Renée finds her soulmate

The Oscar-winning Texan actress who plays Beatrix Potter on screen is fed up with the lonely perils of celebrity - and those rumours of a third 'Bridget Jones' movie. She opens her heart to Gill Pringle
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The Tale of Renée Zellweger is rather different from any cuddly animal stories that the Victorian author Beatrix Potter might have conjured. For while Potter's characters feared nothing more than the gardener or a hungry cat, then for Zellweger - the American actress who portrays her in the film Miss Potter - the foes of the 21st century are altogether more menacing.

Blithely chatting about the life and works of Potter and how she, too, keeps a journal, a simple question about her home prompts a disturbing insight into Zellweger's private world.

"Oh my goodness. I almost want to say I don't have one [a home]," she says, suddenly flustered.

"I did buy a house. I have places to live, but I don't live there because I don't have time to get there and because I've had people show up at these houses so it's not a friendly place for a girl who is single without a dog to live. So I don't tend to go there.

"I move around a lot. It's a weird life. And I know it's a flattering thing when you get those letters, but I get them all the time. And I think it's because I don't live with an entourage of people around me or something, so it seems like you are just right there.

"I can't go [to certain places] because I become a destination. I become a stop on the city tour or whatever. And it's OK because people usually mean no harm, but it's scary if there is a car idling outside your house on your 40 acres in the middle of the woods at four in the morning. And as a girl your instincts are to be scared of this and what am I going to do? And that doesn't make for a very good night's sleep. Your instincts kick in and your adrenalin rushes, and you realise you can't live there.It's sad, but that's how it works. It's no big deal. It's just a job hazard.

"I don't want to own a gun, but sometimes at four in the morning when there is a car outside, you do think about it," reveals the actress who was accompanied 24-hours a day by a bodyguard while working on the Vancouver set of the thriller Case 39 in October and November.

"I don't always have a bodyguard. It depends on whether I'm going to a place where there has been an incident or if there is a person the security company has concerns about in that area. In Vancouver I had someone with me everywhere I went every day for a full month."

Asked how it feels to become the object of a stranger's obsession, her response is carefully measured, cautious not to unintentionally provoke any of her more ardent followers: "It surprises me all the time because these experiences I have are not my own, this insular little world that I've tricked myself into believing that I live in.

"And it depends on the context, I suppose, because it can be pretty scary sometimes when that letter is slipped under your door at your house. And it happens. I get those letters a lot and it's just a little scary. It's also kind of creepy and that's why we have the man in Vancouver walking around every hour of the day," says Zellweger, 37, a simple Texan girl whose life changed for ever in the wake of her role as Tom Cruise's better half in Jerry Maguire 10 years ago.

Subsequent box office hits Nurse Betty, Bridget Jones's Diary and Chicago, plus a best supporting actress Oscar for Cold Mountain, sealed her place in the spotlight, thrusting her into a celebrity world which she believes has changed considerably in recent years.

"It wasn't [so bad] when I started. It certainly never was for Meryl Streep, who first rose to fame in a time when it was very different," she says, referring to the older actress with whom she became close on the set of the 1998 drama One True Thing.

"But I think it's become very different in the last 10 years and there is not a whole lot of dignity in that circle and I'm not comfortable with certain elements of it. There is a ridiculous side to it that I'm not comfortable with. So you talk about success and all those other things, but I just see a girl whose alarm clock is set way too early again. And who's really happy about it when I get to get up and go and do that job."

For Zellweger, the "job" of Miss Potter was a personal life-saver, enabling her to flee the US in exchange for the Isle of Man and Lake District early last year, leaving behind the painful aftermath of her divorce from the country singer Kenny Chesney after 128 days of marriage.

She bridles at suggestions that she may have spoken ill of her ex-husband after comments, supposedly attributed to her, recently surfaced, quoting her as saying, "marrying Kenny was the biggest mistake of my life".

"I'm glad you brought that up, because I never made such a statement. I never would, because I know it hurts people when they read stuff like that. Someone just took it upon himself to make it his business opportunity to give quotes from me, and that was really hurtful and I'm very upset about that, I mean personally upset. There is no dignity in choosing to discuss those things and I wouldn't and so it upset me that he decided for me that I would discuss those things.

"The only thing I would ever say about my marriage is that I carry that time in my heart, and I want to keep it there," she insists.

Despite recently being romantically linked with Bruce Willis, George Clooney and former flame, the Irish singer Damien Rice, Zellweger claims to be content with her life as a singleton, unlike her most famous role of Bridget Jones.

And while on that subject, what of the rumours that she is set to make a third Bridget Jones movie? "It's like all the other rumours - it's simply not true," she says, shaking her head.

"It seems there is some kind of talk, but it's not with the people who make the movie or write the books. I heard about that in London. I just got back from Vancouver and I got hit with those questions like it's fact and it's signed, sealed, and delivered. I thought, 'Wow! That's a surprise,' so I called the sources and they said it was bollocks and there is no truth in it at all.

"If it were to happen, then the least of my concerns would be putting the weight on again. I've said it before, I like it when I look a little more voluptuous," says the wafer-thin actress who spends most of our interview eyeing a plate of grapes, although resisting taking a single bite.

So, would she do another Bridget Jones?

"I don't know if I would. It depends on so many factors. First, Helen Fielding would have to ask me to come back, and then there has to be a script that we can all agree on."

Zellweger, of course, is used to hearing untruths concerning herself, although even Beatrix Potter was the subject of gossip and rumours more than a century ago, literary wags whispering innuendo of the author's preference for female company.

"Yes, I heard that too," she says, visibly relieved to be discussing someone else's dirty laundry.

"That's so hilarious! How about that?! And I did hear those stories - there were some jokes going around when we were up in the Lake District, but, no, Miss Potter was very happily married to her Mr Heelis."

If some critics have not been too happy with the choice of an American actress to play one of Britain's most beloved authors, then it should be noted that the Australian actress Cate Blanchett was originally cast in the title role, although left the project when it clashed with another commitment. And director Chris Noonan - of Babe fame - is also Australian.

Although Miss Potter has failed to win critical raves in the US, Zellweger's work has already paid off in the shape of a Golden Globe best actress nomination.

Portraying a real-life figure is often a direct route to securing an Oscar, given the recent successes for Charlize Theron's Monster, Nicole Kidman's Virginia Woolf in The Hours, Jamie Foxx's Ray, Reese Witherspoon's June Carter Cash in Walk the Line, and Philip Seymour Hoffman's Capote.

But perhaps Zellweger shouldn't hold her breath following disappointing reviews such as that in the Los Angeles Times, likening Miss Potter to "a Merchant Ivory film trapped in a Disney movie's body".

Having made considerable personal investment in Miss Potter, serving also as the film's executive producer, Zellweger is today at pains to find an analogy between herself and the best-selling children's author, despite the fact that the two women were born more than a century apart and on different continents. The best she can come up with is a shared love of writing, churning out accounts of her secret diaries at every given press opportunity.

Beatrix Potter was born in London in 1866, while Zellweger was born in Texas in 1969. Potter was famously a spinster until she was 47 years old, while Zellweger managed to tick off wedlock from her To Do list, aged 35, albeit for a mere four months.

But in Beatrix Potter, Zellweger has found a kindred spirit - a fiercely independent and creative woman who didn't need a man to validate her identity.

Not that her success has eased any of her insecurities: "I don't see it. I don't see success. I perceive it very differently from the inside.

"It's just a different experience to what people might imagine. Every day on a set, especially this one, I question. I'm dissatisfied and I go home and I lie in my bed at night and I ruminate about what I should have done that I haven't done or what I need to do that I haven't done for tomorrow's work. I constantly question. I feel really lucky to get to do what I do. I wonder if I'm supposed to or I wonder if I can still do it or if there is something there that I've lost or can't do any more, or that I never had a grasp on.

"By definition, I am certain that I am a perfectionist, but I know when to stop, so I'm not unhealthy in that respect. What I never get better at is things like the public persona thing. Certain things about it surprise me still. And my mantra is, it never ceases to amaze me that it never ceases to amaze me. I hear something and I think, oh my god, is that really possible? And it shouldn't surprise me because it happens all the time. And yet I'm perpetually amazed by it."

Born to Norwegian midwife Kjellfrid and Swiss-born, Australian-raised oil refinery engineer Emil, quite possibly Zellweger would never have become an actress if it weren't for her elder brother, Drew, 39, today a marketing executive for Schweppes in Dallas.

"Initially I became involved with acting because my brother was. He's two years older than me and I copied everything that he did, my poor brother! So when he joined the drama club in high school, I joined it too. But when he quit - because he didn't want to be in with me - I loved it, so I just kept on with it through high school and carried on through university.

"Acting really became important to me when I was in university and I lived in rooms above a theatre and got to see all the films they put on."

Having studied English and drama at the University of Texas, Zellweger marked her graduation by declaring herself a professional actress. Auditioning for every TV commercial and movie filmed in and around Austin and Houston, she plugged anything from the American Beef Council to Coors Light lager, launching her film career after winning microscopic roles in 1994's Reality Bites and 1995's Empire Records, not to mention playing a victim in 1993's Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (re-released in 1997 as Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation).

If the slash horror flick was nothing more than a means to pay the rent, then it proved a good career move after she was befriended by fellow Texan co-star Matthew McConaughey who showed her a script for his next project, a lovers-on-the-run tale called Love and a .45 (1994), in which she later landed the lead role.

It was about this time that people began suggesting she change her name (pronounced ZELL-wegg-er) to something a little more marketable. She demurred, figuring that if Arnold Schwarzenegger could make it in Hollywood burdened by such an impossible name, then so could she.