Renée Zellweger is being tipped to win an Oscar for her performance in the biographical drama Judy. The Hollywood star earned an Academy Award, Golden Globe Award, Screen Actors Guild Award and BAFTA Award for her supporting role in 2003’s Cold Mountain, but her portrayal of American stage and screen icon Judy Garland could see her walking away with the Best Actress prize at this year’s Oscars.
Judy is set in 1968, just as the titular character arrives in London for a five-week run of sell-out concerts. At the time, she was in dire financial straits and battling the depression, alcoholism and substance abuse that would claim her life six months later at the age of 47. Directed by Rupert Goold, the film is an adaptation of the Olivier- and Tony-nominated West End and Broadway play End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter.
JUDY IS SUCH A GREAT FILM AND YOUR PERFORMANCE IS JUST INCREDIBLE…
Thank you. We felt it was a huge celebration of beautiful Judy Garland and her legacy, which has touched all of us, I’m sure.
WERE YOU INTIMIDATED AT ANY POINT ABOUT TAKING ON SUCH AN ICON?
I try to use a great deal of denial in this process [laughs]. It was better not to think about those things and just keep my head down and do the work.
WHAT CAN AUDIENCES EXPECT FROM THIS PORTRAYAL?
Rupert [Goold] was very clear that he didn’t want to tell a story about the performer, so to speak, but about the cost of performance on a human being. And to tell a story about the human experience – what it’s like to live with a public persona and what the cost is of delivering to a level that people come to expect over decades and decades of being in front of the camera or on stage, as Judy was. So it fills in between the lines of what’s on public record, and what was really there, based on her own words and other people’s accounts of their shared experiences with her.
WAS JUDY GARLAND ONE OF YOUR IDOLS WHEN YOU WERE GROWING UP?
Growing up, I didn’t think I was going to be an actress, so I don’t think that I was collecting any kind of information when I was watching. She was just someone I loved. She was part of my childhood. I’m sure everybody got in front of the television once a year to watch The Wizard of Oz. She was always on my parents’ turntable and we would watch re-runs of her specials, interviews and live performances whenever they came on television. And so I just loved her. And I’m sad to say that I took her for granted. She was just always there. But she was, of course, extraordinary and she deserved that place in history that she carved out for herself among the greats, for all time.
It wasn’t until we did this film, though, that I properly came to appreciate how truly extraordinary she was, by learning about the circumstances she was grappling with in this third chapter of her life. And I feel like it’s one thing to be born with this God-given mix of talents that are one in a million, but it’s quite another thing to carry on and navigate your way through what seemed to be insurmountable difficulties. I think in learning about that and watching this, it’s what really sets her apart as not just iconic, but heroic.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO PERFORM ‘SOMEWHERE OVER THE RAINBOW’, WHICH IS SUCH A SPECIAL MOMENT IN THE MOVIE?
That was quite a day. It was the end of the live-performance sequences that I’d been sharing all week with 300 actors who were playing the audience. So it was like this big final moment of celebration that was shared between us, and all of our affection and admiration for Judy felt very alive in that moment. Thinking about what that song meant to her at that time in her life and the nostalgia we all feel about it and how it changes form as we go through our lives – it just touched me very deeply.
BEING FAMOUS CAN BE A LONELY PLACE TO BE. IS THAT SOMETHING YOU RELATE TO?
In certain circumstances, yes, I suppose, especially when the public persona enters the room before you do, and you never have an authentic exchange because people meet who they think you probably are based on their projections. It can be challenging in that way. But I think any loneliness that I have experienced is the same as anybody’s good, old-fashioned human loneliness. And those moments are few and far between because I’ve got some good dogs. [laughs]
HOW IS IT DIFFERENT FOR YOU AS AN ACTRESS TO PLAY SOMEONE REAL?
It’s a different sense of responsibility that you feel, to represent things as accurately as you can. So you start by sort of digging through the historical record and the public record of the legacy of Judy’s life, as well as first-hand accounts and anecdotes and things that people would write in biographies or share. You have to be a bit judicious in reading those things and considering the source, knowing a little bit about the vast gulf between a person’s true history and the public account of that.
WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES OF PORTRAYING SOMEONE AS ICONIC AS JUDY GARLAND?
Rupert [Goold] was really clear from the beginning that he didn’t want it to be an impersonation, which is tricky because that seemed like a good idea to me! [laughs] But I understood what he meant – famous people go out there and perform, but when they get home and they’re on the couch, they’re not all of that. There was a persona in the chair and she’s got the armour on in her interviews because she’s presenting only the part of herself that she wants to share with the world. And in her performance, there is also a quality that is starry and sparkly and very generous and loving, in Judy’s case. But that’s her performance and I was as curious as Rupert was about exploring the person behind the spotlight, when she goes home at night and takes off the armour and the sparkly dress, and what that life might be like, considering the circumstances that she was grappling with at that time.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT THE LEGACY OF JUDY GARLAND THAT MAKES HER STILL SO BELOVED?
Her raw talent, first of all. I mean the combination of her beauty and vulnerability, and her ability to tear inside of a song and get the true meaning of it and sing it in a way that makes us feel understood… It’s inspirational, isn’t it?