“The thought of it was terrifying. I normally sing in the shower!” says Renée Zellweger, star of upcoming biopic Judy. She’s describing the film’s final performance – a breathtaking rendition of Over The Rainbow in which she must break down in front of a packed audience. “I knew that there was no sounding like Judy Garland,” confides Zellweger. “She’s one in a million.”
Introduced to Judy from a young age, Zellweger has enjoyed a similarly glittering career. From lovable romantic Bridget Jones to Chicago’s Death Row murderess, Roxie Hart, the Texas-born actress has brought countless iconic characters to the big screen. She’s even won an Oscar along the way. But how would she tackle arguably her biggest role yet – Miss Show Business herself?
Set in the winter of 1968, Judy focuses on a lesser known period of the star’s life. Exhausted after decades on the industry treadmill, Garland arrives in London to play a series of sold-out concerts. While there, she battles with management, is haunted by childhood memories, and fights to keep custody of her kids, but she also finds love, friendship, and a great deal of kindness in the most unlikely of places.
What is your earliest memory of Judy Garland?
She’s part of the tapestry of my adolescence. I remember watching The Wizard Of Oz with my family each year and it was always a beautiful experience. There were two showings annually on American television at Thanksgiving and Easter. I’m of a generation where if you weren’t home, then you didn’t get to see it!
What made you want to be part of this story?
The list is so long but I’ll try to be specific. Obviously, I admired her as a person and loved her music, too. Our parents felt affinity for her and that was part of her magic — the emotional connection that people shared with her. I’m always drawn to the omissions in the telling of someone’s life story, and I was curious what lay between the lines with Judy. What led her to this place? What was she really like? I think this project explores that in a very quiet and un-sensationalised way.
Were you previously aware of this period of her life?
No, I wasn’t. There were things that I knew – her life’s work, who her children were – but Judy’s music was always on the turntable when I was growing up and we’d watch variety shows on television where she’d perform with Liza [Minnelli]. She’s someone that I took for granted, just like the rest of the world. Judy was so famous and everyone thought she was always going to be there, but there was another story bubbling under the surface.
Did you meet any of Judy’s children?
I intended to. I have a mutual friend of Lorna [Luft]’s, so I had understood that Liza and Lorna were not big fans of the play [Over The Rainbow], which had inspired the film. I didn’t see the play and I don’t see how they’re related, except that they reference the same period in her life, but I spoke with my friend and we agreed that we should reach out. In the end, the timing wasn’t right. Lorna had fallen ill and it felt inappropriate to reach out to discuss something that was probably not even on her radar and had very little importance in the grand scheme of things.
Is there an added pressure in depicting a real person on screen?
Always. You have to make sure you do justice to the person’s life. It’s usually self-imposed, but I wanted to be respectful to Judy.
How did you go about learning Judy’s distinctive vocal style?
She has a style of singing where she pushes her consonants in front of her vowels and sings with vibrato at the top of the note instead at the end. Her enunciation is very specific and those are things that are studied and learned through habit. It’s a bit like a rollercoaster – once you’re locked in to the process, you’re really going! Was it time-consuming? Yes, and did I have to work a lot? Yeah, I did. That’s what’s rewarding about this project.
What was it like recording in front of a live audience?
It terrified me, but that sort of disappears once you walk out on stage, because there’s no time for it. The goal of the day takes precedence and that’s the focus. Once you’re caught up in it all, everything becomes very real and you have to surrender to that reality. Of course, Judy suffered from stage fright and perhaps that worked to my advantage, I don’t know.
What was your favourite song to perform?
I loved rehearsing The Trolley Song. That was a lot of fun because we could bring a bit of her vivacity to the performance. We also worked on incorporating some of the same dances as in her films, but the experience I walked away from the film with was probably the final song, Over The Rainbow. It’s difficult to describe that feeling.
How did you perfect the look of Judy?
Oh man. Can you believe that wardrobe? The pink sparkly dress! That orange with gold lamé suit! What an opportunity to get to wear those off-the-charts fabulous things. We tried to create something that was Judy-esque but still looked original. Jany Temime [costume designer] outdid herself.
What was it like working with director Rupert Goold?
He’s wonderful. I’ve never done theatre professionally, so it was exciting to work with a director whose background is rooted in the stage. He’s really open to discussion and wanted to break down the material and find the most powerful way of bringing the story to life. It was such a satisfying creative experience.
You star alongside Jessie Buckley, who was also interviewed for these very pages in Picturehouse Recommends Magazine a couple of months ago. How did you find working with her?
We were just laughing all the time. She’s got a great sense of humour and the jokes just ran into the next one. We were filming when Wild Rose came out and I’ve heard incredible things about her in that. Jessie’s a magnificent talent and it’s the perfect part for her to showcase all of her billions of gifts. Getting our make-up done every day together was always hilarious.
How long were you in the make-up chair each morning?
We whittled it down. It wasn’t so bad, usually a couple of hours. I was very lucky as the people that prepared me were very skilled.
You shot Bridget Jones’s Diary in the UK and Judy brought you here again. What do you love about working here?
It feels like a homecoming every time I come back. I know the neighbourhoods, the Tube, and I have close friends who live down in Brighton. So I get to reunite with with a bunch of my old pals.
Would you do another Bridget Jones movie?
Probably. I love Bridget. What a joy to be in her shoes again! I know that Helen [Fielding] has written a book, so I guess it’s going to be up to her, but it always depends on the script and the material. I’m always the last to know.
In the film, Judy says, “The English are insane” – do you agree that we’re a bit bonkers?
Well, maybe that’s why I feel so at home there… Oh, and the crumpets. It always has to do with the crumpets!
Judy is in cinemas on 4 October