At the festival, the actress was honored for her work supporting ALS research

By KC Baker
June 02, 2017 10:55 AM
Renee Zellweger Makes Rare Public Appearance At Changemaker Gala In Greenwich Connecticut
Credit: Allan Bregg / SPLASH NEWS

Renée Zellweger had a trusted date by her side at the Greenwich International Film Festival in Connecticut Thursday night: her older brother, Drew.

“I always love when he comes with me,” the Oscar-winning actress, 48, told PEOPLE about her brother, Drew Zellweger, 50, as they rode together in the backseat of a chauffer-driven Tesla to a yacht that took them to the gala.

Though they are close now, he admitted jokingly that he “tortured” her as her “big brother” when they were kids.

“He was just doing his job getting me ready for the cold cruel world out there,” she said teasingly.

Her longtime boyfriend, rocker Doyle Bramhall II, was unable to attend the gala with her.

“He is shy,” said Zellweger.

Dressed in a little black “vintage Saks Fifth Avenue dress,” Zellweger was honored at the festival’s opening night Changemaker Gala for her work supporting ALS research.

Changemaker Honoree Gala - Greenwich International Film Festival
Credit: Taylor Hill/WireImage

Her friend and longtime publicist, Nanci Ryder, suffers from the debilitating disease.

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Zellweger says she is happy to talk about the need for more research whenever she can, but was humbled by the award.

“I get a little embarrassed about getting acknowledged for what I consider being a friend,” she tells PEOPLE. “But I am grateful for the award.”

During her acceptance speech, Zellweger admitted that she didn’t know much about ALS until Ryder was diagnosed with it in 2014 – the same year the world raised money for the disease through the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.

“As you can imagine, life changed immediately,” she said.

“The process of learning began,” she said. “I’m clumsy but I’m learning how to be a friend to someone who has ALS and a part of that is to talk about my friend Nanci and her experiences and to share with you and anybody who will listen what we have learned together.

They learned “that there is not a cure and no viable treatment, but this is a very hopeful time for anybody who is part of the ALS community.”

Worldwide support of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge helped to fund this “underfunded” disease, she said.

The ALS Association’s Walks to Defeat ALS also help, she noted, inviting everyone to walk in Connecticut in September and October – or on in Los Angeles on Oct 15.

Her friend, Nanci – and everyone suffering from ALS – “deserve a cure,” she said.

Zellweger shared the spotlight with Christy Turlington, who received a Changemaker award for her work with Every Mother Counts, a non-profit dedicated to making pregnancy and childbirth safe for every mother.