ANY GOOD PARKING SPACE WILL NOT SUFFICE: Rene Zellweger pulls her Volkswagen Jetta right in front of her usual outdoor table at Authentic Cafe in Los Angeles. The unforgiving meterthirty minutes for a quarter, twelve for a dime, six for a nickel, one hour maximumwill require vigilance, but Zellweger need not worry: A waiter is on the case. He’s a one-man advance-warning system, keeping an eye out for the meter maid’s car. And though most waiters and waitresses spend their time collecting cash, this guy gives it out, feeding her a steady supply of quarters when she comes up short. Then, after Zellweger has gone through all the change, the meter maid passes by and… apologizes for interrupting her lunch.
Ah, Hollywood. If the genuflecting hasn’t already tipped you off, the 28-year-old Zellweger is an actress. And not just any actress, but one of 1997’s hottest actresses, the female lead in Jerry Maguire, a $270 million hit that also happened to be the only studio film nominated for the best picture Oscar this year. Allegedly, everyone from Mira Sorvino to Winona Ryder coveted the role of Tom Cruise’s love interest, but Zellwegerat the time a practically unknown native of the Houston suburb of Katygot it, and then shined in it. It was a rare part for a woman in a commercial film, which is to say that it was well written and required neither blowing things up nor watching some male star do so. Since then Zellweger’s name has been rolling off the tongues of critics and Hollywood insiders who see her as a hot young talent with an unusual presence that compares with the likes of Jean Arthur and Katharine Hepburn. The estimable Jack Matthews of Newsday called her “Hollywood’s discovery of 1996, and its star of tomorrow.”
Zellweger, however, is hardly a one-film wonder. Just as she was winning raves for her star turn in Jerry Maguire, she was wowing independent film fans with an overpowering performance in the art-house and festival hit The Whole Wide World; together, the two parts earned her the National Board of Review’s Best Breakthrough Performer Award for 1996. One year later she has the lead as a renegade Hasidic wife in the indie film Price Below Rubies, and she recently signed on to a major studio project, One True Thing, in which she stars alongside Meryl Streep. There are at least ten Web sites devoted to her, which is way more than Joey Lauren Adams (the Chasing Amy star Zellweger is sometimes mistaken for) but way fewer than Jewel (the wildly popular female folksinger Zellweger is nearly always mistaken for). And in perhaps the ultimate stamp of approval for a budding show biz icon, Zellweger is on the cover of September’s Vanity Fair, having previously appeared, with fellow Texan and hot young thing Matthew McConaughey, in a group shot for the magazine’s annual Hollywood issue.
The waiter at the cafe, rest assured, knows all this. At the end the day when lunch is over, he finally tells Zellweger how much he admired her work in Maguire and asks about Rubies. It turns outwhaddaya know?that he’s an actor himself, with a movie hopefully headed for the Sundance Film Festival next year. (Ah, Hollywood.) Zellweger claims not to notice such fawning, or at least the fact that it’s unusual. “A lot of times I’ll just forget [that I’m famous],” she says. “I’ll think, God, that was the nicest thing to do! People are getting nicer in L.A.! Now they treat me like people back home always treat me.’” Indeed, the courtesy and levelheadedness that come with Texas roots are important to Zellweger, who professes to be mortified by the thought that anyone would say she’s gone Hollywood: “People are like, God, your life has changed,’ and I’m like, No, not really!’”
It’s true enough that Zellweger isn’t Hollywood wealthy. Her rsum is filled almost exclusively with low-budget, low-pay movies. And as for Maguire … well, there’s a reason why you don’t hire Winona Ryder when your leading man gets $20 million. “I was the bargain,” Zellweger says. “I was the one where they said, If we hire that girl, we’ll save money.’” Likewise, she still lives in the same garage apartment she rented when she moved to L.A. in 1993, and she is nowhere to be found on the party and premiere circuit. When she does join the rest of the brat pack at something like the MTV Movie Awards, she isn’t exactly the type to break out the brand-new Mizrahi gown and the borrowed Harry Winston jewelry. There are unflattering paparazzi shots of her to prove it.
Yet actresses do not end up in Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep movies by accident. Zellweger portrays herself as someone who is oblivious to the vagaries of the movie businesssomeone who doesn’t read the trades, doesn’t know who the players are, doesn’t have a long-term career strategy. Her only ambition, she says, is to find her next great role. Certainly she seems more interested in doing good work than becoming a “movie star,” which is convenient, as genuine talent, which Zellweger definitely has, is entirely unrelated to star quality, which she may not have. But she has agents and managers like any other actress, and she can charm, compete, and manipulate like them as well. In an age when young actors have their own production companies and directorial ambitions before they’ve made their second film, the notion of Zellweger as a naf who cares only about her craft is appealing, but it somehow doesn’t wash.
So who is Rene Zellweger? She is not only a first-generation Texan but also a first-generation American: Her dad, Emil, an engineer, is Swiss, and her mom, Kjellfried, a nurse, is Norwegian. All reliable evidence suggests that she did not dream of being on the silver screen from day one. Growing up in Katy, she was more jock than drama queen, running track and cross-country and playing basketball. When she left Katy to attend the University