Like most people, Finn Wittrock‘s earliest memories of Judy Garland are of seeing her as Dorothy, walking the yellow brick road and rocking those iconic ruby slippers.
Over the last few years, watching her performances in films like the 1954 A Star is Born and Judgment at Nuremberg, he discovered a new side of her as an actress — but nothing could prepare him for the experience of playing her fifth husband, Mickey Deans, in Judy.
“I always knew she was a legend and great,” he tells EW. “But my eyes were really opened in the research of this — just how much she did and how much stamina she had and how long she kept a career going. People don’t have careers like that anymore.“
Judy, which is loosely based on Peter Quilter’s play End of the Rainbow, follows legendary star Judy Garland (Renée Zellweger) through the winter of 1968 during which she gave a series of some of her last concerts in London. Wittrock is Mickey Deans, Garland’s fifth husband, a musician, and entrepreneur who is 12 years younger than Garland. As seen in these exclusive photos below, Deans romances Garland following an all-night party and then reconnects with her in London, taking her on shopping trips and tempting her with the adoration she craves and the promise of a quieter life.
We called up Wittrock to get the details on what the film taught him about Garland and fame at large, why he loved working opposite Zellweger, and why he loved his “groovy” 1960s threads. Check out the photos of Wittrock as Deans below and read on. Judy hits theaters Sept. 27.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Were you much of a fan of Judy Garland’s before signing onto this project? What was your knowledge of her before doing this film?
FINN WITTROCK: I don’t feel like I had more [knowledge] than the average film enthusiast…The amount of movies [that] were churned out from that studio system when she was younger, and how consistently great she is in all of them — it’s staggering. I remember reading about people who saw the famous Carnegie Hall performance. Every movie star in the world was there, and so many of them said it was the best theatrical experience of their life. Like consistently said that. So I was a fan, but now I’m a mega-fan.
Was there one thing that surprised you the most that you learned about her through doing this film?
It’s really true that she was broke at this point in the movie where I pick her up. She lived so many lives. I was surprised that money was often a concern bizarrely. And I didn’t really know that much about how the studio basically made her a drug addict. That’s when she’s like 16 years old, so of course fast forward 20 years and she’s hooked on that s–t, you know?
Can you tell me more about your research into Mickey and his life with Judy? I know he wrote a book about her – did you read that or talk to his family?
I didn’t talk to any of his family. I found them very hard to find. But his book is called something Shakespearean [Weep No More, My Lady]. I read his book, and it’s very interesting actually. He talks a lot about their early days together, and he ran this club in New York. She would come in, and she’d stay up to dawn like all the time. And so would he. They would just party. The book gives a bit of his upbringing in new jersey. But he doesn’t reveal that much about himself. I found him hard to get biographical facts about. But it was ok, because I feel like the movie was served by his infatuation with her, and that was real. He wrote that book out of adoring her. He had a scheme to make her a bigger star or become a bigger part of her professional life that didn’t really pan out. I don’t think he was as good a businessman as he thought he was. I do think he was truly in love with her. And he was the one who found her dead in the bathroom. I couldn’t find that much about him after that, except he died a few years ago. I have a feeling he didn’t treat himself too well.
Unlike Judy, there’s not a lot of well-plumbed footage of him out there. Did you find that helpful to be able to build him from the ground up or a hindrance?
It’s kind of both. When the public doesn’t have that much information, they’re not going to come with their teeth as bared. I feel like my imagination could do more work. I did actually find some footage of them together and some of him talking. This one recording of him talking was my go-to thing; my way in. He had a little bit of this lisp and this New Jersey accent, and there was a bit of an unsure quality about his voice. He dressed loud and he had a big personality, but underneath it there was a real level of insecurity. Sometimes just in someone’s voice, you can get a finger into them.
Judy Garland is one of the most iconic screen presences ever. And as we see in some of these photos, the performance is quite uncanny in moments – did it feel that way on set to you? Obviously, it’s your job to get lost in things and believe she’s Judy, but did it feel eerie or uncanny or any of those things?
Renée was always so kind at all times that it wasn’t the kind of daunting quality I think it would be if you were really in the presence of Judy. But she was so immersed in it at all times that I did get lost in it, and the shocking thing would be when I would see her with blonde hair. I was mostly so impressed with her stamina and her ability to maintain focus for that long.
It’s true to life and Judy and Mickey’s real ages, but it’s also pretty rare that we see a woman onscreen with a younger man in a very real context and not played for humor or to mock someone. Was that something you’ve given much thought to or was it unusual for you? Did it change your dynamic with Renée in any way or feel very different from having an actress your own age or younger as your love interest?
A lot of people sort of talking about Mickey would say he had sort of a mother complex. But to hear him tell it, he was like, “Mom and I had a great relationship. Judy came and met my mom, and it was fine.” I think it’s a little more complicated than just that. It was actually somewhat of the opposite — she was somebody who was flailing at that moment and really needed something stable and steady. And he wanted to be that for her. At the same time, he did mythologize her. His love was real. But it was idolatry too. We did talk about that a little – it is rare. Seeing the reverse, no one would bat an eye with an older man. But they found their own unique way of being together. For better and for worse. There was a lot of darkness in that relationship, and a lot of unfulfilled expectations I guess.
He doesn’t leave her in the best place in their relationship, but he was also something Judy really needed for a time. What do you feel Mickey was to Judy and did that change as you were working on the film?
Yes, it did change. Because [director Rupert Goold] and I approached him a little more Machiavellian — that he was in it to get something out of it. But the more we were researching and doing it, it becomes blurry what exactly he wanted. I think he was trying to make her better, but wanting to take ownership in her getting better. He wanted to be a part of her success, and that was what gave him a purpose. Yes, it is selfish in a way. But in his mind, it is all for her.
What do you think it was that Judy loved about him?
I think he was different. He was a breath of fresh air from the many husbands. He was a little “other.” He wasn’t really in the business in the same way. He wasn’t a producer. He had his own thing, but he wasn’t really a big shot. She did need adoration, and she did need someone to fawn over her. But also someone to drag her home from the bar at night and be able to pay the rent and write bills. He was her financial assistant and manager for awhile, taking care of all the logistical stuff that she was incapable of that point. So there was that level of it too.
Judy rather famously married at least two men who were gay or bisexual, but Mickey wasn’t one of them at least according to the public record. But did that tendency in her life enter into your characterization or consideration of him at all?
It definitely entered into the style of dress. We actually did talk about that. Was there a second life? I think there was some speculation about that. Who knows what’s in a person? There was a bit of flamboyance about him for sure. And there was something she was attracted to about that. There was something peacock-like. I think it was mostly hetero, but who knows?
You’ve done period pieces before, but you rock a ‘60s shag and groovy clothes here – was that fun or particularly different for you?
I rarely play someone who is that meticulous about the way they dress. Whose way that they dress is actively, every piece is a character choice. So we had a really good time with it. The ’60s are just fun. [When he takes her shopping], he has all the bags. He’s the one picking everything out. It’s like, “I got this babe.” (Laughs).
What was your most challenging moment, whether it was a scene or figuring something out about the character?
My one scene without Renée is the scene where I go to New York and try to pitch this idea about these movie theaters to these guys. It was actually the first thing I filmed, and it’s more in the montage now the way it is. But that was really hard. First of all, to not have her as my onscreen anchor. And in his mind, he’s realizing what she actually is in the world versus what he idolizes her to be. And how to other people she’s kind of washed up.
Speaking of that idolatry and loving and mythologizing someone, as someone working in the business who deals with fame, did it give you a lot to think about or change your perspective on any of that?
It does really drive home the point that fame can be very lonely. It won’t go home with you at night. I feel like she was someone who was so big, so young. And didn’t really have a support system that anchored her to anything else. So she flailed for a long time to find it, and ultimately, that really fed her downward spiral in a lot of ways. You need something to anchor you is the thing I would take home from that.
Has this altered or changed your perspective of Judy at all? If so, how?
When you understand how much pain someone might actually be in and then still see them deliver an incredible performance, it makes you admire that even more. That she could be going through all that personally and struggling with addiction and her kids and loneliness and all of it and still be able to belt out a performance like Carnegie Hall or A Star Is Born or Judgment at Nuremberg — any of those later performances, it’s like wow. Wow.
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