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Frigid Minnesota puts Zellweger to the test in latest film

‘New in Town’ opens in the Spokane-area today

Renee Zellweger is the first to tell you that she’s been “spoiled” at the “unbelievable way” her life and acting career have worked out.

An Oscar, epic paychecks, a dazzling array of performances in all sorts of films and her choice of leading men – that’s spoiled.

Maybe it’s time she suffered for her art. That, she jokes, is just what she did when she set out “to just go and play, goof around in the snow, do some physical comedy” for her new film, “New in Town.”

The “fish out of water” romance – about a corporate VP who flies from Miami to New Ulm, Minn., in winter, to begin layoffs at a factory and instead finds neighborliness, tolerance and love – was an icy test for the Texas-born star.

“It takes a while to get over that denial, that Southern denial, ‘Oh, I’ll be fiiiiine,’ “ she drawls. “Then you start to realize about the layers of clothes that are absolutely necessary, the sticky hand-warmers they slapped on my back, in my shoes, up my skirt, also absolutely necessary …

“Was I prepared for it? You know, not so much.”

Shooting a film in and around Winnipeg, Manitoba, in winter was illuminating for Zellweger, 39.

“I didn’t realize that, ‘Yes, you really do need the coat that looks like a duvet,’ “ she says. “Everyone was walking around in their Herman Munster boots, and I’d laugh: ‘They look like Gene Simmons (of KISS), 10 inches off the ground!’ But you need them. …

“Every day’s a new challenge: ‘Can we get this scene finished before the lens freezes over?’ ‘How long until the next lightbulb explodes in the cold?’ “

Forget her Swiss-born dad and Norwegian-mom heritage. Growing up in Katy, Texas, a gal doesn’t deal with every-scene-risks-frostbite.

She so seldom lets her natural Texas twang out on screen that it’s a bit startling to hear her pour it on thick in describing the horrors of outdoor work in winter in the Great White North.

Zellweger turns coy and flirtatious when questioned about why she has such wonderful chemistry with so many different leading men, from Tom Cruise to Jim Carrey to George Clooney to Harry Connick Jr. in the new film: “Why, what are you sayin’?”

She can even charm her way past the new movie’s stereotypes of stoic, dependable rural Minnesotans.

“The rest of America embraces Minnesota because of that image we have of them – hardy people who can handle the worst weather in the world,” Zellweger says. “We’re proud of ‘em!”

And no, filming in Manitoba in snow wasn’t the coldest she’s ever been. There was that little “nude” scene (“Not quite – they had me covered in that skin-colored goo”) in last fall’s Western, “Appaloosa.”

Says Zellweger: “Texas in December. In a river. Naked. COLD!”

“New in Town” may have a small-town-layoffs and recession timeliness that the film’s producers didn’t anticipate. What Zellweger saw in it were those timeless qualities that classic screen comedies share.

“I find it highly entertaining when someone who is determined to be a perfectionist fails. We all do,” she says. “And trying to cover it up and pretend that they didn’t fail? Even funnier.

“Broad comedy is a good day to me. If it’s 55 below, I can handle that as long as I’m having a good time figuring out how to make a pratfall work.”

Through it all, the apple-cheeked Zellweger glows with what “The New Biographical Encyclopedia of Film” sums up as “that unshakable inner quality that the audience likes.”

That pluck of the perpetual underdog that marks her best screen roles (“Bridget Jones’s Diary,” “Jerry Maguire”) was evident on and off the set, again thanks to the weather.

“Every day was like a double-dare,” she says. “ ‘Let’s just see, what would be funny about Renee not wearing enough clothes today?’ Miniskirt with high-heeled stilettos with open toes? Let’s go for it!

“It made me flash back to those days, you know, as a little girl: ‘When I grow up I want to be an actress, standing in a snowbank, half-naked in a white-out blizzard, while everybody else is wrapped up in clothes that would keep them warm on the moon! That’s glamorous!’ “



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