Despite her roles in nearly 40 films—including a singing-and-tapping fame-seeking murderer in Chicago, a bunny-loving imaginer in Miss Potter, and a plucky, no-nonsense farmer in Cold Mountain—it’s difficult not to picture Renée Zellweger as Bridget Jones, everyone’s favorite cute and clueless singleton.
But after this month, it’ll be impossible to see the 50-year-old actress as anyone but Judy. In the new biopic from director Rupert Goold (out September 27), Zellweger reincarnates Judy Garland in the last year of her life, long after fame has been replaced by failure and sadness. Set in 1968, when Garland moved to London to perform a series of concerts at the Talk of the Town cabaret (yet another comeback for a performer who couldn’t quite come back), the film shows the former child star at her most vulnerable, wanting to give up and throw everything away while at the same time wanting, needing, love and acceptance from her audiences. Zellweger’s performance is uncanny. She nails Garland’s mannerisms and vocals, even the way she cranes her neck when she sings. (Yes, that is Zellweger singing; your jaw will drop.)
Garland is often painted as a tragic figure—an immense talent who couldn’t handle fame—but after doing this film, Zellweger no longer sees her that way. Calling from London, where she was putting some finishing touches on the film, she spoke about her reverence for Garland; her Netflix series, What/If; and whether she’d take another turn as Bridget Jones.
Before you took on this film, what did Judy Garland mean to you?
I think I kind of took her for granted. I don’t remember not knowing about her. She was always there: my brother and me watching her in The Wizard of Oz and my father playing her music on the turntable. For me, as a kid, she was one of those superstars like Dean Martin and Bob Hope and Lucille Ball—those people of a different generation who just stood apart from the rest and were top-tier entertainers. As I got older, I came to appreciate the magnitude of her gift. I could recognize myself as a fan.
Do you remember the first time you saw The Wizard of Oz?
No, because that’s the thing—she was never not there. And I’m of the generation where you had to be home to watch it air on network television. And if you weren’t home on the couch, then forget it! I’m pretty sure that we watched it from a very young age, because the fear of that green lady was indelible! I remember being mesmerized by her singing “Over the Rainbow.” There was just something about the quality of her voice and her emotional connection to what she was singing.
She has this magnetism. You can’t not look at her when she’s on screen.
Yeah, and she doesn’t feel removed. A lot of times there’s something about stardom that makes you feel like you can’t really relate to the stars—like you can aspire to know them a little bit, but not really. But it just felt like she was your friend. She was talking to you, she was singing to you, she was hanging out with you. I think that was a huge part of her magic.
How did this part come to you?
Well, my friend David Livingstone—he’s a producer—sent scripts, and I had mixed feelings because my first thought was, I’m not a performer. I don’t consider myself a performer; I hide behind my characters. But I was drawn to it because of the part of her story that it sheds light on, which I don’t think a lot of people—even people who love her as a performer—are aware of. I loved that it sort of demystifies the experience of fame and debunks the misconception that celebrity comes easily to people. And I thought, OK, I’m just gonna apply a whole lot of denial and we’ll see what happens! [Laughs.]
When you were first learning about her for this role, what was the key that opened her up for you? What made her real to you?
That’s a really good question. I guess it was more of a process of coming to understand her and filling in the blanks between what was reported on and the circumstances behind those experiences. I was particularly moved by the footage of her with her children—it was so evident that she was a loving mother. I wasn’t aware of her naughty sense of humor, and I wasn’t aware of just how difficult her circumstances were toward the end of her life. It breaks your heart thinking of someone who’s been working to exhaustion at the expense of her health since she was a little girl to have nothing to show for it that would bring security or peace or safety or some sense of normalcy in her life when she reached her 40s.
When I saw you as Judy in the film, I felt as if I was seeing a ghost at times. Your performance is riveting and spot-on, but it never feels like a caricature.
I’m so glad. Rupert, the director, and I had an early conversation about that being his intention with this piece—that it can’t be mimicry, and that it has to feel like a human journey.
How did you go about mastering her mannerisms and voice?
It was such a methodical process of learning and listening to her voice every day and then emulating her voice every day. It was a really cerebral approach—understanding cadences and breaking it down into levels of fatigue and levels of stress, and then repeating recordings of her dialogue. In the meantime, my friend Neil Meron—who had produced Me and My Shadows, an adaptation of [Judy’s daughter] Lorna Luft’s book—and I would go back and forth all the time about just how deeply in love I was falling with Judy, with her humor and humanity, her brilliance, her wit, her moxie. With all the material everywhere, the photographs and the
videos, it felt like she was just around. She was there, you know?
Your singing is incredible. I’m sure some people will think you’re lip-synching the originals. It must have been a lot of pressure to tackle these songs. Were you terrified to take on “Over the Rainbow”?
It’s funny the things you find yourself agreeing to in this line of work because of time constraints [laughs]. Just do it, do it, do it! And you just gotta, ya gotta, because the sets are being torn down in the morning, or everybody needs to go home in an hour, or “it’s gonna rain, we’re losing the light, just go!” So it was a mix of that—you’re on the roller coaster and you’re strapped in and you’re going whether or not you like what’s ahead of you—and also that I was so moved by that music and her performance of it in every stage of her life and what it came to mean at the end of her life. It just chokes me up even thinking about it. It became more about that and how beautiful that is and sharing that moment with all of the actors who had been there for all of the performances we did at the [Hackney] Empire theater.
Chicago was your first time singing for real, right?
Do you find it funny that you’ve become this bona fide musical theater person, considering you didn’t even perform in a musical growing up?
I haven’t even thought about that—isn’t that funny? I guess maybe that is happening, isn’t it? [Laughs.] I guess if you’re the interloper long enough, you eventually become one of the gang! I had always thought it was something you’re born with or you’re not. I didn’t think it was something that you can manipulate through process and work and all that stuff. I didn’t know that. But I love the process—I know that.
Judy is painted as a tragic figure, but you bring such heart to her. What do you want people to take away from the film?
What I took from it was a better understanding of what you could call “the critic’s omission of context.” So, understanding what she was doing and what she was able to do despite the challenges that she had to overcome over and over again in order to deliver on that level. When you think about the challenges—addiction and exhaustion, her financial situation that left her without a stable environment and without stable support—and that she was still able to get up and perform at the highest level, time and again and again and again? She must have been physically strained to the point of breaking. She’s not tragic at all. In fact, she’s a hero. What a titan, to triumph over that set of circumstances over and over again.
In 2010, you did something Judy was never able to do: take a break from the never-ending Hollywood cycle. Are you grateful that you were able to step away from acting for a while?
Yeah. I think understanding what her circumstances must have been like based on my own experiences was a big part of why this project is so important to me personally. And yeah, I don’t have kids and I haven’t been exploited in that way where suddenly everyone around me is doing fine but I’m broke and don’t have a choice and can’t stop to replenish the stores and step away from the madness. I can’t imagine not having that option. To step away from that cycle that is impossible to participate in and maintain your health for that extended period of time, that was a blessing.
Now, of course, you’re quite busy again. This year you also starred in the Netflix anthology series What/If. Your character, Anne Montgomery, is so deliciously evil. Were you drawn to the show because she’s so unlike any role you’ve ever played?
Maybe subconsciously, but that wasn’t what I was thinking about when I met [creator] Mike Kelley. The first thing was, Oh, what fun! I had never had the opportunity to go to work to play. And so it pushed the boundaries of what was permissible. I get to play this woman who says all the things that I wish I could but never would! And it was Mike Kelley, really—I had such a wonderful meeting with him. We just sat on the couch and talked and laughed. I’m at that stage of my life where I’m collecting life experiences, and I thought, I want to know you better and go play on the set with Anne Montgomery for a few months. Let’s do it!
And to have lightning crash whenever your character appears?
Know what I mean? Come on! [Laughs.] How do you say no to the lightning crashes?
I was reading a story about you in The New York Times from 2000, before Bridget Jones’s Diary had been released, where the writer described you as “a character actress trapped in the body of an ingénue.”
That writer wouldn’t be wrong—I love the unusual characters. That’s my favorite: I love playing the ones that are a little bit different or misunderstood or hated [laughs].
If there were another Bridget Jones movie, would you do it?
Uhhh … shyeah! [Laughs.]
Playing her for so many years now, do you think about her as a friend? Do you wonder what she’s doing?
I don’t so much think about what she’s doing as I feel her appearing next to me at times when I’m opening my mouth and I really wish I would just shut up and stop saying the thing that’s coming out of my mouth! And usually that’s on live television! I feel her sitting next to me shaking her head, laughing. I feel her when those Bridget moments surface, and they happen often!
BY THE NUMBERS
Academy Award, for Best Supporting Actress in 2003’s Cold Mountain
Age at which Zellweger made
her feature screen debut, uncredited, in 1993’s Dazed
Ranking of her Jerry Maguire line “You had me at ‘hello’” on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years … 100 Movie Quotes” list
Pounds she gained to play Bridget Jones in 2001
Worldwide box-office gross of Chicago
Films in which she played a fish (angelfish Angie
in Shark Tale)