How Renée Zellweger Got Ready for the Most Demanding Role of Her Life

The Oscar winner knew playing Judy Garland in the last year of the tragic entertainer's life was going to be a challenge—and so was the corresponding return to the spotlight

By Natalie Finn Sep 27, 2019 11:00 AMTags
Watch: Renee Zellweger Talks Preparation for Dream Role in "Judy"

At the 2016 premiere of Bridget Jones's Baby, Renée Zellweger told E! News that she was going to take her time "and see what happens" before deciding what to make next.

Since it was her first movie in six years, that timeline seemed... leisurely.

But Zellweger, who logged time as America's sweetheart thanks to Jerry Maguire, was the toast of Britain as Bridget Jones and won a supporting actress Oscar in 2004 for Cold Mountain, didn't feel the need to rush. She had kept herself busy when she wasn't in front of the camera, traveling and writing and even taking courses at UCLA, and in 2017 she shot a tiny part in Here and Now with Sarah Jessica Parker.

And then she was offered the role of a lifetime.

Stars Playing Real People

We knew Zellweger could sing and dance from her Oscar-nominated turn as Roxy Hart in Best Picture winner Chicago.

But naturally she had to take her musical talents to new levels to play the impossibly talented and impossibly tragic Judy Garland in Judy, which focuses on the few months of the star's life before she died of an accidental barbiturate overdose at 47 in 1969. 

Zellweger did all her own singing and when Judy premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month, it got a standing ovation. Cue the Oscar buzz, which the extremely private actress is doing her best to not think about—the buzz or the exhausting slate of appearances that inevitably goes into a full-blown award season campaign.

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"I just come to see my friends, you know, cause they're all here," she told E! News at the Judy premiere this week in Beverly Hills, "and it's a nice reunion, all these little stops that we make.

"I think about that stuff, and in the meantime, I've got to take care of my dogs, make sure they're sorted, have their shots and all kinds of things that need to happen every day, so I kind of think about that stuff more than anything else."

Zellweger's beloved dogs have received numerous mentions as she's made her way through the press gauntlet ahead of Judy's release on Sept. 27, a testament to how important they are to her but also a reminder to any interviewer that there are only so many glimpses of her home life that she's willing to give. These days, with an incredible run in Hollywood and a subsequent long hiatus behind her, it's all about the work.

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"It was super different from anything I've done before," she told E! about playing Garland. "It didn't really feel like a role, it felt like… I don't know…an exploration. Just a big, huge research project and then a celebration. An expression of affection and appreciation from everybody involved in the project."

At the same time, Zellweger also told Vanity Fair that night, "Playing Judy Garland was the most challenging and terrifying role I've done."

Rufus Sewell plays Sid Luft, her third husband and father of her daughter Lorna Luft and son Joey Luft, and Jessie Buckley plays Rosalyn Wilder, Garland's assigned minder who tried to keep her upright and on schedule during the final months of her life in London, where she was hired to do a five-week run at the Talk of the Town nightclub (now the Hippodrome). Her final concert performance was in Copenhagen on March 25, 1969, but she stayed in England with her fifth husband, Mickey Deans, her fifth husband, played by Finn Wittrock in the film, who she had married that March 15. Garland died on June 22. 

"She really cared about Judy, and I suppose, for her, it was trying to balance that care and seeing—from a woman's point of view—a woman who was very vulnerable and fragile and yet incredibly powerful and who had an incredible emotional power with thousands of people," Buckley explained Roslyn Wilder, who consulted on the film, to Forbes, "and yet when she came away from it, feeling very isolated and abused by the system and taken for granted. She was trying to make her do what she was incredibly brilliant in doing."

And Buckley felt that Zellweger did an astonishing job getting at the essence of Garland.

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"Renée is the most beautiful soul," Buckley said. "I really love and respect her. It was kind of extraordinary to watch her. She had such a fluidity between 'action' and 'cut,' where you never felt like someone was performing. She was just being. As the weeks went on, she was delving deeper and deeper into this person. She just imbued this woman. It got deep within her.

"The amazing thing about Renée," Buckley continued, "is that she's very grounded and open as well as beautifully emotional soul. She was very kind and generous with me. I look at somebody like Renée and wonder how has she held onto who she is in a world where it can sometimes be hard. We would have lovely chats about life... and [blues artist] Susan Tedeschi, whom we both love."

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Judy director Rupert Goold originally thought Zellweger would be perfect to play Garland not just because she could sing and act her butt off, but because she had been such an object of scrutiny at the height of her fame, not to mention as her star dipped a bit, and seemed as though she'd be able to tap into the pressures Garland felt—to be thin, to be beautiful, to be always on.

Zellweger told the Times that she did understand the idea of getting to "a certain place where you just don't know if your skin is thick enough, and then having to go anyway."

When Zellweger returned to the spotlight for Bridget Jones's Baby, everyone wanted to know way more about why she was gone for so long than they did about the movie, though they politely asked about the film. 

2019 Toronto International Film Festival: Star Sightings

"I found anonymity, so I could have exchanges with people on a human level and be seen and heard, not be defined by this image that precedes me when I walk into a room," she told British Vogue in 2016. "You cannot be a good storyteller if you don't have life experiences, and you can't relate to people."

"As a creative person," Zellweger also said, "saying no to that wonderful once-in-a-lifetime project is hard. But I was fatigued and wasn't taking the time I needed to recover between projects, and it caught up with me. I got sick of the sound of my own voice. It was time to go away and grow up a bit."

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As it happened happened, Judy was waiting for her.

"At first, I didn't understand why they thought of me for it," Zellweger told the New York Times about first receiving the script in 2017. (She went right to shooting the Netflix anthology series What/If after Judy.)

This isn't the first time Garland and her demons have been onscreen—Judy Davis won an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her portrayal in the 2002 miniseries Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows, based on Lorna Luft's memoir about her mom—but Judy, an adaptation of the stage play End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter, zooms in on the end result of the self-destructiveness that managed to coexist for years with Garland's talent but ultimately led to one of the most storied collapses in show business history.

"There's something otherworldly about her, and undeniable," Zellweger said on CBS Sunday Morning. And even though Garland's voice was ravaged by hard living, the show always went on (though sometimes an hour late).

For the film's soundtrack, Zellweger recorded a duet with Sam Smith of "Get Happy," one of Garland's most famous song aside from "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," as well as teamed with Rufus Wainwright for "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," another iconic number, originally from 1944's Meet Me in St. Louis.

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"Talk about spoiled rotten," Zellweger told E! News about getting to work with the Grammy winner. "This has been a very greedy experience, dreams coming true all over the place."

To prepare for the six demanding musical numbers in Judy, Zellweger trained with a vocal coach for a year in order to get a grip on Garland's very particular style justice, and she rehearsed for four months with the film's musical director, Matt Dunkley. Then, per the Times, a choreographer worked with her to nail Garland's posture and stage mannerisms, and on her own, Zellweger read biographies and watched endless clips of Garland performances and acting roles.

"I couldn't sing any of the songs initially," she told Vanity Fair. "I didn't have the strength to do it. Singing in the car was where it first started. I finally found a good use for L.A. traffic—Judy was riding shotgun for about a whole year with me."

With the YouTube videos on, she'd stand in the mirror and do her best to emulate what she was watching. The most impressive thing about Garland, to Zellweger, was that "she kept going," she told CBS Sunday Morning, "and she still had that power in her voice."

BBC Films

Asked if she felt any trepidation about agreeing to do her own singing, she replied, "that's putting it conservatively," and laughed heartily.

"Yeah, there was quite a bit of trepidation," she told E!. "If I could have gotten out of it I probably would have. But I'm glad that Rupert wanted to shoot it the way that he did [all live], and I appreciate why now, exploring her relationship to the audience and making it authentic, you know. It helped with the stage fright scenes." She laughed some more. "Those were real."

Garland indeed suffered from stage fright and that was part of Rosalyn Wilder's job, to practically shove her onto the stage some nights. But for those who saw the physically diminutive (Jude was 4-foot, 11 1/2-inches tall) star with the towering voice at her best, it was nearly impossible to reconcile that with the portrait of a manic, at times ragingly insecure woman that came to light later. And, toward the end, Garland frequently went onstage under the influence and still blew audiences away.

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"I didn't allow myself to think about it too much—it was in the back of my mind, terrifying, and I kept pushing it back, back, back," Zellweger told the Times about preparing for those scenes. "Luckily, it was such a whirlwind that I didn't have time to pause and think, 'I'd rather not do that thing tomorrow.'"

The rest of the Garland look was up to hair and makeup artist Jeremy Woodhead, who fitted her with brown contact lenses, a prosthetic nose and dark pixie-cut wigs. "Every day I was in denial," Zellweger marveled to Vanity Fair. "I couldn't believe it was me."

Critics are calling Zellweger's performance nothing short of "transcendent" and "transformative," and the Boston Globe said "she gets as close to that uncontainable voice and the ache at its center as any human who's not Judy Garland might reasonably come." The New York Times matter-of-factly stated that she'll be "hard to beat" for the Best Actress Oscar.

The Times also noted that it was tough to get Zellweger agree to sit down for what they intended to be an in-depth interview in the first place.

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Playing Judy Garland was the first challenge. Returning to the role of Renée Zellweger, movie star turned curiosity turned Oscar front-runner, was going to be the next. But she spent years getting ready for the latter.

"When you distract yourself from the center of the storm for a little while, you get a little perspective," she told E! on the Judy red carpet about taking time off from the Hollywood madness. "And yeah, just kind of shifted my priorities a little bit, made some room for humanity in the mix."

Through the veteran actress, the humanity of Judy Garland, someone who sacrificed her life to the show business gods, shines through.

Zellweger refused to do the same, instead deciding to put herself ahead of what was expected of her, choosing living a regular(ish) life over scrambling to maintain a certain status. She can't help it that she was so good in this movie, that tiresome Hollywood machine may want to recognize her efforts, on numerous occasions, in front of many cameras. She probably had them at "Get Happy," in fact.

"I'm happy that...I don't know...people seem to be touched by the film," she told E!. "That was what we had hoped."

Awards season is just around the corner. And this time, Renée Zellweger sounds ready for the judgment day.

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