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Renee Zellweger on Aging in Hollywood, Gender Inequality, Politics and Her Six-Year Break

'Bridget Jones's Baby' star, Renee Zellweger, talks sexist scrutiny and society's inequality: "Why are we [still] talking about how women look?"

“My main goal,” says Renee Zellweger, curled up in an oversized club chair in a private VIP room off the lobby of Santa Monica’s Hotel Casa del Mar, “is to avoid any negativity that might enter my consciousness. If I’m not aware of it, then it’s not real. It doesn’t exist.”

For the past six years, Zellweger has been avoiding it like crazy. She’s taken a self-imposed hiatus from acting, enjoying the Zen-like peacefulness of living “under the radar,” as she calls it. She spent some downtime at her 40-acre farm in Connecticut, chilled out in her beach house in the Hamptons, then holed up for a while at her home in Santa Barbara. She enrolled in screenwriting courses at UCLA, even co-wrote a TV pilot with one of her professors that she pitched to Lifetime (it passed) and pursued a range of other soul-nourishing endeavors.

“I wanted to grow,” she explains. “If you don’t explore other things, you wake up 20 years later and you’re still that same person who only learns anything when she goes out to research a character. You need to grow!”

About the only time over the past six years that Zellweger publicly surfaced in a big way, it did not go so well. It was in 2014, at Elle‘s Women in Hollywood party. Something about Zellweger looked noticeably different to many covering the event in the media, sparking rumors of plastic surgery. Numerous news outlets called her “unrecognizable,” while Twitter exploded with arguments over whether Zellweger had surgically altered her appearance or merely had grown older, the way normal humans do. The noise got so loud, the star felt compelled to respond in a statement to People magazine. “I’m glad folks think I look different!” it read. “I’m living a different, happy, more fulfilling life, and I’m thrilled that perhaps it shows.”

Zellweger’s face made headlines again when Variety film critic Owen Gleiberman penned a June 30 review (of Bridget Jones’s Baby‘s trailer, mind you, not the movie) titled, “Renee Zellweger: If She No Longer Looks Like Herself, Has She Become a Different Actress?” The piece, largely eviscerated for its sexism, touched off a firestorm online and off-, inspiring actress Rose McGowan to lash out against Gleiberman (“vile, damaging, stupid and cruel”) in an essay for Ultimately, Zellweger responded with a column of her own for The Huffington Post. “Not that it’s anyone’s business,” she wrote, “but I did not make a decision to alter my face and have surgery on my eyes.”

At least one of Zellweger’s castmates was horrified by the controversy. “She should not have to face such scrutiny,” says Dempsey, 50, whose own more senior and weathered appearance in the trailer thus far has inspired not a single film critic to speculate about whether or not he’s the same actor who once played “McDreamy” on Grey’s Anatomy. “Hollywood can be unsparingly brutal — and it’s always worse for women.”

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Of course, the cultural climate has changed quite a bit in the 12 years since the last Bridget Jones film was in theaters, back when Tony Blair was prime minister. Small, plot-twisty rom-coms set in quaint London flats have given way to superhero franchises in which cities like London get flattened. Nobody is making modestly budgeted romantic comedies anymore (Bridget Jones’s Baby reportedly cost $35 million), which no doubt is part of the reason why it has taken more than a decade for another Bridget Jones movie to get made. “All my girlfriends are waiting to go to films that are relatable, and I don’t know why we’re not making movies for [them],” complains Zellweger. “Whatever else may have changed in the world, we still have conversations with ourselves about how we might improve, or things we’re insecure about, or our failings.”

In truth, it wasn’t entirely a changing zeitgeist that kept Bridget Jones’s Baby on the back burner for so long. Creative differences among the cast and others also have played a large part, with different directors (Paul Feig was in talks at one point, as was Peter Cattaneo) and writers (like One Day‘s David Nicholls) playing musical chairs for the better part of a decade. Ultimately, Sharon Maguire, who helmed the first Bridget movie, was hired to direct the film, with Fielding, Borat scribe Dan Mazer and actress Emma Thompson writing the script. But Hugh Grant passed on the chance to reprise his role of Bridget’s rakish boss, Daniel Cleaver, saying he couldn’t get any version of the script to “work for me” (the writers get even by writing Grant’s character out of the film with an offscreen accident in the first act, although they do leave wiggle room for him to return in a Bridget 4). Zellweger typically is vague about the backstory behind the delay — “My understanding is that the script wasn’t ready, and then Helen wrote another novel [Mad About the Boy, which veers dramatically from the film’s plot] and revisited the screenplay afterward” — but says she was always eager to return to the character. “We never ever, ever, ever considered casting someone else,” says Eric Fellner, co-chairman of Working Title. “When I think of Bridget Jones, I think of Renee, and when I think of Renee, I think of Bridget Jones. Renee and Bridget are synonymous. It’s not like James Bond or some other franchise.”

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Once the film finally got a green light, Zellweger threw herself back into the role with the usual gusto. She shadowed a producer on Good Morning Britain (Bridget, who’s 42 in the film, has a new job in television), spent hours talking to a midwife, watched countless birthing videos on YouTube and, of course, repolished her English accent. “She’s in every scene and has a huge amount to do,” says Maguire. “She could put her feet up for five minutes when she’s not on camera, but she never does.” Firth also remains somewhat in awe. “When I first met Renee, my sense was that she thought the role was a challenge,” he says. “Perhaps it was. If so, she hid it well. She’s so convincing that I tend to get a jolt of surprise at how different Renee is from Bridget.”

Still, 12 years is a long time for audiences to wait for a sequel. And who knows if Bridget Jones still will be as charming to her old fans, let alone a whole new generation of younger filmgoers whose idea of a romantic plot twist is when you swipe the wrong way on Tinder. On the other hand, both Bridget’s resurfacing and Renee’s come at a time when consciousness about gender equality and female representation on the screen never has been higher in Hollywood. One person who believes the character still has legs is (predictably) Fielding. Indeed, the author thinks her body image-obsessed heroine is more relatable than ever, especially when played by the age-appropriate actress sipping pineapple juice at Casa del Mar. “Increasingly, we inhabit a world where the external — beauty, fame, thinness — is celebrated more than being human, warm and kind,” says Fielding. “It’s great that Bridget seems to have a following amongst young teenage girls. I hope [the character] helps them remember that being a good person is more important than having a big handbag and a bottom like two snooker balls.”

Zellweger has high hopes for Bridget’s third act as well. “I love this character,” she says. “Bridget makes imperfection all right.” Spoken like someone who just might know from experience.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.