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Zellweger coming home for yet another award

Charles Ealy

Renée Zellweger grew up in the early 1970s without cable TV, video games, computers or easy access to movie theaters. But she made up for all of that: She had a big imagination.

"I lived in the little town of Katy, and it was a farming community, but I guess people consider it a Houston suburb today," she says by telephone from her home in Los Angeles. "It was very quiet, and the houses weren't close together. Let's just say there was a lot of room for the imagination to roam."

That imagination has served the 41-year-old actress well.

Consider her roles: a woman on the run in "Love and a .45"; an inspirational teacher in "The Whole Wild World"; a loyal friend in "Jerry Maguire"; a caregiver to a dying mother in "One True Thing"; a soap-opera-star obsessed widow in "Nurse Betty"; a quirky Brit in "Bridget Jones's Diary"; a singing, dancing, death-row bombshell in "Chicago"; a tough, tomboyish, tender-hearted friend in "Cold Mountain"; and the spunky wife of a down-and-out boxer in "Cinderella Man."

Over the past two decades, Zellweger has won an Oscar, three Screen Actor Guild Awards and three Golden Globes. And Thursday, she'll be honored again. She's coming back to Austin to be inducted into the Texas Film Hall of Fame.

Zellweger says she's glad to be headed back to Texas. "Early life is really important. It never leaves you," she says, "especially when you grow up in a place as culturally rich as Texas."

When she was a kid, she did the typical things: sports, cheerleading and the occasional junior high and high school theater productions on weekends.

But her interest in the arts began to blossom when she arrived in Austin in the late 1980s to attend the University of Texas. She majored in English — and she discovered independent film.

"I was living at the Dobie, above the movie theater, when I first came to UT," she says. "And that's where I discovered alternative, independent cinema. I'd always go to see the various animation festivals that came to town. But I remember the first arthouse movie that had a really big impact on me. It was 'Impromptu,' and it starred Judy Davis as George Sand and Hugh Grant as Chopin. I was very moved by it, in part because it dealt with a female author who surrounded herself with artists."

During classes, she focused on American and English literature and "lots of poetry, which I just loved." She says her favorite poets were Mary Oliver and Langston Hughes, both of whom used vivid natural imagery in their verse.

In her spare time, she did something else that was not at all ordinary. She worked at Sugar's Uptown Cabaret, not as a stripper but as a waitress.

"Working at Sugar's was an invaluable educational experience, equally important to college in preparing me for life and what was ahead," Zellweger says. "It helped me understand humanity, what defines good and bad, and I realized that I was really naïve, that everything wasn't in black and white. You just don't always know about people, and I met a lot of really wonderful people there."

And then, as she was nearing the end of her studies, she enrolled in a theater class, simply to fulfill a fine arts requirement. "I remember that it fit into the schedule nicely," she says, "and I was reminded during the course of the semester how much that acting meant to me. I didn't quite understand it. I didn't realize how much it mattered. And when I graduated, I thought that might be the end of that."

But as everyone knows, that wasn't the end of that.

After graduation, she says, "I started getting all of these little parts, and they led to bigger parts. At first, I was a glorified extra and did commercial work."

She credits Austin director Richard Linklater, who cast her in an uncredited role as the "girl in the blue pickup" in 1993's "Dazed and Confsued," for helping her get in to the movie business. "I also crossed paths with Matthew McConaughey on several projects." And gradually, she says, amid the burgeoning Texas film culture, she began to understand "how a film set works, its complexity, its chaos."

After "Dazed and Confused," she had a supporting role in 1994's "Reality Bites," set in Houston and co-starring another Texan, Ethan Hawke. Then she got big parts in "Love and a .45" and "The Whole Wide World."

The latter movie dealt with the friendship of Novalyne Price and Robert Howard, who wrote the "Conan the Barbarian" pulp novels in 1930s Texas. Co-starring Vincent D'Onofrio, it played in Sundance and went on to critical acclaim on the arthouse circuit.

Zellweger's performances in those early movies caught the eye of director Cameron Crowe, who cast her as the female lead in "Jerry Maguire," co-starring Tom Cruise. And that role, of course, made Zellweger a star, forever linked to the line: "You had me at hello."

Zellweger says she has fond memories of "Maguire."

"It's always a miracle when a movie comes together and actually happens," she says. "And when I get a role, it's always terrifying at first. But I'm so thankful that the director put his trust in me. So I do my best."

But when asked whether the Dorothy Boyd role in "Maguire" is her favorite, she hesitates.

"All of them are really special, and it's hard to pick just one. I've gained knowledge from each movie I've ever done, and each time I walk away with a new set of friends," she says, sounding like a diplomat.

But when pressed, she says that "in terms of creative challenges, the most memorable movie is definitely 'Chicago.'

"It was an incredible experience and learning opportunity since I was required to sing and dance," she says of playing Roxie Hart, a performer who's sitting on death row after killing her boyfriend and tries to sing for her freedom.

The role in the 2002 Rob Marshall musical led to an Oscar nomination for Zellweger as best actress.

But Zellweger also has fond memories of 2003's "Cold Mountain," she says.

"For personal reasons, 'Cold Mountain' is one of my favorites," Zellweger says. "It was filmed in Romania, and it really opened my eyes to the importance of little things in life. I would see 70-year-old women out in the yard, chopping wood, simply because they had to. They had such gratitude for the little things, and it was very humbling to see people who got up every day and went to work in the fields."

Zellweger doesn't elaborate on other personal memories about the "Cold Mountain" filming. But she won an Oscar for best supporting actress. And she probably found a poetical soul mate in British director Anthony Minghella.

After Minghella died in 2008, "Cold Mountain" star Jude Law read the director's favorite poem at a memorial service: Mary Oliver's "When Death Comes," which ends with the line "I don't want to end up simply having visited this world."

With such movies as "The English Patient," "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and "Cold Mountain," Minghella was far from a mere visitor.

Zellweger's no mere visitor, either. She's simply coming home for a while.

cealy@statesman.com; 445-3931

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The Texas Film Hall of Fame Awards

Who: Renée Zellweger, Rip Torn, John Hawkes, the cast of "Friday Night Lights" and Austin-based musicians Spoon will be inducted by the Austin Film Society. Wyatt Cenac is master of ceremonies.

When: Thursday. Red-carpet arrivals begin at 6 p.m.

Where: Austin Studios, 1901 E. 51st St.

Details: Tickets for tables seating 10 to 12 range in price from $5,000 to $25,000. For table sales and sponsorship information, contact film society's Shannon Moody at 322-0145, ext. 3222 or by e-mail at shannon@austinfilm.org. www.austinfilm.org/tfhof.