Renée Zellweger On Playing Judy Garland: 'A Different Kind Of Triumph'

Sep 26, 2019
Originally published on September 26, 2019 8:06 pm

There are two Judy Garlands known to the public.

There's the '30s and '40s Judy — the sweetheart of the movies, the girl next door, the star of The Wizard of Oz and Meet Me in St. Louis. And then there's the older Judy, with The Judy Garland Show, scrutinized by the media, addicted to alcohol and drugs, and financially unstable.

It's that era of the superstar's life — a few months before her death in 1969 — where we find her in the new movie Judy. The biopic is mostly set during the weeks Garland spent in London performing at The Talk of the Town nightclub.

Renée Zellweger plays Garland in Judy. She does her own singing.

In an interview, she said she hadn't known a lot about Judy Garland before taking the role — "I sort of took her for granted," she says — but embraced the task of learning.


Interview Highlights

On playing a woman who has already been frequently imitated

There are a lot of things that are recognizable as uniquely Judy. Just characteristics which have been — I don't know if they've been parodies as much as celebrated in our culture for decades. And so those things are pretty well-established and nonnegotiable — and that's just about coming to familiarize yourself with those things and watching videos and watching performances and interviews, etc. ... And c'mon, what a job to have, you know what I mean? I was spoiled rotten. And the treasure trove is vast, because her legacy is extraordinary, and thank you, Internet.

On one particular Judy Garland interview that stands out

There's one interview that I would go back to quite a bit — and it was when a very, very young Barbara Walters sat down with her and with her children Lorna and Joey. And she seemed so vulnerable. And she was putting on a brave face, but you could tell that she felt there was a lot that was hanging in the balance in this televised appearance, and feeling so exposed. ...

YouTube

And that seemed key to me in filling in the blanks between what's on public record and what is people's speculations about what her experiences might have been, and then the ugly things that were written about her at that time. I felt like: "No, wait a second. This isn't a woman who is past her prime with respect to her performance ability." In fact, she's probably more powerful in her ability to emote and connect with people with empathy, in singing these things about love and loss and hoping for better things, having lived those things herself, you know? There was a different way to look at her — not as a victim, but as heroic in what she was able to navigate.

On singing such famous songs by a well-known performer

Well, the first step was take that part out. Compartmentalize that part, and clock it in a very substantial layer of denial. And then, there's just a lot of learning to do. A lot of [vocal] exercises ... just to keep pushing until something that sounded like it belonged in the song was coming out of my mouth. And stylistically, that's how I tried to approach it. I looked at it, tried to intellectualize it and say: "Right, OK, the gift is over there, let's not even think about that, and let's not think about how beloved she is. Let's just go to what is recognizable about Judy's singing — and learn those things."

On the last song in the movie, "Over the Rainbow"

I guess I might have looked at it not as falling short, but as a different kind of triumph — the triumph of refusing to quit, the triumph of tenacity, her beauty as a performer despite her inability to fully access her instrument at that point in her life. I don't see it as sad; I see it as remarkable. It's more beautiful that you refuse to let go of that belief that things will be good again.

Danny Hensel and Sarah Handel produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

There are at least two Judy Garlands. In the 1930s and '40s, she was the sweetheart movie star, the girl next door - think "The Wizard Of Oz" or "Meet Me In St. Louis."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE TROLLEY SONG")

JUDY GARLAND: (Singing) Clang, clang, clang went the trolley. Ding, ding, ding went the bell.

SHAPIRO: And then there's the older Judy - scrutinized by the media, struggling with alcohol and pills, financially unstable - as in the later years of "The Judy Garland Show."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STORMY WEATHER")

GARLAND: (Singing) Stormy weather.

SHAPIRO: This is where we find her in the new movie "Judy" - a few years after the end of that show, not long before her death at age 47.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JUDY")

RENEE ZELLWEGER: (As Judy Garland) I don't have a home. I can't even get a manager.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) London would offer you a lot of money.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Talk of the town.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) ...Is desperate to do a deal with you.

ZELLWEGER: (As Judy Garland) You're saying I have to leave my children if I want to make enough money to be with my children?

SHAPIRO: That's Renee Zellweger playing Judy Garland. The movie centers on a run of shows she did in London - sometimes blowing audiences off their feet, sometimes falling far short. Zellweger sings all the songs. I asked her what she knew about Judy Garland before taking this role.

ZELLWEGER: Not so much - I sort of took her for granted. She was always there on the turntable, reel to reel. And she was Dorothy, of course, you know?

SHAPIRO: So you step into this role playing a woman who has been caricatured thousands of times, often by drag queens. How do you thread the needle between accuracy and parody?

ZELLWEGER: Well, like you said, there are a lot of things that are recognizable as uniquely Judy, just characteristics which have been - I wouldn't - I don't know if they've been parodies as much as celebrated in our culture for decades. And so those things are pretty well-established and nonnegotiable, and that's just about coming to familiarize yourself with those things and watching videos and watching performances and interviews, etc. But...

SHAPIRO: So you, like, immersed yourself in all of that, like, took a Judy Garland master class.

ZELLWEGER: Oh, yeah. Oh, certainly. I mean, and - come on - what a job to have. You know what I mean?

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

ZELLWEGER: I was spoiled rotten. And you know, the treasure trove is vast because her legacy is extraordinary. And thank you Internet, you know?

SHAPIRO: I mean, can I just ask - since you have dug so deeply into that. I think anybody who has any familiarity with Judy Garland has kind of a hit list of the best moments, but you've watched moments that certainly I haven't and probably many listeners haven't. Is there one that you were like, oh, this is the gold nugget I've been looking for? Like, if somebody's going to go to YouTube right now, what should they pull up?

ZELLWEGER: Oh, goodness, Ari. There's a billion, zillion that seemed essential.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

ZELLWEGER: There's one interview that I would go back to quite a bit, and it was when a very, very young Barbara Walters sat down with her and her children, Lorna and Joey. And she seemed so vulnerable. And she was putting on a brave face, but you could tell that she felt there was a lot that was hanging in the balance in this televised appearance and feeling so exposed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARBARA WALTERS: If you hadn't been an actress, if you can imagine being anything else but an actress, what do you think you might want - to have wanted to be?

GARLAND: Happily married and just a nice lady.

ZELLWEGER: And that seemed key to me in sort of filling in the blanks between what's on public record and people's speculations about what her experiences might have been and then, you know, the ugly things that were written about her at that time. I felt like, now, wait a second. This isn't a woman who is past her prime, with respect to her performance ability. In fact, she's probably more powerful in her ability to emote and connect with people with empathy in singing these songs about love and loss and hoping for better things having lived those things herself, you know? There was a different way to look at her not as a victim but as heroic...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

ZELLWEGER: ...In what she was able to navigate.

SHAPIRO: There's a moment in the film when she talks about the tension of being a fully realized human and being kind of a persona in front of a camera. And this is a moment when she's fighting for custody of her children. I want to ask you about this. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JUDY")

ZELLWEGER: (As Judy Garland) What?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) The fights over custody, your children living away from you.

ZELLWEGER: (As Judy Garland) I mean, if I'm the terrible mother they like to write about, well, you tell me how I end up with such incredible kids.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) But I wasn't suggesting...

ZELLWEGER: (As Judy Garland) Well, no. Everybody suggests things, like I'm not a real person. But I am, you understand? I'm only Judy Garland for an hour a night. The rest of the time, I'm part of a family. I just want what everybody wants. I just seem to have a harder time getting it.

SHAPIRO: Did you identify with that part of the Judy Garland character? When you read that part of the script, did you think, oh, yeah, I know what she's talking about?

ZELLWEGER: Well, I understand it. Yeah, I do, I mean, in a way that I might not have maybe 15 years ago. But that's not unique to my experience. That's anybody who has a public job, whether it's sports or broadcasting or, you know - you should hear what they say about you.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, but nobody knows what I look like.

ZELLWEGER: You should hear what they say about you, Ari.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: I read Twitter. I know what's out there.

ZELLWEGER: You do? Really? No.

SHAPIRO: You don't? You don't read Twitter?

ZELLWEGER: Oh, gosh, no. No good could come of that.

SHAPIRO: Let's talk about the songs. Because the focus of the movie is the series of concerts she did late in life, you do a lot of singing as Judy Garland. So tell me about what it took to do some of the most well-known songs performed by one of the world's most famous singers?

ZELLWEGER: Well, the first step is to take that part out.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: Don't let yourself be aware of that.

ZELLWEGER: Compartmentalize that part...

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

ZELLWEGER: ...And cloak it in a very substantial layer of denial.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

ZELLWEGER: And then, you know, there's just a lot of learning to do and a lot of exercises.

SHAPIRO: You mean just, like, singing lessons, vocal exercises.

ZELLWEGER: Yeah, just to keep pushing until something that sounded like it belonged in the song was coming out of my mouth.

SHAPIRO: The last song we hear is her most famous - "Somewhere Over The Rainbow." And the context in which we hear it is not pretty. It might be beautiful, but it is also broken, which, at that point, the character is. Tell me about the choice not to give the audience the transcendence and, instead, to give them the kind of falling short of aspirations.

ZELLWEGER: I guess I might have looked at it not as falling short but as a different kind of triumph - the triumph of refusing to quit, the triumph of tenacity, her beauty as a performer despite her inability to fully access her instrument at that point in her life. I don't see that as sad. I see it as remarkable. It's more beautiful that you refuse to let go of that belief that things will be good again.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JUDY")

ZELLWEGER: (As Judy Garland, singing) And the dreams that you dare to dream...

SHAPIRO: Renee Zellweger, it has been a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

ZELLWEGER: For me, too, Ari - thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF RENEE ZELLWEGER SONG, "SOMEWHERE OVER THE RAINBOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.