On the surface, there is nothing about Renee Zellweger that suggests the kind of boisterous sexiness she displays with abandoned energy in Chicago. Dressed simply, her blonde hair cut short and wearing glasses to further enhance an unusual timidity, the 33-year old Texan was exhausted having flown to New York from Transylvania where she had been shooting the Civil War epic Cold Mountain, a film that she describes as the end result “of a five-year odyssey since that book came out. I read it and I knew they were going to make a film of it after I tried unsuccessfully to get the rights, and now I just finished wrapping the picture. Isn’t that strange?” she says smilingly. Having played a Brit so flawlessly last year in Bridget Jones’ Diary, the actress displays her range again as “a Smoky Mountain woman” in Cold Mountain and can hardly wait to see the film, she enthuses.
Both of these are in stark contrast to the sexy, scheming and manipulative Roxie Hart in the new screen adaptation of Chicago. Genuinely surprised that the power of her voice is as strong as it is, she says “that I think the real powerful voice came from my counterpart, my Welsh friend”, she says, referring to Catherine Zeta-Jones. However, whether the shy actress wants to admit it or not, sing she does, and she admits that it was something she never expected to be doing. “My singing career started a long, long, long, time ago in the shower to Beetle records and my brother shouting at me to shut up”, she laughingly recalls. “I just had it in my head that I could sing, but I think he just wanted to beat me up over ANYTHING. After all, here I was this 6-year old kid doing these McCartney covers and blasphemising his hero in the process.”
That shut her up, musically, for a time, until “the drunken Karaoke moment in Bridget Jones which was such a blast for me to do.” That hardly prepares us for the tunes she belts out in Chicago, which the actress describes as “a very different form of expression,” but she was surprised that director Rob Marshall was remotely interested in this gal from Austin, Texas, with little proven musical ability. “That Rob Marshall, for some strange reason had it in his head that this was going to work and I trusted him on every level.”
That was until after she understood the script. “I got this script, read it and I didn’t understand it at all. It just didn’t translate at all,” she confesses. “I don’t know the musical, I hadn’t seen it before, so I’d never seen any of the numbers performed, so I had no idea what any of the lyrics meant on the page. So I thought it was a very bad idea that I should become involved with something whose meaning I had no idea about,” Zellweger exclaims. After much prodding from her manager, she was finally persuaded to talk to him on the phone “and his ideas were inspiring.” Asked what she though Rob might have seen in her that persuaded him to go after her in the first place, the actress becomes shyly embarrassed on some level. “I don’t hear that kind of stuff. He started to go out on that and I start to shut off because I don’t know how to take that stuff, so I shut down and go away.” Admitting to her own insecurities which seem considerable, she admits that she can’t take compliments. “I just can’t do it, never have.” Yet in Chicago she gives a ballsy, sexy performance as Roxie, whom the actress describes as “very honest even though our lives’ perspective is very different.” Not the easiest character to relate to, agrees Zellweger. “In fact the way that she looks at life and the choices that she makes are antithetical to those that I make in my own life”, she admits, laughingly. “I wouldn’t say there is anything that I could identify with except for her honesty.” She also pushes her sexuality more on screen than ever before. “I just play a girl who does that”, she says simply. “That’s a big part of who she is. It’s her currency so that was new and interesting.”
Comparing her own relationship with celebrity and the way that is dealt with in Chicago, Zellweger points out the considerable differences. “Fame, in my life, is another job that comes with the job that I love so much. It is not an existence that I aspired to live within”, she says, quietly. “It’s here nor there to me and usually I’m so busy with my insular, personal life or my work, so I never really see it anyway.” Yet she tries to handle her success with a down-to-earth reality that seems very real. “Just before Jerry Maguire came out, Mike Nichols told me that fame was like Medusa. He said you can’t look it in the eye and you can’t look at it and acknowledge that it’s there, because if you do look straight at it and embrace it, it’ll turn you into stone. He said if you ignore the fact that it’s there, it can very dangerous. You’ve gotta be aware that it’s just right over your shoulder because every now and then, look at it as a reflection through something else. And I thought that was extraordinarily wise.” She took his advice, and since then, especially now with her career in full swing, she does look at fame through something else. “I look at it through the things that are real in my life because fame is not real and there are so many misconceptions about what it is. All I know it’s fleeting and projected. It doesn’t really exist in a person’s life but comes from the outside.” And it has nothing to do with the art she is trying to express. “That’s the big difference between this Roxy character and myself and motivates us to do what we do. I LOVE what I do and I can’t explain why and have no idea why this is the medium but it is. For Roxy, she represents a type of person that I think about a lot, especially these days when celebrity is so cheap that it’s almost embarrassing to be a famous person”, says an angry Zellweger. “Because it suggests that the motivation for doing what you do was to achieve lionisation within a society.”
“It saddens me to look around today that achieving that has become as important as the legitimate contribution that a person makes that used to lead to fame. Now it doesn’t seem to matter. The line between celebrity and infamy has become so ambiguous that it makes me question what we value, that getting Monica Lewinsky’s autograph is parallel to getting one from Steven Hawking, and I don’t understand it.” Renee thinks about those issues a lot, and sees Chicago as “a movie that touches on it. It presents it in a humorous way and says: Look at us, look at what we applaud, and look at what we, as a culture, embrace.” We embrace the razzle dazzle as the movie says. “We do, and vote for the bigger, better banner and we want to be around something that for some reason, has left its mark, whether or not it’s positive.” As outspoken as she is on our obsession with fame and celebrity, Zellweger admits to occasionally read what is written about her. “I get sent it and I’m curious about certain things and sometimes it can’t be helped because there’s your head on these magazine covers.”
She can’t help being on those covers as long as audiences become swept away in an array of characters that she loves. She does hope to return to Bridget Jones territory in the near future “if the script is really, really, really good and if we have the time to do it right, because I cherish that character and feel very protective of that experience.”