When it was announced that American actress Renée Zellweger would play the leading role in Bridget Jones’s Diary, the news was greeted with public outrage not seen since British actress Vivien Leigh was cast as the American Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939). Helen Fielding’s 1996 novel “Bridget Jones’s Diary” had been a sensation in the UK, spending six months on the bestseller’s list. Readers identified with Bridget’s struggles to shed a few pounds, stop smoking and fall in love. British actresses Kate Winslet and Rachel Weisz were reportedly in the running for the role, as was Australian Toni Collette. Winslet, at 24, was considered too young for the 30-something Bridget, Collette turned it down in order to appear on Broadway, and director Sharon Maguire felt Weisz was “too beautiful for the part.” Zellweger, then 30, had attracted notice as Tom Cruise’s love interest in Jerry Maguire (1996), but was not yet an A-list star. Nevertheless, when she walked into the audition, the director and producers knew they had their Bridget, even if she was from Texas. The British public and press were angered by the news; The Evening Standard called the choice, “clunking, Hollywood idiocy.”
Zellweger had read the book on its American release, loved it and shared it with her friends, but never thought she’d play Bridget. She assumed “it would be a British film made in Britain with British people. And that would be that.” Once cast in the role, she knew the pressure was on, telling director Maguire, "If you and I get this wrong, we’re so busted.” In order to get it right, she had to gain 17 pounds to match Bridget’s plumpness, which she did by binging on pizza and other fatty foods. To gain a better understanding of her character’s job in publishing, she worked for three weeks in publicity at Picador, the London publishing house that released “Bridget Jones’s Diary.” Zellweger’s boss at Picador, Camilla Elworthy, later wrote in The Guardian that the actress “wasn't what I had anticipated – scrubbed, unaffected and dressed in neat, casual clothes, she fitted in straight away. We came up with a plan: she would be Bridget Cavendish.” Ironically, "she had, more than once, to cut out incendiary tabloid stories fuming that ‘our Bridget’ was to be played by an American. She kept her cool but did scribble ‘Rubbish’ in the margins of one particularly fanciful piece.”
At the same time, Zellweger worked on her accent with Barbara Berkery, the same dialect coach who had worked with Gwyneth Paltrow for Shakespeare in Love (1998). Co-star Hugh Grant described her first attempts as “a very brief Princess Margaret phase, which was alarming! […] 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. […] 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.”
With a reported budget of $22million, Bridget Jones’s Diary went into production with a screenplay begun by Helen Fielding, who had to drop out to finish writing the novel’s sequel, and completed by Andrew Davies and Richard Curtis. The film was shot in London, as well as Gloucestershire, Surrey, The Cotswolds and Stansted Airport in Essex. The cast included Colin Firth as Mark Darcy (a character created by Fielding after viewing the 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice, in which Firth played Mr. Darcy), Hugh Grant as Daniel Cleaver, Gemma Jones as Bridget’s Mum, Jim Broadbent as Bridget’s Dad and cameos by authors Salman Rushdie and Jeffrey Archer.
The film premiered in the UK on April 4, 2001, and was an immediate hit on both sides of the Atlantic, grossing $281 million worldwide. Despite all the controversy surrounding her casting, Renée Zellweger was nominated for a BAFTA Award, an Academy Award and a Screen Actors Guild Award.
Angulo, Sandra P. “Hugh Grant defends the choice of American Renée Zellweger as Britain's favorite single gal.” Entertainment Weekly. May 2, 2000. https://ew.com/article/2000/05/02/latest-bridget-jones-casting-controversy/
Elworthy, Camilla. “Bridget and me.” The Guardian. April 4, 2001. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2001/apr/04/fiction.features
The Guardian. “Rachel Weisz too beautiful for Bridget Jones.” March 16, 2001. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2001/mar/16/news3
The Internet Movie Database. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0243155/
Kaufman, Amy. “The oral history of ‘Bridget Jones’s Diary’ from Renée Zellweger, Colin Firth and more.” The Los Angeles Times. April 8, 2016. https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/la-ca-mn-bridget-jones-diary-oral-history-20160410-story.html
Nugent, Annabel. “What critics said about Renee Zellweger’s casting as Bridget Jones: ‘Crap American Comedian Playing British Icon.’” The Independent. April 14, 2021. https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/news/renee-zellweger-bridget-jones-backlash-b1831075.html.
Polowy, Kevin. “Bridget Jones’s Diary at 20: Renée Zellweger recalls weird way she discovered British backlash to her casting.” Yahoo Entertainment. April 13, 2021. https://www.yahoo.com/entertainment/bridget-jones-diary-renee-zellweger-casting-controversy-american-actress-british-reaction-150026161.html?pid=8099906&aid=11557605&sid=
Watkins, Gwynne. “The Bridget Jones Backlash: Remembering Renée Zellweger's Controversial Casting as the British Heroine.” Yahoo News. September 16, 2016. https://www.yahoo.com/news/the-bridget-jones-backlash-remembering-renee-zellwegers-controversial-casting-as-the-british-heroine-153544517.html.