After a string of hit films in the late '90s and early noughties including Jerry Maguire, Chicago and Bridget Jones's Diary, Renée Zellweger turned her back on Hollywood in 2010.

Her appearance in the little-seen road movie My Own Love Song that year was to be her last screen appearance until the upcoming third Bridget Jones film, in cinemas next month.

In between - save for a handful of headline-sparking red carpet appearances in recent years - Zellweger has shunned the limelight, removing herself from the public eye.

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So what happened, and where did she go? In a new interview with American Way magazine, Zellweger explained that as her career took off, she was in some ways a victim of her own success.

"I planned to take some time off after Chicago [2002], but there kept being once-in-a-lifetime experiences in front of me that I didn't want to miss out on," the 47-year-old explained.

"Then I learned you can't keep doing that forever, so I chose to see what would happen if I did let that once-in-a-lifetime experience that was ahead of me go and just be still and see what I could build."

During her time away from the spotlight, Zellweger travelled to Thailand, Cambodia and Liberia - eschewing ritzy resorts to get off the beaten track, working with a gender equality charity called The Great Initiative. She said meeting women in Liberia was particularly inspiring.

"They're so articulate and eloquent and have such focus," she says. "No one would show up just off the boardwalk in a baseball hat. They turned it out. Their nails and jewellery were beautifully done, their dresses were immaculate, and I think I appreciated that because that is, of course, part of a woman's power."

Zellweger, who now juggles her return to acting with studying - she takes a college class - said she was grateful she took the time out from her career to see the world.

Back to Bridget: the film marks Renee Zellweger's return to acting after six years.
Back to Bridget: the film marks Renee Zellweger's return to acting after six years.

"I think travelling off the beaten path is a good idea for anybody because it's essential for understanding not just the rest of the world but yourself," she says.

After six years away from the screen, Zellweger said it made sense that arguably her best-known role as Bridget Jones was the one to lure her back to acting.

Signing on for the third film was a "no-brainer" because "there's this great reunion waiting in London with this character I love and all my friends who I've adored for years. It was an excellent excuse to go back."