To celebrate Renée Zellweger’s win for Best Actress for Judy, here is the story I did on her for Vanity Fair. I love the comeback she’s had portraying a woman who had so many comebacks herself she at times seemed to be portraying a woman having a comeback as she was having them. It was that layered Pirandello-like aspect of Renée’s portrayal that fascinated me. And yet she transcended the meta-ness by mining something deeper. It was not an impersonation. It was not even the essence of a star she captured; it was an essence of the woman. The daughter of immigrants, Renée – like Joaquin – in her own way called for commonality in this deeply divided moment in our country. She found in that sense what was common in Judy – her humanness – and like Judy herself heightened it. I am happy for her.
RUNNING WITH THE STARS, from Vanity Fair‘s September 1997 issue
When she melted Tom Cruise’s heart in Jerry Maguire, Renée Zellweger staked her claim to star status after just three years in Hollywood. As the 28-year-old Texas sensation measures herself against legends such as Faye Dunaway and Shirley MacLaine, KEVIN SESSUMS finds Zellweger bringing both head and heart to her next role, opposite Tim Roth, in a psychological thriller directed by her boyfriend, Josh Pate, and his twin brother, Jonas
Renée Zellweger picks me up in her black Volkswagen Jetta and speeds down Sunset Boulevard toward Hollywood and Vine. We’re on our way to see Faye Dunaway as Maria Callas in Master Class at U.C.L.A.’s Doolittle Theater. It is Dunaway’s first performance of the play in Hollywood after an extensive American tour, and I have arranged for us to visit her backstage afterward. Just as Dunaway staked her claim for movie stardom by capturing Warren Beatty’s heart in Bonnie and Clyde, Zellweger, 30 years later, did the same thing by capturing Tom Cruise’s in Jerry Maguire.
“This is the first play I’ve ever seen,” Zellweger says, chewing her gum and working the Volkswagen’s clutch with her spike-heeled sandal. “Never had the opportunity. It wasn’t something that happened—you know, Faye Dunaway coming through Katy,” she continues, naming her small Texas hometown. I look around the interior of the Volkswagen in an attempt to disguise my shock at such an admission, and realize she’s cleaned it up since our visit yesterday. All the dog hair has been vacuumed out and the varied debris hidden away in the trunk, along with the Spalding basketball she keeps back there in case she spots the rare occurrence of a pickup game going on in West Hollywood, where she, the perfect little point guard, lives in a tiny apartment above a garage. Instead of her beloved and shedding pet, Dylan, a collie-Labrador mix, the backseat now holds a bouquet of white roses Zellweger has brought along to present to Dunaway. She has gussied herself up a bit as well. For our hike up Runyon Canyon last evening she wore a pair of cutoff University of Texas sweatpants, a shrunken T-shirt that exposed just enough of her belly button, old sneakers, and not a speck of makeup. Tonight, however, her lipstick is perfectly applied and her lithe body has been expertly squeezed into an Alaïa-like long dress.
“Do you know anything about Maria Callas?” I ask.
“I know she died the same year as Elvis.”
It’s time, I decide, to change the subject from the Texan’s cultural heritage.
So: How does she plan to navigate, as Dunaway has had to, the question of aging in this town? “For me, I’ll be fine,” she says, gunning the engine and shooting through a yellow light. “To me there is nothing more beautiful than a woman who ages—No! I won’t use that word! There’s nothing more beautiful than a woman who embraces her maturity and the respect that comes along with it. I’m not looking forward to the experience myself on that level, because the emphasis here is for the female to be young, to be fresh,” she continues, pronouncing the word as if she were referring to a vegetable she doesn’t want to eat.
We pull into a parking lot just north of Hollywood Boulevard, but our walk up Vine toward the theater is slowed by Zellweger’s displeasure at having strapped herself into those spike-heeled sandals. “This girl stuff sucks,” she says, gingerly stepping on the names of the stars in the sidewalk—Mae West, Charlie Tuna, the Three Stooges, Ava Gardner. Atop Art Linkletter, she stops and adjusts a strap.
Lively. Dedicated. Friendly” is actor Tim Roth’s succinct reply when I ask him for a description of Zellweger, who co-stars with him in the upcoming psychological thriller tentatively called Liar, written and directed by the Pate twins, Josh and Jonas. Zellweger plays a prostitute—a role that has become part of the professional hazing that Hollywood seems to put most of its actresses through. (In another new film, director Boaz Yakin’s A Price Below Rubies, the 28-year-old really proves her mettle. Co-starring with ER’s Julianna Margulies, Zellweger must mask all her Texas mannerisms as she portrays a Hasidic Jewish woman who comes of age in modern Manhattan.)
“What about her little-girl moxie?” I ask Roth. “She’s got a sweetness-and-swagger way about her.”
“A lot of that is a defense,” he says. “Renée is a grown woman. But it’s kind of nerve-racking being around the film industry, at the best of times.”
In the decades between Faye Dunaway’s first taste of stardom and Zellweger’s, the “art” of moviemaking has devolved in inverse proportion to the technical wizardry that is possible today. Every aspect has grown louder, dumber, lewder. Ironically, though, the female palette has remained the same. Back in that world of Fayes and Fondas and Julie Christies, there was always a Mia—gamine, for sure, but boss enough to bop the chairman of the board. Now, in a world of Umas and Kidmans and Emma Thompsons, here is this young woman with an even odder name—a pixie, perhaps, but one who can handle a pickax. Zellweger is, in fact, the newest version of America’s sweetheart, proving just how far we’ve come since Mary Pickford, who won her first Oscar for 1929’s Coquette. There is nothing coquettish about Ms. Zellweger; such a term only embarrasses her. She’s modernly accessible. “America’s sweetheart!” she exclaims. “It sounds as if I should be riding on a float in the Rose Bowl parade. My goodness. I wouldn’t think about myself that way at all.”
“While Renée is beautiful, she doesn’t come on as a strong knockout,” says one of Jerry Maguire’s producers, Laurence Mark. “She has this great Everywoman quality.”
“I was looking for the spirit of Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment when I was casting the role of Dorothy Boyd,” says Jerry Maguire’s writer and director, Cameron Crowe. “We talked about Shirley MacLaine a lot,” reiterates writer and director James L. Brooks, who served as lead producer of Jerry Maguire. Brooks, whose past creations include Terms of Endearment, Broadcast News, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, was very involved in the casting and editing. “We wanted that kind of spirit and rawness. That rawness Renée had with Tom caused an amazing alchemy,” he tells me from the set of his upcoming film, Old Friends. “She brought the audience into the movie.”
“When we screened it for the first time, I got broadsided by Renée’s performance,” admits Crowe. “She made me cry. I stood up—there were only four editors in the room—and said, ‘I would like to make an announcement now: Renée Zellweger!’ . . . Something I realized in the editing room was how truly and refreshingly lacking in technique Renée is. . . . We did some extra shots later, and I was curious to have some different versions of her ‘You had me at hello’ line. I always saw it as something offhanded, but Renée did it differently. I wanted it more like Shirley MacLaine saying, ‘Shut up and deal.’ Tom was there off-camera, doing the whole speech about ‘You complete me.’ Renée did about 15 different takes. Finally I had the one that I wanted. I saw her go into the fake kitchen, sit down, and basically shudder. Tom came in and saw her sitting there. He was leaving for the day, but smiled and said, ‘Renée, just think, we’ll be together forever.’ He gave her this great wave goodbye. And she fell apart.”
After appearing in three films back in Austin while attending the University of Texas—Love and a .45, Dazed and Confused, and The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (the last two with her classmate Matthew McConaughey)— Zellweger moved to Los Angeles. Within 18 months of arriving, she got her first starring role, opposite Vincent D’Onofrio in The Whole Wide World, the critically acclaimed film biography of the pulp-fiction writer Robert E. Howard, who created Conan the Barbarian. In the film, she played Novalyne Price, the young Texas schoolteacher who was the object of the writer’s sweet, crazed affection. Her performance-steely, sexy, surefooted—got Hollywood buzzing, and she was one of the first actresses casting director Gail Levin called in to read for Crowe. After putting her through four auditions and a screen test, the director was still not convinced that she was the correct choice. It was during one of Cruise’s costume checks that she nailed the part for herself. At her screen test, in which she and Cruise were doing the scene where he goes to her house drunk after being fired from his job, Crowe had Cruise surprise the young actress by fondling her breasts without informing her beforehand. She took the pass with aplomb, jokingly threatening to call her lawyer. Cruise’s costume check, however, was payback time.
“It is largely the reason we hired her, though the piece of film has now disappeared from my office,” says Crowe. “We were trying out some clothes on Tom. He was just standing there. Renée had already finished her scene and was about to leave. She ran onto the set and jumped into the shot with Tom. She put her arm around him and did a Texas-Renée kind of pose—really laughing at all of us and the whole situation. Her projectile laugh will catch you by surprise. In that one little piece of film, you see Tom startled that someone would be that loose around him. They just looked like an oddly great couple. That was the one piece of film that we went back to and said, ‘You know what? That’s not a “Hollywood” couple. That girl makes Tom more real.’ That’s how she got hired.”
Was TriStar, the studio financing Jerry Maguire, nervous about casting such an unknown? “No, their first reaction was relief that it would keep the movie from becoming even more expensive,” says Crowe, alluding to Zellweger’s salary of only a few hundred thousand dollars, compared with Cruise’s $20 million.
After less than three years in Hollywood, Zellweger had snagged the most coveted female part in the business. There’s got to be more than luck and talent involved. Based on that timetable, she must be one of the most ambitious women ever to hit the city limits of a place where ambition—not collagen or silicone—is the most important ingredient in a struggling actress’s makeup. “Renée, I’m sure, is as ambitious as anyone else out here, but her ambition is purely for the work. She’s already turned down big studio movies—and they were offering her seven figures,” says one of her best friends, Whole Wide Worlds director, Dan Ireland. Zellweger is slated to receive her first big paycheck very soon, for she has agreed to portray Meryl Streep’s daughter in the film adaptation of Anna Quindlen’s novel One True Thing, to be directed by Carl Franklin. They hope to start filming this fall.
“It all depends on what it is you are ambitious about,” says Zellweger. “For me, it is not an ambition to acquire one thing—power or status—or to advance in any way professionally. I knew early on that there were experiences out there and adventures and lessons to learn. … If you open your eyes in this town and make yourself available to learn from what you see, it’s amazing. It’s taught me who I don’t want to be. You can see a lot of negativity here. A lot of blind ambition. Especially in my business, there are so many people who want to acquire what they perceive you can reap at the end of having reached a certain goal. So they don’t enjoy the journey. They don’t even want the journey.”
Dylan jumps out of the Volkswagen and races up Runyon Canyon. Zellweger, plastic bag in hand, chases after her, diligently picking up after the dog. “Woofer!” she calls as the animal stops to sniff at the roots of an anise. “Come on, pretty girl!” she says, and we all stride up the steep incline toward the canyon’s summit, where a full moon is rising right in front of our faces.
Cameron Crowe has cited Zellweger’s relationship with her dog as proof—however corny—that she could convincingly portray a mother on-screen. At first I had considered such a comparison a bit of a stretch, but as I watch their interaction it is clear how much she and the animal love each other. The relationship is maternal, shepherd-like, shared.
All of Los Angeles is spread out before us when we reach the top of the canyon, but miles of smog smother the view. The moon is no match for such smog and doesn’t so much disappear behind its haze as blend, defeated, into it. “On a clear day you can usually see the ocean from up here,” Zellweger says, surveying the sight for something to show me. “There’s Madonna’s house,” she says, pointing eastward. “The one she had to sell because of the stalker.”
“Do you miss Texas sunsets?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says quietly.
Renée Zellweger is the result of romantic genes. Her Swiss-born father grew up in Australia. Her mother is Norwegian. “My mom always wanted to live in the States. She longed to be in New York or Hollywood or someplace in the Deep South where it would be hot, because she was tired of being cold. She was a nurse over in Norway, and a job came up in Houston. Before moving over here, she took a trip to Denmark with a girlfriend. My father was traveling there with a group of his friends from Australia. They were all on the same boat to Denmark with my mom. He asked her what her plans were after the trip, and she told him she was going to Houston. He told her that he would be there when he was finished with his trip, too. And he was. Weird, huh? It’s all about destiny, I guess. Quite romantic. . . . My father’s an engineer, and they have to go where they’re building the refineries. They’re always in these industrial settings, and they both come from some of the most beautiful places in the world. Right now they’re in a little town in Louisiana.”
Zellweger loved growing up in Texas and still goes back as much as she can to Austin and to Dallas, to visit her older brother, Drew, a marketing manager, whom she idolized as a child. “He played baseball, so I wanted to play baseball. But I didn’t just want to play—I wanted to be on his team. I’m sure he loved little Renée on his heels. We fought all the time, and he beat the hell out of me. I was so active. Loved sports. Loved to play in the dirt. I’m still a tomboy.”
In high school Zellweger was a basketball player, track star, and football cheerleader. By the time she reached the University of Texas she had calmed down enough to concentrate on her studies, majoring in English. She now spends much of her free time between films honing her writing skills. “I’ve had a story on my mind for a couple of years. I guess you could say I started on it yesterday, because I went and bought my first computer. I’ve never been on the Internet. Wouldn’t even know how to start to E-mail anybody. I can move and set up all the systems in an apartment, can change the oil in my car, change the tires—no problem—but I don’t know how to get E-mail.”
“Considering your European ancestry, do you speak many languages?” I ask.
“My parents speak six languages, but I speak only Texan. … I definitely feel at home in the South—any southern state—all of them. I feel more lonely in the city. I love to go someplace where there’s no sound except the wind and the trees. I do that whenever I can, just get in the car and drive.”
On her most recent trek south she took along her new boyfriend, Josh Pate, who co-directed her next film. Though an actress-and-director pairing is as formulaic as Hollywood love affairs can get, this one surprised many in their circle in West Hollywood. “It never occurred to me that we would be more than friends. He’s convinced that I’m lying when I say that. He says he knew, and that I knew subconsciously. He’s my age, too, which is the first time that’s happened. . . . He’s from the Carolinas, and I just went down there with him. I got so many chiggers,” she good-naturedly complains, showing me what’s left of the itchy red bumps on her arms. “We had so much fun throwing mud in the creek. Then I took him on over to Louisiana and Texas. We called it our white-trash tour.”
“White roses!” exclaims Faye Dunaway, accepting Zellweger’s bouquet as she sweeps open her dressing-room door. “You were awful to come to the first performance.”
“Not at all,” says Zellweger. “I was so excited.”
“She’s very special,” Dunaway says, turning to me as she deposits the flowers on her makeup table. “She’s got the shine.” And so, still, does Dunaway. Her movie-star allure remains devastating, her skin, even under the gel-less lights in her dressing room, as smooth and hard as the r‘s that roll out of Zellweger’s mouth.
“I’ve never seen a play—a professional play—before,” says the young actress. Dunaway grabs her heart and staggers back on her heels. “I can’t believe that!” she bellows, better than Bankhead ever did. “I’d been in about 20 of them before I got to where you are.”
“I tried to do theater in high school,” Zellweger says, “but my coach laughed at me, because I was a girl trying to be a woman.”
“How did you learn to act, then?”
“I guess it was kind of an accident. . . . I basically feel like I’ve been faking it and just haven’t got caught.”
“That’s a natural feeling for this point,” Dunaway says, taking a few steps back toward her guest. “You say to yourself, ‘I didn’t actually do anything to deserve all this attention.’ But remember the joy of this moment. ‘Remember the springtime,'” she says softly, cocking an eyebrow as she quotes a Callas line.
“I just spent some time in New York,” Zellweger tells her. “And I did see my first Broadway show.”
“Which one? A Doll’s House?‘
“No. Beauty and the Beast.”
Dunaway again staggers backward. “Any serious actor worth their salt never goes to a musical. We don’t go.”
“I actually went all by myself and sat in the first row of the balcony,” Zellweger continues, not backing down. “I was awed by it.”
Dunaway softens. “Actually, the very first Broadway production I ever saw was a musical also. I remember it very well, in fact. I saw The Music Man. I was a waitress at the Saranac Inn in New York and was on my way back to college. Why I saw that I have no idea.”
“That’s one of my friend’s mother’s favorites,” Zellweger says. “She always sings that ‘henpecked’ song. How does it go?”
“I can’t remember,” says Dunaway, down there again in her Bankhead register. “Anyway, it’s good to meet you.”
“It’s so nice to meet you, too. I know what it’s like for people to tell you over and over again how wonderful you are in something: ‘It’s fabulous . . . la-da-da-da.’ But honestly …”
Dunaway raises her hand. “Thank you. The tour across the country has been very difficult. But it’s done that to me,” she says, grabbing at her Chanel suit right at gut level and forming a fist of fabric and flesh. “In movies, you just use it up.”
“I know what you mean,” says Zellweger. “On a movie set it’s always ‘Ready: go!’ Or ‘It’s lunchtime, and we’re all ready to eat. O.K., cry? It’s not natural. You can just stand there and not have anything. What do you do when that happens?”
A wan smile nudges at Dunaway’s face. “You’ve just got to hold on to yourself,” she says. “Hang on . . . hang on . . . I remember the exact moment for me when you just think, Why is this happening to me? You want to be careful. I remember it was . . . it is . . . very interesting.” Dunaway pauses, perfectly. She takes the young woman’s hand in her own. “Enjoy it,” she whispers. “You deserve it.”
“It’s like you can read it all over my face,” Zellweger whispers back.
“It’s all there,” says Dunaway, fluttering a hand in front of Zellweger’s small, confused smile. “This first new blush of fame. You take care of yourself.”
I grab Zellweger’s arm and escort her back up the theater’s alley toward the late-night noise of Vine. Her small smile is fading as we head back toward Hollywood Boulevard, those spike-heeled sandals still giving her ankles a workout.
“Good God!” I say, pointing at her feet. “Look!”
There, on the exact spot where she has stopped to adjust her sandal straps, is Shirley MacLaine’s star on the sidewalk in front of the Doolittle Theater. Zellweger acknowledges the coincidence, but the look on her face is one that a grown woman gets that lets a man know that the night is now over. She takes a couple of careful steps past Shirley, but abruptly stops. She kicks off her sandals. Laughing again, she scampers barefoot back over Mae and Charlie, the Stooges, Ava and Art.