Ten years ago you couldn’t approach a magazine rack without Renée Zellweger looking back at you. Her private life (especially her romance with Bradley Cooper, and a cultural obsession with her weight) plus her prolific movie career made it so that she lived almost entirely under the spotlight. It was maddening, unmanageable and ultimately enough to prompt a massive breakup with Hollywood. (And also with Cooper—they ended things in 2011). For six years, Zellweger didn’t take on a single acting project, barely walked a red carpet and mostly just devoted herself to living “a quieter life.”
Now, at the age of 50, she’s back, already earning Oscar buzz for her performance as Judy Garland in the forthcoming biopic, and appearing on the cover of the latest issue of New York magazine. Here’s everything we learned in the accompanying feature profile, including why she left showbiz, the great advice she got from Salma Hayek and why cell service is overrated.
1. She can go unrecognized—at last
The profile opens with Zellweger, plus some friends, plus Jonathan Van Meter (the journalist who wrote the profile), hanging out on the patio of a café called Topanga Living—one of her regular haunts, not far from her house in (yes) Topanga, California. At one point Zellweger is heading inside to grab more “fancy water” (more on that in a second), and stops to chat with a couple who seemingly have no idea that they’re talking to a movie-star-slash-Oscar-winner-slash-former-tabloid-fixture. When Van Meter tells her he’s surprised she can go incognito, she says anonymity is one of the many benefits of having taken time away: “I have very authentic exchanges with people once again… Six years. It was important, that time. You’re not in people’s consciousness anymore, so they don’t immediately make the connection. It’s a quieter life, and I love it.”
2. She’s into CBD water
That’s what she and her friends are drinking during the aforementioned patio hang session. In case you’re wondering, CBD water is water infused with non-intoxicating cannabinoids and is supposed to help you chill. (Whether it actually works or not is a different subject for a different day. For now, know that it’s extremely trendy and extremely not cheap.)
3. A therapist (and Salma Hayek) helped her to reset her priorities
Everyone remembers Zellweger’s hits from her later ’90s/early aughts (Bridget Jones, Chicago, Me, Myself & Irene). Less celebrated are movies she made later in the decade (New In Town, My One and Only, Beatrix Potter). A string of clunkers combined with her way-too-public private life (Cooper, etc.) precipitated the decision to step away. She started seeing a therapist to work through it all. “He recognized that I spent 99 percent of my life as the public persona and just a microscopic crumb of a fraction in my real life. I needed to not have something to do all the time, to not know what I’m going to be doing for the next two years in advance. I wanted to allow for some accidents. There had to be some quiet for the ideas to slip in,” she says. Around the same time Zellweger ran into her friend Salma Hayek in an airport, who told her that a rose doesn’t bloom all year round—unless it’s plastic. The takeaway here is that our heroine realized the pace she had been operating at was not just untenable, but ran counter to doing great, creative work.
4. “She looks like herself again”
As relayed by Van Meter and as evidenced in the accompanying portraits in which Zellweger looks both beautiful and “like herself’ (“[S]he looks, well, like Renée Zellweger at 50. But Hollywood 50, which is to say several years younger,” says Van Meter). The last time she was part of the public discourse was in 2014 when she attended the Elle: Women In Hollywood Awards, looking, well—a little different. People (read: the internet) freaked out and Zellweger responded with an essay in the Huffington Post titled We Can Do Better. Which is true (here is Chatelaine’s editor-in-chief Maureen Halushak on plastic surgery and empowerment). Of the whole debacle, present-day Zellweger seems to question her motivation: “I like my weird quirkiness, my off-kilter mix of things. It enables me to do what I do. I don’t want to be something else. I got hired in my blue jeans and cowboy boots with my messy hair. I started working like that. I didn’t have to change to work. So why was I suddenly trying to fit into some mold that didn’t belong to me?”
5. She went back to school
During her Hollywood sabbatical Zellweger wasn’t just sitting back sipping CBD water. She travelled, she bought property and she went back to school, studying political relations at an unnamed school in L.A. (which she doesn’t name because she may want to continue her education at some point). “I was just interested in learning a little bit more about international policy, getting a little smarter about it all, to see if it was something I had an aptitude for away from the news on the television set. It was fantastic.”
6. Judy isn’t a great movie—but Zellweger’s great in it
This according to Van Meter, who has seen the “good, not great” movie, which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival last week (and will screen this month at the Toronto International Film Festival). “Riveting” and “her best acting to date,” is how he describes RZ’s portrayal of the Wizard of Oz star, who died of a drug overdose in 1969. Apparently Zellweger nails Garland both emotionally and physically, right down to the fact that her costumes only fit her while she is in Judy posture (otherwise “the zipper won’t go up”).
7. You might catch her at a midnight screening
While Garland’s struggles with drugs and alcohol are well known, the movie also makes a point of highlighting her insomnia, which apparently “drove her mad and toward the pill.” The problems brought on by sleeplessness is something Zellweger can relate to. “I get busy at midnight. I used to move the furniture around. Because you can’t fix this but you can fix that.” She says she will sometimes attend midnight movie screenings and be the only person in the theatre.
8. She still finds it tough to talk about Harvey Weinstein
Like a lot of big actresses of the ’90s, Zellweger worked frequently with Harvey Weinstein—Bridget Jones, Chicago and Cold Mountain (which won her an Oscar) were all Miramax movies. Having remained silent on the whole situation (which broke almost two years ago), she was prompted to speak out after actress Melissa Sagemiller testified that Weinstein told her he had received “sexual favours” from Zellweger and Charlize Theron. “If Harvey said that, he’s full of s**t,” she said in a statement via her publicist back in June. Speaking with Van Meter, she says, “It’s a hard thing to talk about in this context. It’s such a big topic. And it’s personal and it’s not. And it’s something that’s always been there and the shift is overdue and you could feel it coming for a while and it was inevitable. And thank God. But, in some ways, I feel: Oh gosh, I allowed for the tiny cuts that just seemed like, ‘Oh, this is just how it’s always been.’ But I was never a victim of it.”
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“I think the majority of the films that I’ve made wouldn’t get made today … What I really love about it is that I’m still allowed to do it.” After Bridget Jones, after the Harvey-at-Miramax years, after a break from acting, #RenéeZellweger is ready to play Judy Garland. Tap the link in bio for our full @Vulture cover story. @amandademme
9. She’s not sure why she’s a gay icon
Given that she is playing Garland (a gay icon), Van Meter figures it’s fair game to ask Zellweger about her own popularity in the gay community. She doesn’t have much of an answer, but she does want to go deep with Van Meter on his own coming out experience. The most interesting part of this section is when Zellweger reacts to Van Meter’s comment that both Judy and her daughter Liza Minnelli married gay men: “[H]ere she makes the most complicated and hilarious face imaginable, one that seems to say, all at once, Haven’t we all? And Go figure!” (Read into that what you will.)
10. Her house doesn’t have cell service
Which, when you think about it, is pretty crazy. Zellweger says “location” is why she picked her Topanga property: “It feels a little bit like West Texas. It’s really remote. I like that it’s solitude and silence.” As far as details go, this is a pretty excellent one. Because while so many famous people claim to crave the quiet, the fact that Zellweger proves she actually means it. The profile ends with Van Meter noting that while a lot of people assume Zellweger is similar to the “dizzy, solipsistic Bridget Jones types” she has played on screen, she is actually most like Ruby from Cold Mountain: “A tough, capable country girl”—and, writes Van Meter, the kind of woman you want with you during the apocalypse.