Renée Zellweger is known for her intense commitment, be it to a part in a movie or to not being in any movies for six years.
Tackling the role of herself after a whirlwind decade of peak Hollywood stardom that included an Oscar win, she removed herself from the spotlight for the first half of the 2010s and used the time that at one point was monopolized by learning lines and press tours to focus on just about everything else—family, friends, her dogs, writing, traveling, taking college courses.
"I don't think that, as a creative person, you have that much to contribute when your life experiences are limited to those you have while you're emulating someone else," she explained to The Guardian in 2016 while promoting Bridget Jones's Baby, her first movie in six years.
She continued to proceed cautiously back into the arena, showing up in a couple of supporting roles, and then starred as an unscrupulous venture capitalist in the underwhelming Netflix series What/If. But then she dove back into filmmaking with a vengeance, peeling back the layers of the late, great Judy Garland, and all of Hollywood stood up and took notice.
And it was clear that, even after that lengthy break, she hadn't lost an ounce of what made her special as an actress.
Judy required a level of research and preparation she hadn't yet experienced in her already-storied career, and it was Zellweger's first movie where you could venture that she had been rendered "unrecognizable." But she has had a habit of slipping seamlessly into all of her characters—always by acting, but sometimes that goes hand in hand with physical transformations that range from subtle to drastic.
"I don't feel safe playing the girl who looks like me," Zellweger told Britain's Independent in 2008. "There's not enough to hide behind. The further removed the character's reality is from my own, the more fun and easier it is."
And here is how she has pulled off her most compelling characters:
Judy resulted in Zellweger's second Oscar win in Feb. 2020, this time for Best Actress, plus a slew of other honors, including a Golden Globe, a SAG Award and her first Independent Spirit Award, all during an awards season in which she played chief advocate for Garland's humanity and legacy as an entertainer.
Meanwhile, Zellweger was the first to admit that she didn't get to the performance-of-a-lifetime mountaintop alone, that there was a team behind Judy that made the finished product what it was—and that's a theme that runs through all of her anecdotes over the years, whether it was a story about her dialect coach or the shout-out to her piano teacher, or simply a lengthy explanation about why it's "fun" to "play around" with a character and figure out her motivation. The team always includes the character herself.
"For me," Zellweger told The Talks in 2020, "I don't want to let my partners down, it's a collaborative medium, there's hundreds of us getting together to make this one piece of art, and it doesn't work unless everybody shows up and does their bit. And I don't want to let people down, working as hard as they are; it matters to everybody there. It's a job, it's work, but it matters, you want it to succeed. You want it to be good, for reasons that are very personal sometimes."
And when that person disappears in service of the character, then the job is done.
This story was originally published on Saturday, April 25, 2020 at 6 a.m. PT.