Renée Zellweger, Oscar winner and now Grammy nominee? She’s surprised, too
Renée Zellweger giggles when she remembers the first time she sang in a film. For 1995’s “Empire Records,” she pogoed on a rooftop next to musician Coyote Shivers, her voice coarse and cracked as she channeled her inner Courtney Love on a song called “Sugar High.”
No one would have guessed that, 25 years later, Zellweger would be nominated for her first Grammy. From her Oscar-winning tour de force as Judy Garland in last year’s “Judy,” her work on the Decca soundtrack is up for traditional pop vocal album, alongside Burt Bacharach and Daniel Tashian, Harry Connick Jr., James Taylor and Rufus Wainwright.
Zellweger, 51, swears she’s not a singer, but she’s no newbie, either. She began sharpening her vocal chops as Roxie Hart in Rob Marshall’s 2002 movie adaptation of the musical “Chicago.” She was game for a fizzy duet with Ewan McGregor in “Down With Love” and tackled Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie — yes, really — in 2010’s “My Own Love Song.”
But in “Judy,” Zellweger startled audiences and critics with her ruminative interpretations of Garland classics such as “Over the Rainbow” and “Get Happy,” mastering not just the icon’s pathos but her razzle-dazzle too.
Over Zoom from her home in Los Angeles, Zellweger told the Los Angeles Times about her “vast” taste in music and other actors she admires as singers. (And those acoustic guitars fuzzy in her background weren’t just for show: “She wouldn’t call herself a guitar or piano player but plays both anyway,” her rep says.)
Los Angeles Times: Renee Zellweger, Grammy nominee. Does that blow your mind?
Renée Zellweger: I love that you laughed when you said that!
I laugh lovingly. Did a Grammy ever seem like a possibility?
I laughed, too. No, I thought we’d all moved on (from the film). I didn’t realize that it was in contention for consideration this year. It was a big surprise, and, of course, it was thrilling. It was an odyssey, and I loved every minute of it.
What was your initial reaction to director Rupert Goold’s suggestion that you sing live in “Judy”?
I thought, “That’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard.” And I kept thinking, “Well, we are going to do these recordings” (in the studio for the soundtrack), and so I think I was sort of tricked into believing that it wasn’t really going to happen. That we would work toward that ultimate goal, but then, he would see what a terrible idea it was, and we would just use these recordings. Which we had to do in case something went wrong during the day, or I got laryngitis and we had to just push through and film with whatever we had.
“Get Happy” is revamped on the soundtrack as a splashy duet with Sam Smith. But the movie version is quietly devastating. How did you approach that performance?
I understood (Rupert’s) intention with that scene and what it was meant to represent about her life. And what she has meant to so many people. It was really late and cold outside, so it fit the mood of the scene. It was remarkably moving, and that was the first live scene in the film. So I remember being a little bit nervous, but the beauty of the underlying message in it was more powerful in the room than my fear.
What was it like to step up as a singer in “Chicago”?
I didn’t understand why (director) Rob Marshall had invited me to do that. I had no background in (singing), I had no training. So it was all just about Rob Marshall for me. And I didn’t want to let him down because I was instantly smitten and cared for him so much. And if he thought it was possible, then I was just going to go with that.
I remember we did this huge read-through when we began our rehearsals up in Toronto. Queen Latifah sat next to me here, and Richard (Gere) was here and Catherine (Zeta-Jones). And then at the end, where the U kind of turned, was Rob Marshall, my stage mom. And we were sitting, about to start with the performance, and I remember fidgeting. Because I was so nervous that I was going to sing in front of people, I knocked my knee on something under the table. And I looked, and I saw that they had strategically placed a microphone, a secret microphone, underneath my little space at the table. They were afraid that I was going to swallow it and sing to myself and my script. (Laughs)
Is singing its own form of acting for you?
Maybe so. I haven’t thought about it that way. For “Judy,” it certainly was, because I felt protected because I was pretending something else and channeling something else. I wasn’t exposing myself so much. I thought of it more from the perspective of an athlete, really. I was a gymnast (in high school), and I would think of it as like when you’re training for a routine on the beam. I knew what I needed to do vocally and with my body and then with my breath and all of that. I knew what was necessary in each beat of the song. And then, once that was in my body, then it became about the emotion and the performance.
How do you describe your taste in music?
It’s pretty vast and eclectic. I mean, it started with a lot of Austrian polka and classical music. And old-school crooners. Elvis Presley, Tom Jones, Queen, the Beatles. My parents are European, and my cousins in Norway and Australia were teenagers when I was very small, so that brought all sorts of new revelations. Then I lived in Austin in the ’90s, so you can imagine. I grew up in the ‘80s, so I was listening to Kraftwerk, ABBA and the Rolling Stones. And “Grease.”
Who are some actors you consider good singers?
Cynthia Erivo. Holy cow. Oh, her voice, it just touches me. Queen Latifah. Harry Connick Jr. Hugh Jackman. Hugh Grant. Catherine Zeta-Jones, Ewan McGregor. Jessie Buckley (Zellweger’s “Judy” co-star).
I love Rufus (Wainwright, who sings a duet of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” with Zellweger on the “Judy” soundtrack). His voice makes me cry. There’s just something about him. I also love Tom Petty, as a poet and a songwriter. Joni Mitchell, the Avett Brothers.
(Editor's note: Zellweger’s publicist later emailed a fuller list of musicians the two-time Oscar winner finds influential: Sam Smith, Lucinda Williams, Willie Nelson, Chris Stapleton, David Bowie, Marvin Gaye, Bob Dylan, Dean Martin, Bill Withers, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Sammy Davis Jr. And, of course, Judy Garland: “She really does play her records.”)