Jerry Maguire turned Renée Zellweger into an instant star in 1996, and the Texas-bred actress soon followed her breakout role opposite Tom Cruise with comedies like Nurse Betty and Me, Myself & Irene.
But when it came to what may have been her most memorable role, an entire nation, it seemed, was less than enthused. We are, of course, talking about Zellweger's casting as the eponymous and very British heroine of Helen Fielding’s bestselling 1996 novel Bridget Jones’s Diary. Following a two-year search for an actress to play the relatable London singleton, Zellweger was selected over English actresses like Helena Bonham Carter, Emily Watson, Rachel Weisz and Kate Winslet; Australians Cate Blanchett and Toni Collette were also reportedly considered, as was American Cameron Diaz. Upon news of Zellweger's casting, the British press went apoplectic. “Of all the clunking, Hollywood idiocy,” wrote an Evening Standard columnist in a perfect summation of the U.K. media's consensus sentiment.
For the most part, however, Zellweger was blissfully unaware of the backlash — as she told Yahoo Entertainment about the film, which arrived in theaters 20 years ago today, on April 13, 2001.
To prepare her for the role, the film’s producers enlisted Zellweger to work as a trainee in the publicity department of the London book publisher Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan.
“I was going to work every day,” Zellweger told us during a 2016 Role Recall interview (watch above, with Bridget Jones starting at the 3:12 mark). “I would start with a dialect coach and then I’d go to work at Picador and do my tasks around the office. And then I’d break for lunch, and work on the dialect some more, and do some more work at Picador, and then I would prepare for whatever rehearsal we had that night. So I didn’t know about it.
“There were a couple things that I picked up closer to the time we filmed because part of my job or ‘work experience,’ as they said, at the publishers was to clip any clippings in the media that had to do with the authors that Picador-Macmillan represent. And they represent Helen Fielding. So every now and then something would pop up and I would see ‘Crap American Comedian Playing English Icon,’ and I’d have to cut it out and go put it in the file.”
Even then, Zellweger was unaware the scope of the negative coverage, which became so pervasive that costar Hugh Grant publicly defended her.
“I thought it was just a tiny little thing. I didn’t realize just how widespread this controversy was,” she said. “I mean, I understand it. I get it.”
Zellweger, who also added 20 pounds for the role, won over any doubters when the film was released in 2001.
She earned her first of four Oscar nominations for her engaging, deeply charming performance (she has won twice, for Cold Mountain and Judy) — but perhaps even more triumphantly, also earned a nomination from the British Academy Film Awards (BAFTA Awards).
Zellweger later reprised the character in the sequels Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2004) and Bridget Jones’s Baby (2016).
Not bad for a casting once embroiled in controversy. As Zellweger says now, “I’m glad I didn’t know at the time.”
Stream Bridget Jones’s Diary on Amazon Prime.
Watch Renée Zellweger talk about playing Judy Garland:
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