The Oscar-winner gives the performance of her career in the new biopic about Judy Garland and may get yet another Academy Award.

Long before she stepped into the ruby slippers of the Hollywood icon, Renée Zellweger had a special connection to Judy Garland. “My parents were sort of selective about who was celebrated in our house, and she was always there,” the Texas native, 50, says of her childhood. “We watched her films and there she was on the turntable and I was always aware when they were doing a rerun of one of her shows. We’d gather around and watch. I didn’t know about any of the challenges that she was grappling with later in her life.”

Those dark days are depicted in Judy (out Sept. 27), directed by theater veteran Rupert Goold. In a staggering performance certain to catapult her into the Oscar race, Zellweger plays the Wizard of Oz star at her lowest point, and sings many of her most cherished songs, including “Over the Rainbow.” Broke and unemployable because of her addictions, the star was forced to leave her children in L.A. in the winter of 1968 and perform shows at London’s Talk of the Town nightclub. Among Garland devotees, the singer’s wildly erratic gigs there — sometimes brilliant, often disastrous — are legendary. The following year, on June 22, Garland died of an accidental overdose. “I found it fascinating that a woman who began working at 2 could find herself living under such stressful circumstances after so many years of work,” says Zellweger. “And then to see her lampooned in a lot of the retelling of her story — you know, from my little experience with it, I know that there’s more to it. That there are omissions.”

Credit: LD Entertainment/Roadside Attractions

Zellweger couldn’t be more different from Garland, but she’s already proved herself to be a chameleon. After breaking out as Tom Cruise‘s love interest in 1996’s Jerry Maguire, Zellweger nabbed her first Oscar nomination by playing the titular English singleton in 2001’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, and a year later, she earned her second Oscar nod by wowing critics as singing, dancing murderess Roxie Hart in Chicago. In 2003, her role as strong-willed Ruby in Cold Mountain won her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

Still, learning to speak in Garland’s distinctive voice — and having to sing her immortal songs live on camera — was an entirely different challenge. “I never tried to hit any of those notes before — I mean, maybe in the shower it was a good idea,” Zellweger says with a laugh. “So I started the vocal training and the practical training that I could, just to see what that felt like and to see what was necessary in order to actually make that sound.” Zellweger also had to match the pitch and raspiness of Garland’s cadence, which by 1968 had been altered by years of alcohol and drug abuse. If Judy finds its heroine at rock bottom, Zellweger says portraying her never made her despair: “I guess if the darkness was all that remained, then it might have been a different experience. Her joy and her wit and her kindness and her humor never left. She was wildly funny.”

Garland’s surviving family members (including daughter Liza Minnelli) weren’t involved in the making of the film, but Zellweger did have hours of historical Garland footage on the internet to help inform the performance. “I went down the rabbit hole and I stayed there,” Zellweger says. “She was always there — in headphones, at night, there was always something to go to sleep with. I wanted to feel her essence around and then tell a human story, not mimicry.”

Zellweger even adopts Garland’s slumped posture, something helped by her costumes. “Louis B. Mayer would refer to her as ‘his little hunchback,’” says the actress. “I worked with Jany Temime who did these gorgeous costumes and she fit them to that stance. So if I didn’t stand like that, the dress wouldn’t fit [laughs]!”

As for the awards buzz, Zellweger is trying her best to tune it out. “I’m just not aware of this stuff,” she says. “I’ve got to figure out puppy care [for her pooches Chester and Ellie] and get them healthy before I go” — to the Toronto International Film Festival, that is, where Judy screened and earned raves for its star. Never mind that for now. “There’s just pills and creams and baths and all kinds of things going on over here,” says the low-key star. And you thought Toto was a handful.

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