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Renee Zellweger - Biography

TalkTalk have created this exclusive biography of Renee Zellweger - we believe it to be the most comprehensive on the web

Renee Zellweger

Personal details

Name: Renee Zellweger
Born: 25 April 1969 (Age: 46)
Where: Houston, Texas, USA
Height: 5' 5"
Awards: Won 1 Oscar, 1 BAFTA and 3 Golden Globes

All about this star


All of a sudden, Renee Zellweger is a star. And not just a star - she's spoken of in informed circles as the newest version of America's Sweetheart, like Mary Pickford decades before. The film that broke her was Cameron Crowe's Jerry Maguire, where her sweet rasp and expressive features saw her as a perfect romantic foil for Tom Cruise's panicked and morally tested sports agent. Her simple reply to his final, long and impassioned plea for forgiveness - "You had me at Hello" - won over a massive audience, lifting her to the status of genuine top-of-the-bill material. Since then, she has not looked back, in 2003 entering the Top 10 of the biggest box-office stars in the world.

Renee Kathleen Zellweger was born on April 25th, 1969, in Katy, a suburb of Houston, Texas. Her father Emil, is Swiss, his mother and father, Emil and Dorothy, first raising him in Au, in the canton of St Gallen, close to the Bodensee and the border with Austria. But, the family having remained in Switzerland to avoid WW2, he spent the latter part of his youth in Australia, at one point serving as a lifeguard on Sydney's Cronulla Beach. Renee's mother Kjelfrid, meanwhile, was born in the far north of Norway, when the country was under Nazi occupation. Renee has described them as "lazy Catholics and Episcopalians". How their near-40-year marriage began is a high romance in itself. Mum was a nurse in Norway, but always pined for warmer climes, eventually securing a job in Houston. Before departing she took a vacation with a girlfriend to neighbouring Denmark and, while onboard a boat en route to their holiday destination, she met Dad, also on a trip with his pals. He asked what she was doing next, she told him and he explained that he would be in Houston too (he'd by then become a US citizen), and would meet her there. She didn't really believe him but, as a nomadic engineer, constantly travelling to work on new refineries, he was there, and he did meet her.

Renee grew up in Katy, along with her older brother Andrew, known as Drew and now a marketing manager in the wine industry (Renee's own nickname is Zelly). She'd follow Drew everywhere, wanting to join in with everything, even baseball, and was something of a tomboy. She was very active, at Junior High joining in with the boys at soccer, basketball, baseball and even football. At age 8 she'd try tap and ballet lessons for a couple of weeks, but quickly packed it in and returned to the field sports she loved. At Katy High School she continued in this active vein, adding to her CV cheerleading (she still loves the Dallas Cowboys) and gymnastics - indeed, two of her early heroines were Nadia Comaneci and Olga Korbut. She enjoyed acting too, joining the Drama Club (again, she was copying her brother, though he soon quit).

Outside of school, Emil taught her many of life's more practical lessons - how to change the tyres, replace the oil and fix the brakes of a car being just a few. When she was 9, the family would together build a house from scratch, with Renee helping to wire it up, dig the septic system, build the foundations and tile the walls and floors. This self-reliance would help her immeasurably in her pre-success years of struggle. It would also lend her a certain Everygirl appeal, and make her all the more convincing in such efforts as Cold Mountain.

Graduating from High School in 1987, she enrolled at the University of Texas in Austin. With thoughts of becoming a journalist, she studied English but, having to take a drama class to fulfil a fine arts requirement, she rediscovered the stage. She supported herself by taking a series of waitressing jobs, at 18 working at Sugar's Go-Go bar in Austin, serving drinks in a tight skirt and tiny top while Sapphic pleasures were simulated onstage. She'd always been a looker, indeed she was consistently voted best-looking in her class at High School, but turned down an offer to dance topless at Sugar's. She had better things in mind - one old boyfriend claimed she was always waiting for Mr Right.

At college she was noted as a fine student, on several occasions making the Dean's List. Graduating in 1991 with a BA (majoring in RTF - radio, television and film), she considered moving directly to Hollywood but, being as Texas is traditionally a favoured filming location and the early Nineties were a particularly booming period, she decided to stay and seek experience in her home state. Her first pro job was in a beef commercial, but the film roles soon started coming.

She appeared - incredibly briefly - in Richard Linklater's hilarious Seventies teen comedy Dazed And Confused. This led her into the independent film world, and saw her working for the first time with two future co-stars, Rory Cochrane and Matthew McConaughey, McConaughey having been a classmate at college (Ben Affleck was in it too). She then got a bit-part in a TV movie, A Taste For Killing, starring Michael Biehn as a closet psycho causing mayhem on an oil-rig. Next came another tiny part, in Murder In The Heartland, a new take on Badlands where Tim Roth (another future co-star) played the infamous killer Charles Starkweather and led 14-year-old Fairuza Balk on a killing spree. Then there was a zombie-comedy, Bob Balaban's My Boyfriend's Back - featuring an early sighting of Philip Seymour Hoffman - where a kid came back from the dead to woo a girl he's fancied for years and, despite his decomposed state, she goes for it. On a more highbrow, though not necessarily more entertaining note, she'd also pop up in Ben Stiller's Gen X drama Reality Bites. And there'd be another brief appearance in John Avildsen's 8 Seconds, a biopic of 1987 Bull Riding champion Lane Frost, played by Luke Perry.

Now the parts got bigger - though the films remained resolutely low-budget. First a headline role came up in The Return Of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, written and directed by Kim Henkel, co-writer of the original 1974 classic, and intended as the "real" sequel. Here Renee took the Marilyn Burns role of ever-terrorised victim, fleeing from McConaughey's sadistic Vilmer and, naturally, Leatherface, and pulling off such resourceful escapes as leaping from a roof onto a clothes-line. Unfortunately, despite the presence of these fresh and unusually talented young leads and the perennially popular super-villain, the movie would not see a proper release till 1997. Intended to milk the newfound status of Zellweger and McConaughey, it would then be retitled The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 4: The Next Generation.

It was while on the set of TCM4 that Zellweger heard tell of what would be her next project, to be filmed around Austin by Texan director CM Talkington. This was Love And A .45, a bloody slapstick satire on the current burst of violent road movies like Kalifornia, True Romance and Natural Born Killers. Here Gil Bellows (later to find fame with Ally McBeal) played an incompetent robber who's forced to go on the run when his druggy partner blows away a clerk. Joining him on the road was his trailer-trash girlfriend, Starlene (Renee), a na've and charming girl who reveals a frightening viciousness as she comes to enjoy a notoriety that makes her feel like Bonnie Parker. The pair are entertaining enough on their own, but extra joy is brought by their fantastically frenetic hit-men pursuers, one of whom is the brilliant Jeffrey Combs from Re-Animator.

Though this chaotic, hilarious and brutal movie was ludicrously overlooked by most, it did earn Zellweger a nomination as Best Newcomer at the Independent Spirit awards. By then, in 1994, she'd already moved to Hollywood to try her luck, for some time renting cheap and vile apartments and using her handywoman skills to do them up.

She did not have to wait long for work. The TV movie Shake, Rattle And Rock! gave her another lead as a cute, red-headed, all-American teenager in the Fifties who, enthused by the rock'n'roll explosion, forms The Eggrolls. Battling against the sex- and race-prejudice of the time, she struggles to get the band on her favourite TV show, all the while being coolly courted by a rocker from the wrong side of the tracks, played by John Doe of the real-life punk band X. Once again the movie was not a major hit, but Renee revealed true spunk and charisma, particularly when taking to the stage and singing (though in this case her voice was dubbed).

Along with this came another indie hit in Empire Records. This involved an independent record store threatened by a major chain takeover and, once employee Rory Cochrane has gambled the takings away at Atlantic City, by financial collapse. Liv Tyler would play an assistant so obsessed with a perfect appearance she becomes hooked on diet pills, while Renee was the promiscuous Gina, unsure whether to embrace her sluttish reputation or ape her friend's perfectionism. Both girls throw themselves at visiting has-been pop personality Maxwell Caulfield but, naturally, it's Gina who bangs him in the backroom, with the rest of the staff listening in.

It was all a bit too crazy for its own good, with Renee in particular being thrust into some ludicrous confrontations, but she came out of it well. Along with Starlene, Gina proved she need not be restricted to cutesy roles. And, after a pop-up performance in the slacker drama-comedy The Low Life, again starring Cochrane and directed by George Hickenlooper (who'd just directed Billy Bob Thornton's short film Some Folks Call It A Sling Blade, soon to be remade as Sling Blade), she came to her major breakthrough. Or rather the part that led to her major breakthrough.

In The Whole Wide World, Renee played Novalyne Price Ellis, a straight-laced small-town schoolteacher in the 30s who begins a relationship with Robert E. Howard, the depressive, mother-fixated fantasy author, best known for creating Conan The Barbarian. Played by Vincent D'Onofrio, Howard lives almost entirely in his own head and lacks any kind of social grace, attributes that appeal to Ellis, the pair engaging in a deep emotional relationship that teeters on the edge of romance. Renee got the part because Olivia D'Abo fell pregnant, but she was superb in her first "grown-up" role, receiving another Independent Spirit nomination, this time as Best Actress.

Beyond this, The Whole Wide World went down well at the Sundance Festival of 1996, bringing her to the attention of Cameron Crowe and producer James Brooks, then casting for Jerry Maguire. She was actually attending the wedding of her first love when she got the news that the film's star Tom Cruise wanted to meet her. Renee eventually nabbed the role from Winona Ryder, Bridget Fonda and Mira Sorvino, securing the part through an unusual costume check. During her check, they decided to test her by having Cruise unexpectedly grab her breasts. She wasn't thrown, joking that she'd set her lawyer on them. But then, during Cruise's check, she leapt into shot, posing with him like they were High School buddies, and laughing at the shocked look on everyone's face - NO ONE does that to Tom Cruise. Crowe and Brooks though were hugely impressed, not least by Cruise's evident surprise. "That girl makes Tom more real", said Brooks. She was in.

Everybody loved her as the young single mother who places her trust, love and financial wellbeing in the hands of Cruise's initially washed-up sports agent. She could have gone for the big bucks - indeed, she turned down $1 million to star in Godzilla - but the independent-minded Renee went for the classy productions instead. Quite a brave choice given that she'd yet to make any big money. Indeed, while filming Jerry Maguire, she was living in an apartment on Huntley Drive thats carpets had turned to dust (she'd of course re-do the whole place). In A Price Above Rubies she was an unhappily married woman denied sexual and intellectual satisfaction in the Brooklyn Hassidic community. Seeking escape through working in the jewellery business and finding love with an artist, she only digs herself deeper into trouble as she fails to adapt to the patriarchal society surrounding her. After the sweet sentiment of Jerry Maguire, she was here inward-looking and driven - yet more proof of her widening abilities.

Her next venture saw her mostly in flashback when her dismembered corpse is found in two separate locations and brilliant textiles heir Tim Roth plays cat-and-mouse with police interrogators. Renee played a vulnerable and very human prostitute who's picked up by Roth and introduced to polite society, resulting in his disinheritance - but who topped her?

Then came another challenge in One True Thing, where she was a journalist daughter asked by her big-shot writer dad (William Hurt) to give up her career and look after her cancer-ridden mum (Meryl Streep). Slowly she recognises the massive selfishness of the father she's always worshipped, and the worth of a mother whose love she's never valued. Alongside Streep and Hurt, she was in high-quality company, but was not overshadowed, even by Streep's fraught, Oscar-nominated performance.

Constantly on the search for varying material, she then stepped into the light (very light) comedy, The Bachelor. An update of Buster Keaton's 1925 silent Seven Chances, this saw Chris O'Donnell as a guy who cannot commit to a relationship, eventually proposing to girlfriend Renee with a less-than-romantic "You win". Quite reasonably she turns him down, and does so again when granddad Peter Ustinov leaves him $100 million, payable only if he marries (for at least 10 years) within the next 30 hours. Cue much female interest.

The Bachelor was a weak movie and it was a mark of Zellweger's new status that many reviewers noted that she was sorely underused. This was not the case with her next film, Nurse Betty. Directed by Neil LaBute, famed for his controversial dramas In The Company Of Men and Your Friends And Neighbours, this was a hard-hitting comedy that began with waitress and soap fan Renee being bullied and generally abused by her pig of a car-salesman husband. When she witnesses hubby getting mutilated and killed by hit-men Morgan Freeman and Chris Rock, she suffers a kind of post-scalping trauma, suddenly believing her favourite hospital-set soap opera is real and crossing the country to LA to meet her beloved doctor David Ravell, played by Greg Kinnear. Complications arise when everyone mistakes her psychosis for sophisticated humour and, of course, there's still the assassins in hot pursuit.

Nurse Betty would see Renee carry a successful movie for the first time, winning a Golden Globe into the bargain - there aren't many actresses who can do that. It also saw her, amazingly, involved in Morgan Freeman's very first screen kiss.

Now risen to the top of her profession, she played Jim Carrey's love interest, Irene P. Waters, in the Farrelly Brothers purposefully disgraceful (and very funny) Me, Myself And Irene. Carrey would play a downtrodden cop increasingly suffering from a multiple personality disorder, getting into trouble and going on the run with Renee. His good guy persona comes to love her, his bad boy desires her and she has a problem telling one from the other. She would enjoy a year-long relationship with Carrey but intense media scrutiny and the extended separations brought by her next project meant that it did not last. She had not had much luck in love. Back in 1992, she had dated aspiring musician Sims Ellis, who would commit suicide in 1995. During 1994 and 1995, there had been Rory Cochrane, then Josh Pate, co-director of Liar. There was also an ongoing and much-publicised relationship with George Clooney, but Zellweger would consistently insist they were just friends.

After the Farrelly experience came Bridget Jones' Diary, based on Helen Fielding's million-selling comic examination of life as a young single woman in London (the six months she spent in London being one cause of the Carrey break-up). It being a British novel, many complained about the casting of an American in the lead role. Renee countered, quite reasonably, that no one had seemed to mind that Michael Caine had just won an Oscar for his part in John Irving's exceptionally American Cider House Rules. She then proceeded to put on 20 pounds, and researched her part by pretending to be Bridget Cavendish from Hampshire and working for three weeks undercover at Picador publishers in Victoria, London, one of her duties, oddly, being to collect cuttings about Bridget Jones and herself. She then acted quite brilliantly as the lonely singleton seeking happiness with faithless boss Hugh Grant and squabbling with an apparently surly Colin Firth. Her reward was an Oscar nomination, something her correctly accented British co-stars conspicuously failed to receive.

After Bridget Jones, Renee continued to test herself. There was White Oleander, where teenager Alison Lohman learned all about life, having been condemned to a series of pretty damn bizarre foster homes after her artist mother (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) gets life for poisoning Billy Connelly with, yes, White Oleander. Renee would play one of the foster parents, a one-time horror starlet (the movie would feature clips from Texas Chainsaw Massacre 4) who's depressed by her career and the suspicion that her director husband is having an affair. She bonds with Lohman like a sister and proves perhaps the best parent until she's finally dragged under - this being Zellweger's first tragic role. Robin Wright completed a quite exceptional female cast.

Now came perhaps the biggest test of all. With a sense of adventure bordering on the suicidal, she took on the part of Roxie Hart in a big-screen, big-budget version of Chicago. Hart was a vaudeville performer whose ambitions far outweighed her talents. However, once jailed for jealously murdering her lover, the court case brings her the fame she so desires, much the same thing happening to her rival and fellow murderess, Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta Jones). It was a major undertaking built around huge production set-pieces, many of them centred around Renee - and this was a woman who'd been dubbed just a few years earlier. But, having worked on her singing and dancing for 10 full months, and watching closely the efforts of her co-star Jones, herself a trained dancer, she pulled off a tremendous performance (remember she was not supposed to be a killer dancer, rather a hugely driven wannabe). The movie was nominated for 13 Oscars, one of the nominations falling to Renee, who also snapped up her second Golden Globe.

2003 would see Zellweger return to light comedy in Down With Love, a sort of homage to Doris Day's oeuvre. Here she played a famous writer of women's self-reliance books who's challenged to accept her need of men by Ewan McGregor's sneaky journalist. She then moved on to Anthony Minghella's adaptation of the novel Cold Mountain (she'd actually considered taking up the film rights herself several years before). Here she played Ruby Thewes, a mountain girl who helps urban lady Nicole Kidman run her farm while she's waiting for Jude Law to return from the Civil War. With Ruby having so much in common with her own handy self, she split wood, milked cows, and throttled turkeys like a good 'un, teaching Kidman how to live off the land while being herself instructed in music and self-expression.

In the novel, Ruby had in fact been black, but Zellweger managed to bring the requisite brass and vinegar to the part, winning a third Golden Globe and being Oscar-nominated for the third successive year, this time winning as Best Supporting Actress. The movie also brought her a new boyfriend in co-star Jack White, one half of the then-hot rock band The White Stripes.

Renee was now both rich and respected. She'd received $6 million for her part in Down With Love, then signed a $21 million deal with Universal and Miramax for the two films that followed Cold Mountain. First of these would be the Bridget Jones sequel, The Edge Of Reason. This would begin just 4 weeks after the end of the original and see Bridget already tiring of true love Darcy's repressed public school habits and threatened by his new, apparently perfect intern. So she dumps him and enters a whirl of magic mushrooms, death threats and lesbianism, before being jailed in Thailand, where she naturally teaches her fellow prisoners to sing Madonna's Like A Virgin. Of course, there'd be yet more conflicts with Colin Firth and a returning, ever-more rapacious Hugh Grant.

Just before The Edge Of Reason, she'd lend her cutest tones to the major Dreamworks animation Shark Tale. Here Will Smith's cheeky wrasse would claim responsibility for the killing of a mafia shark boss's son, thus becoming a hero. Renee would voice Angie, his longtime friend, who now has to compete for his affections with Anjelina Jolie's sexpot Lola. Very different would be her only outing of 2005, Cinderella Man, where she'd play the wife of Russell Crowe, himself playing real-life hero Jim Braddock, a boxer who lost everything through injury and struggled to maintain his family in the Great Depression. Zellweger - loyal, loving and dignified - would back him all the way as he rose to defeat Max Baer for the World Heavyweight Title in 1935.

2005 would be a mad year for Renee. Having split from rocker Jack White the previous December, January would see her manning the phones at an all-star tsunami relief benefit concert. On the bill would be Country star Kenny Chesney, a short but nevertheless extremely successful musician who'd been enjoying Number One hits since 1997 (one of his hits, coincidentally, being titled You Had Me At Hello). Chesney and Zellweger would fall for each other big-time and would marry that May, on the resort island of St John in the US Virgin Islands. Sadly, the marriage would quickly be in tatters, and would be annulled in December. Zellweger claimed she'd been sick of the constant travel, the interviews and the work, she'd wanted to settle down. Chesney, it seemed, didn't.

The emotional turmoil of her short-lived marriage would limit Zellweger's screen appearances. 2006 would see her only in Miss Potter, where she returned to Blighty to play the iconic children's author Beatrix Potter. The movie would portray Potter as a feisty fighter in the early 1900s, battling sexism to have her books published (with the help of a doting Ewan McGregor) then campaigning to prevent developers wrecking the countryside. A very modern heroine, then. Yet again Zellweger's vulnerability and strength served her well, particularly in scenes with the heavyweight thespian Emily Watson. Her charm would be called upon, too, especially in scenes where Potter's books sprang to animated life.

2007 would be a tad busier. First she'd lend her voice to Jerry Seinfeld's Bee Movie, an animation where Seinfeld would play a bee unhappy with a tedious life in the hive. Breaking out , he immediately hits trouble and is saved by New York florist Renee, who shows him the ways of men, her revelations leading Seinfeld to sue the human race. Following this would come a reunion with George Clooney in Leatherheads, directed by the man himself. Set in the 1920s, this would see Clooney as an American football star attempting to make a success of his team and save the fledgling pro league from collapse. To boost the team's profile, he hires war hero and college star John Krasinski, then has to compete with the new arrival for the affections of Zellweger, a firebrand cub reporter suspicious about Krasinski's war record. Far heavier would be Case 39, Zellweger's first thriller in years, where she'd play an idealistic social worker attempting to rescue a 10-year-old girl from her supposedly abusive parents, then discovering that all is not what it seems. Also still on the cards would be Piece Of My Heart, a biopic of fellow Texan Janis Joplin that Zellweger would headline and produce, which remained in rewrite hell at Paramount.

Now hugely sought-after, Renne Zellweger spends her time between projects either with her parents (wherever her dad's work has taken them), in Texas, or at her 4-bedroom farmhouse at East Hampton, Long Island. Still sporty, she loves to snowboard and wakeboard, still admires Paul McCartney, and does not complain when people comment how much she looks like both singer Jewel and actress Joey Lauren Adams. She writes, seriously writes, when she can.

What Renee Zellweger does next is anyone's guess. Just rest assured it won't be for the money. When Cameron Crowe and James Brooks were looking to cast Jerry Maguire, they said they were seeking a woman with the "spirit and rawness" of Shirley Maclaine. They found her. And, thankfully, she's still hard to call.

Dominic Wills

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