The Iconic, Enigmatic Renée Zellweger
We all know the obvious things about Renée Zellweger: that she’s been one of the world’s most vibrant actresses for 26 years; that she is, famously, from Texas; that she loves a baseball cap and a fitted strapless evening gown in equal measure. But what you really need to know is that this lady has all the beauty tricks. I first met Zellweger in 2007, and to this day I still use a Bobbi Brown eyebrow pencil she recommended for blondes. A dozen years later we are sitting at dinner at the Sunset Tower Hotel in L.A., and she is spraying me liberally with Skin Up beauty mist, a hyaluronic-acid concoction that, for a glorious moment, makes you feel newly born. "Here it comes!" she says, hooting. "Ready?"
Zellweger is highly contained, courteous, and modest to a fault, but her hidden bag of tricks is an apt analogy for her talent. A typical exchange with her (in this case, about 2001’s Bridget Jones’s Diary) will go like this: Me: "You had complete ownership of every part of that movie, and I think many of our memories of women having real command on the screen are from that."
And that’s that. Zellweger doesn’t waste time with prattle, channeling her distinct energies onto the screen. By now we’ve read the rave reviews of her performance as Judy Garland during her later years in the biopic Judy, but you must see it to believe it. Zellweger physicalizes Garland in such an extraordinary way, she almost vibrates. Her works speaks for itself. That said, she’ll eat some fries and explain it.
VIDEO: Renée Zellweger Looking Back
LAURA BROWN: You are a performer in your bones, and we can feel it. In one of the scenes in Judy, you were walking down a hall visibly hunched over. How did you go about that?
RENÉE ZELLWEGER: I describe it as a shared series of experiments with the different film departments. We were just trying things, and so walking down that hall was just an ongoing conversation about the varying degrees of severity. How she gets from the bathroom to the stage, and making decisions about what to show when, and making sure there is continuity. There were multiple collaborations happening within my body at once. [laughs]
LB: How much does a performance like the one in Judy take out of you?
RZ: I was tired and skinny when we finished this. The schedule is pretty punishing, but it's finite. You know that after this series of months, you can catch up a little. But, yeah, this one was big. It was big because I was greedy. I didn't want to stop. I wanted to keep digging.
LB: Is there another role or person you're greedy for?
RZ: Yes, but it may take a little bit of audacity to get it moving. We'll see.
LB: What's the most audacious thing you've done?
RZ: I moved to L.A. when I was 24. [laughs] I drove here. It was 1993, after the riots, and I only knew about three people. I remember being really struck by the massive billboards everywhere.
LB: What did you do for your birthday in April? [Zellweger turned 50.]
RZ: I imported. I had my family here for the birthday, and we danced all night and ate too much. It was good.
LB: Do you ever think about how time has passed? It's such a strange thing being a grown-up.
RZ: It doesn't consume me because it's inevitable. It's a privilege. And, I don't know, I'd rather celebrate each phase of my life and be present in it than mourn something that's passed. I don't want to miss this moment to be something that I used to be. That's for someone else now. And good luck to them, because you have to survive a lot to move forward to your next state. I'm not saying I'm canceling my gym membership anytime soon, because I'm not. [laughs] I'd rather be a healthy, productive woman in each stage of my life than apologetic. I also don't want to perpetuate the notion that somehow moving forward in your life is wrong.
RZ: I had this really fun conversation with Maria Shriver when we were both on the Today show [in September]. They were doing this segment on older women and were speaking with Rita Wilson about the value of older women. So, we were having this conversation about how you change the misconceptions about the experience of aging. How do we change how people value older women? And I thought, "Well, I guess it starts with us. With women determining and expressing what we value in ourselves." That means what we champion with our choices and how we present ourselves.
LB: But wouldn't it be great to get to the point where it's just not even a conversation?
RZ: Well, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. [laughs]
LB: When it's "This girl is 15, and this lady is 65," and they're both just... alive.
RZ: It's not aging. It's growing! It's acquisition of the most valuable things: experience and knowledge and grace and insight.
LB: There's a cliché that actors are "emotional" and "crazy," but I think they are very tough because they face judgment all the time. How have you steeled yourself over the years?
RZ: Different hardships that are unexpected can sort of assist you moving forward. With this job, it's peculiar because you're not born with the faculties to know how to handle the things that come your way. I found that shifting your perspective is really important. I don't internalize things, and I don't personalize things, and I don't engage. I spend a lot of time focusing on the work itself, not the consequences of the work or people's perceptions of it.
LB: Have you always been like that?
RZ: Well, no. But I learned pretty early on. I was devastated about a breakup, and it was plastered all over the tabloids. None of it true, all of it humiliating. Never mind that living the experience [of the relationship] was plenty. [laughs]
LB: Go on.
RZ: I was at a supermarket with my brother. And he saw some of those magazines, and, unbeknownst to me, he bought them. He opened one while I'm driving down Sunset Boulevard, and I looked over, and his shoulders were shaking. I was trying to figure out what was going on. I was like, "Is he crying?" He was in tears; he was laughing so hard, he could barely breathe. Then he started to read it.
LB: Just like that?
RZ: Yes, he's the bigger performer of the two of us, for sure. He's reading my quotes from this supposed interview I had done. Things I supposedly said about this personal relationship that I have never talked about and never will. And he was reading them in a voice that he imagined this fictional person to be. And then we were both laughing, because of the tone of voice and the delivery of these lines. Whoever wrote the piece had done so late at night while watching television and eating, you know? And I get it! When you go to New York or wherever and you've got to pay the bills and someone tells you, "You're going to write about this. It doesn't have to be true! Just make sure it's not actionable." [laughs]
LB: Words to live by.
RZ: My brother taught me that this is what it is. This is not a proper representation of you and how you live your life. The choices you make, this is not. It is entertainment, and it's funny if you look at it in the right way.
LB: When that first happened to you, how did you handle it?
RZ: Well, it's interesting because I've watched some of my friends who have gone through it, and it's a metamorphosis. You wouldn't choose it, and you have to resign yourself to certain things that aren't natural, and to the fact that you will not necessarily determine how you will be remembered in the world. That what someone chooses to put out there about you has nothing to do with the truth of your life [or what that means for] your grandchildren when they are asking about who you are. That kind of thing. There's that, and then there's getting through the day if you're being hunted or whatever it might be. Learn what you never expected and find your way around it. That's a good motto for [dealing with] it.
LB: A few years before Judy, you took time off. Do you feel rebooted in some way?
RZ: Well, I mean, it was nice to have authentic exchanges with people for a while. When you're not on the radar, people don't clock who you are; you're just a person at the coffee shop ordering a coffee. You have conversations that aren't about work. And when someone is having a bad day, it doesn't change. They just have a bad day with you, and it's a funny thing to appreciate, but I do. [laughs] It's nice. It's real and not edited. We meet as human beings.
LB: Did you know how you wanted to spend that time? Are you a planner?
RZ: Ah, no. I just knew that there were certain things I needed to prioritize and if I kept going, there would be just no way I could do it.
LB: What did you prioritize?
RZ: Slowing down and working on building a life for myself. Trying to not have a relationship when I'm leaving town every two weeks. You know, getting to know somebody. Falling in love. [I wanted] to learn new things, so I worked in a different capacity in this business. Tried to create some things, produce some things, studied a little bit. I studied public policy, international law. And I traveled a lot. I went to Liberia. I spent a lot of time with my family on the East Coast.
LB: What does ambition mean to you? And it could be for anything.
RZ: I'm curious. I'm not eager for acquisition. I don't have a fantasy about arriving somewhere. I challenge myself to grow with the experiences I take on. I want to do better.
LB: When did you first feel you made a decision that you were proud of? It could be professionally, but it doesn't have to be.
RZ: I think I felt like I had it together at 24. I look back and go, "Wow." I had to recognize that that was naïveté.
LB: Fast-forward a few years to 2001, when you were doing the first Bridget Jones film. You were obviously very established in your career. That era has been so key to the subsequent Time's Up and #MeToo conversation. You weren't at the epicenter of it but around it. What's it like to have the perspective of seeing it all unfold now that you're back?
RZ: It's interesting because there are things I never recognized as being questionable. I just understood how to navigate them. And I don't live in it. I don't exist in it. I step in to do my job, and I've been really blessed with the people I work with. I mean, the list of just the greatest guys!
LB: You were the main thing, so you were able to carve out that real estate relatively early. And those movies were you, and how gratifying to know that they depended on you, so you had to be rewarded financially.
RZ: Well, I was really lucky that I had great partners who could make those phone calls on my behalf. And who, you know, would unapologetically suggest what might be a good idea. I mean, Bridget was an independent film. It was a tiny little film. But in terms of the life gifted, I've never thought about it from that perspective.
LB: You just go and do it and then go home and not get your head turned.
RZ: Yeah, I guess so. I'm sure there was a lot I wasn't privy to and behind closed doors there were conversations I didn't know about.
LB: It's nice when I can talk to women and they're like, "Yeah, actually, I'm lucky not to have a story."
RZ: Yeah, in terms of physical aggression. I mean, in [financial] equity or whatever, there might have been. It would be naïve to think it didn't exist somewhere along the journey.
LB: What's your ideal day when you're home in L.A.?
RZ: No alarm. About 16 cups of tea. [laughs] Sitting outside in the morning with the two dogs.
LB: What are you most and least secure about?
RZ: What am I most secure about? The quality of my friendships. I'm least secure about my decisions regarding geography. I don't know if I have found the place where I'm supposed to be. I mean, I feel peaceful, but that may just be a condition of my personality or my upbringing since my parents had wanderlust and now I do too. I don't know.
LB: Do you have anything fun planned after the Judy world press tour?
RZ: I'm talking about a couple of things, but nothing is set in stone. I just started this production company [Big Picture Co.], and we're doing some projects, so I'm moving that along.
LB: How do you see yourself as a boss or manager? How resolute are you?
RZ: Well, I learned that no one's going to invite you. Honestly, if you believe in what you're doing and if it's quality material, then why wouldn't you be aggressive in who you pursue to partner with on a particular thing? Great material doesn't just show up. You have to develop it and make it happen.
LB: What makes you feel like a kid?
RZ: Oh, being 50! I feel energized and full of wonder and excitement about what's ahead. And, of course, driving down the Pacific Coast Highway with the windows down and the music loud! There's that! [laughs]
Photographed by Sebastian Faena. Styling: Julia Von Boehm. Hair: Chris McMillan for Solo Artists. Makeup: Kindra Mann for Tomlinson Management Group. Manicure: Christina Aviles Aude for Star Touch Agency. Set design: Gille Mills for The Magnet Agency.
For more stories like this, pick up the December issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Nov. 22.