From burning questions to staging musical numbers, Goold talks about crafting the critically acclaimed biopic.

By Tim Stack
October 04, 2019 at 05:54 PM EDT
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It’s still early in the Oscar race, but one of the surest bets is that Renée Zellweger will be nominated for Best Actress for her completely astounding performance as Judy Garland in the new biopic Judy.

The film, which expands into wide release this weekend, is helmed by British theater director Rupert Goold and focuses on the final year of Garland’s life, particularly a residency she did at London’s Talk of the Town nightclub.

EW talked to Goold about working with Zellweger on this career-best role, separating fact from fiction, and what he hopes people take away from the life of Judy Garland.

David Hindley/LD Entertainment/Roadside Attractions

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Renée’s not someone you immediately think of when you’re imagining Judy Garland. But she’s incredible in this role. Why was she right for this part?
RUPERT GOOLD: Well, she’s really funny, she can sing, she’s the right age. She has a kind of emotional sort of luminosity. she has something very accessible, like a proper movie star, everyman quality. A character like Bridget Jones for example is very like everywoman. And I think Judy Garland herself had that a bit as a screen actor. But you know actually, what I would also say, that having asked that question, is in a way maybe it’s the fact that she isn’t the first person you might think of physically, certainly. Maybe that’s a good thing.

Because sometimes if you’re making a bigger leap as an actor, you can travel further. You know, I think she was really intimidated about doing it. But she’s a funny mixture, Renée: kind of super-self-effacing, very humble, I think genuinely a kind presence. And yet I remember when they announced about Bridget Jones and over here people went crazy. They were like, “What an American playing it? A skinny American actress and she’s playing our chubby English sweetheart? It can’t happen!” And then she totally won everyone over. in a similar way I think people were like, “Can she really play Judy Garland? She can’t be right. She doesn’t look right.”

What about you? Were you a Judy fan?
I’d love to say I was, and I sort of am now. I think maybe I associated her with a certain kind of performative, tragic camp in a way, like brilliantly so. Then once I read the script, and getting into the research and particularly watching the footage of her from that period, she’s incredibly compelling, and I realized that she was all the things I kind of thought she was, but she was a whole lot of other things I hadn’t anticipated.

What was the rehearsal process like for this?
Well, it all blends into one because of the music. I guess the two big projects were the music and the singing, and that began — Renée would remember more than me, but it felt like at least six months before we were shooting, working on it, both interpretively but also the muscle, getting her fit. And then the other big one was the look. I’ve got early makeup tests or pictures on my phone. But the more we put on, the less we felt it was necessary, because it was kind of capping some of the expressiveness of Renée’s face.

I think there were certain elements, like getting the eye color right. Renée’s are really blue, and when we went to Garland’s tint, which is almost black, it just made her eyes really weird. So we had to go through several different kinds of lenses. I think we had two different kinds of lenses depending on what the light was like on the day. And then I’ve been at work on the end of her nose because Garland’s nose is different to Renée’s. And the teeth — above all the teeth. All that technical stuff was going on, and because of that we needed her over in England to do the makeup testing, and then she and I would just work nights on the script. She would bring me things she found online, little references. And I’d go, “I like this, but not that.”

The performances on stage and the stuff replicated with TV interviews, that was almost recreating from given stuff. The private stuff, which is her alone a lot of the time or when she goes back to the gays fans’ flat, that was of course much more invented. I guess because I had done a few shows about real people and I remember how quickly you sort of move away from being true to the real person towards this thing you’re creating in the room. That’s what I find magical: When you find the actor and the real person merge.

So the gay couple who she has dinner with in the film isn’t real?
No. She would go to dinner with her fans or have drinks in the bar in her hotel with strangers. I think in the earlier drafts of the script that happened, and we kind of extended it to her going home. I love that scene. It’s almost like a little short film in itself.

Tell me about the opening number at Talk of the Town. Is that one continuous shot?
Yeah. It’s a live vocal. It’s her vocal recorded live in one take. By the way, when we got there we had to build up the stage floor in the theater. When we got there the crane that was going to carry the camera was too heavy for the floor. So we spent the first two hours of that day going, “What are we going to do?” So it’s a sophisticated handheld kind of shot.

We knew she could only sing it like six or seven times without really screwing her voice up, so everything had to land right and we only had one day to get it. But it was exciting.

The film climaxes with Judy singing “Over the Rainbow.” That must have been a surreal day to shoot.
I think that was one she was stressed about because you want to do justice to the most famous song. We were lucky because it comes off the back of a really uptempo number. I think the adrenaline was going. I just remember I kept saying to her, “This is an acting piece, not a singing piece.” I remember coming in to give her a note after the first take. I was just sort of in the game directing and she was in the game acting. And I saw the extras genuinely in tears. Like, people really crying, men and women. I think they must have gone, “My God, this is Judy Garland.” It was something special. There’s something about the melody of that song — it just opens people up.

The flashbacks have a surreal quality to them. Did you want us to think these were sort of dream sequences? Or her own biased memories from those moments?
A little bit. But also sort of the feeling that it was an incubator, that she was born by The Wizard of Oz. She said, “I grew up on the lot.” Like, did that mean literally? I liked that idea. The film I always responded to was A.I., and Garland would talk about her childhood that was almost like it was The Truman Show, or like she had been robbed of some normality at some level. So I wanted to kind of give a slightly sci-fi feel before she came into the real world.

Renee was telling me that she tried to find Liza Minnelli and Lorna Luft was ill. Why did you decide not to involve the Garland family? Was that to remain objective?
There was a bit of that. I mean I guess it was probably that Pathé, the studio, was sort of bound up in their legal issues as well on some level. But the more things I read about about Garland, particularly at that period — like I read the Mickey Dean book about his life with her, and we talked to Roslyn Wilder. There’s loads of accounts. Everyone has completely different views of her, not in any way to discount the family. But I didn’t want to feel like there was one definitive view of her that we were going to have to honor. It was clear that lots of people felt different things about her, like Sid Luft would be different than Liza Minelli. I think Tom [Edge], the screenwriter, spent a lot of time with Lorna’s book as well. I hope they enjoy it.

What do you hope people take from this about Judy?
I hope it’s like a little fairy tale story about the way you can find redemption when you’re most low. You can find happiness when you feel the most bereft. But in regard to Garland, she says in the film she wasn’t Liz Taylor or Marilyn Monroe or Ava Gardner — she was a sort of oddball. I think actually for our age now when we’re thinking about identity in a much more plural and diverse way now, I think she’s in some way much more of a timely icon and trailblazer than those more sort of conventional Hollywood beauties. So I hope her life and the fact that she was pretty spirited and was at some level really broken by a system but also able to challenge it and joke back at it and spit back at it was really inspiring. And I also hope people go back to the movies and the recordings.

Renée’s got so much awards buzz for this performance. Do you pay attention to Oscar buzz? Do you ignore it?
I think what’s really lovely is the acclaim for Renée’s performance. I feel like I can bask in some tiny credit there, but I can go there completely because I’m outside that at some level and I believe she’s incredible. I’ve been around actors all my life and I think it’s a brilliant, brilliant performance. Right now, we just want everyone to see the film. Let’s get through that bit at first. If it speaks to a wider audience and even to people who vote in those areas, then that would be fabulous. But while we were filming it, it felt very intimate. It felt like we were making something very personal, even the big scenes. It’s thrilling the response it’s got or getting, but also slightly overwhelming.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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