Actress transforms for 'Bridget'

Texan Zellweger portrays Brit heroine balancing career and love

Actress Renee Zellweger has had some tricky roles in the past: a Jewish woman experiencing a crisis of faith ("A Price Above Rubies"), a small-town waitress suffering a break from reality ("Nurse Betty") and the girlfriend of pulp-literature bad boy Robert E. Howard ("The Whole Wide World"). But she really stuck her neck out as the title character in the film adaptation of "Bridget Jones's Diary."

When Helen Fielding's novel hit the stands in 1998 in the United States and England, it was an instant success, and Bridget became a "cultural icon," the quintessential '90s woman trying to balance a career and a love life while contending with ideas about how a modern woman should look and behave.

English journalists, fans of the novel and its author took exception to the idea that an American actress � one from Texas, no less � could portray their beloved Bridget. Fears of shelling out pounds sterling only to hear "Y'all want to go to the pub for a pint of bitter?" abounded.

But those skeptics may soon breathe a sigh of relief: Zellweger is the ideal choice for the klutzy and awkward yet spunky and unconventional heroine of the new movie, which opens Friday. The charming combination of bubbly goofiness (in a good way, mind you), irrepressible charm and sweet earnestness that she's used in the past suits Bridget to a tee.

"It was (involved), and it was pretty extraordinary at the same time, because the more involved it is, the more creatively satisfying it is, I suppose," said Zellweger, who had to gain 20 pounds and master a British accent for the role. During a telephone interview, her Texas twang is more noticeable than any leftover vestiges of an English accent, but a few tiny Britishisms occasionally slip through.

The possibility of playing Bridget was "a great shock, actually," said Zellweger, who had already read the book when her manager mentioned the role.

Soon, she was off to London, where "we sat down for a few days and we all kind of tested the waters to see if it was possible that I might not destroy this character in the translation, and we went from there."

It marked the end of a two-year search for an actress who represented the embodiment of Bridget, as well as the beginning of a lot of preparation and dedication.

Zellweger spent six months in London making the transformation from Yank to Brit under the tutelage of Barbara Berkery, the dialect guru who helped Gwyneth Paltrow pass as English in "Sliding Doors" and "Shakespeare in Love." She then went undercover, sort of, on the staff of the London publishing house Picador, where she pretended to be a relative of the boss doing a temp job. Actually, it was to get a handle on Bridget's daily activities as a publicist as well as practice the middle-class English accent so necessary to the role.

Still, many were skeptical at first. "Well, me too, just by the way," added Zellweger. "I just knew we had some work to do and there was time to do it. It really, really quickly became our personal experience. It was about the day-to-day challenges and the work and 'Let's do it, let's do the work and use it to create this really neat thing."'

One of Zellweger's challenges was to match Bridget physically. At 129 pounds, Bridget is barely chunky, but she obsesses about her weight. She also smokes like a chimney and drinks like a fish, all of which she details in her diary.

"It was just part of it, part of bringing her to life. And for me it was essential. I wanted her to look like she looked in my head when I read the book. It was part of the process."

There may be a large cultural difference between them, but Zellweger thinks she and Bridget have a lot in common. "I totally, completely, thoroughly understand the wax strip in the bathroom experience. I know that well," she joked, referring to the art of leg waxing. "I know the self-conscious, 'I'm absolutely going to destroy this moment' public-speaking experience. I know all about trying to find balance between personal and professional life. I understand that journey of self-discovery that she experiences in the book and in this film. Who can't relate to that?"


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