Up until she appeared opposite Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire (1996), Renee Zellweger's name was almost unknown outside of Hollywood and the independent film circuit. The beauty and natural ability that Zellweger exhibited as Cruise's love interest, caught the attention of critics and audiences alike. Though she was passed by at that year's Oscars, she won several other awards for her work, including the title of "best breakthrough performer" by the National Board of Review.
Of Swiss and Norwegian parentage, the willowy strawberry blonde actress was born in Katy, Texas, a tiny town located near Houston. The town was so small that it possessed neither cable television nor a movie theater. As a result, Zellweger reportedly did not see her first art film until she was a student at the University of Texas in Austin. Her career at University of Texas was an exceptional one: a regular on the dean's list, she graduated a year early with a BA in Radio, Film, and Television. While in college, Zellweger took an acting class and discovered a knack for performing; following graduation she made her feature film debut with a bit part in Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused (1993).
She had her first real role playing a wacked-out waitress in Love and a .45 (1994), for which she won her first Independent Spirit Award nomination; she won a second nomination for The Whole Wide World (1996), earning additional acclaim at various film festivals. Following the tremendous success of Jerry Maguire, Zellweger went on to prove herself as a versatile actress able to play roles ranging from an ambitious journalist who temporarily shelves her career to care for her mother in One True Thing (1998) to a rebellious Hassidic Jew in Boaz Yakin's A Price Above Rubies (1998). She then exhibited a capacity for romantic comedy in The Bachelor (1999), starring as the long-suffering girlfriend of a serial commitment phobic (Chris O'Donnell).