"She walked into the room for her audition," Crowe remembers, "and the room just kind of tilted her way."
Zellweger seems to have that effect on people, winning over the likes of writer-producer-director Crowe, superstar Cruise, producer James Brooks and a slew of Sony executives nervous about hiring a Hollywood newcomer to help carry such a big movie.
Zellweger is a 27-year-old from Texas whose only previous on-screen work has been roles in independent films such as Richard Linklater's "Dazed and Confused"; a remake of "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," in which she starred opposite Matthew McConaughey; and "Love and a .45," in which she had the female lead.
In "Jerry Maguire," Zellweger plays a young widow with a 5-year-old son who leaves her job as an accountant at a top sports agency for an uncertain future with sports agent Maguire (Cruise), who's just been fired and is struggling to stay in the game. In the process of helping Maguire get on his feet, she teaches him a few things about himself.
"The part was very real for her," says Crowe, "and that helped Tom a lot in terms of people's perceptions of him, you know, that he's living in this lofty superstar world. She helped put this guy in a real context. She challenged him that way."
Zellweger is no stranger to challenge, getting the part after a series of auditions, culminating with one opposite Cruise. "I knew my lines, but I could just see myself walking in and not being able to talk," Zellweger says in an interview on the Sony lot, recalling that she prayed she would get the part.
Zellweger knew full well that by casting her in "Maguire," Crowe was taking a risk. "My main priority was having something to give," she says. "I'd say to myself every day, 'Please, just let me make my character all I can make her, all that Cameron wanted her to be,' because he'd given me this opportunity and I just wanted to give something back."
Until "Maguire," Zellweger had spent most of her acting career in the small world of independent film, cutting her teeth on student films while attending the University of Texas. "That's my favorite way to make a film," she says, "with five people and $5."
Zellweger, who is single, grew up in Caty, Texas, about 30 miles west of Houston, a town so small that there was neither a local movie theater nor cable television. "I have European parents," says Zellweger, whose mother is Norwegian and father is Swiss, "so we never did the all-American moviegoing kind of thing."
While attending the university, Zellweger took a required acting course and fell in love with the craft, even helping to put herself through school with money she made from appearing in commercials.
It was only a matter of time before she landed a role in a movie of the week, a part that led to a tiny one in Linklater's "Dazed and Confused." Although it was virtually a nonspeaking role and her agent advised against it, Zellweger says, she took it because she wanted to work with the Austin-based director.
"I didn't give a damn if I was just going to stand there and watch," she says, "and I ended up learning a lot about the process of making a movie."
Then came her first real break, with "Love and a .45," a lovers-on-the-run action film. She landed the role after borrowing a copy of the script from "Chainsaw" co-star McConaughey while on that film's set. (McConaughey was up for the male lead but eventually declined the part.)
Knowing that the production company was casting from Los Angeles and New York, Zellweger rounded up her roommates and made an audition tape, which she directed, edited and sent overnight just in time for a Monday morning deadline. The effort paid off, winning her a chance to meet with the producers, and she eventually won the part.
But even with a big role in a feature film under her belt, Zellweger felt tentative about packing it all up for Los Angeles, making the move only once she realized that staying in Texas would limit her roles to Long John Silver commercials.
"Don't get me wrong," she says. "In Texas, landing one of those is like winning the lottery. But I'd already traveled that road, and it became clear to me that I'd done all that I could there."
Once in L.A., Zellweger discovered that there had been a lot of interest in her part in "Love," which was yet to be released--enough to pique the curiosity of agents. "I went to a lot of meetings," Zellweger recalls, "and I got an agent [Nick Stevens at UTA], which was a huge blessing."
But for the next nine months, the only work Zellweger could find was as a bartender assistant at the L.A. nightclub Three of Clubs. "I was cleaning glasses and stocking the fridge with cases of beer," she says. "It was OK, even fun. I never felt like I was missing anything. During the day, I was meeting really cool directors, having these really neat experiences, and it was all reinforcing that maybe it was OK to stay."
Last Wednesday marked Zellweger's third anniversary in Los Angeles, and during those three years she's been in "Empire Records," "Shake Rattle and Rock" for Showtime's Drive-In Classic series and "The Whole Wide World," a feature that was well-received at this year's Sundance Film Festival and is set for release by Sony Pictures Classics later this month.
In "The Whole Wide World," Zellweger plays Novalyne Price, a young schoolteacher whose yen for writing brings her into the life of Robert E. Howard, the creator of "Conan the Barbarian." Based on Price's autobiography, "The Whole Wide World" put her opposite Vincent D'Onofrio and gave Zellweger a chance to stretch her acting muscles.
"I play this woman," she emphasizes, "an intellectual woman, not a silly woman. I could throw parts of myself into her that I hadn't been asked to before."
The part was originally meant for Olivia D'Abo, who abandoned the role when she discovered she was pregnant.
"There was a danger that the film would never get made," says director Dan Ireland, "because the financiers weren't too thrilled about making this film anyway. I needed a name actress, but my casting director told me to look at Renee."
Ireland admits he was reluctant to audition Zellweger, as he wasn't sure she could handle the role. But by the end of her first reading, Ireland says, he was moved to tears by her performance. "After she left the room it took me two or three minutes to compose myself. I knew then that I'd found our girl."
Will success spoil Zellweger?
Maybe not, for rather than parlaying her part in "Jerry Maguire" into another big Hollywood project, Zellweger has chosen to take a small one as a prostitute in "Liar," a film by Josh and Jonas Pate that stars Tim Roth, and another as an Orthodox Jewish woman in "Price Below Rubies," which begins shooting in January, to be directed by Boaz Yakin ("Fresh").
"I didn't want to go and do the ingenue thing," explains Zellweger. "I wanted to go and do something I felt something for."
In fact, Zellweger gives the impression that she's just jazzed to be working on what's in front of her at a given moment: "Can you say, 'Vincent D'Onofrio, Tom Cruise and Tim Roth in one year?' Hello! I'm being smiled on by the actor gods!' "
"What's refreshing about Renee," Crowe says, "is that you're used to these people who work in movies and they act it all. They act their interest in you. They act everything, and then halfway through your movie you see them fall in love with somebody else's project, you see them talking about the next movie they're trying to get. And with Renee, you never get that."