Our favorite flawed heroine adds some v. serious complications to her already ludicrous life in the new film. On the set of this year's McDreamiest love story.

By Lynette Rice
Updated March 23, 2016 at 05:29 PM EDT
Credit: RANKIN for EW

This story originally appeared on the cover of the Dec. 31, 2015 issue of Entertainment Weekly.

Renée Zellweger is not very good at hiding. In one of her more slapsticky scenes in Bridget Jones’s Baby, the Oscar winner almost goes arse over elbow in the titular character’s effort to avoid an American hunk (Patrick Dempsey) who may have knocked her up during a drunken tryst. Back in 2001 audiences fell in love with the hapless heroine of Bridget Jones’s Diary for her she’s-such-a-mess antics, but things are a little different now. It’s time for Bridget to grow up. “This is part of the challenge, discovering where she is in her new life,” Zellweger says. “She’s a bit more mature and has moved on, as we all have.”

When we left Bridget at the close of The Edge of Reason in 2004, Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) had proposed and a modern fairy-tale ending seemed within her grasp. Turns out, though, she didn’t marry him, and in Baby (out Sept. 16), Bridget, now 43, is still single and a news producer when she discovers that she’s pregnant. And in true Bridget fashion she’s not sure if the baby belongs to the handsome billionaire she’s just met (Dempsey) or the long-suffering Darcy. Okay, so she hasn’t matured that much. Some things clearly remain the same: her penchant for granny panties (yup, they’re expected to return in some form) and her uncanny ability to make an embarrassing situation all the more awkward. “I think that’s her essence, really,” says Zellweger, speaking with her character’s British accent (and entirely in a whisper) during a break from EW’s cover shoot in London. “All of us do things in our personalities that we don’t outgrow.”

That will no doubt please fans of the first two films, which earned more than $500 million worldwide. But that made the 12-year gap before this third movie all the more puzzling. Why the delay? Finding the right story proved a bigger challenge than you might expect. The first two installments were based on the novels by Helen Fielding, but producers weren’t ready to make the narrative leap the author took in her latest Bridget book, Mad About the Boy. (In that yarn, Bridget is already a single mom and SPOILER ALERT! Mark Darcy has quickly become, ahem, unavailable.) Still, producers Eric Fellner and Debra Hayward liked the idea of exploring a mature Bridget with a ticking biological clock, so they enlisted Fielding to write a screenplay that tells an alternate version of the story.

Zellweger, meanwhile, was open to crossing the pond again for the right tale. She hadn’t released a film since 2010 (by personal choice, she says), but her love for her most indelible character had never waned. “I like that she tells what it’s like to be a woman in these really relatable situations,” she says. “It’s so right to tell a story about Bridget in this stage of her life.” In this case, about what happens when your choices steer you off the culturally prescribed path. “All of Bridget’s friends have moved on,” Hayward says. “They’ve all got children. It’s what we’ve all sort of gone through as women, isn’t it?”

The primary man in the franchise, Colin Firth, has had his own journey with Bridget. Although he earned an Oscar for The King’s Speech in 2011 after starring in the first two movies, he says he never quite said goodbye to her. “I thought it would be very po-faced to try to run from it,” he says, but admits that his character has a much tougher rival for Bridget’s affections this time around. Hugh Grant’s Daniel Cleaver is no longer in the picture (or the movie), but Cleaver was too much of a narcissistic cad to pose a real threat to Darcy. Dempsey’s Jack Qwant is a much better man. “Mark didn’t think Daniel was better than him,” Firth, 55, says. “This guy Jack seems to be more of the charming good guy, and in some ways that’s scarier.” Finding that charming good guy was the last major task facing the filmmakers. After original Bridget director Sharon Maguire agreed to sign on, the whole gang came back together, including Jim Broadbent and Gemma Jones as Bridget’s parents. Even her buddies Shazza (Sally Phillips), Jude (Shirley Henderson), and Tom (James Callis) returned. All that was left was finding the lucky bugger to lure Bridget away from Darcy. Enter Dempsey, whose calendar opened up last April when he left Grey’s Anatomy after playing Derek “McDreamy” Shepherd for 10 years.

“It all happened very quickly,” explains Dempsey, 49, who was in the midst of his summer racing season for Porsche when he got the call for Baby. “It’s completely reinvigorated me. I’ve enjoyed it immensely, getting back to something that has a beginning, middle, and end. It’s just a completely different approach. With Grey’s, you’re just grinding it out. In this instance, you take the time to get through things.”

Credit: Giles Keyte

She sure doesn’t look pregnant. On the London set of Baby, Zellweger, 46, looks nearly as lithesome as she did in her Oscar-nominated turn as Roxie Hart in 2002’s Chicago. As any fan of the novels and movies knows, Bridget’s weight (and in turn Zellweger’s) has been a major point of discussion — on screen and off. In the books, she’s depicted as squidgy, so when the first film debuted, Zellweger was criticized for not packing on enough pounds. That could easily happen again, so the director is eager to explain the thinking behind Bridget’s trimmer waistline. “We all really loved the notion that Bridget, 15 years on, had finally reached her ideal weight — somewhere between a U.K. size 10 or 12 — but still hadn’t solved any of her issues about love and loneliness,” Maguire says. “One of the reasons the first film worked was not just because of the comedy but because people identified with Bridget’s fear of loneliness. It’s still a prominent theme in the character’s journey even in the third film, and an integral point of access for the audience to empathize with her.”

Zellweger, who nearly broke the Internet in October 2014 when a picture of her from Elle magazine’s Women in Hollywood event prompted rampant speculation that she had done something to her face, seems ready to endure a new wave of scrutiny, emboldened by the support she says she received from her fans at the time, though she says she was able to isolate herself from the actual discussion of her appearance. “All I know is that people were sending support, which means that I must have needed it,” she says. “When people ask me, ‘How did that feel?’ I’ll say, ‘I don’t know.’ I know it sounds pretty unlikely that a person might be able to keep herself clear of those words or of that experience, but I have and it takes effort. But I have succeeded. What good comes from knowing that something like that has happened? Less fear.”

Maybe, but it’s clear that Zellweger hasn’t entirely quieted those negative voices that can haunt almost any woman in the public eye. In between takes on the set, Zellweger tells her makeup artist that she blames a dinner of salty soup the previous night for her “terrible” appearance, and insists on misting her face. If she’s anxious, though, Firth says he never sees it. “It seems like she will endure anything with a smile on her face,” he says. “I know that sounds like the routine colleague gushing, but it’s true. She never complains. Her workload is bigger, but she just never even seems to have a bad day. Obviously she must have. But she doesn’t let anyone else see that.”

The producers have taken their share of punches too over the years. The character is so important to so many people that every decision they make is dissected and debated on social media. “We get a lot of rubbish thrown at us,” Fellner says. “When we were making a second film, we were asked, ‘Why? How’s that going to work?’ On this film it’s ‘Are the people too old? Blah blah blah.’ You’ve just got to stick with what you believe and hope it works.”

And if all else fails, throw in a surprise ending. None of the cast know who fathered Bridget’s baby or who she’ll choose (if anyone) as her beau. Different endings were shot, and the plan is to keep the actors in the dark — possibly until the premiere. “It’s kind of brilliant,” Zellweger says. “Nobody has said yet, and they’re keeping it that way.” In the meantime, she won’t be checking the Internet to see what anyone thinks Bridget — or she — should do. “I work, so there’s not a lot of time for an email exchange, let alone to go read things and be aware of what’s going on,” she says. “I want Bridget to be authentic, and I care more about that than the perceptions of me.” Spoken like the plummy heroine we know her to be.

Bridget Jones's Baby

  • Movie
  • R
  • 118 minutes
  • Sharon Maguire