Renee Zellweger: 'Getting to play Bridget again was a treat... then panic set in'
More than a decade since the sequel, Bridget Jones has returned to the big screen - and she's nailing the career and calories. There's still room for mishaps and drama of course, but as Renee Zellweger tells Susan Griffin, that's what makes her character so loveable.
It's hard to believe there was uproar when it was originally announced Renee Zellweger would play Bridget Jones. Some felt the Texas-born star couldn't possibly embody the quintessential British creation - but now, it's impossible to imagine anyone other than Zellweger in the role.
Her comedic sensibilities and warmth are irresistible, as is her spot-on portrayal of a woman who's tenacious and determined, but not afraid to reveal her flaws and insecurities, as she grapples with conflicting aspirations.
"Bridget is eternally optimistic, self-effacing and finds humour when facing adversity. She's perfectly imperfect, and that's what people relate to in her," says Zellweger, petite in a long-sleeved black top and monochrome skirt, her girlish, gentle Southern drawl belying her 47 years.
It was early in 1995 when Helen Fielding's column, written from the point of view of a London singleton, who guzzled Chardonnay, obsessed over her daily calorie intake and coined phrases such as 'wanton sex goddess', first appeared in a daily newspaper.
The novels, Bridget Jones's Diary and Bridget Jones: The Edge Of Reason, followed in 1996 and 1999, with the respective movie adaptations in 2001, which earned Zellweger an Oscar nomination, and 2004.
There were rumours of a third movie but nothing concrete materialised - until a script, which has been co-written by Fielding, Dan Mazer and Emma Thompson (who also makes an appearance as Bridget's wry doctor), began to take shape and director Sharon Maguire, who helmed the first movie, was drafted in.
Now, 12 years after the last instalment, it's finally time to check in with Bridget on the big screen and see how she's getting on in her early 40s.
But how does Zellweger feel about the fact that more than a decade has passed?
"I love it, because there's more of a story to tell, and the people who fell in love with Bridget Jones in the books, like I did so many years ago, we've all grown up together," reasons the actress, whose breakthrough role was apposite Tom Cruise in 1996 hit Jerry Maguire.
She'd always remained "hopeful" they'd have an opportunity to revisit the beloved character.
"So when I got the script, it was like a treasure, you know?" she says wistfully, clasping her hands together. "I was savouring it, every page, every moment, just being back with these characters again and back in her world. It was such a treat."
That didn't stop Zellweger, who's dating musician Doyle Bramhall II, panicking at the thought of actually bringing Bridget back to life, however.
"It began with terror," she says, her distinctive narrow eyes creasing up with laughter.
"[I thought] 'How do you do this?' How do you not mess it up? How do you show that a person has grown but that she's the same?"
Any concerns she felt were unfounded.
The idiosyncratic walk, the Home Counties vowels, the nervous laughter and endearing awkwardness are all still there.
"I started as I always do, so the process was familiar to me this time," says Zellweger, when asked how she managed to step back into 'Bridget mode'.
"I moved to England, started looking around and listening to the accent to get the basics down, and we went from there."
She even managed to travel incognito on public transport.
"Oh yeah, no problem, on the tube with my Oyster card every day."
There is a marked physical difference this time round, however: Bridget is noticeably slimmer.
"I had to gain a little weight but not as much as before," explains Zellweger, who reportedly gained around 20-30 pounds for the early films.
"Sharon and the producers felt it would be good to see Bridget having achieved one of her goals in life.
"She might not have it together in other areas of her life, but she's making healthy lifestyle choices."
It wouldn't be Bridget Jones without some tumultuous drama for her to overcome, with characteristic gusto.
As it turns out, she didn't enjoy a 'happy ever after' with Mark Darcy, played by Colin Firth (but at least he's not dead, as he is in Fielding's 2013 book, Bridget Jones: Mad About The Boy).
Instead, the film opens with Bridget's focus firmly on her career, as a top news producer.
Things get complicated when she spends the night with charismatic American Jack Qwant (Patrick Dempsey), a few days before reuniting with Darcy and, as she puts it, having "similar relations".
Suddenly, Bridget's pregnant, and doesn't know who the father is.
"Colin's like your favourite old jeans," says Zellweger, on reuniting with her dashing long-term co-star. "We've been through so many interesting experiences together and shared so many awkward moments filming, it's so easy when I see him.
"If ever you've seen him in interviews and thought, 'Wow, he seems like a very special person', you're right. And that Patrick Dempsey's no shlub, either," she adds, of the good-looking Grey's Anatomy star, known to fans as 'McDreamy'.
"He brought an interesting new energy and new dynamic to the story. And he was really thorough, figuring out how to be sure that Jack was well-defined as a character, and not just because we need another guy to be a rival for Mark Darcy."
Darcy's previous adversary for Bridget's affections was, of course, the dastardly Daniel Cleaver, played by Hugh Grant, who decided not to return to the franchise.
Did Zellweger miss him?
"Of course," exclaims the actress who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role in Cold Mountain back in 2003.
"He's informed so much of Bridget Jones' journey, in terms of who she is and her history and the choices she's making in this latest incarnation, so I felt like he was part of it in some way.
"And very selfishly, I missed him because he's my pal and I love working with him. He's a lot of fun."
The movie not only marks a return to Bridget, but a big-screen comeback for Zellweger following a six-year sabbatical, during which she travelled to Liberia for charity work, spent time with her family and, as she puts it, had "a little bit of normalcy".
But now, following a dazzling display at the film's premiere, the actress can bask in the positive reviews the film's already receiving, and look ahead to new screen projects, including the upcoming drama Same Kind Of Different As Me.
The future's looking bright - but then Zellweger already knows that, because, like Bridget, she's an eternal optimist.
"Hopefulness is something we share," she says.
"It sometimes looks like naivety, but I wouldn't want to be any other way."
Bridget Jones's Baby is at cinemas now