Playing Judy Garland saw Renee Zellweger re-examine her long-held beliefs about her childhood idol and reappraise her own life, she tells Des Sampson.
When Renee Zellweger was first offered the coveted role of Judy Garland in Judy, she whooped with delight at the prospect of portraying her heroine.
But soon after, fears and doubts began to weigh heavily upon her — especially when she discovered that director Rupert Goold was adamant she had to perform all of Garland's showstopper songs herself, live, for the biopic to work.
"I really didn't want to do it, because I've never sung in front of an audience before. It was very daunting," she tells TimeOut in London, shuddering as she recounts her first few rehearsals. "I tried to convince Rupert of all the reasons why I shouldn't be singing, but he didn't buy it. Instead, he insisted that things happen during a performance between an audience and a performer, and he didn't feel we could replicate that without me singing live. So, I had to sing, because he thought it would be a more authentic representation of that relationship."
It is, with Zellweger delivering a showstopping, pitch-perfect performance. No wonder her enigmatic portrayal is already being championed as one worthy of a best actress Oscar.
"Oh, stop it! I was just trying to hold up my end because everyone working on this was so passionate, affectionate and appreciative of who she was and what she did," she says, downplaying her beguiling, razzmatazz performance. "It was such a beautiful experience, so naturally I didn't want to let anyone down."
Far from letting anyone down, Zellweger's performance is sensational, mesmeric and enchanting. Likewise, Judy is far more than just a song and dance musical. Instead, it's a nuanced tale that sympathetically explores Garland's ongoing battle with alcoholism, her crippling depression, insomnia and addiction to prescription drugs at the tail end of the 1960s, culminating in her premature death.
It also examines the delicately balanced tightrope she trod between celebrity and ignominy, poverty and prosperity, happiness and misery when she relocated to London, in 1969, to try to rekindle her faltering career.
"I didn't know anything about this chapter in her life, but once I found out about it I was very curious and wanted to try and understand it," says Zellweger. "It didn't make sense to me that a person who had been working as long as she had, at the levels that she had, who'd been celebrated internationally for being extraordinary, could be facing financial pressure and find it difficult to get work. So, this seemed like a really lovely opportunity to learn more about what the truth might have been."
Delving into the dark reality of her idol's seemingly fairy-tale fantasy only amplified Zellweger's admiration, adulation, and fascination with Garland.
"I don't think that you can properly appreciate how extraordinary Judy Garland was, without looking at this period of time that seems to have been very cavalierly blanketed with this idea of tragedy," she says, reflecting on the last few months of Garland's career and life.
"Is it really tragic to be facing those challenges, to be facing insurmountable difficulties, and get up again and again and again, to perform, as she did? I think that's heroic; I think she was heroic — and courageous. That's why this film is more than just a film about her; it's a celebration of her life and her importance."
Zellweger admits part of the reason she has great sympathy for Garland's plight is that she has endured her own heartaches and headaches, demons and disappointments. Her growing disenfranchisement with the film industry, celebrity and the weighty burden of expectation led to her taking a break from Hollywood, to reappraise her own life. But what started out as "just a few months off" turned into a six-year hiatus between 2010 and 2016.
"Well, it wasn't really a hiatus," she clarifies. "I was still working, just working away from the camera, by design, to sort of get away from the things that are not so healthy, like sleeping three hours a night, flying from country to country, perpetually living on the road and never seeing my family. It's not good living like that, so I really had no choice but to have some time out and try something else.
"To ensure that doesn't happen again, I have different priorities now — and I'm one of them," says Zellweger. "Now I can recognise something that's unhealthy for me and I have an option to choose to go in a different direction. Luckily, although I sometimes have doubts, I don't have the voices in my head that Judy Garland had, telling her she's 'no good, not pretty enough or a nobody'.
"In fact, I grew up very blessed. I grew up with very loving and supportive parents so I have the opposite to her; I have, playing on a loop, my mum [saying]: 'You can be anyone you want to be, you can do anything you want to do, anything at all..."
It's support from her family and friends, says Zellweger, which makes her appreciate how lucky she is and how desperately unhappy Judy Garland was, especially when she discovered Garland was only 47 when she died, in London, from an accidental overdose.
"I was 47 when we started this film, so there was a real empathy and resonance for me playing her when she was the same age as me when she died. It really makes you appreciate what you have. Seeing the struggles she went through was very upsetting too, but her ability to carry on and still sing, despite all that was going on in her life, was remarkable," Zellweger says.
"Her influence sustains and, whether or not you're a musician, a singer or a performer, it's impossible not to be touched by what she's left us," she says. "It's a gift, in terms of the archive of her work and what she represented. For me, like she is for anyone, she's an inspiration and I carry a smile for her..."
Who: Renee Zellweger, actor.
What: Judy Garland biopic Judy
When: In cinemas next Thursday
She's one of the most beloved icons in movie history, with The Wizard of Oz one of the most endearing films to emerge from Hollywood. But aside from starring as Dorothy, what else do you know about Judy Garland?
1. Her real name was Frances Ethel Gumm, which she changed as soon as Hollywood beckoned.
2. She started performing at age 2 alongside her two older sisters. The trio was called the Gumm Sisters but changed their name to the Garland Sisters after being mistakenly billed as the Glum Sisters.
3. Her ruby red slippers from The Wizard of Oz (which were insured for US$1 million), were stolen in 2005 from the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, Minnesota (her hometown). They were eventually recovered last year.
4. All five of her husbands wrote kiss-and-tell biographies about her, including her last husband, who only spent a few months married to her.
5. Her eldest daughter is Cabaret star and singer Liza Minnelli; her other daughter is actress and singer Lorna Luft.
6. Despite appearing in 35 films and earning millions during her 45-year career as an actor, singer and vaudevillian, Garland died with just $40,000 in her estate due to years of financial mismanagement and embezzlement by ex-managers.
7. Garland was the first woman to win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year, in 1961, for her live recording Judy at Carnegie Hall.
8. On June 22, 1969, Garland was found dead in the bathroom of her rented mews house, in London, from an accidental self-overdose of barbiturates.