Until she headlined Jerry Maguire opposite Tom Cruise in late 1996, Renée Zellweger claimed extremely limited public recognition. Though Zellweger essayed several key roles before Maguire, the vulnerability and versatility that the actress exhibited as Cruise's (long undeclared) love interest in Cameron Crowe's seriocomedy netted much-deserved praise from critics and audiences alike. Though the Academy passed her over when that year's Oscar nominations rolled around, she received several other laurels for her work in Maguire, including the title of Best Breakthrough Performer by the National Board of Review.
Of Swiss and Norwegian parentage, the willowy, strawberry blonde Zellweger began life in Katy, TX, a small town on the outskirts of 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 U.T. was an exceptional one; a regular on the Dean's List, she graduated a year early with a B.A. 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 then landed a role playing a whacked-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.