Renee Zellweger opens up about being 50, playing Judy Garland: 'I am at a really cool age'
TORONTO – After inhabiting the rebellious spirit and fierce independence of Judy Garland for the movie “Judy,” Renee Zellweger absolutely cracks up over the idea of the cultural icon being around now, alive and tweeting.
“I hadn't even thought of that. Judy Twitter!” says Zellweger, her natural Texas twang coming through in her excitement. “You have to be whip-smart to be that funny and that sharp, especially at that time when women didn't feel entitled to speak the way that she did.”
Not only could Garland take whatever a man could dish out, “she hit the ball back. With a spin. In a dress. With a wink.”
After taking a step back from acting in 2010 to focus on her health, Zellweger, 50, is back in a big way as an Oscar front-runner for her portrayal of Garland in director Rupert Goold’s biopic "Judy" (in theaters Friday in most major markets, expanding throughout October).
'It was terrifying':Renee Zellweger ventures 'Over the Rainbow' to sing as Judy Garland
Based on the stage musical/drama “End of the Rainbow,” the film centers on “The Wizard of Oz” wunderkind near the end of her too-short 47 years, as she battled health, addiction, financial and familial issues during her last major concert run at London’s Talk of the Town theater in 1968.
“It’s hard to fully appreciate the context of the circumstances that she was grappling with at the time,” Zellweger says. “And when you see what she was able to achieve in spite of the challenges she faced, then you can really see how extraordinary she was. It sort of sets her apart, in my opinion.”
There was a definite physical side to Zellweger becoming Judy, matching her tics and even wearing dresses designed to contort the actress' frame to Garland’s posture, which reflected her deteriorating health. Then came the singing: Performing standards like “Over the Rainbow” and “The Trolley Song” live on stage while the camera rolled was a much different experience than a young Zellweger rocking out on a roof in 1995’s “Empire Records.”
It feels like “a different lifetime,” Zellweger says. “That was 'I dare ya,' and this was a methodology to breaking it down and understanding it.”
Unlike her acclaimed song-and-dance role in 2002’s “Chicago,” “Judy” required her to study Garland’s signature style: “This is what you need to do for a long time before you will be able to hit that note in a recognizable way. That's the actual note you were trying to hit. No, that note isn't in this song. Try again.”
There are shared elements in Zellweger's and Garland’s career tracks. Both had their memorable movie lines: Garland with “There’s no place like home,” Zellweger with “You had me at hello.” They also weathered the ups and downs of superstardom, from being on top of the world, to dealing with detractors – Zellweger was positively Garland-esque in a 2016 essay smacking down plastic-surgery rumors.
All that cemented Zellweger as the perfect Judy, Goold says: “Renee herself has had to go through a whole cycle of experiences in the public eye and in Hollywood, and the Venn diagram of their experiences, even though they are separated by many decades, is part of the power of her performance.”
From Zellweger’s perspective, “I understand what it takes, the commitment and the time and the toll that it takes, emotionally and physically, to participate actively in this line of work for an extended period of time,” the actress says of connecting with Garland. “And so I can only imagine understanding a tiny bit from my own experiences what it might have been like to go beyond what might be healthy for your body to sustain and to feel that you had no option but to continue on to your own detriment.
“I understand the gulf between a public persona and the assumed narrative of your life vs. the person behind the persona and the truth of a person's history,” adds Zellweger, who won a supporting actress Oscar for "Cold Mountain" in 2004.
“I’m keeping busy,” promises Zellweger, who had a turn as an enigmatic businesswoman on the soapy Netflix drama “What/If.” And Oscar pundits are noticing her turn in "Judy": According to the awards site GoldDerby.com, 26 of 27 experts expect her to receive a best actress nomination – and 20 have Zellweger as their top choice in the category.
Even with the Academy and audiences paying attention again, Zellweger hasn’t lost any of her folksiness: She’ll cop to being out “a little too late” the night before at a film-festival shindig (“Trying to get to bed when I should’ve, but you know, so it goes”) and comes armed with Netflix documentary recommendations (“Check out ‘The Great Hack’ if you haven't seen it yet, it's pretty fascinating”).
Making “Judy” taught Zellweger that she “probably put limitations on myself that I should not have, that I defined myself in a certain way and I probably should not have.”
Her current “life chapter” involves the “typical boring things that come with maturity,” she says with a smile.
“Hindsight is a lovely thing when you can put it to some use, and I am at a really cool age," she says. "I love it. This is fun and open to everything. So I don't know. I'm making some decisions about how to focus my energy in the next few years and then we'll see.”
Asked what's the best thing about being 50, Zellweger counters, “It might not even be about the age. It's about the experiences that I've had to this point. And I've learned a lot of things that I think took me a minute to get that will be useful in this business that I didn't recognize as important before. And I'm allowing for things that I didn't before.”
Is she less hard on herself now?
“Certain ways, yeah," she says. "I'm always going to be my Swiss engineer father’s daughter, if that says anything.”
But wherever life takes her, Garland will come along; Zellweger says the songs she sang playing an icon will be kicking around in her head for a while.
“Forever, I would imagine at this point,” she says.