrutiny. She has been “accused” of having anorexia and/or insecurity, working too much/not working enough, and the age-old debate on any given day as to whether she was sporting a baby bump or had eaten a lot of pasta for lunch.

Her romantic adventures have also been well documented, including a four-month marriage to country singer Kenny Chesney in 2005 (annulled when Zellweger cited fraud) and a relationship with Jim Carrey, to whom she was engaged from 1999 to 2000. She was romantically linked to Jack White of The White Stripes, then, in 2009, met Bradley cooper on the set of Case 39 and proceeded to date him until 2011. She was rumoured to have had a relationship with George Clooney, but it was never confirmed by either party. Never one to address her romantic life in public, Zellweger won’t discuss her current relationship with musician Doyle Bramhall II, who previously dated Sheryl Crow and is the father of two young daughters from his marriage to musician Susannah Melvoin. She has reportedly said she has never been happier, in part, presumably, thanks to Bramhall.

What is not in dispute is that Zellweger actively chose to remove herself from the spotlight a few years ago and relocated to a farmhouse in rural Connecticut, having repeatedly said in previous years that she had no permanent residence. Her self-imposed hiatus from Hollywood eventually saw her return to California, to a sprawling estate in Santa Barbara that she shares with Bramhall. Zellweger doesn’t talk in specifics about what she did during that time away, but says, “I learned a lot in the last few years. I can’t say exactly what and I wish I could tell you but I can’t for two reasons: one of them is personal and another of them I am working on, and I would rather not talk about something that might or might not happen. But I can tell you this – I did not retire and go somewhere on a beach or anything like that. I was exploring another skill set that I wanted to develop and wanted to see if I had an aptitude for, so I developed and created a TV show and filmed it.”


OFF SCREEN


The drama series, Cinnamon Girl, was about the music business in the 1960s and 1970s. Although the project wasn’t picked up by a network, Zellweger remains resolutely positive about her experience behind-the-scenes. “The impetus was to see if I could do it. It was something I’ve wanted to do since I was in college. That was the triumph. I’m not disappointed. I knew I was onto something because the template for it is successful in so many other shows.” She laughs. “That is exciting to know.” Again, she doesn’t name specifics but is likely referring to the music-themed drama series Vinyl, and Baz Luhrmann’s new TV offering, The Get Down.

“During this time I also went to school, and I lived life.” She pauses and smiles, her relief quite palpable. “I kept some promises that I made to myself a long time ago.” Now, she’s back in front of the cameras, reprising her role as the world’s favourite hapless British heroine, Bridget Jones, in the third instalment of the famous franchise. What, then, prompted her to return?

“It was time. I was ready and I missed it. Acting is a creative medium that means something to me that is inexplicable. I definitely felt a longing for it and when I heard about the new Bridget Jones movie I got excited about the prospect.” As though channelling Jones herself, Zellweger abruptly stops midway. Her head tilts to the side and she says with a concerned frown, “What have you been doing for the last six years?” I offer a brief summation before we get back to the subject at hand.


Fiercely intelligent, Zellweger emits a nervous energy. Softly spoken, her words pour out in fits and starts. Her body language is animated and her hands are in constant motion. As if reading my mind, she looks down at her designer outfit and says, “I love this Burberry dress. It has little pockets so when you don’t know what to do with your hands, you can put them in here. I love that.” Her dress is complemented by full make-up while her hair is styled in perfect beach waves. She crosses and uncrosses her feet, which are clad in simple sandals.

Zellweger is particularly enthusiastic when talking about what she relates to in Jones. “Mostly her failures and especially her awkwardness,” she laughs. “I also relate to the fact she gets back up and no matter how much she tries to meet her own personal ideals or standards, she always comes full circle to be okay with whatever it is that she is. She’s an authentic person and I find that inspiring.”

BRIDGET’S MEN

Fifteen years after the original film, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Colin Firth also returns as Mark Darcy. This time he has a new nemesis to tackle, played by Patrick Dempsey (best known as McDreamy in Grey’s Anatomy). In keeping with the love triangle dynamic of past films, Dempsey replaces Hugh Grant’s womanising character, Daniel Cleaver, who is no longer part of the franchise.

Although there is no on-screen reunion between Grant and Zellweger, they were happily chatting at the recent Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s Grants Banquet and the pair obviously share a genuine fondness for each other.

Having interviewed Grant a few weeks earlier, I asked him why he chose not to return to the world of Bridget Jones. “That is a very long story,” he sighed. After a little prodding, he relents. “They had a very good set-up, in that she’s pregnant and doesn’t know whose kid it is. I thought: ‘Brilliant!’ But then I felt the second half of the script didn’t work for Daniel. We tried and tried but in the end I said: ‘I can’t. It just doesn’t work for me.’ So they did it in a completely different way.” In fact, many different finales were filmed. Zellweger says, “They shot ambiguous endings and the script was not even printed, so no one knew for sure how it would end.”

Firth, who took a break from shooting Kingsman: The Golden Circle (sequel to the 2015 hit) in London, flew into LA to help promote the film. He talked about his trepidations. “The first film was released in 2001. We all know how the world changed then, so doing it again, so many years later, made me wonder if we were trying to do something that actually belonged to another decade altogether.”

When we meet, Firth is elegantly dressed as always. His appearance suggests he might have just walked off the set of A Single Man (2009), directed by designer Tom Ford. “One of the things that took me by surprise was how much goodwill there was towards the idea of another Bridget Jones movie. That was one of the things I doubted. I wondered if people were going to roll their eyes, if I was going to run into the scepticism that people have about sequels, and the cynicism. ‘Oh, you’re doing another one? It’s exploiting itself. Here we go again, why are you doing it now?’ I thought ‘Is that what we’re going to be met with? Are we just trying it on here?’ But to my very great surprise, I kept hearing expressions of not just goodwill but positive excitement, almost a hunger for it.”

Firth shakes his head in disbelief. “I can’t really deconstruct that but it was obviously to do with affection for what they remembered. And probably in some ways, maybe helped by the passage of time. I think if we just tried to squeeze another one out immediately, it would’ve looked like a factory.”

He smiles genuinely when asked about “Bridget”. “It was lovely to work with Renée again. We’ve kept in touch although we haven’t seen a great deal of each other, but I was delighted to be around her again. She brings such an energy into a room – that relentless cheerfulness.”


A FAN FAVOURITE


Bridget Jones marks one of the few successful franchises centred on a female protagonist. “Yes. I am happy about that,” nods Zellweger. “We have a female writer, female director, female producer and a female-centric film. It makes me smile that people have been responding to it so positively because I think there is a message in that – these stories are valuable, women do want to see stories about themselves on screen. Hopefully that is something that the powers that be and the tastemakers will recognise, and not challenge so much with the question of whether or not it is valuable. Perhaps they’ll just recognise: ‘Yeah it is.’” It’s a positive message that Bridget Jones, now in her 40s, has two successful men in love with her rather than the usual storyline in which the woman is 20 years their junior. Zellweger says, “It never occurred to me where Bridget fits in with that conversation. It never occurred to me she might not be desirable, or vibrant or would not look her best.”

Born in Katy, Texas, Zellweger’s engineer father was born in Switzerland, and her mother, a nurse and midwife, was born in Norway. She and brother Drew grew up in a family she has described as “lazy Catholic and Episcopalian”.

Zellweger was a good student and graduated with a BA from the University of Texas. During her college years, her father lost his job and she took on a waitressing position in Austin to help the family. She then took an interest in acting and landed national TV commercials. She secured her first substantial role in horror sequel Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994), and befriended fledgling Hollywood star Matthew McConaughey.


HOLLYWOOD SUCCESS


Her breakthrough role came two years later as the quintessential girl next door in Tom Cruise vehicle Jerry Maguire, which saw her deliver a line of dialogue with which she remains associated to this day: “You complete me.” She went on to star in Nurse Betty (2000), for which she won her first Golden Globe Award for Best Actress. In 2001, she received her first Academy Award nomination for Bridget Jones’s Diary, and another in 2002 for her role in Chicago, finally taking home the Oscar in 2003 for Best supporting Actress in Cold Mountain. Her other films include Cinderella Man (2005), Leatherheads (2008) and New in Town (2009).

In 2007, Forbes magazine placed her among Hollywood’s highest-paid female actors, alongside Sandra Bullock and Julia Roberts earning between US$10-15 million per movie. She has lent her name to various charities, including a 2005 HIV prevention campaign by the Swiss federal health department. She is a patron for gender equality foundation The GREAT Initiative, with whom she visited Liberia, describing it as “a humbling experience”. In 2011 she collaborated with Tommy Hilfiger to design a handbag to raise money for Breast Health International.

Now back in Hollywood and set to tread the red carpet for the Bridget Jones’s Baby premiere, she says, “The night is about celebrating something you shared with friends, so from a human perspective you’re meeting up again at this festive occasion. That’s a fun aspect. Where else are you going to wear a dress like that, or jewellery like that? So I do look forward to it.”

She pauses. “But there is another element that I try to steer clear of, which is the commodification of the actor in terms of scrutiny that revolves around diminishing the person. That part is not fun. I only get smatterings of it because I don’t focus in on it. I don’t look for it and I do my very best to pretend it’s not there.”

Looking back on her extensive litany of achievements, I ask what she is most proud of. She thinks for a few minutes and says, thoughtfully, “Actually, I don’t know. Maybe I’m not there yet.”