Renee Zellweger has had a date with destiny ever since the very first screening of Judy, which immediately thrust her into contention for her second Academy Award. For Your Consideration host Scott Mantz led a post-screening Q&A with Oscar-winning actress as part of Collider’s FYC Screening Series at ArcLight Hollywood.
Zellweger said it was producer David Livingstone, who she’d previously worked with on the first Bridget Jones movie, who reached out to discuss the opportunity of playing screen legend Judy Garland. “I was curious, because it kind of surprised me. It didn’t occur to me that I’d be an obvious person to ask on that journey, so I had my doubts, but he said, ‘don’t decide, just come to London and let’s try some things.’ And that’s what we did.”
With her Texas twang on full display, Zellweger confessed that she never stopped having doubts, but threw herself into research all the same. “I started with books and interviews she’d done, anything her children had written or interviews they had done, and then I watched her films and her music, obviously.”
Naturally, she was concerned whether she could look and sound like Garland, whose voice is iconic. “We tried the music first, and then we tried some rudimentary makeup ideas in a makeshift room with a photographer, just to see what might be possible and where we needed to go.” Zellweger also watched Garland’s talk show appearances on The Tonight Show and The Dick Cavett Show to get a feel for the trajectory of her career.
“There was one where Barbara Walters interviewed her, and she’s sitting with young Lorna and Joey, and that one touched me.” Apparently, Walters asked Garland what she’d like to be if she weren’t a world-famous performer, and Judy just shook her head and said, “a nice lady.” That interview really helped Zellweger wrap her mind around the character.
“She looked tired, and she was holding onto her children for dear life, almost like she recognized what hung in the balance of that interview, and how important it was that she not be misunderstood. And in that moment, you could see the closeness that she shared with her children, and how she adored them and how proud she was. And you could also see that vulnerability and fear. I wondered who’s protecting her in that moment? Who’s advocating for her in that moment? And that served as a little bit of a catalyst for me going into the project.”
Mantz asked Zellweger how she was able to relate to Garland, to which she responded that “as an actress, I understand the schedule. I know what that looks like, and what it takes from a person, in terms of time and focus and energy, and the toll that it takes as well. But I didn’t know about live performance and the toll that takes on your body, and as we went through filming, I became more and more in awe of what she was able to achieve, considering the circumstances of her life. She was unable to step away and take a minute because of the financial situation she was grappling with, and yet she was still able to sing and travel and perform at the highest levels, which is remarkable to me.”
Zellweger went on to discuss the perils of fame, and how the public knows you as one thing, even though celebrities, like everybody else, contain multitudes. “As a person, I know about that vast gulf between a public persona and the truth of a life. I was drawn to the experience of a person living with those circumstances and trying to make her way through with very little support as a mom, and how she was misrepresented in the world. That’s what intrigued me. Not the star that we know from her performances and her mannerisms and all the things that are iconoclastically ‘Judy.’ But the woman at home, alone, who is just trying to get through something that’s tremendously challenging.”
Zellweger said she was grateful that the film subverts the notion that Garland was a tragic figure, because “it contextualizes those circumstances, and you come to understand that where she finds herself at this point in her life is actually the consequence of decisions that she had nothing to do with making, that were made on her behalf by people who couldn’t know what the long-term implications of those decisions would be. She was taken advantage of and stolen from, and then didn’t have the chance to step aside and take care of herself in a way that might have changed the course of her life.”
Zellweger also gave credit to Judy director Rupert Goold, who pushed her to perform Garland’s famous songs herself. Zellweger is no stranger to singing thanks to her turn in Best Picture winner Chicago, but she she “might’ve fought him on that. If I was given my druthers, I might’ve run the other way.” Goold wouldn’t let her run from the tough stuff, knowing the famous relationship she had with her fans, and how singing live would make all the difference.
She said that Goold “comes from the world of theater and has a background in live performance, so he knows about the uniqueness of that relationship and what’s exchanged between an audience and a singer. and he felt that we wouldn’t be doing the story justice if he didn’t in some way capture that.”
They started with “By Myself,” and Zellweger was scared at first, but she wasn’t nearly as nervous singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” because they shot it at the end of the five or six days they had with the theater, and by the end, she’d been swapping stories all week with the background actors, who felt more like her proper co-stars than mere extras.
Goold also asked Zellweger to physically push a piano before her live performances so that she would “feel that struggle in my bones.” She explained that “when we have emotional experiences in our lives, it’s in our bodies. It’s not just the words that come out of our mouths, we feel it.” And because Goold is particularly interested in subtext and what’s going on behind the words, “he wanted my performances to mirror Judy’s life at that time.”
In terms of preparation, Zellweger said she draws all over her scripts with different colored pens and learns her lines inside and out so that she doesn’t have to worry about what word comes next. “When [the lines] are good, they’re pretty easy to remember.” Judy was filmed over the course of 20-some-odd days, and the quick shoot left her no time to overthink things, or worry about one aspect of her performance. She just had to trust her collaborators and go. “It’s like being on a roller coaster. What’re you gonna do?”
In the end, Zellweger said she “had to grow in a lot of ways” to play Judy Garland. “I had to change the way that I thought about myself, really, and I had to rethink the presumptions that I had made. I got a couple of kicks in the pants,” but in little more than a week, it’s safe to say those kicks will all be worth it.
Watch the full interview above, and make sure to check out our past Q&As for Knives Out, Joker, Rocketman, Just Mercy, Booksmart, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Parasite, Us and Missing Link, among others. If you don’t live anywhere close to ArcLight Hollywood, fear not, as highlights from each post-screening Q&A will be featured in a future episode of For Your Consideration. And to watch the most recent FYC episode in which the gang appraises the Best Picture, Best Director and Best Animated Feature categories, click here.