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Renée Zellweger Shares the Challenges and Joys of Portraying Judy Garland

Renée Zellweger in Judy

The Oscar winner discusses her buzzed-about role at a screening of Judy the Austin Film Society Cinema

Judy is full of big moments, from dazzling musical numbers to heartbreaking emotional scenes. But what stitches the Judy Garland biopic together are the small, intimate moments when its star, Renée Zellweger, disappears into the role and the audience is left watching a woman hoping to succeed despite the pressures of fame, financial trouble, addiction, love and motherhood.

On Tuesday, Zellweger introduced the film to an adoring audience at the Austin Film Society Cinema and then spoke with AFS founder Richard Linklater about taking on the role of a Hollywood icon — a process she says began a year before cameras rolled.

“It felt like a very greedy, selfishly motivated exploration,” Zellweger said of diving into research on Garland’s life. “She fascinates me.”

Judy focuses on Garland in her 40s as she tried to make ends meet as a performer while raising her two youngest children, Lorna and Joey Luft. In an effort to earn a living and provide a home for them, Garland made a difficult decision to leave her kids with their father, Sidney Luft, and take a job in London at nightclub The Talk of the Town. Due to health problems, including addiction to alcohol and pills, Garland struggled to keep her commitment to put on performances night after night.

“I knew nothing about this stage of her life,” Zellweger said. “I knew nothing about what she was grappling with, so to learn about that and to want to know how it came to be was a driving force.”

Zellweger expressed a deep appreciation for Garland that began – like it does for so many – with her role as Dorothy in the beloved film The Wizard of Oz and grew as she studied her adult life. “I understand that gulf between the public persona and the truth of a life,” she said. “It felt that there was more to the story than had been properly explored and what had been written about her with that sort of blanket idea of tragedy about this chapter.”

Judy was shot it just five weeks, Zellwegger said, which made the AFS audience gasp in disbelief. “You’ve got to love it and when you do it feels effortless,” she said of the hard work that went into filming on a tight schedule.

Making the film was a joy for the talented actress, whose credits include the Bridget Jones series, the musical smash Chicago and the Civil War drama Cold Mountain, for which she won an Oscar.

She described being on the Judy set with “this group of people getting together every day to advocate for . We all wanted to do our best for her because we loved her. We are just in awe of the importance of what she left behind.”

Singing as Garland was inevitably a challenge. “The resonance of her voice and the vocal quality, it’s just transcendent,” said Zellweger, who spent a year learning the “language” of how Garland sang and building her own vocal strength. “I had to spend some time in the gym, as they say, doing crazy workouts and stuff until we got there.”

Performing “Over the Rainbow” was the “zenith” of the movie-making process for Zellweger. “It was one of the most special experience that I’ve ever had,” she said of singing Dorothy’s hopeful ballad from The Wizard of Oz. “That she’s still hopeful and singing about hope at that stage in her life, it just moved me deeply.”

When a member of the audience asked how Zellweger decompressed from playing the role, she took a moment before answering. “You go home and you listen to her records,” she said. “I don’t think I have. And I don’t think I want to. I carry a smile for her.”

Instead, she’s still relishing in the appreciation of a woman who means so much to so many people even after all these years. Zellweger attributes Garland’s lasting legacy to “the connectivity she brings,” she said. “There’s so little that as a society we celebrate together anymore, and we can agree on her.”