Yes, it was terrifying. And if I could have run away, I would have run away, Zellweger tells USA TODAY, letting loose a hearty laugh.
The actress is earning Oscar talk for Judy (in theaters Sept. 27), which is showing at the Toronto International Film Festival. Directed by Rupert Goold and based on the stage musical End of the Rainbow, the movie centers on Garlands last concert run in winter 1968 at Londons Talk of the Town months before she died.
She remains a worldwide icon, but in the movie, Garland is broke and cant get a manager; shes fighting for custody of her children and in deteriorating health. Everything turns around when she hits that stage and performs tunes such as The Trolley Song and By Myself.
One of the biggest emotional and cathartic moments in Judy comes when Garland steps on the stage, sits down and sings Rainbow, her legendary song from The Wizard of Oz.
Wainwright, another self-proclaimed Garland super-fan, will pair with Zellweger on “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.”
Goold remembers that day of filming being pretty magical. Theres something in the structure of that song as a piece of songwriting that it kind of unlocks people.
Winter 1968 and showbiz legend Judy Garland arrives in Swinging London to perform in a sell-out run at The Talk of the Town. It is 30 years since she shot to global stardom in The Wizard of Oz, but if her voice has weakened, its dramatic intensity has only grown. As she prepares for the show, battles with management, charms musicians and reminisces with friends and adoring fans, her wit and warmth shine through. Even her dreams of romance seem undimmed as she embarks on a courtship with Mickey Deans, her soon-to-be fifth husband. Featuring some of her best-known songs, the film celebrates the voice, the capacity for love, and the sheer pizzazz of “the world’s greatest entertainer.”
Doing that scene, I was thinking about what that song meant to her at that point in her life, Zellweger says. “Together, we were creating this thing. So I didnt feel alone at all. We were sharing this experience that was interactive, and it sounds so corny to say that it was affection for (Garland), but it was.”
Roadside Attractions and LD Entertainment have released a new featurette for their upcoming biopic drama Judy, highlighting Academy Award winner Renée Zellweger’s incredible performance of the iconic actress/singer. The film had its world premiere at the 2019 Telluride Film Festival in August. Check out the video in the player below!
Goold kept Zellweger backstage and out of sight from the audience of actors up to the moment she came out to sing.
Directed by Tony nominee and two-time Olivier winner Rupert Goold, Zellweger is joined by a terrific ensemble cast that includes Finn Wittrock (American Horror Story), Jessie Buckley (Beast), and Michael Gambon (Harry Potter).
After the first time, I was like, Oh, Ive got lots of notes about that. We can improve that, the director recalls. As I was going in to do some of the notes, I could see all the extras and supporting artists were in tears. They were pretty close to Zellweger, which is pretty electrifying. But also I think they thought, Oh, my God, thats Judy. Thats Garland. They hadnt met Renee prior to that. They were part of something special.”
The project wasnt all solo singing for Zellweger. For the Judy soundtrack (also out Sept. 27), she recorded a pair of duets: Get Happy with Sam Smith, whom she calls a new personal hero, and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas with her longtime favorite Rufus Wainwright.
Its dream-come-true stuff, Zellweger says about being spoiled rotten working with those two. I joked around with Rufus, and I said, Weve been singing together for 25 years. You should hear our harmonies on “Poses”! Theyre amazing. Especially in Laurel Canyon with the windows down.
But just how did she manage to inhabit one of the most legendary entertainers of all time — without letting the weight of that get her down? By mostly ignoring that aspect of Garlands life, Zellweger says.
I tried not to think too much about the obvious, which is how adored Judy is and has been through generations, and how shes an icon for the ages, Zellweger told EW while visiting the EW and PEOPLE video suite at the Toronto International Film Festival. I tried to take that off the table and look at it as an exploration of trying to understand the human experience on the other side of that stardom. I think otherwise I wouldve just run away.
Its not just audiences who are heralding Zellwegers performance; costar Finn Wittrock, who portrays Garlands fifth husband, Mickey Deans, was also mesmerized by her work. I feel like I was with Judy for most of this shoot, and then when we were done it was like, Oh right, thats what you look like, he said.
Another resource that helped both performers was immersing themselves in footage and recordings of Garland. YouTube has become this amazing acting reference. Im not doing an ad for YouTube, but it is incredible because you can find hidden gems, Wittrock said. I did find this — they started to make this documentary of following Judy behind the scenes, and [Deans] shows up in it… falling in love with her and being there for the highs and lows. Most of my job was to watch old Judy Garland movies and to fall in love with her, so that wasnt too hard.
Zellweger added that Garlands music was constantly playing on set, keeping them bathed in the sound of her voice. And for her, Judy provided an opportunity to delve into the life of someone she had a personal passion for. It was just an exploration that was propelled by curiosity and adoration, really, Zellweger said.