Case 39 (2010): Renée Zellweger is the Caseworker

Renée Zellweger stars in “Case 39,” which is directed by Christian Alvart. The new horror film, which also stars Jodelle Ferland, released by Paramount Vantage on October 1.

Alvart fought to cast a strong and serious actress in the role of Emily, knowing it would take both considerable skill and courage to make her situation believable. “I knew that the overall tone of this movie would really change depending on who the actress was,” he explains. “So, I didn’t want just the latest ‘it girl,’ but an actress with real strength and maturity.”

When Renée Zellweger became attached to the project, Alvart was in heaven. “Her performance absolutely grounds the movie,” he says. “There’s so much gravitas and emotion to her portrait of Emily. It’s not just about being scared and running from fear, she also adds layers to who Emily is and what drives her. And as talented an actress as she is, she also was willing to do very primal things like run around barefoot in the rain for two days.”

Everyone involved in the project was excited to see Zellweger tackle the one cinematic genre in which the international star has yet to be seen. Comments Kevin Misher: “Renée is obviously a multi-award-winning actress, but I think her vulnerability works especially well for this genre. You’ve never seen her play a role like this. And it’s also a bit of a head-fake, because at first you think you’re watching a more conventional thriller and, before you know it, you’re inside a supernatural story that has a lot of shocks and fun to it.” 

Winning over Renée

Zellweger was won over by the psychological sophistication of Ray Wright’s screenplay. “I stayed up all night finishing that script because I couldn’t put it down,” she says. “It was so cleverly written, and what I really loved was that it was rich with subtext. It’s not just about a woman going through something eerie; it’s about a woman’s psychological deterioration. That’s also what makes it so much more frightening. It walks that fine line where you question if what is happening is real or if Emily is losing her mind. It’s a wonderful line to walk as an actress.”

The complex psychological makeup of Emily Jenkins intrigued Zellweger, who was drawn to her mix of moral decency and underlying emotional wounds from the past. “Emily is a very responsible, loving, charitable person who gets real joy out of helping these kids,” the actress says. “That’s why it’s so devastating to her when things with Lillith get more and more difficult. She starts to wonder if she’s simply not equipped to be a mother, or if something far more unusual is going on. It brings out all her fears – of failing, of abandonment, of interfering in a situation where she shouldn’t have – in a very significant way. It takes her to a dark, dark place in her psyche, and that’s what I loved so much about the film. It has one foot in stark reality and the other somewhere inexplicable.”


To gain a more intimate understanding of what real urban social workers deal with on a daily basis, Zellweger spent time at Los Angeles Child Protection Services, making the rounds with visits to troubled families. “I found it to be a very interesting job because it’s very much about understanding human nature, about seeing things that aren’t necessarily on the surface, about intuition. It’s also a huge responsibility,” observes Zellweger.

That sense of responsibility becomes personal for Emily when she tackles Case 39, the case of the Sullivan family and their somber, reserved daughter Lillith, whose sadness echoes that of Emily’s past. The more Emily tries to love and be there for Lillith, the more disaster and destruction invade her previously controlled life.

Zellweger was heartened by Alvart’s approach to this place where gritty domestic problems, authentic fear, and wild supernatural events collide. She notes that this helped her to dive fearlessly into the film’s extensive physical action. “From the first day on the set, as I became more familiar with Christian’s work, with his techniques, with his visual style, and his ability to do things so precisely, I felt that this was a major filmmaker in the beginning of his career,” Zellweger said. “I can’t wait to see where he goes next. His enthusiasm for filmmaking is contagious.”