Will Renée Zellweger find gold over the rainbow?
The actress on Monday morning nabbed a Golden Globe nomination for her show-stopping turn as Judy Garland in the biopic "Judy." Katy-born Zellweger, an alumna of the University of Texas, has received widespread acclaim for the transformative role, including best actress awards from the National Board of Review and the British Independent Film Awards. The awards-season buzz is a sign that an Oscar nod could be in her future. Zellweger won a 2004 Academy Award for best supporting actress in "Cold Mountain," after two previous nominations for best actress.
Zellweger visited Austin on Dec. 3 for a special screening of "Judy" at AFS Cinema. She briefly introduced the film before returning to a standing ovation and a sit-down discussion with Austin Film Society founder Richard Linklater.
Here are a few highlights from that conversation and an audience Q&A.
On finding Garland
"Judy" tells the story of Garland’s final months, when she played a run of shows at London’s Talk of the Town nightclub. The film depicts the legendary star as a troubled talent struggling with addiction and trying to earn enough money to take care of her children, whom she’s forced to leave in the United States while she goes overseas.
"I don’t have kids, but leaving my dogs is hard," Zellweger said. She added that she understands the rigor of an entertainer’s schedule and the fatigue it can bring on.
"I can’t imagine how she sustained," Zellweger said.
She also said she understands the gulf between a public persona and the "truth of a life." In "Judy," viewers see how the "Wizard of Oz" star grappled with the expectations of others, including one gut-punching scene where a TV interviewer prods her about her challenges as a mother.
"She would hit the ball back and go toe to toe with the best of them," Zellweger said, emphasizing that women were not always given the space to speak their minds in Garland’s time.
(One part of Garland’s story that Zellweger didn’t see herself in: "I’m not addicted to pills.")
The movie’s lavish costumes are a highlight, instrumental in transforming Zellweger into an icon from another era. Vintage fabrics from India were brought in, she said, and the "sequins would melt if you sneezed." Costumers tailored garments to the shoulders-forward stance Zellweger used to embody Garland.
On the filming process
"We had a nickel and a couple weeks," Zellweger said of the five-week shoot for "Judy."
The cast and crew all wanted to do their best by Garland, she said. Zellweger told a story about sitting down on the set’s stage between takes and sharing stories about Garland with the audience. Some in the crowd had seen Garland perform at Talk of the Town, or had parents who went, she said.
On that voice
Zellweger sang onscreen when she played Roxie Hart in "Chicago," but voices don’t get much more legendary than Garland’s. Zellweger said she couldn’t dream of matching the late star’s musical power, so she tried to break her singing down stylistically and find the language of Garland’s vocal performances.
Zellweger spent a year building her vocal strength to what viewers hear in "Judy," including popping into London’s famed Abbey Road Studios for recording sessions.
"I don’t think I’m ready for Carnegie Hall just yet," she joked.
It wasn’t the first time Zellweger overcame a musical challenge. The actress shared an anecdote about a music teacher at Hutsell Elementary in Katy — "whose name I can’t remember, but whose beehive I will never forget" — leaving a young Zellweger out of a school music performance. Zellweger said she went home and wrote the lyrics to the school song, and then "they had to put her in the show."
On connecting to Garland’s legacy
Zellweger tried to reach out to Garland’s daughters, Lorna Luft and Liza Minnelli (portrayed by Bella Ramsey and Gemma-Leah Devereux in "Judy"), through a friend but wasn’t successful. Once she learned that Luft had been diagnosed with a brain tumor, Zellweger ceased her efforts to contact Garland’s family out of respect, she said.
Zellweger said she hasn’t really decompressed from playing Garland and doesn’t even want to do so. She’s still reading books about the legendary performer’s life. A friend sends her a daily photo of Garland from an online fan community, she said.
The connectivity that Garland fostered has stuck with Zellweger, too. She emphasized Garland’s importance to the gay community, in particular that the entertainer’s public acknowledgment of gay fans was "huge" in an era when that was uncommon. Garland gifted the world with "Dorothy and drag queens," as Zellweger put it.
"We can agree on her," she said.