LONDON — Renee Zellweger sat drinking her tea like most Londoners do in the afternoon. She was "in training" for her starring role in the film, "Bridget Jones's Diary." Based on Helen Fielding's international bestseller, it's the story of a single 30-year-old trying to take control of her life. Bridget is original, overly frank, and occasionally audacious. She's also British.
"I knew how popular Bridget was to the British readers, so I moved to London two months before filming began," Zellweger says. "I wanted to familiarize myself with the character, as well as the social and cultural references. I observed a lot, slipped into certain mannerisms, listened closely to the different dialects in the city, and worked a bit so I'd understand what her daily responsibilities were at her job at the publishing house."
The actress also went to a nutritionist to help put on a few pounds. She ordered extra scones, clotted cream, and jam. Bridget has a rounded figure - at least 20 pounds heavier than Zellweger's normal weight.
While in London, Zellweger enjoyed the quiet. "I spent every Sunday having brunch at Harvey Nichols and wasn't interrupted with autograph-seeking fans," she says. "Even when I worked at the publishing house as a publicist, no one recognized me. I went home after that first day and shouted, 'Yeah! They don't know who I am.' "
Then, Zellweger paused. She had played opposite Tom Cruise in "Jerry Maguire," Jim Carrey in "Me, Myself & Irene," and won awards for "Nurse Betty," yet no one in London knew her? Was that good?
Her usual sunny smile returned, and she conceded, "Isn't that what I want, for people to see me as Bridget Jones, not Renee Zellweger?"
She didn't have any time to ruminate. "I was taking speech lessons twice a day with a wonderful coach, a real speech guru, Barbara Berkery. She was so strict. She insisted I retain the accent all the time - even when I wasn't at the studio. She quickly became 'Iron Fist Barbara;' she was so persnickety."
The laughing Zellweger stopped to explain, "That's one of my favorite words from the South. (She's a Texan). Persnickety means very, very particular. She didn't let me slide on anything! She was 'Cruel Baba.' "
During her prep time, the actress, just like Bridget, took a job as a publicist at the publishing house that handled Fielding's books. "My first task was to check out the newspapers - and in London there are many - clipping any article that mentioned one of their books."
"The first clipping was, and I've memorized this, 'How can that ... Texas comic from America play our popular British heroine, Bridget Jones?'
"That was OK. I understood it. Having spent time in England, and seeing how much smaller their film market is, there would be fewer opportunities for talented English actresses. Certainly to play Bridget Jones was a plum."
We picked up our talk when Zellweger returned to Los Angeles. She reminded me, "Don't think I didn't have fun on the film. I did. The scene where I slide down the brass pole at the fire station was something I'd always wanted to do as a kid in Houston. I've never played a character so physically involved in the scenes...."
Everyone who has seen the movie knows she rose to the challenge. Her co-star, Hugh Grant, concedes, "I too raised an eyebrow when I learned an American was playing Bridget. I remember thinking, how weird? Then, I met Renee, and I thought she was an English girl. She spoke the dialect perfectly, on and off camera.
"At the wrap party, when I heard her talking in her natural Houston accent, I wanted to call security - I thought they'd let in the wrong girl," Grant says.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor