Inside Renée Zellweger's Long Retreat From Hollywood After Her High-Profile Romances—and Why She's Ready to Return

Following relationships with Bradley Cooper, Kenny Chesney and others, the Oscar winner found love and happiness ahead of her 50th birthday and professional comeback

By Tierney Bricker Apr 25, 2019 10:00 AMTags
Watch: Is Renee Zellweger Ready to Be the Next James Bond?

She had us at hello.

Renée Zellweger became one of Hollywood's hottest stars in 1996, thanks to her breakout performance in Jerry Maguire, capturing the love of Tom Cruise and audiences alike. And she maintained the public's attention for over a decade, working non-stop until 2010 as she became one of the most sought-after and celebrated actors of her generation, until she pulled a surprising disappearing act from the industry following a string of high-profile romances with stars like Bradley Cooper, Jim Carrey and Kenny Chesney

In her six years out of the spotlight, the Oscar winner, who turns 50 on April 25, found something no award or role ever could: happiness, which eluded her in the "chaos" of her life before her hiatus. While she made a return of sorts when she reprised the beloved role of Bridget Jones in 2016, it seems like Zellweger is staging her official comeback in 2019, perhaps marking the end of her long struggle with fame. 

Unfortunately, it took cruel comments and cover stories about her changing appearance when she reemerged for Zellweger to open up about finding fulfillment away from the movie sets, as she had thrown herself into her work throughout the 2000s, filming over 15 movies in a 10-year span. 

"Everything was about going from one professional obligation to the next. And that's what I call them now, when they should have been exciting opportunities, creative opportunities or life adventures," she told People of finally "taking inventory" of her life when she took a break. "Like laughing, driving to Sony, because Tom Cruise is there."

Jason Merritt/Getty Images for ELLE

Back in 2014, Zellweger was subjected to speculation over her appearance, with critics claiming she had plastic surgery done, when she made a rare appearance at the Elle Women in Hollywood Awards.

Rather than ignore the rude rumors, Zellweger addressed them head-on, bluntly telling People, "I'm glad folks think I look different."

And her message for the haters was clear: "I'm living a different, happy, more fulfilling life, and I'm thrilled that perhaps it shows."

She also noted that at the height of her fame, when she was donning fabulous gowns on the red carpet and dating A-list men and filming back-to-back movies, she wasn't happy.

"My friends say that I look peaceful. I am healthy. For a long time I wasn't doing such a good job with that. I took on a schedule that is not realistically sustainable and didn't allow for taking care of myself," she said. "Rather than stopping to recalibrate, I kept running until I was depleted and made bad choices about how to conceal the exhaustion. I was aware of the chaos and finally chose different things."


After spending almost a decade starring in major movies such as Chicago, Cold Mountain, Cinderella Man and the Bridget Jones films, Zellweger said she stepped away from acting for six years to focus on another kind of work: "I did work that allows for being still, making a home, loving someone, learning new things, growing as a creative person and finally growing into myself." 

And that growth happened completely out of the public eye, a stark contrast to her personal life playing out in the tabloids in her 30s; "People don't know me in my 40s," Zellweger said. "People don't know me [as] healthy for a while. Perhaps I look different. Who doesn't as they get older?! Ha. But I am different. I'm happy."

And just because she was living a quieter life didn't mean she was going to be silent when it came to speaking out in defense of women.

She addressed misogynistic coverage of her appearance, writing an op-ed with Huffington Post in 2016 that served multiple purposes: Slamming society's sexist double standards, setting the record straight about any plastic surgery—"Not that it's anyone's business, but I did not make a decision to alter my face and have surgery on my eyes"—and defending herself and other women from the harm tabloid fodder and "public bullying" can cause.

"I am not writing today because I have been publicly bullied or because the value of my work has been questioned by a critic whose ideal physical representation of a fictional character originated 16 years ago, over which he feels ownership, I no longer meet," she wrote, "I'm writing because to be fair to myself, I must make some claims on the truths of my life and because witnessing the transmutation of tabloid fodder from speculation to truth is deeply troubling."

During her respite from the spotlight, Zellweger found love, as she quietly began dating musician Doyle Bramhall III in 2012, and compared to her previous high-profile romances, this relationship has remained almost completely out of the public eye.

The couple enjoyed a romantic getaway to Hawaii in 2013, with a source telling E! News at the time that they "were very happy." But the couple rarely make public appearances, with Bramhall accompanying Zellweger to the Bridget Jones' Baby world premiere in 2016. 

"He's a very special person," Zellweger simply told Us Weekly in 2017, one of the rare times she's addressed her guitarist beau. ("Isn't he cute? He's a very sweet man," she told People back in 2015  of Bramhall, whom she actually knew back when she was a student at the University of Texas before reconnecting with years later.)

Still together after seven years, their quiet romance bookends a string of relationships that dominated the headlines, beginning with Zellweger's first high-profile beau: Jim Carrey.

The Me, Myself & Irene co-stars began dating after they finished filming, with Zellweger telling Entertainment Weekly, "It was a very unexpected, wonderful thing. It was just a really natural thing to want to be around each other. And we didn't see each other for a few months after we finished the picture — or really speak even — and I just noticed his absence significantly. It just felt like 'Wow, I really miss him.'"

For Carrey, who was one of the most bankable actors in Hollywood at the time, being with Zellweger grounded him.

"I feel like it's become much more important for me to have a life and have real human relationships and do my own laundry from time to time and do the menial things I lost touch with when I first became a so-called star," Carrey said. "And Renee's taught me a lot of that too. She's a very connected person. She thinks having a good time is renting a U-Haul and taking furniture to Texas. She's real in that way and I absolutely love it."

AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

While clearly smitten with each other, reports of a quick engagement were ultimately untrue, with Zellweger later telling Cosmopolitan, "It was all made up. I'd only been dating him for three months. As if I would consider marriage after only three months!"

And it seems the tabloid attention eventually lead to their split, with director Ron Howard telling People, "In this case, the media attention just heightened the pressure." (Zellweger's rep said the duo "just wanted different things.")

After their break-up, Zellweger was linked to numerous famous men, including Friends star Matthew Perry, though she shot down that rumor. "He's really nice and handsome, I'm not dating him either," she said in her Cosmo interview, clearly enjoying running through her list of rumored celebrity suitors. "But that's good. Let's make my list really good!"

One rumored beau that turned out to be the real thing? Jack White, as Zellweger began dating the White Stripes frontman in 2003 after hitting it off on the set of Cold Mountain.

They would date for a year and half, with White accompanying her to the Oscars, where she won Best Supporting Actress for the film, before breaking up in December 2004, with her rep telling People that the former couple would "remain good friends. No scandal. No new relationships."

When asked by Cosmo in 2013 if she wants to get married one day, Zellweger, then 34, said, "I don't require it." 

Maybe that's why what Zellweger did just two years later shocked everyone: She married country music superstar Kenny Chesney in a surprise beachside wedding in the Virgin Islands after less than five months of dating. The pair met at the Concert of Hope tsunami relief benefit in January, shortly after her split from White, and quickly entered a whirlwind romance that they made official in May in front of just 35 close family and friends.

But just four months later, Zellweger once again surprised people: She annulled the marriage, citing "fraud" on Chesney's part. 

The marriage was so quick that Zellweger admitted to the Advocate in 2016, "I forgot about that. It's a pretty big thing to forget, isn't it?"

AP Photo/Carolina Herrara

What she couldn't forget though was the cruel media speculation after their split, with many tabloids theorizing Chesney's "fraud" was that he was secretly gay. Zellweger released a statement after clarifying that her decision to list "fraud" in the annulment filing "was not a reflection of Kenny's character," but it didn't stop the rumors.

The former couple then issued a joint statement in an attempt to finally douse the speculative fire that was still spreading, explaining the decision to list "fraud" was "the miscommunication of the objective of their marriage at the start is the only reason for this annulment. Renée and Kenny value and respect each other and are saddened that their different objectives prevent the success of this marriage."

Two years later, Chesney spoke publicly for the first time about the media storm that followed their annulment, telling Anderson Cooper, "Maybe I should have come out and said, 'No, I'm not [gay],' but I didn't want to draw any more attention to it. I didn't have to prove to anybody that I wasn't [gay]. I didn't feel like I really did."

He continued, "The only fraud that was committed was me thinking that I knew what it was like...that I really understood what it was like to be married, and I really didn't," he said.

Over 10 years later, Zellweger still looks back on the controversy with sadness. 

"It made me sad that somehow people were using that as a way to be cruel and calling someone gay as a pejorative, which has fateful consequences," she told the Advocate. "Of course, there's the bigger-picture problem of why anyone had to make up a story at all."

When asked if she felt the need to defend Chesney publicly at the time, Zellweger maintained her fiercely private stance when it comes to sharing personal life with the public. 

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"Well, I'd said all I needed to say on that subject. I'm an old-fashioned gal who doesn't feel it's appropriate to hang out your laundry on the lawn. I feel you devalue yourself as a human being when you share very personal things with a bajillion strangers who are making fun of you," she said. "I just don't see that there's any dignity in that. But sometimes it is difficult to just let something be what it is, especially when it's unnecessary ugliness. Once you've said your piece, shouldn't that be enough? And why is the ugliness that's perpetuated in the media so attractive to people?"

Ultimately though, Chesney didn't regret their relationship, telling Cooper, "Even though I'd sit here and say I wish we'd gotten divorced instead of all that annulment stuff, and saved me a lot of public humiliation...I still don't have any regrets. I loved her, you know? And it was real."

Paramount Vantage

Zellweger's last romance before dating Bramhall? Bradley Cooper. Hot on the heels of his breakout success from The Hangover, the pair began dating in 2009, three years after first meeting on the set of Case 39.

Though they tried to keep their relationship private, it didn't stop the paparazzi and media's endless fascination with Cooper and Zellweger's romance. "I just can't," Cooper told Details when they pressed him about their relationship, and it got out to the press that Zellweger sipping the 2011 Golden Globes to be with Cooper's family in Pennsylvania following the death of his father.

While they never confirmed their relationship, Cooper did gush about his co-star in 2010, telling Entertainment Tonight, "I can't say enough about her. I just love her. I [loved] coming to work. I love acting with her. I can learn so much from her."

She returned the favor to the same outlet, gushing about her beau in a purely professional capacity: "He's a great, great actor. I just got so excited, not believing that I was going to go to work with him."

By March 2011 however, the couple who were living together in California, broke up, as it seemed Cooper was ready to focus on his burgeoning career. Zellweger, meanwhile, had 19 movies come out between 2000-2010. 

"If I had to pick any possible mistress it would be Brad's career," a source told Us Weekly at the time. "He worked really hard to get into leading man status. Renee had to take a backseat."

The insider added, "She's accomplished a lot of her professional goals, so Renee took some time out to be a great girlfriend and see if this is what it took to make a relationship work."

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Ultimately, it led to her "healthy" and "happy" life out of the spotlight with Bramhall. 

After six years away from acting, Zellweger decided to make her return to the screen with an old friend: Bridget Jones.

Universal Pictures

The star reprised her iconic role for the highly anticipated follow-up Bridget Jones' Baby, which reunited her with Colin Firth and paired her with franchise newcomer Patrick Dempsey.

Still, it seemed Zellweger was dipping a toe, testing  the waters before fully deciding to return to the world of acting. 

"I'm gonna take my time and see what happens," she told E! News at the premiere of Bridget Jones's Baby about whether or not she will make more movies. "Just take my time!"

And she did just that, pulling another disappearing act after the release of Bridget Jones' Baby...until 2019, that is. 

As Zellweger enters her 50s, it seems she is ready to make her official Hollywood comeback—both on the big screen and the small screen.

Like so many award-winning stars before her (Reese Witherspoon, Julia Roberts and her Cold Mountain co-star Nicole Kidman, to name just a few), Zellweger is set to front her first TV show in Netflix's What/If. Her last TV appearance? She voiced a character on King of the Hill in 2001. So yeah, this is a big freakin' deal.

In the neo-noir thriller, set to debut on May 24, Zellweger plays Anne, a mysterious woman who makes an enticing and dangerous offer to a pair of newlyweds. She's equal parts sexy and frightening as she plays opposite Jane Levy, Blake Jenner and Revenge's Gabriel Mann.  

Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images / WireImage

As Zellweger will likely court Emmy consideration with her first TV gig, she might also be back at the Oscars, thanks to her highly anticipated turn as Judy Garland in the biopic about the late legend.

Directed by Rupert Goold, Judy centers on Garland's final concerts in the late 1960s amid her deteriorating health and romance with her fifth and final husband, Mickey Deans, shortly before her death.

The film gives Zellweger a chance to remind audiences of her vocal chops, which won her a Golden Globe for her work as Roxie Hart in the 2002 film adaptation of Chicago.

This time, however, is different for Zellweger, now that she's found fulfillment in her life outside of her impressive career.

"When you have nothing to go home to, no one to celebrate these things with, it's time to maybe reassess and figure out what you're not doing right," she explained to People of her professional break. "I had made so many promises to myself about things that I wanted to explore, things I wanted to try, and how I would like to grow as a person that I had made no time for. And I thought, 'That's enough.'"