To riff off LL Cool J, don’t call it a comeback, she’s been with us for years. After a six year break from the big screen between 2010-2016, Renée Zellweger storms back into awards season with a tour de force turn as the tormented, but resilient, Judy Garland in the third act of her career in Roadside Attractions/LD Entertainment’s Judy. It was 1968 and the Wizard of Oz actress was penniless, with no choice but to become the marquee act at London dinner theater Talk of the Town; her personal life coming apart at the seams and drugs and alcohol continuing to take their toll, even eating into her onstage performance. Zellweger disappeared into the part with the same granular nuance and pitch perfect detail she has delivered previously in her rounded repertoire of characters including her best supporting actress Oscar winning turn as Ruby Thewes in Cold Mountain, and her Oscar nominated and award lauded turns in Chicago and Bridget Jones’s Dairy. To date, Zellweger has won a Best Actress award for Judy from the National Board of Review, the British Independent Film Awards, and scored an Independent Spirit nom.
DEADLINE: When you were first pitched the idea of playing Judy Garland what was your reaction?
RENÉE ZELLWEGER: David Livingstone, who is the producer on the film, sent the script my way. When I read it, I thought it was a beautiful script. I was glad that they were going to tell the story, but I was just curious why he sent it to me. He invited me to come to London to just talk about it. To talk about what their motivation was in wanting to tell the story, and to maybe try a few things, just to see if the whole idea was crazy or not. That’s how it started. We just kept trying things until we were finished making the film.
DEADLINE: That was at Abbey Road, right? When you started singing around the piano.
ZELLWEGER: Yeah, we did. He sent a couple of recordings of live performances from 1968, and he asked me to familiarize myself with them. We would do a little work when I got to London. At the end of the week or two we went into Abbey Road and did some quick recordings of a few of those. Eric Vetro [my vocal coach] and I started working after I returned home in 2017. I worked with a couple of friends of David and [Judy director] Rupert Goold’s over a few days in London before we did those recordings.
DEADLINE: Roxy’s voice in Chicago was light and bright, but Judy Garland has quite the sostenuto quality.
ZELLWEGER: That’s a grand thing. That’s really well put. I mean it’s just definitively Judy Garland, isn’t it? And there’s no getting around that, so I just had some work to do to build up my vocal cords, and I just had to learn how to do it. She sings with really open vowels, and really open throat, and yet her resonance is quite different to anything that I have ever emulated before. [At that latter point in her career] she definitely sang in a lower register by a couple of octaves. She preferred to lower the keys in the arrangement in her later performances. That was also a guide for us in terms of the [song] choices that we made. And lower for me than where my voice naturally sits. So it was just something that I had to pay attention to, and work on getting comfortable with.
DEADLINE: What personally resonated with you in taking on the daunting task of playing a screen legend?
ZELLWEGER: Well, she was a trailblazer in every respect. She participated in a way that I don’t know. She went toe-to-toe with the guys on television and held her own. She always hit the ball back, and then perhaps she didn’t have agency, or as much autonomy as ladies do today, with respect to determining the trajectory of their professional lives. She did speak her mind, and she did exercise what power she did have. I think she did everything. There was nothing she didn’t do. Just truly an inspirational, iconic performer. She was an original. She carved out a place that belongs to her. I think her decision to redefine herself as a live performer was a brilliant turning point.
DEADLINE: I know you submerged yourself in a lot of YouTube footage of Garland, like the Dick Cavett interview, and her final film I Could Go on Singing, but what specifically hit a nerve with you?
ZELLWEGER: Neil Meron is one of my best friends, and he was one of the producers on Chicago. He also produced Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows, the mini-series with Judy Davis. He had shown me I Could Go on Singing years ago; probably around 2012, I think, we watched that together. What a really interesting parallel in that story to her own life at the time. I guess “By Myself”, her live performance on The Judy Garland Show, I’ve referenced that one quite a bit in learning her performance language. Overall, everything from The Judy Garland Show that was available. To see her in between takes. There are these wonderful outtakes that are online now that you can watch, and see some of her rapport with the audience in between takes and things. Just a lot of fun.
DEADLINE: Did you get the chance to speak with Liza Minnelli or Lorna Luft in preparing for the role?
ZELLWEGER: I did want to speak with Liza and Lorna, and I was not successful in reaching out to them through my friend Neil, who has produced a lot of Liza’s live shows. I actually had gone to see her last performance of her tour. I guess it was right around that same time when we watched I Could Go on Singing together in Vegas. She was a force; extraordinary. She went on around midnight and just danced and sang through the night. She was unbelievable.
I did want to speak to her, but I was not successful in connecting. And also with Lorna. But I had procrastinated, trying to figure out what I would say, because I didn’t want to reach out to ask them things about their mom.
But to explain why I wasn’t going to ask them things about their mom and also to ask them what they would hope from the picture, I wanted to explain that I felt that anything that they might have shared or wanted to share about their mother would be on public record at this point. I mean for years, they’ve been interviewed about her, and their relationship with her, and anything that they might want the world to know about their mom. That would be my work, to find that, to dig through the public record and find anything that might seem essential or really special, or something that felt important to them. Anything that they have not shared at this point, I feel like is treasure, and is theirs to keep, and no one should ask. I wouldn’t dream of asking. There are certain things that [are] not our right to know, in my opinion.
DEADLINE: Why did you take a break from acting for six years? Did you feel like the roles coming in were meh, or did you just want to rest?
ZELLWEGER: Well, there were a lot of reasons why I needed to step away. The first was, [it was] pretty obvious to me that I needed to stop. The schedule had caught up to me and I wasn’t taking care of myself. I was really exhausted and making choices that weren’t necessarily healthy. I needed to step away from all the things that I felt—I don’t know. I just needed to step away and have a different perspective, so that I could make healthier choices.
I needed to try other things, things that didn’t fit into the schedule that I had found myself in service of for such a long time. There’s never a good time to step away from unbelievable creative opportunities, but I needed to grow and I needed to challenge myself in a different way to figure out, I don’t know, a purpose, and live a little outside of the movie sets and promotional tours, and dresses and heels, and have authentic exchanges with people. I don’t think you can be a good storyteller if you can’t empathize, and my life experiences were so insular. I needed to be ignored. [laughs] I’m sure that there are actors who are just as skilled at imagining that it doesn’t matter, but I find it more fulfilling when I approach it from a different place.