The star of ''Bridget Jones's Diary'' says even she was surprised to win the role of England's favorite singleton

By Liane Bonin
Updated April 13, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
Renee Zellweger: Armando Gallo/Retna

When leggy Texan Renée Zellweger was cast as the lead in the film adaptation of ”Bridget Jones’s Diary,” Helen Fielding’s caustic look at single life in London, the uproar across the pond could be heard as far as Hollywood. ”The entire British public had a fit that they cast an American, because they saw Bridget as a peculiarly British person,” says Fielding. ”Actually, I was quite touched that they should care so much to make such a fuss.”

Even Zellweger, 31, didn’t begrudge the Brits their grumbling. ”It hurts your feelings for two seconds,” she admits. ”But I completely understand that reaction. When I heard that there was a list of [British] actresses who would potentially play the role [early contenders included press favorite Kate Winslet, who turned down the role because of scheduling differences, and Helena Bonham Carter], that made perfect sense to me. I was as surprised as anyone to get that phone call.”

It was a phone call two years in coming. After Winslet passed, the producers cast their net abroad, considering Australia’s Cate Blanchett and America’s Cameron Diaz. Fielding, meanwhile, was rooting for an unknown to play the thirtysomething ”singleton,” joking that she nearly offered the role to a woman she saw slacking off Bridget- style at the gym. So Zellweger was v., v. aware of the high expectations and potential for backlash. ”Renée said, ‘If you go with me and we get this wrong, we are so busted,”’ recalls firsttime director Sharon Maguire, a Brit herself, as well as a close friend of Fielding’s. ”And I thought, You are so right, we are.”

Under pressure to transform herself into ”Jones”’ zaftig Londoner, the 5’5” Zellweger packed on as much as 25 pounds and worked with a dialect coach to perfect her accent. ”She had a brief Princess Margaret phase, which was alarming,” says costar Hugh Grant, who plays Daniel Cleaver, Bridget’s cad obsession. ”Then there was a phase when she sounded very slightly as if she had had a stroke where everything slurred.”

The Golden Globe winning ”Nurse Betty” star says the speech altering process required not only daily exercises but sticking with the British accent offscreen as well. ”I didn’t want to sound like a fraud to myself,” she explains. Apparently the determination paid off for costar Colin Firth (”Shakespeare in Love”), who plays the antagonizing Mark Darcy. ”It’s very strange to hear this unconvincing Texan accent she’s doing now,” he says.

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