The six year itch: why taking a career sabbatical helped Renée Zellweger find her happy

Posted by
Susan Riley
backgroundLayer 1
Add this article to your list of favourites

After a six-year sabbatical, Renée Zellweger is back. Stylist’s Susan Riley talks finding inner peace with the star of Bridget Jones’s Baby

Photography: Brian Bowen Smith

She had me at hello. At first it’s because she’s wearing black flip flops with a quite- posh dress and that’s exactly what we all do at the end of a long day when we can’t be bothered to navigate heels.

Then after a few minutes, it’s because she drops her ring under the sofa and immediately scrabbles around underneath to retrieve it. “Sorry I just threw away a car,” she laughs, brilliantly upfront about the fact her jewellery is on loan and eye-wateringly expensive, before referring to said ring as “a borrowed bobble that I’m not treating very well.”

There’s other things – she says ‘Marble Arch’ in a Downton Abbey way when I ask what phrase helps her slip into a believable English accent; teases me about fancying Patrick ‘McDreamy’ Dempsey (read on – it was clearly all a misunderstanding…); and tries out three different locations around the building to capture some half-decent light for our selfie. But that’s by the by. Like I said, she had me at hello.

She being, obviously, Renée Zellweger. Depicter of Dorothy Boyd, Betty Sizemore, Roxie Hart, Ruby Thewes, Mae Braddock and, most famously, Bridget Jones – who, as everyone knows by now, is back and having a baby.

Such happy news is why I’m at Universal Studios’ Lower Lot on a piping hot July day in Los Angeles. It’s nearing 5pm. Colin Firth has just passed on his way out, all done for the day; Patrick Dempsey pops his head round the door to ask Zellweger how it’s all going. The pair – whom Zellweger refers to as ‘the fellas’ – are the pedigree of love interests. And as Mark Darcy and Jack Qwant in Bridget Jones’s Baby, Bridget has the not-so-crap task of choosing which one’s the baby daddy. That’s right: you are about to actively desire Bridget Jones’s life.

If that sounds like uncharted territory for Bridget, it’s worth noting times have changed too for Zellweger. This movie – while her third as Ms Jones – marks the end of her six-year career break from Hollywood. She’s done all manner of things in that time: moved house, travelled, found love, returned to university, and a hundred other things she’s (wisely) determined to keep for herself.

It takes guts to step out when you’re at the top but Zellweger – who describes herself as ‘curious’ – simply refused to let her work define her and went in search of what else was out there. It’s modern day heroine behaviour in my book; just don’t tell Bridget.

It’s 20 years since Helen Fielding wrote Bridget Jones’s Diary, and 15 years since the first film. Why does Bridget still resonate in 2016?
Oh wow, it’s hard to imagine that’s true but it is… I’m doing the math. I think it’s really interesting that there’s a character who appealed to people at one particular moment in time; when Helen was tapping into an important conversation in the zeitgeist about women, and the societal paradigms about what they’re expected to achieve by a certain time in their lives. And now, I’m so glad that [Fielding] is still telling stories through this character that women relate to – as they move on, and as Bridget moves on. Her authenticity is something I find so appealing. [As is] her humanity, her imperfection… She makes being human OK.

This film isn’t the adaptation of Mad About The Boy [Fielding’s last book] and Bridget gets her happy ending. Do you think that will surprise people?
I don’t know because I don’t know how widely known it is that this is a script Helen wrote before she embarked on the third book. [But] I think people are happy to see when Bridget triumphs, because they go on the struggle with her.

Are we all – regardless of ambition or independence – harbouring a desire for a happy ever after?
Well, love in whatever form that we define it for ourselves, probably. Partnership, companionship… Maybe. It depends on the person. It’s very difficult to make a blanket [statement] about women who are independent but still crave companionship or a partner or their dream person to share their lives with, because it’s circumstantial.

We’re yet to have an equal conversation about men and their happy ever after. Why do you think that is?
There has never been a stereotype about males craving marriage and companionship and love. In society it’s never been considered a negative for a man to choose to live his life on his own; he is not a failure if he hasn’t chosen to have children, or to settle down or found a mate.

It’s not even a topic is it?
It hasn’t been. That’s his prerogative. Throughout history, that’s been his prerogative. And so now that women are challenging that stereotype for the pejorative nature of it and people are breaking away from, or are saying no to the projected expectations that society has traditionally held for women – in paving their own paths with more frequency – the conversation is, “Oh of course”. It’s just sad we’re still talking about it in 2016.

In the beginning, Bridget could be viewed as desperate; now she has McDreamy and Darcy fighting over her. She’s having a good film in that respect, no?
That’s very funny. This is a very good film for her [laughing]. In that first incarnation you’re talking about, it’s her inner dialogue – she’s sharing her most private, intimate thoughts, [which] is where people bonded with her; her insecurities were relatable. To some degree everybody knows those experiences. Whether it’s failure in love or in your professional aspirations or great public humiliation… whatever it might be. And she’s grown. I’m glad she’s moved on from the naivety and the innocence that came with those years, and asking those questions and having those feelings. It would be untrue if she didn’t change in some respects. That was part of the challenge of this next chapter: to find the ways in which she has evolved and how to animate those qualities – and more importantly figure out how she hasn’t evolved, because those things are equally true for anybody in life experience.

Patrick Dempsey plays Jack. Were you a fan of Grey’s Anatomy? Did you watch it?
I didn’t, no. When it started I was really busy so I didn’t catch onto the thing, you know? But you watched…

From the beginning, yes… I don’t need the box set!
Right, so see I intend to do that – so no spoiler, no spoiler! But you were crazy about him?

Well not particularly him, but the show, yes. I was going to ask if you’d watched Derek Shepherd’s death scene but obviously not…

Oh god, I’ve just said a massive spoiler
It’s OK! I don’t know who that is; I don’t know who that is [laughing].

Thank you, because I’ve just completely ruined…
No you haven’t, it’s OK because I don’t know who you are talking about. That will just be gone from my mind…

OK, so Der... I mean Jack. I keep calling him Derek…
That is fantastic! OK we’ll practise. Are you going to meet him? Have you met him?

Er no.
Are you going to? No? Did you see him walking by before? Did you say hello?

No. I mean I’m not obsessed or anything, he’s just Derek to me… Anyway, JACK. In the film Jack’s an online dating entrepreneur who talks about algorithms finding your perfect match. As the internet becomes more personalised, do you think it’s narrowing our choices and viewpoints, as opposed to widening them?
Interesting… I’ve never thought about it that way.

Especially in terms of how we access news through social media feeds, which are now tailored to us…
Well I don’t use social media. I mean I appreciate it and how it’s beneficial for people’s ability to connect; for political purposes so people don’t feel isolated… [But] it’s dangerous, a little bit, because of what you’re talking about [and] I know it has made the line between truth and speculation ambiguous. Whatever gets put out there is perpetuated so quickly that in an instant it becomes the truth; legitimate news sources pick up the titbit and it becomes part of the conversation among respected periodicals.

Which sources do you value for information?
I read the Washington Journal and The New York Times and I watch CNN, NSNBC, Al Jazeera, BBC World News, Fox News and Sky News, because I want to know what other people are thinking – I don’t want to just know what I think already. How are you supposed to understand the other side of the argument if you’re not privy to it?

Britain’s had a turbulent few months. From the outside, what do people think of us right now?
Well it’s not like gun violence. I think it’s a little more difficult to understand; there’s a curiosity but I don’t think there is a complete understanding of what Brexit means over here and what it will mean to your economy, or for people who want to work in Europe.

How would Bridget have voted in Brexit?
I can’t comment [laughing]. I can’t. You’d have to ask Helen Fielding that question, right? Maybe she’ll have something to say in the future.

With your parents’ heritage [Zellweger’s mother is from Norway, her dad from Switzerland], do you ever feel European yourself?
I was always aware that I had a different perspective because of them, yeah. It’s very different as you grow up in a house with different sensibilities.

What are your experiences of their home countries? Do you keep any traditions?
Oh sure yeah, we do, but I didn’t spend a lot of time in Switzerland because my father moved from there when he was a boy to Australia and his family is there. We have some family still in Switzerland; the first time I went was to Cloisters [when I] took the train from Zurich in 1999. It’s so beautiful.

Where’s the most culturally enchanting place you’ve visited?
I’ve only been to Morocco for a moment but that was fascinating and the people were so warm, but I could say the same about Japan – or Liberia. I went there with Mariella Frostrup [and The Great Initiative, a a gender equality charity]. It was remarkable. To be in this place that’s still recovering from civil war and to see all the great strides that have been made in such a short period of time… The women are so impressive; so self-assured and so certain of their intentions and values. The way they utilise their power [to] influence change was so admirable. And they adorn themselves immaculately, which I thought, ‘Wow, that’s interesting,’ because it’s recognising and embracing another side of female power.

Last night was historic for America [Hillary Clinton was confirmed as the official Democratic Party nominee]. Do you feel excited and energised by that?
It made me teary, yeah. We were here when they finished counting the votes and made the announcement, and we were recording the television footage with our phones – to remember where we were and to mark the moment. It’s extraordinarily moving to see women [achieve that].

Michelle Obama’s speech [at the Democratic convention] was also immensely powerful. And her Carpool Karaoke killed it. Is that big here?
My girlfriend who lives in Brighton introduced it to me! Can you binge Carpool Karaoke? Because that’s what we did. One Sunday morning, we just sat there and went through all of them. Fan. Tastic. It’s so joyful.

What’s your favourite one? I got a bit obsessed with the Bieber.
It was great! Wasn’t it great?

You saw a different side to him.
Yeah. Vulnerable and sweet, right? I know, that was delightful. I got teary on Stevie Wonder, I love Stevie Wonder. And I loved [James Corden] singing with Adele because he was so good [laughing]. Adele was like, “Oh!” I haven’t seen Michelle Obama but I am determined to google that. I have to say, my girlfriends and I have had this conversation – Michelle Obama and her husband have made us proud to be Americans these last eight years. Such elegance and grace, and intelligence. It’s made me proud.

They’re the full package, aren’t they?
Completely. It’s been so nice to have a young family in the White House again; to watch their kids grow up. And to have a couple who are so deeply in love has been gorgeous. Did you see President Obama tweeted, “I love you, Michelle” after her speech? What an elegant man, and couple.

You recently took a six-year break. What was the deciding moment?
I can’t say it was any one thing but I was just recognising that there were so many other things I wanted to explore; promises I’d made to myself I wanted to keep, and things I was interested in that I wanted to discover whether or not I had aptitude for. And it was time. Because you could very easily keep going with whatever it is that has your full attention, and then five years pass and then 10… And then it never comes.

How easy was it to relax after being so busy and career-focused?
It was more of a process than, “Right, starting tomorrow…” [It wasn’t] like camp, you know? [Laughs] It was deciding not to do the next picture… and then life fills in the blanks. Oh, dad’s having surgery – I’m going to go do that. Oh, my best friend’s having a baby – I’m going there.

So a seeing where the wind takes you type of thing?
It wasn’t so much that because that sounds like a holiday [laughs], but there were new commitments that I wanted to make. Like move to Los Angeles [Zellweger previously lived on the East coast] to be near my writing partner because I wanted to create this new television show that I believed in and wanted to see happen. I knew it would be a more rewarding process if I was in the room watching this piece that I had imagined since college come to life. Those kinds of commitments took a different kind of discipline and it gave me a new understanding of this business that I have been working in for so many years; a more comprehensive understanding.

Years ago, you spoke in an interview about a list of things you wanted to achieve: “To study American history and political science, live in an apartment in France and fix my bad French”. Did you tick off any of those things?
I did [laughing]. I did.

Which one?
Well I didn’t live in an apartment in Paris so…

So you studied! How different was it [Zellweger graduated in English at the University of Texas at Austin]; did you gain a fresh appreciation?
It’s not perfunctory. I know it’s not the end of the world if you don’t ace the test – and so you are probably more inclined to ace the test because you’re motivated by interest, rather than obligation. And oh, I loved it. There’s a different kind of joy in the learning; it isn’t so you can get on to the next thing; it’s so you can understand.

You’ve said you saw the break as an opportunity to grow up; do you feel more grown up now?
I have new perspective. I’ve learned a lot and I don’t mean that in an existential way; I’ve made an effort to learn things, and so I’ve matured in different ways.

Do you think our careers are starting to define us too much?
I don’t know, maybe. I mean in my personal experience, yes, but again it depends on the individual and the choices that they make for themselves; what they prioritise and how good they are at balancing.

While you were away, were there any films you would have loved to have been involved in?
No, but there have been tons that I admire, like Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck made me laugh. She was brilliant, I didn’t know she was a phenomenal actress – and she is. And brave. I admire her.

How will you navigate your working life now you’re back? Have you set new boundaries?
Yes. I just have a better understanding of how to make it work for myself, so that it’s a little more balanced and healthier. I don’t know what that entails but I am taking my time, and I’m just being careful.

Colin Firth recently said you never seem to have a bad day.
That’s sweet.

Are you aware that you possess that skill?
No, because I guess I’m there for the bad days. I don’t know – I don’t think anybody should ever have to pay because you have a bad day. So yeah, I don’t like it to be anybody else’s business if I’m having a bad day.

Why do you think all Texans have an intrinsic charm? [Zellweger was born in Katy, Texas]
That’s really flattering and very kind. I like Texans. I mean it’s a truth, it is. You come to the state and people are warm and helpful and will talk to you – you know you’re not getting any person ignoring you on the sidewalk. I don’t know; what is that? I’m glad of it.

Where do you call home?
I probably feel most at home in Texas. For all the reasons you’ve mentioned.

As a tourist in Texas, where should I go that the guide books won’t tell me?
Big Bend Park is spectacular, as is driving up the panhandle [the northwest corner of Texas] in winter. What else? I would have said Marfa, Texas, where they shot Giant, 10 years ago, but I think it’s on the map now. It’s a little quiet artist’s colony that has kind of blossomed. Brenham, Texas for their Blue Bell Ice Cream – vanilla is my particular favourite. The south is magic. I like to go down to Laredo on the border, or Brownsville and walk across into Mexico.

Bridget Jones is a literary heroine for many. Which characters have stayed with you?
I have a million favourites but I love Ignatius Reilly from A Confederacy Of Dunces and John Grady Cole, from All The Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy.

Why have you picked those?
The humour of one. [Reilly’s] a bit of a Bridget Jones with his ailments and imperfections; he’s kind of self-deprecating and tries really hard but can’t always get it right and is a little bit awkward in his skin. I love, love, love him. And I’m not sure why John Grady Cole. I loved his sense of identity and his fearlessness.

As an avid reader, what novel should Stylist readers consume next?
I just recently reread Sammy’s Hill by Kristin Gore. It’s delightful. That is a movie I want to see, and a wonderful role for a young woman.

On that point, more and more actresses – such as Reese Witherspoon – are producing the types of films they want to see made. Is that a particular focus for you now?
Yes it is, right now, yes.

Will you say what you’d be interested in making?
No, I don’t… Not to be cryptic, only because I think it’s boring when people talk about what they might do. It’s much more interesting if they just do it.

Bridget Jones’s Baby is out in cinemas nationwide on 16 September