After Bridget Jones, after the Harvey-at-Miramax years, after a break from acting, now she’s ready to play Judy Garland.
It’s a wildfire-hot August afternoon in Topanga Canyon, the air so dry and still you can practically hear the sagebrush gathering itself for the conflagration. Everyone’s gulping down great lashings of CBD water, including Renée Zellweger, who can’t hydrate fast enough. We have been hanging out now for nearly two hours on the patio of Topanga Living, a little café that’s one of Zellweger’s regular joints.
As she heads inside for more supplies — bottles of turmeric juice, tea, and more fancy water — a young dude a couple of tables away leans over. “I don’t mean to make this weird,” he says, “but is that Renée Zellweger?” The actress, meanwhile, has stopped to talk to a lesbian couple with a tiny dog sitting near the door. They are earnest in the extreme and seem not the least bit starstruck, which makes me think they have no idea who she is — just some nice lady in Capri tights and running shoes with a voluminous scarf draped around her neck.
When Zellweger gets back to our table, I express surprise that the couple didn’t get movie-star dopey, and she says, “Nope.” A big smile spreads across her face. “I have very authentic exchanges with people once again.” She stares at me for a second and then screws up one of those great Renée Zellweger faces. “Thankyouverymuch,” she says, sort of doing Elvis if he were from Texas. “Six years. It was important, that time. You’re not in people’s consciousness anymore, so they don’t immediately make the connection. It’s a quieter life, and I love it.”
For a long time, Zellweger had anything but a quiet life. You could blame 1996’s Jerry Maguire, which took her from ingénue to star. Or maybe the Bridget Jones movies of the early aughts, which further solidified her image as a relatable Everywoman but which also turned her into tabloid prey right at the moment when newsstands began to look like Warhol installations, giant checkerboards of the same woman on the cover of every magazine, from Us and InTouch to Vogue and Elle. Who could look away from a star gaining and losing weight for a role in plain sight?
Zellweger dated rock stars and movie stars and was a genuinely fascinating creature of that last great Hollywood moment before it all became one big smelly sweat sock of adolescent-boy entertainment. She was effortlessly soignée on the red carpet, the darling of fashion editors. And she was a star for Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax: Her three Oscar nominations came for films, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Chicago, and Cold Mountain, that he had produced. It was an era that, in some ways, couldn’t have been crueler to actresses, but also one that allowed them to play challenging parts in prestige films. Zellweger, perhaps, experienced the highs and the lows as acutely as anyone.
And then, in 2010, after a series of duds and ill-conceived roles, she stepped off the merry-go-round — stopped making movies, wearing daring dresses to premieres, doing big interviews. She briefly came out of hiding in 2014 to attend the Elle Women in Hollywood Awards, and the press focused almost entirely on what the internet presumed was plastic surgery that had rendered her unfamiliar looking. She handled it with grace and eventually wrote an essay for HuffPost, criticizing the media scrutiny, called “We Can Do Better.” In 2016, she eased back into movies, including Bridget Jones’s Baby, and has been quietly, steadily working ever since. This month, the film Zellweger has chosen for a proper comeback, Judy (as in Garland — a biopic), comes out. It is a brave decision on so many levels — the challenge of singing like Garland, of playing a woman who, at 46, looked much older — not least because the ways Garland struggled with loneliness, insomnia, and the tolls of show business in general resonate with some of Zellweger’s own struggles, even if hers are not remotely as volcanic as Garland’s were.
Stepping back, Zellweger says, was crucial. “I wasn’t healthy. I wasn’t taking care of myself. I was the last thing on my list of priorities.” She has seen a therapist during only one period of her life, she tells me, and it was back then, as she retreated from acting. “He recognized that I spent 99 percent of my life as the public persona and just a microscopic crumb of a fraction in my real life. I needed to not have something to do all the time, to not know what I’m going to be doing for the next two years in advance. I wanted to allow for some accidents. There had to be some quiet for the ideas to slip in.”
One day around this time, she ran into her friend Salma Hayek in an airport. “She shared this beautiful … metaphor? Analogy? ‘The rose doesn’t bloom all year … unless it’s plastic.’ ” She levels me with a look. “I got it. Because what does that mean? It means that you have to fake that you’re okay to go and do this next thing. And you probably need to stop right now, but this creative opportunity is so exciting and it’s once-in-a-lifetime and you will regret not doing it. But actually, no, you should collect yourself and, you know … rest.”
Thanks to the shrink, she realized she was depressed. “Nothing like international humiliation to set your perspective right!” she says with a mordant laugh. “It clarifies what’s important to you. And it shakes off any sort of clingy superficiality … that you didn’t have time for anyway. One of the fears that maybe, as artists, we all share — because we have this public experience of being criticized not just for our work but as human beings — is when it gets to be too much, when you learn that your skin is not quite as thick as you need it to be, what is that gonna feel like? Well, now I know. I got the hardest kick. And it ain’t the end.” But she also wants to be perfectly clear: The rough patch only lasted a year. “I had a good five-year period when I was joyful and in a new chapter that no one was even aware of.”
Zellweger hadn’t planned on any of this. She was an English major at the University of Texas at Austin in the early ’90s. She thought she was going to be a writer, maybe a journalist, but an acting class in her junior year led to a role in a student’s thesis film based on a Flannery O’Connor short story, in which she played a girl full of wanderlust who winds up in a boardinghouse contemplating suicide. “There was this scene on the bathroom floor where she’s in such deep despair,” she told me when I first wrote about her years ago. “And as we filmed it, I was just dumbfounded. It was so much more than I had expected it could be, and I didn’t know where it was coming from or why it was so important to me to return to that bathroom and do it again. From that point, I didn’t care where it was going, I just knew I wanted to do that.”
Before long, she was the “Girl in Blue Truck” in Dazed and Confused, then did Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, both starring Matthew McConaughey, who remains a good friend (she does a pitch-perfect imitation of him). She had memorable turns in Reality Bites and Empire Records — Gen-X indie classics — but she really blasted off when she co-starred with Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire. Right out of the gate, she got saddled with one of the most indelible lines in modern cinema — “You had me at hello.”
It’s hard to overestimate the deleterious effect this sort of thing can have on an actor. It gives strangers permission to invade your boundaries everywhere you go — they shout it at you in airports and hotel lobbies. And then, in quick succession, she made a bunch of interesting comedies: the underrated Nurse Betty (for which she won her first Golden Globe), Me, Myself & Irene, and Bridget Jones’s Diary. Jones is officially a classic, pure Zellweger goofball magic. She is so identified with the role that there’s an entire generation of women who assume she is a clumsy, befuddled mess with food on her sweater. After that came the Oscar juggernaut Chicago, which led to her second nomination and the semi-comedic role of Ruby in the Civil War drama Cold Mountain, for which she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. But that was followed by another Bridget Jones, then a string of films you’ve probably never heard of, and her retreat — just as she was entering those years in which Hollywood doesn’t quite know what to do with actresses whose talent they don’t entirely understand.
“None of it I regret,” Zellweger says. “Though a lot of it? No thank you.” She lets out a honking laugh. “If I could remember more of it, that would be nice, because my 30s are a blur. I think I just didn’t sit still long enough to actually let anything soak in. People are like, ‘Remember that time we …?’ and I have absolutely no recall about the thing at all. What’s my girlfriend say? The file cabinet is bound to get full at some point, and something’s got to fall out the back.”
We talk for a moment about how she gets nervous for young actresses who are obviously going from film set to film set and look slightly unhinged on the red carpet — with barely masked terror in their eyes. “You can see how vulnerable they are,” she says. “When you’re not grounded, how can you have boundaries?” You can’t just grind on forever, I say. “Well, you can,” she replies. “But then you’re really unhealthy and unbalanced and, you know, about to die. And then you look back on it and wonder what happened. And where are the relationships that you didn’t have a chance to nurture?” She continues: “I had lots of different places to live but no home. No home where I actually unpacked pictures and put them on the shelf … I had two suitcases. I knew where my passport was, I knew where my important papers were — the inoculations, all that stuff, were in my carry-on, all the time. Now I put the carry-on up on a shelf!” Here she lets rip with another one of those patented laughs — full-throated, head back — and everyone on the patio looks over and realizes who she is.
I first met Zellweger during this peripatetic period in her life: on a soundstage in Toronto in February 2002 — the set of Chicago. I was writing a piece about the making of that film, but Zellweger avoided everyone when she wasn’t in a scene, including me; it was the first film, I would later learn, where she’d figured out that it was just easier if she kept to herself and stayed in character all day. I would see her going in and out of her trailer, in Uggs and a puffy coat, so thin, clutching a cup of tea, hugging herself against the cold, being cheerful and unfailingly polite but never stopping long enough to truly engage. She was a blur. Catherine Zeta-Jones and Zellweger and I would eventually all have dinner in Manhattan a couple months later. Zeta-Jones showed up late in a leather trench coat and a cloud of perfume and ordered a rare steak and Champagne. Zellweger arrived very early — in her running clothes — and ate steamed spinach.
A year and a half later, as I was writing a profile of Zellweger for the release of Cold Mountain, I met her one July afternoon at the Mercer Hotel, and she kept me waiting in the lobby for nearly an hour. She was dating Jack White at the time and admitted to me that she’d been up all night with him and some friends in their suite. I remember thinking: Is she on drugs? It just didn’t make sense, given the clean-machine approach, the constant running, the healthy eating. Was she in love? “Don’t know,” she said. “Don’t ask myself, don’t talk about it.” A week later, I was on a plane to London, where Zellweger was preparing to play Bridget Jones once again. She had the flu and was wrapped in a blanket, clinging to a cup of tea as if her life depended on it. Despite the illness, she was hilarious and smart, and we talked for hours in a dark hotel-lobby bar. She was gaining weight to play Jones, and her assistant kept bringing her little bowls of food every half-hour: potato chips mostly, but also doughnuts.
Back then, she couldn’t stop buying up old houses. There was the townhouse on the Upper East Side, the big pile on the East End of Long Island. She was searching, she tells me now. “I did a where-are-you-supposed-to-live tour around 2003. I started in New York City and I had just a toothbrush in my purse and drove all the way out to the Cape.” She stopped along the way in towns in Connecticut and New York and Massachusetts, eventually buying a farm in the very far-northwestern corner of Connecticut, in the same town where her brother Drew, to whom she is exceptionally close, had moved with his wife and two kids.
It must be said: Zellweger looks great; she looks like herself again. Whatever was going on that night on the red carpet a few years ago that made everyone think she had radically altered her trademark — her eyes, which are practically her calling card, so crinkly and comically expressive — was obviously temporary, because she looks, well, like Renée Zellweger at 50. But Hollywood 50, which is to say several years younger. When I tell her I am a little reluctant to bring up the “whole plastic-surgery kerfuffle” she says. “Because it probably gives you a stomachache, asking me about that, doesn’t it?” There is a long pause. It’s a difficult topic, I say. “Well, because there’s a value judgment that’s placed on us. As if it somehow is a reflection of your character — whether you’re a good person or a weak person or an authentic person,” she says. I suggest to her that there was a kind of panic people felt that she somehow did not look like herself. “And the implication that I somehow needed to change what was going on because it wasn’t working,” she says. “That makes me sad. I don’t look at beauty in that way. And I don’t think of myself in that way. I like my weird quirkiness, my off-kilter mix of things. It enables me to do what I do. I don’t want to be something else. I got hired in my blue jeans and cowboy boots with my messy hair. I started working like that. I didn’t have to change to work. So why was I suddenly trying to fit into some mold that didn’t belong to me?”
During those years she wasn’t making movies, Zellweger created and produced a television series — Cinnamon Girl, about four young women, musicians and artists, coming of age in Los Angeles in the late ’60s — that did not get picked up. She traveled a lot, to places like Thailand and Liberia, which she visited with a friend from London who had started an organization that recognizes leaders who advocate for women’s rights, in this case the country’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. She also went back to school, taking classes at a university in L.A. that she’d rather not name because she’s planning to continue: “I was just interested in learning a little bit more about international policy, getting a little smarter about it all, to see if it was something I had an aptitude for away from the news on the television set. It was fantastic.”
I have been watching her pull on the very long, stretched-out sleeves of her threadbare shirt, putting her thumbs through holes she has created. What’s up with that? I ask. “I pull my sleeves down,” she says. “It’s a thing I do. I play with my sleeves all day until there’s holes in them.” Suddenly, she puts her hands, which are covered by her sleeves, to her lips and starts massaging them. “Mmmmm. Mmmmm. Sorry. I’m going through a moment here. With, like, fatigue on my face.” Her plump lips seem to have gone slightly crooked at the moment. She gently massages them once more. “What is that now? What now?” And then says — I think — to her lips: “You may not invite any friends over. You’re done,” as if to punish them for their misbehavior.
Judy, an adaptation of the Tony-nominated musical drama End of the Rainbow, is set in 1968, as Garland arrives in London for a five-week run of sold-out shows at the Talk of the Town nightclub — where, predictably, she succumbed to booze and pills and some nights couldn’t perform, unless, of course, she was on and blew the roof off the place. The movie, which debuts at the Telluride Film Festival and opens on September 27, is directed by Rupert Goold, best known for staging Shakespeare as artistic director of the Almeida Theatre in London.
The film is good, not great — though it hardly matters because Zellweger is riveting as Garland, her best acting to date. She plays her as a spooked mess, both studied and utterly free, so intense you barely notice some of the more lachrymose Wizard of Oz flashbacks. She nails the way Garland, arms akimbo, hunched herself and chewed on her words: IsFrankSinatrahere? She ties herself into a pretzel, suffering alone in a hotel bathroom in the middle of the night, zonked on pills yet still unable to sleep. Zellweger even manages to conjure Garland’s butch aspect — “I’m fine!” — and that slacks-and-a-blouse march in kitten heels down the long hallway that leads to the stage on opening night.
I ask Zellweger how she approached playing Garland, and she answers with one word: “Denial” (a snappy retort right out of the Garland playbook). “I felt like we never actually did it. We were talking about seeing what we might be able to do. Every day. Just try that. Try and see what this feels like and what does that hair color look like, let’s try this kind of makeup and then let’s try these songs, with this kind of orchestration. Let’s try to emulate this year and this less successful evening in her life,” she says. “A lot of it was, like, dentist rage. You know that dentist rage? Where you don’t have a choice? YOU. JUST. HAVE. TO. DO. IT.” She bangs her fist on the table between each word. “And then you’re so glad that you did? That’s what it was like.”
“It’s a big ask to play Judy Garland,” says Goold. “The Scandinavian-looking, blonde, diminutive Bridget Jones wasn’t necessarily slam-dunk obvious.” But when she came to London for a meeting in 2017, he was “just so taken by how bright she is.” They spent three days around the piano at Abbey Road studios, “just feeling each other out, singing together. She’s got a really good voice and a really good ear — great pitch, great phrasing. And I thought, She’s got a long journey to travel, obviously, but this is a colleague I really want to work with. Yes, she needs to be able to sing, but that wit, that spiky intelligence, is No. 2. When you watch that old Garland footage from talk-show interviews — she’s brilliant. Just when you think she’s maybe spiraling away, she snaps back — really crisp and laserlike.”
“Did you ever see that Dick Cavett interview?” says Zellweger, who spent months reading biographies and watching YouTube footage. (“I’m the queeeeen of the comeback,” says Garland. “I’m getting tired of coming back … I can’t go to … the powder room without making a comeback.”) “She’s just off the charts. And she’s gorgeous in that black dress, the way she saunters on, so playful, and hits the ball back and just aces!”
The excellently named Finn Wittrock, who plays Garland’s fifth and last husband, Mickey Deans, says, “There was such a palpable sense of loneliness with Judy, that sense that she gave more to life than it gave back to her, of being drained and world-weary — which is not, in my observation, something Renée has naturally. I don’t know what her secret was, but it was like she was heavier than she is in real life, carrying a kind of grief around with her. And the way Renée played Judy, the grief doesn’t come out as self-defeating; it comes out through comedy — but all her zingers are from a deep sense of sadness.”
Judy costume designer Jany Temime, best known for the Harry Potter films, says, “Renée was extremely emotionally and artistically involved in Judy. It was her film. I think she really got into Judy’s skin.” As close to literally as possible: Says Zellweger, “Jany fit the costumes to Judy’s posture. So the dresses didn’t fit me unless I stood like I was supposed to stand. The zipper wouldn’t go up.” Because of the film’s budget constraints, Garland’s Chanel bags and Dior scarves and jewelry came from Temime’s mother’s wardrobe.
As she had on the set of Chicago, Zellweger stayed in character. “We didn’t call her Judy on set or anything, but she was pretty much transformed from the time we were called till we wrapped, so I rarely saw her step out,” says Wittrock. “But it was, like, all the great sides of Judy and none of the diva because she was kind of a social butterfly. The AD would come get her to take her to set, and she would stop five times because she was asking the grip how his dog was. That kind of person.” It was almost as if he never really met Zellweger until the very end. “She was always in the wig and had a bit of a prosthetic nose and dark contacts. It wasn’t till the wrap party that she came out and she was blonde and wearing a stunning dress, and I was like, Oh, right. That’s the movie star.”
Zellweger, as herself, has that rat-a-tat-tat What’s the news boys? aspect. Some of her stories have a kind of jazz to them; she sometimes launches herself into a riff, and you’re not quite sure where it’s going, but when it finally lands it always makes perfect sense, sometimes even profoundly so. Her texts are threaded through with a similar manic patter. When I told her I’d spoken with her friend of 20 years the producer Neil Meron, she texted, “SENSATIONAL adventures!! And getting Neil to drink a whiff of annnything would be another to top the list! Ha! Though if you succeed you gottttttta call! Comin running! …with phone voice notes ON. Haha. He is a human treasure and I love and admire him so. We must share a table sometime soon! I’ll bring the fire extinguisher.”
Meron, who produced Chicago and also made a miniseries on Garland’s life starring Judy Davis, says he was surprised when Zellweger called with the news that she was going to tackle Garland. But then he remembered having dinner at Zellweger’s house one night ten years ago and bringing a copy of Garland’s last film, I Could Go On Singing, so he could show her “that famous scene where she’s breaking down and it’s kind of autobiographical and she’s talking about what it’s like to perform every night and be in public and all that, and I think it’s some of the greatest acting I’ve ever seen onscreen.” (He is right: YouTube it and fasten your seat belt.) Zellweger had never seen the film and was “mesmerized,” says Meron.
Zellweger had a lot of dance and voice training on Chicago, but most of her songs were upper-register pretty — high and bright — so I was not fully prepared for her to plant-the-feet-and-belt, a kind of singing that Judy Garland all but invented. Meron is friends with Zellweger’s vocal coach, Eric Vetro, “and he was a little skeptical at first that she was doing her own singing in the film,” he says. “But then he whispered to me one day: ‘She’s great.’ She worked like a demon on her voice.” As far as Goold is concerned, her anxiety about performing the Big Numbers as one of the greatest singers to ever tackle them “translates onscreen into Judy’s own anxiety about how the public received her up toward the end of her life.”
The film highlights the fact that Garland wasn’t just a drug addict. In fact, she was an insomniac, and it drove her mad and toward the pills. Zellweger thinks the insomnia is a crucial but neglected part of Garland’s psychology. “Those little bits of context that seemed to be discounted as unimportant, I think they were invaluable to me,” she tells me. The sleeplessness is something Zellweger recognized all too well; she’s the kind of insomniac who sometimes goes to the movies at midnight, the only person in the theater. “I like to say that I’m a night owl who gets up early. Because you gotta get up to go to work sometimes at 4 a.m. having gone to bed at 3 a.m. I get busy at midnight. I used to move the furniture around. Because you can’t fix this but you can fix that.” She laughs. “Or laundry. I find laundry so satisfying because it brings some kind of order so I can feel, like, right: fresh, starting over, in peace. I like my laundry.”
When Zellweger talks about how Garland was a misunderstood figure, you can’t help but hear echoes of her own struggles. “There was so much that was not allowed for. You’re not allowed to be human. There’s no room on the schedule for her sanity — the choices that were made for her and how she was exploited and … robbed, basically.”
Today, Zellweger seems totally in control. She just signed a two-year first-look deal with Stacey Levin, senior VP of development at MGM Television. “Stacey’s a Staten Island girl,” says Zellweger. “I love her. I like her ideas and why she likes things.” Zellweger has never had this kind of formal relationship with a studio before, but now she and her partner in the Big Picture Co., Carmella Casinelli, who have “three or four things, different genres, that are in varying stages of development” — have, at long last, found a home. Among the many things she hopes to do at MGM is direct. “Why not?” she says. “I might not have been ready to do it 15 years ago, but I feel like I’m ready now.”
Meron is convinced Broadway is in her future. “Not immediately,” he says, “but there will be a Broadway show starring Renée.” When I mention this to Zellweger, she shouts, “From his mouth to God’s ear! Let’s go!” She laughs. “He and I have talked about it for years. We play around with little ideas — ‘Wouldn’t this be fun?’ ” Meanwhile, on September 27, she has an album coming out: the original soundtrack to Judy, on which she duets with both Rufus Wainwright and Sam Smith. The lead single from the album features Zellweger — as Judy — singing “Over the Rainbow.”
In some ways, it must be thrilling to make a comeback — to start over — at this age, having skipped the years when Hollywood thinks you’re too young for some roles and too old for others. Just head right into those delicious Meryl Streep parts — free at last from all the pressure of being the ingénue. There is no vanity in playing Judy Garland in the last six months of her life, when wrinkles and bags and exhaustion must be added to your pretty face. But it also must be a bit daunting to re-stake your claim in a new Hollywood, an industry that has been utterly transformed by streaming and superheroes. It’s worth noting that many members of that amazing class of actresses Zellweger was a part of, like Gwyneth Paltrow, have stopped making movies; others are being celebrated for their work in television, like Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, to name just two from one show.
“I think the majority of the films that I’ve made wouldn’t get made today,” Zellweger tells me. “I just don’t think the business model is there to support it anymore — I guess that’s what it comes down to. I feel lucky that I lived that moment, but I don’t mind that it’s different. We’re minstrels. We play for our supper. And that’s what we’re doing more than ever now, and I don’t mind! What I really love about it is that I’m still allowed to do it.”
We’re pushing into hour No. 4 at Topanga Living. The lunch crowd has dispersed and you can just feel that the person wiping down the tables and putting up the chairs would probably like for us to maybe think about leaving. We have also moved to our third table, creeping across the patio to escape the sun, which is hovering just above the ridge. “My purse is melting,” Zellweger says as we gather our things to move to that shadier spot over there. “Your phone is so angry — just look at it. It’s practically stuck to the table.”
We sally forth onto a new topic, something I’ve been wanting to not just bring up with her all day but understand for half my life: Why do certain women become gay icons? Judy Garland is the Ur-example of this bizarrely predictable routine, the mother of all troubled stars, both fragile and steely — catnip for the gays. And aren’t all gay men just a little mortified when they realize they actually really do love Judy Garland? And Barbra Streisand? Ugh. And yet we relate to them on some ineffably cosmic level: the suffering, the need to put on a big show for everyone. Turns out, in the Venn diagram of Judy-Renée, you can add gay icon to the shaded-in area. From my unscientific polling, I have learned that most gay men love Renée Zellweger and are rooting for her … because: Roxie Hart, Bridget Jones, you had me at hello.
Given that Zellweger is playing Judy Garland, this comes up. “In England, I was speaking with this gentleman who edits this wonderful periodical and he said to me, ‘What is your relationship to the gay community?’ And I thought, Oh gosh, here we go!” She had been asked these questions during a press junket a couple weeks earlier and wasn’t quite prepared. “Now I just sound like a jerk, because I don’t think about it, which kind of sounds like, Oh, you’re just indifferent to it. And it’s completely the opposite! I had a very hard time answering his question. And then I thought, Well, what isn’t it? I’m not a wife of, I’m not a daughter of, and I’m not a sister of or a mother of” any gay men, she says. “But I’m everything else. Everything else! I’m the obvious: I’m an ex-girlfriend of, I’m a best friend of, I’m a mentor of, I’m a student of, I’m a client of, a partner of, I’m a neighbor, I’m a boss, a collaborator. I’m a patient. I’m a customer. I’m a constituent!”
Zellweger really wants to dig deep with me about growing up gay — she is relentless in her pursuit, like the journalist she thought she was going to be before she fell into acting. Can you recognize now what you were afraid of that kept you closeted? Did you feel like it was your cross to bear? Were you in love with your first boyfriend? She asks: “If you were to list the characteristics of the gay men that you know, and obviously we’re talking in a broad-spectrum way. But in the experience of coming up as a closeted gay person, how does it manifest in character? Are there common denominators?”
There’s a lot of rage, I say. It surfaces in different ways. And there’s a lot of stunted growth in the gay men that I know. Those are the negatives.
“My experience of it as an observer is the opposite from that,” she says. “I see that they’re sort of an earlier maturation. And I see that there is that determination that you’re talking about, but it’s not without thoughtfulness. What I witness is a more evolved level of empathy — having been on the receiving end of such unexpected and damaging unkindness … See, I’m attracted to people who have had your experience.”
It’s interesting that both Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli married gay men, I say, and here she makes the most complicated and hilarious face imaginable, one that seems to say, all at once, Haven’t we all? And Go figure! “Cute’s cute,” she says. “Handsome is handsome! Sweet is sweet. If it works … I mean … I mean! Sometimes it just doesn’t really matter. It just dudn’t. If there’s a spark, it just is, and who needs to explain it?” (At the moment, she’s single, after a long relationship with a musician; her previous high-profile boyfriends include Bradley Cooper, Kenny Chesney, Jim Carrey, and George Clooney.)
I bring up something I’d been reluctant to: Weinstein. Zellweger had remained silent as #MeToo unfolded, but after the actress Melissa Sagemiller, in a class-action lawsuit filed in December 2017, claimed that Weinstein had told her that he’d received “sexual favors” from Zellweger and Charlize Theron, Zellweger fired back through a spokesperson: “If Harvey said that, he’s full of shit.”
There is a very long pause. “It’s a hard thing to talk about in this context. It’s such a big topic. And it’s personal and it’s not. And it’s something that’s always been there and the shift is overdue and you could feel it coming for a while and it was inevitable. And thank God. But, in some ways, I feel: Oh gosh, I allowed for the tiny cuts that just seemed like, ‘Oh, this is just how it’s always been.’ But I was never a victim of it.” She says the word victim with clenched teeth. “I always felt that I knew what to do in those circumstances. I didn’t feel … accostable. I never felt that I was being insulted, demeaned. I didn’t recognize it as that. It was jocular — it’s a joke. And then there’s that other side of it: that I love male-female banter, that playful dynamic. So, it’s a big conversation. I’m sure that I was on the receiving end of something that I don’t even know about, in conversations that I wasn’t privy to. But it wasn’t something that I felt, it wasn’t something that I was aware of. I was very surprised by some of the things that were unearthed. I didn’t know.”
I tell her that people have been surprised to hear that I didn’t know either, having written about and been around so many people in Weinstein’s world. “But were you really around?” she says. “I wasn’t around it. I don’t hang out like that. I don’t go to the party. It’s part of my work: There’s a premiere, there’s an event, there’s a red carpet, there’s the hotel-lobby dinner. That’s my relationship to Hollywood. I don’t live in that. That’s my job. I visit it.”
But then she says this about the whole awful season of the Weinstein revelations, one after another, right on the cusp of Hillary’s being beaten by Trump: “It was a very hard thing to hear about. And it was hard to accept the surprise of that. And I’m sorry that it’s hard to talk about, because this is a person that I did not know well, but I thought I knew him as I knew him. It was red carpets and a hotel lobby in passing or ‘I’ll see you at this after-party’ and ‘I’ll be there to make sure you go to promote our movie’ and ‘I’ll see you at Cannes’ or ‘I’ll see you at the French premiere’ or ‘I’ll see you in the editing room so we can pick these things apart.’ And that’s a lot, when you talk about how we worked during that decade and a half …” She trails off and then worries that she’s said too much.
Sometimes, Zellweger can’t help herself — she just wants to talk. Way back in 2004, she was the first person I interviewed who cut out all the middlepeople and just gave me her phone number and email address. We stayed in touch for a few years and hung out at some parties; she would often text me out of the blue, just as she was landing in this or that city. Here’s one from April 2006, about making the Beatrix Potter film: “All things potter this end! Nuthin like 3 months in the bizarrely creative shoes of a fiercely private ol’ maid who keeps and converses more easily with mice and rabbits than london folk to make ye hanker hard fer some manolos and a fat night out in the apple!!”
As soon as we went our separate ways after that long interview this early August, the texting picked right back up, including this gem from the other day: “Found a Conway Twitty LP for $1.00 at Amoeba yesterday. The cover shot in green mesh izod shirt paired with white tennis shorts and trucker baseball hat is too remarkable. Seems he’d FOUND himself in the 80’s. And the hat didn’t qqquite sit on the head, but rather perched pride-of-place atop a super coif. My young pal observed that the storied greedy eighties really were excessive… ‘in the eighties you had a hat AND a hairdo.’ Ha.” There’s something so wonderfully random and detailed about this missive — like reading someone’s diary in real time.
Back in Topanga, it’s approaching 7 p.m. and still in the upper 90s. Zellweger has to drive all the way to Bakersfield to pick up her dogs. They stay there with her vet-tech friend DeAnn when she’s out of town. We pile into her black Jeep so she can drive me back to my hotel in Beverly Hills and then shove on down the 5 into the desert. But first she’s got to back out onto Topanga Canyon Boulevard in rush-hour traffic. She’s got the Beatles on the stereo (“I listen to the Beatles every day. Don’t you?”) and she’s inching out onto the shoulder, looking left, then right, then left again, waiting for an opening. Why a Jeep, I ask. “Mudslides.” And then funnier, in a thick Texas accent: “Muuuuuudsliiiiiides.” Did you have to escape the fires last fall?
“Yes, I evacuated. Dogs in a van and off we went. Had to leave for a week. I’ve never done that before, where you play the what-do-I-take-with-me game. Very interesting exercise. I became an increasingly superficial person as the threat diminished. By 5 a.m. I was like: I want those boots! Because you start with, you know, the dogs. And then I grabbed my dad’s old typewriter that I used to write my grandparents letters on onion paper. And then I cleared out the desk drawers, because that’s where the important papers are. And of course, I have my two bags ready to go at all times.” She’s still trying to back out onto the boulevard. “Didn’t I tell you that if we left during rush hour we wouldn’t get anywhere anyway? Look to the right. Innit that the giggle?” At long last, there’s an opening with enough space for this high-risk maneuver. “ Look out, world!” she says as she floors it and we lurch in reverse out into traffic. She waves to the cars that have had to slow their ride to let her out. “Soooorrrry, everybody. Thank you, America!
“That’s me,” she says, pointing out her road. “I live way over that ridge. Way over.” What made her buy this particular house? “Location. It feels a little bit like West Texas. It’s really remote. I like that it’s solitude and silence. There’s no cell service up there, so there’s a different kind of peace that you don’t know you’re missing.” Earlier, we’d gotten into a conversation about the fact that we were both raised by practical fathers, men who liked to tinker and fix things, who taught us how to build a fence and change the carburetor on a Dodge Dart. “The things that our fathers nurtured in us seem to matter up there,” she says, gesturing toward the ridge. “I have to clean up messes and solve problems. I have to deal with the generator and the septic system and the water tank.”
The Oscar Zellweger won for Cold Mountain was for playing Ruby, a tough, capable country girl who taught Nicole Kidman how to build fences, how to snap a chicken’s neck and cook it for dinner. Strangely enough, that character is much closer to Zellweger than those dizzy, solipsistic Bridget Jones types. When the apocalypse comes — when a real fire rears up and burns everything down — I hope I’m with Renée Zellweger, siphoning gas out of cars and eating candy bars to stay alive — trying to figure out how to start over.