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A Part With Meat on Its Bones

A twangy Texan playing British Bridget Jones? Renee Zellweger was just as surprised as everyone else when she got the job.

April 08, 2001|HUGH HART | Hugh Hart is a regular contributor to Calendar

"Beans for breakfast. Beans and toast. It's rainy and cold, and that's what you feel like: beans and toast." That's Renee Zellweger, describing her diet while filming "Bridget Jones's Diary" in England last year. All that toast, along with croissants and cheesecake and buttered biscuits at tea time, added 17 pounds to Zellweger's usually slight frame. "You know that food coma you go into at Thanksgiving? Seven months!" exclaims Zellweger, with the slightest wisp of a Texas twang. Zellweger gained the weight on behalf of Bridget Jones, the pudgy, fashion-backward, occasionally self-loathing "singleton" at the center of Helen Fielding's best-selling 1996 novel, "Bridget Jones's Diary."

"Bridget Jones's Diary," the movie, opens Friday, with Zellweger in the title role opposite Hugh Grant as a dashing scoundrel and Colin Firth as priggish barrister Mark Darcy, modeled directly on the character he played in the BBC's production of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice."

Curled up in the corner booth of a West Hollywood diner, Zellweger is zaftig no more. She orders scrambled egg whites and spinach, an enormous cup of soy latte and a double order of biscuits. Dressed in a no-frills ensemble-black V-neck top, blue jeans, black boots, no jewelry-Zellweger appears lean as a string bean.

In a town that rarely forgives a single centimeter of cellulite, Zellweger's willingness to bare some bulges on screen qualifies as a daring career move. One moviegoer at a preview screening gasped with appreciation, "She has thighs!" Hollywood fashionistas may not be so kind. But Zellweger says Bridget lite would be no Bridget at all. "If I hadn't tried to match the image that was in my head, it would have been not believable. Playing Bridget isn't about perception or what somebody might think, except that this book was really important to a lot of women for a lot of reasons, myself included. To turn Bridget into something that she's not would not only be a disservice to the people involved in the film, but it wouldn't be honest."

Getting chubby was simply one part of her preparation, Zellweger says. "Bridget lives in England, she speaks differently than me, she works at this place, her hair is cut probably like this, she dresses probably like that, and she probably needs to not look like she goes to the gym every day because she doesn't. Bridget eats a lot of Cadbury Milk Tray, and she drinks a lot of chardonnay and likes to chill out, and that's all. It was no different from the accent part or the learning the lines part and the showing up on time part. It's just another element of the job that's not usually there; usually it's stay away from the craft service table," she says, laughing. Besides, Zellweger adds, "Bridget is not a woman with a weight problem. She's a woman with a self-image problem."

In "Diary," Zellweger may just do for women with a "self-image problem" what she's previously done for single moms ('Jerry Maguire'), lonely Texas schoolmarms ('The Whole Wide World') or deranged soap opera fans ('Nurse Betty'). Millions of Americans will doubtless be heartened to see an A-list, Golden Globe-winning actress such as Zellweger squeezing herself into girdle-like garments known in England as Granny Pants, toddling around a tea party packed into a bunny outfit and lurching out of the bathroom with tissue paper stuck to her thighs after a torturous waxing session. It's a vanity-free performance.

Zellweger's weight varied slightly during the course of the four-month shoot, but for the sake of continuity, she made sure some features remained consistent. "I kept the chubby cheeks and other things ..." she pauses, "... the va-va-voom!" Zellweger laughs, emphasizing her bust.

Brushing a biscuit crumb from her nose, she says she never dared imagine herself as Bridget. Not when she read the book, which she deemed fantastic. Not when she learned the book would be made into a movie. Not even when her manager called after she'd returned to Los Angeles from filming "Me, Myself & Irene." 'He says, 'Did you ever hear of a book called "Bridget Jones's Diary'?' I thought he was going to ask if he should read it or something-I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'Is that something you'd ever possibly be interested in being part of?' And I'm thinking, 'In what capacity?' Well, yeah, is the answer. 'They'd like to meet with you.' And I thought, 'OK, meet with me.' It's still not registering. He says, 'Yeah, they'd like to talk to you about playing Bridget.' " Zellweger pauses. "Next plane to London."

"It didn't even occur to me to think, 'Hey wouldn't [playing Bridget] be fun?' I figured, it's an English project, it's an English woman's voice, it's going to be made in England and some phenomenally talented English actress is going to play the part, and that was fine."

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