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Seriously in Love

updated 07/17/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/17/2000 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The heart may want what it wants, but as Jim Carrey discovered last summer, sometimes it's got to learn a little patience. There he was on the Vermont set of Me, Myself & Irene, savoring the things that superstars savor: the prospect of another $20 million paycheck, a trailer bigger than Burlington and the company of an engaging costar who gets "prettier and prettier each time you see her," as Irene cowriter-director-producer Bobby Farrelly describes her.

While filming his part as a schizophrenic cop who falls for Renée Zellweger in the just-opened Irene, Farrelly says, Carrey "flipped for her immediately." The only problem: Zellweger, who avoids dating guys from the office, didn't seem interested. Sure, she and her beloved mutt Dylan—known to pals as Woof—spent lots of quality time strolling with Carrey in the cool breezes off Lake Champlain. And she turned up—along with the rest of the cast and crew—for beers at local bars and to ice skate at an indoor rink Carrey rented for a night. "They were clearly great friends," says Farrelly, 42. "But they weren't making out, which is what he wanted to do."

Cupid, it seems, was just running a little late. About four months after the shoot wrapped, Carrey found himself in the back of a limo on his way to Hollywood's trendy Cafe des Artistes. "Do you have room?" his driver asked restaurant manager Mariano Cordero from the car phone. "I am bringing a very special guest." More significantly, the special guest was bringing a special guest.

Never mind that just a month earlier Zellweger was telling reporters she and Carrey were only friends. When the door to the limo opened what looked like a game of Twister was ongoing in the backseat. "There were just lots of legs flailing around," said one observer. "They were making out. It wasn't lewd—but they were having fun."

And they have been ever since—whether huddling in conversation at a London pub last month on the set of Zellweger's next comedy, Bridget Jones's Diary, or just watching Woof run around the pool of the $1.9 million L.A. home Zellweger bought in February. "Woof gave him the tails up," says Zellweger, 31, with a laugh. "And she's very, very picky." As is Carrey, 38, who has already been divorced twice: His seven-year marriage to Melissa Womer, 39, mother of his 12-year-old daughter Jane, ended in 1994, and his rocky union with Lauren Holly, 36, his costar in 1994's Dumb & Dumber, ended in 1998. Still, after two strikes, Carrey shows no signs of playing it cool about the woman he declares himself "crazy" for. "She's absolutely a gem of a human being," he says. "She's very funny—even though she can be bashful at certain times." At first glance it would be hard to imagine Carrey—the alternately intense, brooding and just plain crude comic who found fame talking through his butt in 1994's Ace Ventura: Pet Detective—in a more unlikely match. A gentle Texas gal who squirms at poop jokes, Zellweger is "very sweet," says her friend Dan Ireland, who directed her in 1996's The Whole Wide World. "But sweet doesn't mean passive. She really listens-and always speaks her mind"—and almost always gets her way.

Born in Houston, Zellweger was 9 when her parents, Emil, 63, a Swiss-born engineer who works in the oil-refinery business, and Kjellfried, 64, a Norwegian-born nurse, moved the family—including her older brother Drew, 33—to the nearby rural town of Katy, Texas. Years earlier, the Toronto-born Carrey had faced an adolescence marked by poverty, home-lessness and family illness. He dropped out of high school at 16 to work as a janitor alongside his father, Percy, an often-out-of-work accountant who died of lung cancer in 1994. (His mother, Kathleen, an amateur singer, died of kidney failure in 1991.) In contrast, Zellweger's teenage struggles centered on how to balance her overlapping extracurriculars at Katy High School. Says Karin Whitlock Donovan, 30, who was a cheerleader with Zellweger and now teaches English at Katy High: "She would always cut out of drama practice for cheerleading, and it drove the drama teacher nuts. She wanted Renée to choose. But Renée would say, 'No, I can do it all.'"

And so she did. She was a star cheerleader, dated a football player and, after graduating in 1987, headed for the University of Texas in Austin. There the English major was happiest working on school drama productions-alongside friend and fellow future star Matthew McConaughey. To make ends meet, she waited tables at a local Chili's restaurant-as well as at Sugar's, a popular topless club. According to Patty Henson, her cheerleading instructor at Katy High, Zellweger was mortified one night to see Henson's husband walk in: "Please," she pleaded, "tell Mrs. Henson I had all my clothes on."
(She did.)

The Sugar's gig was temporary. In 1993 Zellweger filmed small roles in the cult hit Dazed and Confused, the low-budget (and awful) Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation and the gen-X hit Reality Bites. By year's end she moved to L.A. and in 1994 gained the attention of Hollywood with her turn as an ex-con's girlfriend in Love and a .45. But it wasn't her resume that persuaded director Cameron Crowe to choose her over the likes of Winona Ryder and Bridget Fonda to romance Tom Cruise in 1996's Jerry McGuire. "She reminds you of a sister, a friend, someone you were in love with once or now," Crowe says. "You don't feel ho-hum about her."

No need to tell Carrey. When Bobby and Peter Farrelly—co-creators of Dumb & Dumber and 1998's There's Something About Mary—last year suggested Zellweger for Irene, "[Carrey] was like, 'Yeah, I like that,'" says Bobby. Today Carrey clarifies that it was her acting skill that elicited his excitement: "I don't go into [films] hoping 'Yeah, I'm gonna get this one.' That's not how I operate." For her part, a blushing Zellweger denies that Carrey suffered from unrequited longing on the set. "There were no advances, no no no," she says. "He's too professional to show up with a big name tag saying 'Hi, I'm Jim. I'm longing.' We had way too much to do."

Spoken like a loving partner—and a rotten fibber. "He was sick over her," says Peter Farrelly, 43. "I got to the point where I tried to make him feel better by saying, 'Hey, she's not that great.'" Adds Bobby: "When we read in the paper that later they hooked up, we thought it was a mistake." In hindsight, the slow courtship may have been a blessing. "Jim had to work hard for Renée," says Bobby, "he had to be patient." Now Carrey knows that Zellweger likes his lifestyle, which includes hunkering down to watch TV, eating junk food, going over homework with his daughter, who divides her time between her parents' L.A.-area homes, and, lately, walking Woof. "I've never seen Renée happier," says her pal Dan Ireland. "She's so in love she glows."

Karen S. Schneider
Natasha Stoynoff in New York City, Elizabeth Leonard, Michelle Caruso and Pamela Warrick in Los Angeles and Sam Saucedo in Houston

MORE ON: Renée Zellweger

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