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How Renee Zellweger Built Up Her Voice for 'Judy' Biopic

Renee Zellweger Judy
David Hindley/Courtesy of LD Entertainment/Roadside Attractions

Renee Zellweger as Judy Garland in Judy.

Renée Zellweger can sing -- but for her role as the late Judy Garland in new biopic Judy, she worked hard to not sing well too.

While Garland was viewed as The World's Greatest Entertainer for some time, she was heavily into alcohol and pills (and shunning rehearsals) by the time her five-week run at London's Talk of the Town started in December 1968. That is the Judy Garland Zellweger plays.

To recent generations, Garland, who died in London 50 years ago at the age of 47 from an accidental barbiturate overdose, is best known as Dorothy in the 1939 classic Wizard of Oz, but her career didn't end as a child star. She appeared in two dozen films for MGM, and while her star might have dimmed as she got older, she received an Academy Award nomination for her role in 1954's A Star Is Born, and for best supporting actress in 1961's Judgment at Nuremberg. She was also the first woman to win a Grammy Award for album of the year, for Judy At Carnegie Hall, and even had her own television show.

The Garland Zellweger portrays in Judy requires her to show the singer's brilliance and talent, but to fail, too. Directed by Rupert Goold and based on Peter Quilter's play End of the Rainbow, the biopic also includes flashbacks to Garland's harsh childhood as a working actor to show how she got to this destitute place, unhealthy and unreliable.

The soundtrack — produced by Matt Dunkley, who is also credited on the album as conductor of the orchestra, and engineered by Geoff Foster — comes out Sept. 27 on Garland's original label, Decca, and features Zellweger on such Garland classics as "By Myself," "Come Rain or Come Shine," "You Made Me Love You," "The Trolley Song," and, of course, "Over The Rainbow." Plus, two duets: "Get Happy" with Sam Smith and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" with Rufus Wainwright (who released Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall in 2007).

Billboard sat down with Zellweger in Toronto, where Judy enjoyed its world premiere at TIFF.

You've sung showtunes in the movie Chicago, country with "This Land Is Your Land" in My Own Love Song and way back you rocked on "Sugar High" for Empire Records. Clearly you can sing anything. What music are you drawn to?

I like everything really. There are just a couple things that I don't love that I won't mention 'cause why knock somebody's passion? I just went to see The Avett Brothers at the Santa Barbara Bowl a couple of weeks ago. Loved it. Listen to it all the time.

What made you not pursue music as a career in your teens or early twenties?

Circumstance, probably. And I never felt like it belonged to me. It was always around in my house. I had boyfriends and best friends and roommates in the '90s, in Austin, we all lived together, so there was always an amp and a cord; there were guitar picks in everything, in that bowl of macaroni and cheese that's been on the coffee table for a week that became an ashtray that's ossified now and I dare you to get the fork out [laughs].

You've got an original soundtrack coming out. Your first full album. How was that to record?

Well, that happened later on. I wasn't aware of the soundtrack idea. I didn't realize that we'd be doing that because that wasn't the goal in telling this part of the story. In fact, we were talking about a time in her life where she [Garland] didn't feel that she could easily access her full instrument. So this really surprised me. And anytime that Rupert said, 'Well, now she's having a good day,' I would laugh, and say, 'What do you mean she's having a good day?' [laughs] 'How's she having a good day?' So, yes, that was a surprise. We did the recordings before filming.

One of the studios was Abbey Road. Did you do the Beatles zebra crossing?

Oh, of course, I did the crossing. Thank goodness it was early in the morning and not full of cars.

All those poor cars have to stop for the constant tourists.

All day. Every day they have to wait for all of the world to cross for a selfie or with a selfie stick. I had gone there the year before we started filming just to try some things out and that was hilarious to me.

Because you can sing so many different styles, what did you have to adjust in your natural singing voice in order to play Judy?

Well, I never tried to sing songs like this before because I just didn't think that my voice was suited to it. I thought, 'I have a tiny voice. I have a bright little voice, and these are songs that require a bit more power and resonance.' I didn't believe that, like going to the gym and building any other muscle in your body, that you could manipulate your vocal muscles. I didn't believe that. I thought you're either five foot two or six foot one, and that's the way it is. So there's a process of building that through just exercises and, of course, singing constantly, and trying to make these sounds unsuccessfully for a very long time. And Judy was singing in a much lower register than I'd ever tried to sing before, especially at this time in her life. So it was just method.

Your album could potentially climb the Billboard charts, even be nominated for a Grammy. It's like a whole other world, right?

I don't know. I don't think about that. I was just surviving, getting through like "Come Rain or Come Shine," where there's no way to breathe [laughs]. Matt Dunkley's arrangement goes at quite a clip. I was just grateful to have survived the process.

You wouldn't want to do some concerts at some soft-seaters?

I don't see myself prepared to do a concert.

But you do prepare and then you'll be prepared.

How many years does that take? They played for me one of the later recordings on not a great night of one of Judy's shows, and they said, 'This is the goal right here where she's not quite hitting that note and she's cheating with the breath here, and she's cut that short and she's talking that part and the band gets big so that the fade is not noticeable.' That was the goal. And I thought, 'Right, okay. Now we have this year and I can go and I can build and I can work to maybe not hit that note once.' [laughs] Because, still, when she was not at the zenith of her vocal powers — I won't say not at the zenith of her ability as a singer or as a performer because I would argue that at the end of her life she was as extraordinary, if not more so having lived the songs — but I don't see doing a Carnegie Hall top to bottom. I know what it's like to sing one of those belters and I'll go crawling out the room after I'm done [laughs].

I've seen some legendary musicians that aren't at their peak anymore and you still love it. I saw The Who earlier this month and Roger Daltrey lost his voice at the end of the concert and the whole arena took over the singing. No one cared. It was amazing.

Did you see Pavarotti? I don't mean as a singer; there's a documentary that Ron Howard just made it. Put it on your list. It's beautiful. You'll walk out feeling your heart full and having a crush on this man who was quite special. Bono is interviewed in the Pavarotti documentary because I believe they were good friends and they had performed together. He was expressing his frustration at hearing people talk about, 'Oh, he used to be a great singer back when he could really hit those notes and really sing those songs.' And Bono would say, 'No, you don't understand singing at all. You're getting it all wrong. Because when he was at the height of his vocal powers, it's not when he was at the zenith of his powers as a performer. Now, now, he's a vocalist; now when his voice is weathered, a lifetime of the content of these songs, now he's the singer.'

So no matter how well this soundtrack does, and with the release of the Sam Smith duet and the Christmas song with Rufus, ["Dream come true, dream come true," she interjects], just confirming you will not do a run of shows?

I don't know. I always say no to things and then look at this, this happened,

Drugs and alcohol are so much a part of the life in these tragic stories about musicians, actors too. What do you think is the responsibility, or should be the responsibility, of the industry and the people around these people to help get them clean instead of continuing to work? We've lost so many people.

Tragically, tragically. Yes. It's such a big question and it's so hard to answer that in a blanket statement because for each individual the trajectory of their lives that led to those circumstances is going to be different. And for Judy, for example, it was not a choice for her. It was the path she was put on by people who were ignorant to the long-term effects of the choices they were making on her behalf. And with other performers, I don't know how much of it is accidental and I don't know how much of it is a self-imposed sense of responsibility that you have to deliver and feeling that you need some sort of help to sustain. I don't know. So it's hard to say. It feels like it's a personal thing, isn't it, for the people who are most important in that performer's life to put the human and the priorities of the human ahead of any professional agenda.

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