Of all the female performances this year, there isn't anything quite like Renee Zellweger's in Judy. Playing the Hollywood legend Judy Garland, in a film set months before she died in 1969 at the age of 47, Zellweger bares her soul in a shattering turn. Not that she will admit it. "Oh, I don't know," she says, brightly. "We were all sort of beaten by the end of it. We were on a bit of a whirlwind schedule."
Based on Peter Quilter's play End of the Rainbow, the film follows a beaten-down Garland as she arrives in London for a winter residency at the Talk of the Town nightclub. After several nervous breakdowns, hung up on prescription pills and financially stricken, Garland is long past her days as the Hollywood sweetheart from The Wizard of Oz. "I hadn't known about this part of her life," admits Zellweger, 50. "So it was surprising to me to read about it."
The actress was "spoiled rotten" with all the fan sites devoted to Garland, loaded with "fantastic conversations and anecdotes from people who had very intimate exchanges [with her] way back when". It was a case of "trying to put the puzzle-pieces together" to understand who Garland was. "It was fascinating to me. And it sort of contextualised her experience at that time, which has not been written about so generously, sometimes."
Indeed, when Garland's eldest daughter Liza Minnelli was asked for a comment about Judy – while the movie was in production – she witheringly said: "I just hope they don't do what they always do." But it's clear that Zellweger had no intention of participating in a hatchet job on Garland. "First and foremost," she says, "the purpose of this was not to malign … I had no interest in that."
It helps that Judy is helmed by Rupert Goold, the acclaimed British theatre director. "He reaches in for the emotion, the emotional truth of something, from a different direction," claims Zellweger. "It's not linear. And it's not just words on the page. It takes different shapes. And he extracts it in different ways. Wants you to kick that chair and throw that chair. You know, very interesting. I've never done that before."
You could say the same about her entire preparation. She spent a year working with dialect coach Liz Himelstein to perfect the distinct rhythms of Garland's speech patterns. On loop, she watched archive footage of Garland and Mickey Rooney from when they were teenagers. And while she'd previously sung on 2002's Oscar-winning musical Chicago, her role here required extensive voice lessons with singing coach Eric Vetro.
Zellweger’s absolute dedication – not to mention her kindness – impressed others. “She is extraordinary,” says co-star Jessie Buckley, who plays Rosalyn Wilder, Garland’s assistant. “Genuinely one of the most amazing things I have ever experienced watching. She’s a pretty special woman and she talks to everybody on set, knows everybody’s name … I think she’s one of a kind.”
Raised in Katy, Texas – the daughter of an engineer and a nurse – Zellweger admits that Garland was simply part of the fabric of her upbringing. "I don't ever remember her not being there. She just always was. I just took her for granted. She was there. Like Bob Hope was there. We watched her as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz every year, when it came on television, on one of the five channels you could choose from."
While Garland's career later included Oscar nominations for A Star Is Born and Judgment at Nuremberg, her rapid decline in the glare of the spotlight was nothing short of tragic. "She was always hopeful that it was going to be better – she never gave that up," offers Zellweger, lamenting that "circumstances that were beyond her control" led to "this inability to really take care of herself".
Garland, who died from an accidental overdose of barbiturates, lived at a time when there was less care paid to mental well-being. The old showbiz adage "the show must go on" applied, desperately, as she drove herself into the ground. "It's just 'keep going' … relentless. And it's destroying the thing that enables her to take care of herself." Was her journey something Zellweger could learn from? "I would say it's inspirational."
The difference is, Zellweger was able to take time out. After years on the "merry-go-round", from Jerry Maguire to the beloved Bridget Jones series, she ducked out of Hollywood in 2010. "I had the option to," she says. "And I didn't have managers who exploited me, professionally, financially. There comes a point where what have you really got to lose? I mean, it was necessary. It was not healthy. And I was bored of myself as a performer."
Zellweger returned to the screen in 2016's Bridget Jones's Baby, facing unkind comments in the media that she'd undergone plastic surgery (something she denies). But it's her work as Garland that's really her comeback – "a star is reborn", as one critic termed it. She didn't even take a well-deserved break after Judy. "No, I made What/If," she chuckles, recalling her role as the tech mogul Anne Montgomery for the Netflix show.
Largely, though, she's been on the festival trail, with Judy playing at Telluride and Toronto, where it received an ovation so long, it reduced Zellweger to tears. She already won an Oscar (her third nomination) for Cold Mountain for Best Supporting Actress, but must surely be the front-runner at the Academy Awards next February – even if Scarlett Johansson, for her titanic turn in Marriage Story, will run her close.
In the meantime, she has no other project on the horizon, although she's always developing material to produce (she wrote the 2013 TV movie Cinnamon Girl). "After having worked in the industry for such a long time, you develop a lot of relationships," she says, "and it's wonderful to be able to reach out to your friends and collaborate." It feels like a very different world to the one Judy Garland lived in.
Judy opens in cinemas across the UAE today