'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Renee Zellweger ('Judy')

Renee Zellweger - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of MGM TV

"It's fair to say that I could empathize, that I know what that feels like," Renee Zellweger says quietly as I ask her about some of the cruelty that was shown towards screen icon Judy Garland in the last year of her life. 

We sit down in Zellweger's dressing room backstage at Ellen on the Warner Bros. lot, where she had just taped her first talk show appearance in years, and I ask her about Garland's fight, in a haze of booze and pills in her later years, to earn enough money to regain partial custody of her two youngest children. That is the subject of Rupert Goold's new film Judy, which Roadside Attractions and LD Entertainment will release Sept. 27 and for which Zellweger's performance has been so well received that she is already the prohibitive favorite to win the best actress Oscar.

The 50-year-old has long been regarded as one of the outstanding actresses of her generation, going back to Cameron Crowe's 1996 romantic dramedy Jerry Maguire, which, at 26, made her an overnight star, and extending right through 1998's One True Thing, 2000's Nurse Betty, 2002's Chicago, 2003's Cold Mountain, 2006's Miss Potter and, of course, the Bridget Jones trilogy — 2001's Bridget Jones's Diary, 2004's Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason and 2016's Bridget Jones's Baby. But, from 2010 through 2016, save for one public appearance that led to mean-spirited media coverage about her appearance (which she described as humiliating), she inexplicably disappeared completely from the public eye, and some began to write her off.

That was a big mistake.

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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview on The Hollywood Reporter's Awards Chatter podcast below.

Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Barbra Streisand, George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Chadwick Boseman, Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Gervais, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer, Justin Timberlake, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Rachel Brosnahan, Jimmy Fallon, Kris Jenner, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone, Ryan Murphy, Julia Roberts, Jerry Seinfeld, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Sacha Baron Cohen, Carol Burnett and Norman Lear.

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Zellweger was born and raised in Texas, the youngest of two children. Her father was an engineer, her mother a midwife and worshipful of her older brother, Zellweger followed him into a junior high speech and drama class, which she enjoyed — however, she emphasizes, "I never considered that it was going to be a career." Instead, as she headed off to the University of Texas, she thought she was going to be a journalist. But while studying in Austin, a photographer friend took some photos of her, which led to her signing with a commercial agent, which, in turn, led to TV commercials and bit parts onscreen. An elective drama course and a role in a student thesis film convinced her to take acting seriously. And then, after graduating in 1991, Zellweger landed a number of small roles in films shot in the area — Dazed and Confused (1993) and Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1995), both alongside classmate Matthew McConaughey, and Ben Stiller's directorial debut Reality Bites (1994) — followed by a meatier part in C.M. Talkington's Love and a .45 (1994).

The up-and-comer moved to Hollywood in 1993, and quickly landed a top agent thanks to advance industry buzz about Love and a .45. "The phone just started ringing," she recalls, "and it went from there." She was supplementing her income by working as a barback when casting director Gail Levin suggested her to Cameron Crowe and James L. Brooks for the part of Dorothy, a single mother and accountant who becomes professionally and romantically involved with a sports agent played by Tom Cruise, in Jerry Maguire.

Against all odds, Zellweger won the part, and the film proved a giant critical and commercial success, not least because of one scene that Crowe shot 15 takes of — in which Zellweger's character tells Cruise's, at the end of a long speech, "You had me at 'hello' — which became an instant rom-com classic. The film received a best picture Oscar nomination, and Zellweger a SAG Award mention. "That was a really fun time in life," she says with a wistful smile, while also noting, "I didn't want my life to change dramatically."

The actress took some time before committing to her next project, ultimately choosing Carl Franklin's One True Thing because it "was a great story" and her co-star was Meryl Streep. Then, in 2000, came two comedies, the brothers Bobby Farrelly and Peter Farrelly's Me, Myself and Irene and Neil LaBute's Nurse Betty, the latter of which brought her a Golden Globe.

And then came the part that turned Zellweger into a full-fledged star: Bridget Jones. Many were vocally opposed to her being cast in the first film of the trilogy — the beloved literary character is a Brit, not a Texan — but Zellweger insists she "wasn't really aware of that" as she spent months perfecting her British accent and consciously putting on weight to play the curvy protagonist. In the end, for the Sharon Maguire-directed film, Zellweger received Oscar, Golden Globe and SAG award noms (and later picked up another Golden Globe nom for its 2004 sequel).

On the heels of Bridget Jones's Diary, it was hard to imagine that Zellweger's stock could rise any higher, but then came Rob Marshall's Chicago, the first filmed adaptation of Bob Fosse's classic Broadway musical. The actress was not experienced with or known for singing or dancing, but Marshall met with her to see what she could do. "I didn't know if I knew what I was doing, or whether it was a good idea," she says with a laugh. "I knew I wanted to try."

As it turned out, Zellweger was a fast learner, and both her performance and the film were massively acclaimed (she won Golden Globe and SAG awards and earned another Oscar nom, and the film was awarded the best picture Oscar). And the year after that came roles in not only a charming old-fashioned rom-com, Peyton Reed's Down With Love, but also in Anthony Minghella's adaptation of Charles Frazier's best-selling novel Cold Mountain, which Zellweger had dreamed of bringing to the screen. "I loved that book," she explains. "I followed it for five years." She couldn't afford to purchase its screen rights, but then Minghella came to her to star in it — not as the Southern belle at its center, but as the rough-and-tumble country girl who comes to her aid. For her performance, Zellweger won Oscar, Golden Globe and SAG awards.

She followed the one-two-three punch of Bridget Jones's Diary, Chicago and Cold Mountain with films both strong, such as Ron Howard's Cinderella Man in 2005 ("I think it's one of the great boxing films") and Chris Noonan's Miss Potter in 2006 (for which she received another Golden Globe nom), and not, such as George Clooney's Leatherheads in 2008, Jonas Elmer's New in Town in 2009 and Olivier Dahan's straight-to-DVD My Own Love Song in 2010. And then Zellweger stopped. "I stopped because I didn't feel gratitude in the way that I should anymore," she says. "I had run dry in terms of life experiences that I had to draw from to authentically tell the stories of these characters. I essentially dove in at [the age of] 27, 26, 25, really, and I didn't stop until I was forty-something." She didn't stop sooner because, she says, "I knew that I was tired, and I knew that I missed my family, and I knew that I really didn't know where I lived, but I didn't feel the consequences of that yet."

But by the time of Miss Potter, Zellweger had burned out and began seeing a therapist to try to figure out what to do. "Some of his observations were very enlightening to me," she says. "All the decisions that I made that are of great significance in a life had very little to do with me and everything to do with this job and the public persona that sort of enters the room before I do." Was everyone in her orbit supportive of her decision to suspend her career? "Of course there were conversations about why it's a bad idea and 'Don't make that choice right now' and 'Especially not right now' — but it didn't matter," she says.

Zellweger feels that hitting the pause button — something that Garland was unable to do because of her dire financial situation — saved her life. As she puts it, "I stopped running so that I could see what it was really like to be in a relationship where you share a town. And I built a home. I fell in love. Adopted some dogs. Created a TV show. Did some development work for Bridget Jones's Baby." She also went back to school to study public policy, simply because it interested her. Of the break, she says she has no regrets: "It was necessary."

While Zellweger was gone from the public eye, though, her own well-being wasn't the only thing that changed. In 2014, Nanci Ryder, whom the actress had hired to be her publicist during the whirl of attention surrounding the release of Jerry Maguire and who became one of her dearest friends, was stricken with ALS; Zellweger has been there ever since to support her. "She was beyond supportive," Ryder, who is no longer able to speak, has stated in writing.

And then there was the case of another one of Zellweger's greatest professional champions, Harvey Weinstein — whose companies distributed six of her films, Boaz Yakin's A Price Above Rubies (1998), Bridget Jones's Diary, Chicago, Could Mountain, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason and Miss Potter — was exposed as a serial sexual abuser, harasser and assaulter.

Zellweger says she never saw the truly dark side of Weinstein. "He was gruff and jocular and he made jokes about 'looking hot in that skirt,' but it wasn't threatening and it wasn't demeaning," she recounts. "I knew that he was, in this really awkward, uncomfortable way, trying to give me a compliment. It never went further than that."

She continues, "It's a big conversation. It's a very big conversation because he was my professional collaborator, and around really important things in my life. And he was kind to me. He was so generous with me. And it felt authentic to me. It didn't feel like this was — what's the word, when you're conditionally kind because you want something? 'Transactional.' It didn't feel like that." She adds, "It's an important conversation, and it makes me very sad — personally sad. I'm sad for his family. I'm sad for the women that were hurt. I'm sad for him. And I wish him healing so that he can somehow try to make reparations for the damage that he has done."

Zellweger's return to acting began with the aforementioned Bridget Jones's Baby. She was next seen in Netflix's 2018 show What/If, a divisive limited series that marked her first foray into television. But even before What/If, her longtime manager, John Carrabino, had been sent a film script by the producer David Livingstone, which both felt Zellweger would be perfect for: Judy.

The part would require singing and dancing — something she hadn't done much of since Chicago — and looking like one of the most iconic figures of the 20th century, so the journey started with Zellweger going to London's Abbey Road to meet with and sing for Livingstone and director Goold. They all concluded that she was at least good enough to mimic Garland when Garland was on the decline, and they would work from there. Then came the dancing. And then came the appearance. In the film, Zellweger is made up with facial prosthetics, colored contact lenses and a wig, and adopts distinctive wide-eyed countenance and peacock-like preening, to the extent that it is eerie how much she resembles Garland at the end of her life.

Judy had its world premiere last month at the Telluride Film Festival, and from the minute its credits began rolling, pundits — including yours truly — were raving about Zellweger's performance, declaring it the one to beat in the best actress Oscar race, and quite possibly the strongest work of her distinguished career. The response after its premiere at this month's Toronto International Film Festival was even longer and louder, and left Zellweger in tears. Having experienced her share of lows in recent years, she doesn't take the highs for granted, emphasizing to me, "I'm really grateful."