Her mom once called her the "little girl with the leather lungs." That's not particularly flattering, but Judy Garland could belt them out with the best of them. "There's something other-worldly about her and undeniable, undeniable," said Renée Zellweger, who stars as Garland in the new film "Judy," in which she sang Garland standards "Over the Rainbow," "Come Rain or Come Shine," and "Get Happy."
Trying to fill the shoes, and the lungs, of a legend is an opportunity that Zellweger now speaks of in almost a reverential whisper.
"I was very curious why they sent it to me," she smiled. "She's considered one of the greatest vocal performers of all time, and I don't consider myself a vocalist."
"In some circles, Judy Garland is almost sacred, right?" asked correspondent Lee Cowan.
"Oh, yeah – I'm right there with you, yes.
"I had the YouTube videos, and I put it so it reflected in a mirror, and I stood next to it, and I was watching the YouTube videos and I was doing my best to emulate [her], and I started to recognize that there were little movements that she would go back to, and I thought, Oh, this is her language."
Zellweger was just a few months old back in 1969 when Garland died from an accidental overdose of barbiturates in London.
In her short 47 years, Garland had lived the kind of life that everybody dreamed of, and yet a life no one really wanted, either.
In the 1930s and '40s, she was one of the brightest stars in the MGM universe, with a talent that was off the charts. She never stopped singing, continuing to wow audiences all over the world with her concert performances.
But off-stage, Garland struggled with the demons of stardom. Prescription pills, alcohol, divorce, money problems – her final years brought spikes of both triumph and despair.
Zellweger said, "She's so fascinating that, there was always one more thing I wanted to watch or read or learn about."
"What do you think, after doing all that research on her, what most impressed you about her?" asked Cowan.
"That she kept going," she replied. "And that she still had that power in her voice. She just didn't quit."
The film focuses on the end of Garland's life as she mounted what would be her last series of concerts at London's Talk of the Town nightclub.
She was not at her best. Sometimes her off-balance performances were greeted by dinner rolls thrown at her from the audience.
"It contextualized a lot of the less-kind press that you would read about her in her later years,' Zellweger said. "It wasn't just, that this person was, you know ..."
"Yeah. That it's much more complicated and nuanced than that, as are most stories. As a person with a public persona, I've experienced a little bit of the things that are challenging when you live out that life. [But] not to that degree."
Zellweger hadn't planned on being an actress at all; she's a Texas girl at heart. Born and raised in Katy outside of Houston, she went to the University of Texas to be a writer. But when she took an acting class almost on a whim, everything changed.
Her first few movies weren't exactly classics ("Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation," for example), but she was having the time of her life, she said.
"In those early days when you were just starting out then, because you loved it so much, did it feel like it was a struggle?"
"No, there was no struggle. Ever."
"I wasn't worried about where things were going. I could feed my dog, I could pay my rent. Life was good."
Life went from good to great with a few simple words: "You had me at hello."
Playing the girl who "completed" Tom Cruise in "Jerry Maguire" made Zellweger a pretty sure box office bet. But what really made her a household name was Bridget Jones, a tragically clumsy heroine full of misadventures that earned Zellweger her first Oscar nod, in "Bridget Jones's Diary."
Cowan asked, "The pratfalls and everything else with Bridget Jones, you did most of those, right?"
"Oh, I love it! It's my favorite. Oh, it's my favorite! 'Cause you fall a certain way, it's just a fall; you fall another way and that's funny!"
"But how did you know what was funny and what was not going to break your ankle?"
"Well, that you never know. That, you just pray on the way down!"
She made a staggering number of films after that, almost two a year, including her Oscar-winning turn in "Cold Mountain," and the musical "Chicago," where her singing chops helped earn her a third Oscar nomination.
Cowan said, "You were just going from project to project to project, it seemed like."
"Genius," she said.
"Did you have time to enjoy it?"
"I don't know. I don't remember much of my 30s. Sounds like a joke, but it's true. But it just feels compressed. It feels like it just happened like that. I didn't want that to happen again."
"You just realized you were on this treadmill?"
"Yeah, it was just going by too fast. And then I started to repeat myself, and I'm tired of myself."
So, she took a step back – not a break, she says (she kept working on various projects), just out of the public eye by choice.
Until, that is, 2014, when an appearance on a red carpet sent speculation swirling about her perceived change of appearance.
Rather than ignore it, Zellweger addressed what she called the "cowardly cruelty" in an op-ed for the Huffington Post, slamming society's sexist double-standards for women. "At that point it had become necessary, not for me as an actress, but as a person who was looking at the bigger picture of that, the implication of that."
Cowan said, "It seems like for someone as private as you, the fame just didn't sit well, or the celebrity didn't fit right."
"Well, I don't think anyone is born with the faculties to navigate those waters," Zellweger said. "I like normalcy, and I like genuine exchanges with people."
"And the fame and celebrity just kind of gets in the way?"
"Well, it enters the room before you do, and so any perception someone has of who you might be, that's who they meet."
"If you had any advice to give to yourself when you started out in this business, now that you know it better, what would it be?
"That's a hard one, Lee. I don't know. I don't know. I would say, Oh, have more fun!"
Which gets us back to playing Judy Garland – the most fun she's had playing a role, she says, in a long time.
Cowan asked, "Was she a hard character to put away at night when you were done shooting?"
"Oh, I never want to put her away," Zellweger replied. "Never. I fell in love, and I'm there to stay."
"Do you ever let yourself wonder what she might think of it?"
"Oh, isn't that interesting? There was a sort of conjuring every day, just hoping that she'd understand what our intentions were. It was a love letter to her."
To watch the trailer for "Judy" click on the video player below:
For more info:
- "Judy" (Official suite)
Story produced by Reid Orvedahl.