The girl in the corner


She’s one of the most admired actresses in Hollywood, both for her talent and versatility.

But despite the hits on her resume — “Chicago” and the two “Bridget Jones” movies among others — and a 2004 Academy Award for “Cold Mountain,” Renee Zellweger is also seen by those in the industry as an unreliable box-office draw. Indeed, the question often asked in Hollywood is, “Does Renee have what it takes to remain a star?”

After all, most superstar actresses are more aggressive in their pursuit of fame, are difficult to get along with, display more divalike demands, and have a prickly temperament to match. They can also get away with it because they’re usually sexy, exciting and pull in the customers.

Renee Zellweger is none of the above — and that suits the 38-year-old Texan just fine.

“I think generally stars with a lot of sizzle don’t last that long,” says Zellweger in a recent interview ahead of the Japan release of her latest film, “Bee Movie.”

“I’m not the type of person who wakes up and thinks, ‘How pretty can I look today?’ I like a party where I go to somebody’s house and nobody’s pointing to the weird actor girl in the corner. I’m not a big ‘scene girl.’ If I see the scene once a year, that’s more than plenty,” she says.

But there is one actress whom Zellweger is happy to sing the praises of: French Golden Globe-winner Marion Cotillard, recently seen playing Edith Piaf in the biopic “La Vie en Rose.” She is “wonderful,” Zellweger declares without reservation.

She now has homes in Connecticut and East Hampton, New York, but remains close to her family — her Swiss-born father, an ex-engineer, her Norwegian mother, a former nurse, and her brother, a marketing executive.

“I think most long-lasting performers are a little more down to earth,” she says.

Zellweger might be talking about herself, of course. Certainly, she is self-aware enough to realize it all could have turned out very differently.

Her career started out in Houston, Texas, where she auditioned for roles unsure if she belonged in movies or on the stage.

“I went to Hollywood and came back,” she says. “I wasn’t completely clear on where my future lay.”

“Sometimes Renee still can’t believe her good luck. She knows she could still be working in some theater troupe in Texas,” is how one Zellweger associate puts it.

Attractive without being particularly sexy, at 38 Zellweger doesn’t look much younger than her age. In the recent “Miss Potter,” she portrayed the British children’s author Beatrix Potter, the sort of spinsterish role that actresses approaching middle age must get used to.

While “Miss Potter” performed modestly at the box office, Zellweger’s latest effort, “Bee Movie,” has already become a bona fide hit in the United States. As DreamWorks’ latest animated comedy, this sees Zellweger’s voice pairing up with that of television funnyman Jerry Seinfeld, who stars (and cowrites) as the bee Barry B. Benson. The bee strikes up a friendship with florist Vanessa Bloome (Zellweger), but when Barry realizes humans eat honey, he decides to take revenge — by suing the human race.

“I loved doing ‘Bee Movie,’ ” gushes Zellweger. “For me, being an actor is enough of a challenge — inhabiting a character, finding the truth of that character, keeping it fresh for myself and for the audience. It can be exhausting at times!”

Zellweger can barely contain her admiration for her costar. “I think comedians keep up the spirits of people around them. They can be competitive, but in a funnier, maybe nicer way. Everyone thinks ‘divas’ means actresses. But some of the divas I’ve been professionally involved with are men.”

Of course, such behavior is de rigueur in Hollywood, and Zellweger is not completely averse to the perks of stardom — for her wedding to country singer Kenny Cheney (annulled after four months), she paid a fortune for the same wedding dress worn by Katharine Hepburn.

Rather than A-list preening, though, it was the intense competition that bothered Zellweger when she made the move to Tinseltown.

“It was kind of a surprise to me, at first, when I’d get cast in these roles of girls who were sort of on the edge emotionally, very vulnerable,” she says with a mixture of ruefulness and resignation.

She could be talking about “Nurse Betty” (2000), in which a delusional Zellweger obsesses over a character on a TV soap opera; or the coming-of-age drama, White Oleander” (2002), in which her emotionally needy character kills herself. Bridget Jones apart, Zellweger is best-known for her role in “Chicago,” in which she memorably parodied Marilyn Monroe. How did she feel about taking on such an icon?

“Petrified!” she laughs. “They had to use lots of mirrors and the best camera angles, plus add all that music and choreography. But I must say, we barely got away with it, (even if) it’s one of my own favorite film clips.”

Although the role earned Zellweger a best actress Oscar nomination, she says that she almost never took it because she found some of the lyrics “quite complicated.”

Nonetheless, the message got through to audiences and critics, and “Chicago” became the first musical to win a best picture Academy Award since “Oliver!” in 1968. The Academy judges also honored costar Catherine Zeta-Jones, who walked away with the best supporting actress prize.

“I was floored by Catherine’s singing,” says Zellweger. “My voice was OK, but next to her I felt a bit insecure.”

She didn’t have to wait long for a gong, though. In 2004, Zellweger won the best supporting actress Academy Award for the Civil War saga “Cold Mountain,” despite carping from a few film critics who felt her Southern accent wasn’t convincing — never mind that Zellweger was born and reared in Texas. There, she majored in English at the University of Texas after becoming interested in acting in high school.

But Oscar winners or not, Hollywood hasn’t always been kind to middle-aged actresses. So how does Zellweger feel about approaching 40?

“Fine! But as an actress, there are concerns. Because of the perception that by 40, unless she’s some sort of a raging sexpot who hasn’t aged in 10 years, an actress is too old — or soon will be — to keep playing the romantic lead, which they let older actors do.”

After one failed marriage, is the currently unattached Zellweger still romantic enough to believe in Hollywood-style happy endings?

“It doesn’t have to be limited to the idea of love or finding happiness with a man,” she says.

Would children bring her happiness?

“My life is already very full, and so to be pining over what I don’t have just isn’t in my nature.”

If Seinfeld calls, will Zellweger sign up for a sequel to “Bee Movie”?

“If Jerry’s involved and thinks I absolutely must be, I would. But one reason I became an actor was not to be bored in a repetitive job.”

Or one that’s competitive?

“Yes. Yet this business can be excruciatingly competitive. You have to create your own niche, so they think of you for certain types of roles or even create, say, a Renee Zellweger role for you.”

“(In ‘Bee Movie’) I just went in and did my scenes, and it was pretty fast. Whereas Jerry, who was the writer and producer and lead actor, or lead bee,” she giggles, “worked on it for four years.

“I could die of boredom working on any movie for four years. Maybe that means I’m more like a typical bee — I’d rather go from project to project, enjoying myself and doing my best, the way that a bee goes from flower to flower. Don’t you think that’s a nice simile? Yeah,” she says, answering her own question, “I like that.”

“Bee Movie” opens Jan. 26. Read Giovanni Fazio’s review on tomorrow’s RE:FILM page.