Zellweger's Miss Potter
Beatrix Potter was a literary phenomenon of the early 20the Century. At a time when most young women of her class aimed only to make a good marriage, Beatrix became an iconic figure, swimming with great fortitude against the tide. She created a series of books and characters that are as beloved today as they were a hundred years ago; since their publication they have never been out of print. She was also a distinguished painter and– had she been a man–her botanical drawings would have been snapped up by the Royal Horticultural Society at Kew Gardens.
By the time she died, in 1943, Beatrix Potter had purchased vast swathes of the Lake District that she left to the then fledgling British Conservation Trust. That so much of this glorious countryside that inspired her, remains as it was in Beatrix Potters day for others to enjoy, is her bequest to the nation.
“Miss Potter” is directed by Chris Noonan (“Babe”), produced by Mike Medavoy, and stars Oscar-winner Rene Zellweger (“Cold Mountain”).
Understanding Miss Potter
Zellweger embarked on a voyage of discovery when she accepted the role of English writer and artist Beatrix Potter. Knowing the characters that Potter created from her fertile imaginationPeter Rabbit, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, Jemima Puddleduck, and friendsbut little of the woman herself, Zellweger immersed herself in a wealth of research. She says: When I first read the script, I felt I knew exactly who Beatrix Potter was, said actress Rene Zellweger. I understood why her growing up informed the woman she became. I understood why she became more and more reserved because of the restrictions placed on her.
There are so many contradictions in terms of what she hoped for in her life, and the choices she made. It made for a fascinating journey to find the best way to be accurate, to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Nothing was easy, nothing was blatantly obvious, nothing was really clear.
For the first half of 2006, Texan Zellweger spoke in an English accent as she starred as Beatrix Potter. It sounds dramatic but it is actually the lazy way to do things, said Zellweger, gazing out across at Lake Windermere on a perfect spring day. It means I dont have to concentrate on whether or not I am speaking properly.
The intensity of Zellwegers focus as she neared the end of shooting had not diminished. She had been Beatrix twelve hours a day, six days a week. She had scarcely had a day off during the films packed eight-week schedule. And for weeks before shooting started, she had immersed herself in the research she considered necessary before undertaking the part.
The script for Miss Potter was so beautiful its hard to believe its not fiction. Quite apart from her extraordinary professional life, she went through so much privately, Zellweger continued. I felt a strong kinship with her, a really strong attachment to the woman and the material.
In her younger years she tried to conform to the woman she was meant to be, and I guess we all have a bit of that in us. But she was fiercely private and successful in keeping the things that mattered most to her away from public gaze.
Affinity of Actress an Role
The similarity between actor and subject was not lost on Zellweger. No surprise that she should be first choice to play the iconic English writer and artist, Beatrix Potter, creator of Peter Rabbit, Mrs. Tiggy-winkle, Jemima Puddleduck and their friends. Zellweger earned honorary Brit status thanks to two successful incarnations as Helen Fieldings inspirational singleton Bridget Jones. She won the best supporting actress Oscar in 2004 for her role as Ruby Thewes in Anthony Minghellas “Cold Mountain.” In 2002 and 2003 she was Oscar nominated as best actress in “Bridget Jones' Diary” and “Chicago.”
There was no question when it came to casting Beatrix Potter that Zellweger was the right actress for the part. Producer David Thwaites was in no doubt: Rene is a chameleon as an actress. Its very important to her for everything to be accurate. She takes it very seriously, particularly playing a character that lived. The amount of research she does to make sure she doesnt misrepresent the character is quite staggering.
Enlisting Help of Publishers
Zellweger enlisted the help of the ladies who run Frederick Warne & Co, the original publishers of Beatrix Potter and still the guardians of the imprint. They have been brilliant at maintaining the integrity of Beatrix Potter. The more I read and researched and the more information I was given, the more uncertain I became about who she was.
Zellweger realized she had to trust the script and find the truth within it: She was cut off from her peers, from the people you would normally expect her to move around. She was insecure. She was shy. Her journey made perfect sense to me and why she needed these characters to express the things she couldnt say.
Zellweger was delighted when Ewan McGregor was cast as Norman Warne, Beatrix secret love. She and McGregor had thoroughly enjoyed working together on Down With Love, and she suggested him for the role.
Gentle and Honest Director
The lynchpin for Zellweger, was the director: Because of the highs and lows of this womans life, it could easily become melodramatic. Fortunately theres no danger of that at all with Chris Noonan–he always looked for the honesty rather than playing the drama, reality rather than fairytale. He has great confidence and I like that. He knew how he wanted the story told. And hes very gentle. We all decided about halfway through the movie that he is probably the nicest man on the planet! It seemed like a perfect partnershipa lady who created these beautiful stories that resonate with children, and Noonan with his curiosity and his gentle manner, and how he handled the telling of the story. It seemed right.
It is intriguing that Beatrix Potter ceased to write her stories, despite their huge success, once she moved to the Lake District: Her work seemed to stem from her creative inner voice. The people closest to her described her as merry, joyful, jolly, happy. They said she had a glow, she had laughing brilliant blue eyes. She gravitated towards a different lifestyle and her work took a backseat to her real life as she grew older. It obviously reflects that she was fulfilled, that she found a life that was satisfying on every level.
Ahead of Her Time
This multi-faceted, complex woman, a woman ahead of her time, a high achiever, stifled in her youth by the social expectations for a woman of her class, proved a fascinating voyage of discovery for Renee Zellweger. It is interesting to read her journals because they are the only firsthand account we have. They are written in code, and yet so self-consciously, that you imagine she knew they would be read.
There are so many contradictions: she was very introverted and felt discomforted in crowds. And yet she was very assertive! But you have to remember that a lot of the accounts about her were from people who were children when they met her, and memory can become deluded by the years. It has been an extraordinary journey to try to pick through the contradictions and put the pieces of the puzzle together, because nothing was easy, nothing was blatantly obvious, nothing was clear.
Shooting in Lake District
The most stimulating part of the experience of becoming Beatrix Potter was filming in the Lake District, the place that Beatrix loved so much. You really can sense the peace she found there, that she craved. The access to all the things she liked most, the things that inspired her, the colors she used in her paintings, the quiet that allows you to sit and take it in. This would feed the womans work. You can feel it.
Acting as Outlet
When the film ended, Zellweger returned to her own voice, and her own life. Acting has given me more than I ever hoped it would. I had no idea how important it would become to me as a creative outlet. It has been extraordinary in terms of the opportunities I have had, and what I have learned, and seen. Playing Beatrix Potter, a woman who instinctively pushed the barriers of her time, has made me appreciate the freedoms of our own time.”
Noonan on Zellweger
There is nothing over-produced or over-rehearsed about Renes performance, says director Chris Noonan. Theres real spontaneity. You know she has an anarchic, subversive sense of humor, and when you learn more about Beatrix Potter, you discover she had real wit, and was far earthier than you might suppose. I dont think many people know a great deal about her life. A vision of Beatrix that Ive had from the beginning is a modern woman placed into the suffocating social environment of the turn of the 20th Century.
Those who immediately think cuddly bunnies and nursery plates when they hear mention of Beatrix Potters name, are in for a major shock. Miss Potter was an artist of infinite skill, her botanical drawings would have been accepted all over the world had she been a man. She was an independent free thinker who fell in love with her publisher, Norman Warne. She left a publishing legacy that has enchanted every generation since. She left vast swathes of Englands beautiful Lake District to the nation, in bequests to thethen infantNational Trust. And it is because of Beatrix Potter that the Lake District remains as intact and glorious today as it was when she first saw it over a hundred years ago.”
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