It has been six years since Renee Zellweger appeared on a big screen, and twice as long since she has channelled Bridget Jones, the British heroine who made charming sport of cataloging her romantic foibles.
The gap was by design: Zellweger, 47, an Oscar nominee for the first Bridget movie and a winner in 2004 for Cold Mountain, stepped away from the Hollywood “cycle,” as she called it, to take stock of her life. “I had a lot of promises that I made to myself, years ago, about things that I wanted to learn and try,” she said.
She travelled, studied screenwriting and helped create a TV pilot about female musicians in 1960s and ‘70s Los Angeles. No networks have bitten so far, she said. Still, it seems to have re-energised her to perform. She returns in the third Bridget installment, Bridget Jones’s Baby.
But sightings of Zellweger over the last few years also stirred up intense scrutiny of her appearance, including stunned reactions to her seemingly changed look on a red carpet in 2014. Zellweger eventually responded, in an essay 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.”
In person, Zellweger was soft-spoken and thoughtful, if reticent about discussing some of the latest turns in her career. But she remains dedicated to the work. These are edited excerpts from the conversation:
Did stepping into Bridget’s shoes again feel familiar, or like a challenge because so much time has passed?
Both. Familiar because the process is similar, and I feel like I know her well, and a different kind of challenge because I’ve never had to show the ways in which a person evolves in her life and the ways in which she doesn’t. That’s my favourite stuff, by the way — that she just can’t help herself sometimes. She puts her foot in it, right? I love that she hasn’t refined her social graces; I love that she still goes for it — even if she’s uncertain what the outcome might be. I love that she’s hopelessly romantic and optimistic.
There were interesting conversations with Sharon Maguire, the director, about how (Bridget) might have gotten her life together — she’s a little bit more mature, she’s progressed professionally, and has achieved her ideal weight. And still her life is a relative mess. I like the message in that: that we can tick off the boxes, and yet we still don’t quite have it together.
When did you realise that you wanted out of the Hollywood circuit?
I don’t think anybody is born with the faculties to know how to navigate what comes with it. One of the things that I learned is that I didn’t know how to establish a healthy balance. I felt an obligation to say yes whenever I was asked to do something on behalf of my work. And the years go by, and your family and friends understand that you have responsibilities, but they’re going to have the barbecue anyway, and the wedding anyway, and the baby’s having a birthday anyway. I just missed out on a lot of things. I needed to stop so I could reassess and figure out how to allow for myself in my own life.
A male critic for Variety wrote a review of the trailer for Bridget Jones’s Baby, in which he talked about your looks in a way that many people felt was sexist, and they didn’t hesitate to call him out for it. Did that response feel helpful or empowering?
I’m grateful for that experience and that he chose to do what he did, because it brought me to a place where it was necessary that I stand up for myself. Which is not me. It’s not in my nature to publicly explain myself. And it was probably time.