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MOVIES

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

"Bridget" director Sharon Maguire says that by the time she met with Zellweger last March, Kate Winslet, Helena Bonham Carter and Cate Blanchett had already been involved in discussions about the role. A former BBC producer, Maguire is a longtime friend of Fielding and the real-life model for Bridget's wine-swilling, salty-tongued feminist gal pal Shazzer. Maguire and Zellweger bonded almost immediately, especially after the actress clued her in on some ribald Texanisms.

"Renee was completely charming but miles apart from the specifics of Bridget Jones. And she said to me, "If we don't get the accent right, the pair of us-you as the first-time director, me as a Texan-we're going to be so busted. Renee had none of that typical movie-star vanity, which I thought was kind of crucial, and yet there was this incredible vulnerability, especially when we talked about when you've been sort of spotty and a bit overweight, how it reduces your self-esteem and how shallow that is, and how we're all supposed to be feminists and don't care about things like this, about male approval, but we do-and she understood all the ironies about all the stuff involved."

Maguire also was reminded of Shirley MacLaine's Miss Kubilek character in "The Apartment." "I saw in Renee a gift few people have, that she was able to straddle comedy and emotion. You think of Miss Kubilek, and Jack Lemmon's character in "The Apartment'-they're so lonely, such losers, yet they're also funny as well. I don't know if we've achieved it, but we sort of had similar aspirations."

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Zellweger got the green light from Maguire, producer Jonathan Cavendish and Working Title chiefs Eric Fellner and Tim Bevan, who had produced "Notting Hill" and "Four Weddings and a Funeral." She returned to Los Angeles with Barbara Berkery, Gwyneth Paltrow's dialect coach for "Shakespeare in Love," and for two weeks Zellweger practiced her accent-in-progress at all her usual L.A. haunts.

"It was embarrassing," Zellweger says, motioning around the diner. "All these people who I see all the time, and now I'm sitting here ordering huevos rancheros as if I came from Hampshire."

Then Zellweger packed her bags and moved to London. For three months she methodically put on the pounds, took a cram course in British culture from Berkery and worked, incognito, at Picador, the publishing company where Fielding had been employed while she wrote "Diary."

Then came the table read, when the cast met for the first time to go through the script and check out Zellweger's command of the mother tongue. Firth says, "At an English read-through, the glasses go on, cigarettes come out, pens get chewed on, people are definitely scared, and there's always something slightly disingenuous where they say, "Don't worry everybody, this is not a performance, no one's going to judge anything, it's just a gentle read-through." And then afterwards they come up to you and go," Firth suddenly whispers conspiratorially, "You were great, although I'm bit worried about so and so; I thought they really sucked.

"Yeah, of course they're judging you, which just makes it terrifying."

Even more nerve-racking was the fact that Zellweger was a longtime fan of Grant's, dating to her college days when she lived above an art film theater in Austin and saw his early indie flicks.

At the reading, she came, she read, she passed. Grant remembers, "I was staggeringly impressed, to be absolutely honest, it was so brave of her anyway to take this on, because even if you're a genius actor, accent-wise, crossing the Atlantic is notoriously difficult. I think there were some early rehearsals where there was a touch of Princess Margaret-she'd gone a little bit posh-and then there was a very brief phase where Renee sounded slightly like she'd had a stroke-a little bit slurred. And then she absolutely nailed it. I mean, I knew she could act it, just a question of whether she was going to nail the voice, and she definitely did. There were some journalists in England who've been a bit sniffy about an American being cast, and now that they've seen previews, they're saying, "We were wrong."'

Zellweger's performance even pleased Fielding. The author, who adapted "Diary" with "Notting Hill" and "Four Weddings" writer Richard Curtis, says, "What's great is, I think people are going to relate to her as a normal person and not as a heroine who's stick-thin, does everything right and doesn't always look perfect. Renee was very game to allow her bottom to be filmed in all its glory," Fielding says, laughing. "And you know, lots of guys have said to me that she looks gorgeous in the movie, and that's a fantastic thing, that it's OK to be a normal shape, and you are gorgeous as a normal shape."

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