The first time I met Renée Zellweger, in 1996, I was covering the Sundance Film Festival for the Austin American-Statesman, my first job as a film critic. I was set to interview her directly after the premiere of her new indie film “The Whole Wide World.” When she heard where I was from, she ran up the theater aisle and jumped into my arms, delivering a whoop and an ecstatic bear hug (or, more accurately, a Texas Longhorn hug).
Zellweger had just heard that she’d been cast opposite Tom Cruise in a little romantic comedy titled “Jerry Maguire” — a star-making moment straight out of the classic Hollywood small-town-girl-makes-good playbook. Back in Austin, Zellweger, who went to the University of Texas and grew up outside Houston in Katy, was a known quantity, her reputation already burnished by appearances in locally filmed indies (she had bit parts in “Reality Bites” and Richard Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused”). Soon, along with Cruise’s character, the rest of America would fall in love with one of the most beguiling, down-to-earth personae to hit the screen since Jean Arthur.
The day I met Zellweger, her future seemed thrown down before her like a veritable yellow brick road. It wound up leading her to two Oscar nominations (“Chicago” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary”), one win (for her supporting performance in “Cold Mountain”), and multiple high-profile collaborations — some better than others, a few downright dismal — with everyone from Ron Howard to George Clooney and Ed Harris.
So it’s somehow appropriate, nearly a quarter-century later, that Zellweger and I meet again, during another annual cinematic gathering — the Toronto International Film Festival — at what seems to be yet another pivot point in her career. In “Judy,” opening Friday, she portrays middle-aged Judy Garland in an electrifying star turn, fusing her own face, body and singing voice with the screen icon’s to find an interpretive creation all her own. It’s a startling, magnificent performance, full of belting bravado and softer shadings of nuance and pathos. And, with “Judy’s” flashbacks to Garland’s own distress as a young actress being molded by the Hollywood studio system, it feels full circle in more ways than one.
“At that point, I didn’t know what I didn’t know,” Zellweger recalls of her giddy, can-you-believe-this? excitement at Sundance. Her hair pulled back in a messy-perfect ponytail, she still has that raspy Texas drawl, and she fiddles with a big gold statement ring that occasionally resides on her right index finger. “I knew what I didn’t want. I knew what I wasn’t going to do. I knew that I wasn’t interested in going down the road of the stereotypical young sexy girl. I knew that getting off that road, once you’d traveled a certain distance, wasn’t easy to do.
“And I didn’t want to court attention,” she continues. “I hired a PR person to keep that away. ‘Please say no, because I don’t want to sit on the (talk-show) couch, I’m not ready for what that brings.’ So I pushed that away for a very long time.”
Listening to Zellweger describe her days as a newly minted star, it’s bittersweet to reflect on her character in “Judy,” who as a young girl (played by Darci Shaw) is routinely manipulated by MGM chief Louis B. Mayer into sacrificing her own health, well-being and instincts. It’s a lack of agency, Zellweger notes, that was common not just within the dictatorial studio system, but throughout society. “In any professional realm, you could pretty much assume that was the imbalance in the power dynamic with men and women.”
For her, those sequences in “Judy” are of a young girl being robbed “of the ability to acknowledge her own value.”
Zellweger admits that she had her own run-ins with powers-that-be: “There were things about me that there would be meetings about,” she recalls. “‘What are we going to do about ... ?’ Because it didn’t fit some paradigm or something.”
The difference between her and Garland, she observes, is that the doubts of others never made her feel insecure.
“It always came back to the work for me. I was more interested in not disappointing my collaborators. Because, where Judy was made to feel that she would be replaced if she didn’t measure up to whatever it was they decided her image was going to be in order that they should market her in a successful way, I wanted (‘Jerry Maguire’ director) Cameron Crowe to know that I was grateful for the opportunity.”
But terminal gratitude is another quintessentially female disease, a form of self-abnegation that can be as reflexive, if not as toxic, as the demons Garland grapples with toward the end of her life in “Judy.”
Zellweger says that “there were times when I recognized that what I was giving away — in terms of the things I would say yes to because I saw it as reciprocity or just showing gratitude for the opportunities and wanting to hold up my end of the deal professionally — I would recognize that the things I was giving away personally were of pretty great value to me. And that when you piled them up, the sum of those things is pretty costly.
“But it’s all hindsight, isn’t it? You can’t recognize it when you’re in the mix of things, because you feel like this is the appropriate thing to do. ‘I’m paying my dues.’”
In 2010, Zellweger took a step back, turning down roles, going back to school, traveling to visit family, advocating for gender equality and breast cancer awareness, and helping her dear friend and publicist, Nanci Ryder, as she battled the amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) that would take her life earlier this year.
“It was (about) having not taken inventory of life in a long time,” she explains of the hiatus. “And what I needed at that time as a person.”
And, she is quick to remind, it wasn’t like she was on vacation. “I just worked in a different capacity that was private, that didn’t require going away from home so much and that enabled a little bit more consistency in my life.” She prepared to star in “Bridget Jones’s Baby,” which came out in 2016, and created a television series (never picked up) titled “Cinnamon Girl.”
Still, the inevitable pressure ensued, she says, adding that her advisers would tell her, “‘Stop talking about taking time off! Stop saying that, because people will believe you.’ And I was thinking, ‘Well, I’m not making it up!’”
During her break, when she emerged for a rare public event, her face seemed to have changed so drastically that social media went haywire with speculation about plastic surgery, an episode that led Zellweger to write an eloquent essay for HuffPost defending her right to privacy within “our current culture of unsolicited transparency.”
Who knows for sure? Who cares? Let the record reflect that today Renée Zellweger looks exactly like one would expect a 50-year-old version of Renée Zellweger to look: still crinkly twinkly eyed, apple-cheeked, the bee-stung smile intact. Happy.
And, let it reflect that Zellweger also looks vindicated. Her choice to favor self-care and meaningful relationships over conventional career advancement — a choice Judy Garland was never afforded — has gotten her here, to yet another role of a lifetime that marks a personal and professional watershed, not to mention the inevitable Oscar buzz that has swirled since “Judy” began making the festival rounds.
It’s a funny business, a woman’s career — the things you drop to get up the ladder fast, it turns out you didn’t have to drop at all.
Zellweger’s advice to anyone looking for fame, fortune, health and well-being? “If you can, go adopt some dogs,” she says simply. “Because you will be there to walk them.”