The Bridget Jones Backlash: Remembering Renée Zellweger's Controversial Casting as the British Heroine

On Friday, Bridget Jones’s Baby opens in theaters, bringing Renée Zellweger’s witty, gaffe-prone heroine back into moviegoers’ lives. Audiences were introduced to the hopeless-romantic title character in 2001’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, in which Zellweger charmed audiences so thoroughly that she received an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, a rarity for a comedic performance. But when Zellweger’s casting was announced, the backlash was brutal enough to make a person want to put on pajamas, get drunk, and listen to “All by Myself” on repeat. Here’s the story of how Zellweger landed the role, and how she beat back the controversy to become the Bridget we all know and love.

Helen Fielding’s 1996 novel, Bridget Jones’s Diary, was a sensation in England, where it topped the bestseller list for six months and introduced Bridget-isms like “singleton” (a perpetually single 30-something woman) and “smug marrieds” (former singletons who now ask others, “Why aren’t you married yet?”) into everyday conversation. Told in the form of a diary, the comedic story chronicles its title character’s struggles to lose weight, stop smoking, and find love, potentially with her boss, Daniel Cleaver, or a family friend named Mark Darcy, whose last name is a tip-off to the Pride and Prejudice-inspired plot. The book became a U.S. bestseller when a somewhat Americanized version was published in 1998. By that time, film producers and director Sharon Maguire (who also helmed Bridget Jones’s Baby) had already begun the search for their star.

Related: Red Carpet Flashback! Bridget Jones’s Diary Premieres in London and N.Y. in 2001

“Not since the fervor in the ’30s over the burning question ‘Who will play Scarlett O’Hara?’ has there been, perhaps, such speculation about the movie casting of a literary character,” declared the Washington Post in 1998. Written in the first person, Fielding’s novel offers no detailed physical description of its London-based heroine (except for her meticulously tracked weight), so only two requirements seemed immediately apparent for the actress playing Bridget: She had to be overweight — at least by Hollywood standards — and she had to be British.

Renée Zellweger was neither of these things. The Texas-born actress put herself on the map playing Tom Cruise’s everywoman love interest in the 1996 drama Jerry Maguire. But despite a few subsequent successes (the Farrelly Brothers’ modest hit Me, Myself & Irene, the critically acclaimed Nurse Betty), Zellweger, who was 30 when she won the Bridget role, wasn’t yet a household name. In contrast, the actress most often mentioned as a contender for Bridget Jones was Kate Winslet, the two-time Oscar-nominated star of the biggest blockbuster of all time, Titanic, as well as a genuine Brit who had endured some cruel teasing in the press about her own dress-size fluctuations. London-born Good Will Hunting star Minnie Driver — who’d gained weight for her film debut, Circle of Friends — was also a popular choice, as was Aussie actress Toni Collette, another veteran of the average-size-woman role with Muriel’s Wedding. During the producers’ two-year search for their star, Collette turned down the film for a Broadway show, while Winslet, then 24, was deemed too young. Another Londoner, Rachel Weisz, was “too beautiful for the part,” according to Sharon Maguire.

But as soon as they saw Zellweger, the director and producers immediately realized she was the right choice — even though she’d be a tough sell. “I figured that when [the right actress] walked in the room, we’d know,” Maguire told Total Film magazine in October 2000.  “She did walk in the room, and we did know. And we went, ‘Oh f***, she’s a Texan.’”

That was pretty much the reaction of the press too, particularly in Britain. “Of all the clunking, Hollywood idiocy,” wrote an Evening Standard columnist, comparing the casting of Zellweger as Bridget to “remaking The Elephant Man with Jude Law.” Another writer complained that Zellweger “projects an American girl next door” into a quintessentially British role. A writer for the Independent said that Zellweger was everything her character is supposed to hate: “a clean-living American,” and soon to be “a smug married.” (Zellweger was engaged to Jim Carrey at the time.) “The only good thing, I suppose,” added a Daily Mail columnist, “is it isn’t Meg Ryan.”

Nevertheless, Maguire stuck to her guns, convinced that Zellweger was the perfect Bridget. “She’s got this inner irreverence, and she’s got this innocence and vulnerable exterior,” said the director in Total Film. “She also has a very good sense of physical comedy and was so dedicated to getting it right. When I first met her, she said: ‘If you and I get this wrong, we’re so busted.’”

And Zellweger was determined to get it right. To turn herself into an authentic-sounding Londoner, she hired the dialect coach who perfected Gwyneth Paltrow’s posh vowels for Shakespeare in Love. According to co-star Hugh Grant (who played Bridget’s caddish boss, Daniel), Zellweger started out roughly, but then won everyone over. “Accent-wise she had a very brief Princess Margaret phase, which was alarming!” Grant said while promoting the film. “Then there was a brief phase where Renée sounded as though she … had a stroke! You know, everything was rather slurred. But then Renée knocked that on the head. And two weeks before we started shooting, her accent came perfectly into focus. It’s the best American doing English that I’ve ever heard in my life. And not once did she stop speaking with that accent, until the wrap party.”

Then there was the matter of looking like a woman who might want to lose 20 pounds. The small-framed Zellweger gained 17 pounds by forgoing exercise and eating a nonstop feast of pizza, desserts, and protein shakes. “She was so game,” Maguire told the Los Angeles Daily News. “Renée was delighted in the fact that her cellulite was sticking out and that, at the top of the bunny costume, you could see the fat pouching out. She would do anything to add to the comedy.”

Once Zellweger had completed the transformation of her body and voice, but before filming began, she road-tested her character by taking a job at an actual London publishing house. (In the film, Bridget works in publishing.) Calling herself Bridget Cavendish, Zellweger arranged to spend three weeks working incognito as a PR assistant at Picador, the original publisher of Bridget Jones’s Diary. According to head of publicity Camilla Elworthy, she was rarely recognized (the weight gain probably helped), and competently performed all the duties of a normal temp — which happened to include clipping articles about the upcoming film adaptation. “This meant she had, more than once, to cut out incendiary tabloid stories fuming that ‘our Bridget’ was to be played by an American,” Elworthy wrote in the Guardian. “She kept her cool, but did scribble ‘rubbish’ in the margins of one particularly fanciful piece.”

All that preparation paid off for the actress, who received glowing reviews on both sides of the pond when Bridget Jones’s Diary opened in April 2001. “Ms. Zellweger accomplishes the small miracle of making Bridget both entirely endearing and utterly real,” wrote the New York Times. “She has an excellent English accent, the best since Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma. And her Jake La Motta-ish weight-gain is a thing of joy,” raved the Guardian. There were a few outliers, like the Entertainment Weekly writer who declared Zellweger “too cuddly” for the role. Nevertheless, skeptical British audiences were quickly converted: Bridget Jones’s Diary set a U.K. box-office record for the biggest opening ever for a British film, and still ranks as one of the highest-grossing films of all time in the U.K. The film was less of a blockbuster in the United States, but still took in more than $70 million and made an A-list star of Zellweger, who received Golden Globe and SAG Award nominations, in addition to her Oscar nod, for playing Bridget.

Though Zellweger went on to achieve greater fame and recognition — including another Oscar nomination for Chicago and a win for 2004’s Cold Mountain — many fans still think of her first as Bridget Jones. The casting that initially met with so much hostility now seems as natural as hearing a drunken karaoke ballad at an office Christmas party. “There’s rarely a day that goes by that somebody doesn’t want to talk about Bridget Jones when we meet in the street,” Zellweger told the Los Angeles Times this past September. “It’s always interesting, and people are nice. I love her too, so it’s flattering.”