'Judy' Director Shares the Secret to Renée Zellweger's Transformation: 'The Teeth' (Exclusive)

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Rupert Goold, Renee Zellweger, Judy
Courtesy of Roadside Attractions & LD Entertainment

Director Rupert Goold's last film, 2015's True Story, is a far cry from his latest: Judy. That was a crime drama about a New York Times journalist and a convicted killer; this is a biopic of the late, great Judy Garland (played onscreen by Renée Zellweger). The only thing they have in common is that they're both, well, true stories. "I've done quite a lot of stage shows about real people [too]," Goold, an Olivier Award-winning theatre director, adds. All of which makes him uniquely suited to bring Garland's story to the big screen, a love letter of a film that sees Zellweger's Garland struggle and ultimately triumph through a string of London concerts in the late '60s. Ahead of Judy opening in theaters, ET sat down with Goold to discuss what it took for Zellweger to get into character and how he paid homage to Wizard of Oz.

ET: When you had your initial conversations with Renée about taking on this role and about what sort of research she was going to do and what her process of getting into character would be, did you know how deep she would dive into this role? Or was the end result even a surprise to you?

It's so many tiny, little changes -- physical changes, hair and makeup, voice -- you don't notice the pattern in a way. But I do remember being in my kitchen before I'd even met Renée thinking, "Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland... What's that going to be like? Like, Bridget Jones? I can't see how it's going to happen." I mean, she's a great actor, but I do remember thinking that just seems odd but exciting. The thing that was great, I suppose, is that '69, the period that Renée's Judy is, is a period of TV, and [Judy] did a lot -- she was a star by that point -- so there were a lot of interviews, a lot of home footage, cassette tapes she made, audio recordings. There's actually a lot of stuff to work with.

I suppose -- this sounds heretical or lazy even -- but one of the things I feel I've learned from theater is my job is actually not to do the research. [Laughs] I feel like that's the writer's job and to some extent the actor's as well, and of course one does do it early, early, early to try and comb for details. But the director's job is to try and tell a story. And so, in some ways Renée's accuracy to Judy Garland was less important to me than her emotional arc was for the film.

The performance is transformative, the voice and the speaking pattern and the mannerisms and the way she moves her body. On set, was that something that was easy for Renée to slip in and out of during filming? Or did it end up feeling like you were directing Judy Garland?

So often I feel like directing is, particularly on camera, is about an economy. You don't want to say too much, you know? It confuses people. It confuses myself! What I will say is that Renée had really worked out her posture and how her spine was shaped. Louis B. Mayer called her his little hunchback -- which is one of the many abusive terms he used -- but it was true that she had this rather distinctive curvature of the spine. And the teeth were a really big part. As soon as the teeth went in, her lips became more foregrounded and I think the feel of them in the mouth, I could tell Renée really lent on that. That was part of the mask.

And then, although we'd done loads of listening and repetition and headphone listening to hundreds of interviews, it was boiled down to two or three trigger phrases from two or three interviews, of like four or five words -- "Everything covered with feathers" was one of them -- and I knew that as the camera was beginning to turn over, she'd need to do that, get the voice up, and then away she'd go. Actually, I never-- Is this true? [Laughs] I feel like I almost never gave her a note about, "You've lost Judy." It was always about psychology.

More than her persona, even, Judy's voice is iconic. Was the plan always to have Renée singing? Or did you ever consider using Judy's recordings?

We certainly talked about it. I mean, I had no idea what Renée's voice was going to be like. And I said, "What's our backup?" [Laughs] I wasn't quite sure how it would work though, because the recordings have a distinctive sense of the period. So how would we treat them? Would we get somebody who was, like, a Judy impersonator to sing like Judy? And to be fair to Renée, she said something very generous really early on. She said, "OK, I'll try to sing some of those, but listen, if I can't sing it, then absolutely we've got to get somebody else to sing it or use the originals," which I felt took the pressure off all of us.

But as soon as she started singing, partly because she was a good singer and had lovely pitch, but also I just find it incredibly moving, seeing her sing, her doubt in it but also her courage. If I'm really honest, we did do a re-record of two or three of the big live scenes she does, and I was like, "No, we're not using those." I think Renée was angry for a while. [Laughs] She was like, "But they sound better!" I was like, "They sound cleaner, but they don't sound anywhere near as emotional." I said, "Look, it's the rawness that I like in the liveness." So in the end I got my way.

I want to talk about one sequence in particular that I found incredibly moving. The sequence when she meets her gay fans after the show and goes back to their apartment with them. Why was that important for you to include in this?

I'd had this sort of Wizard of Oz paradigm. I said to Tom [Edge], the writer, "She's a long way from home trying to get back to her family." Very early on, I thought like, maybe she needs to meet a Scarecrow and a Tin Man and a Cowardly Lion -- strange characters -- and we didn't really know what it was going to be, but I said, "I want it to feel almost like a kind of Coen Brothers movie, that she has these odd experiences." And then Tom wrote this scene with the gay guys in and it was just so funny. It was gorgeous.

And I suppose it also came out of conversations we'd talked about about what is the legacy to the LGBT fans and why is she so important -- particularly to a certain generation -- and how were we going to pay homage to that at some level. And a guy called Dickie Beau, who'd done a couple of performances in my theater -- he's an amazing, interesting man who does a sort of Garland lip sync where he wears this weird makeup and a semi-Dorothy outfit and does this kind of strange drag lip sync of Garland's audio tapes -- I rang him up and said, "Do you mind coming to talk to me about what she means to you?" He, particularly, was great and came and said, "Look, I really like this scene" -- because I wanted to see whether he found it tasteful -- but he mentioned the thing [about[ the fact that '69 was only like a matter of months after the repeal of the illegality of homosexuality and to reference that was potentially moving.

And then when they're playing together and he starts crying -- Andy [Nyman] playing that part -- I find that very interesting and complex. He's crying because he's so happy, but also because of how hard it's been. Not because the fairy godmother is in the room -- I think they're already through that -- and she embraces him and they have this real connection. But she also feels incredibly lonely in that moment. You aspire in all drama to find those actions that subtextually carry so much meaning. And Renée's performance is so brilliant in that moment. She's come seeking love or seeking some warmth and gets it, but then leaves giving it, not receiving it entirely in the way that she might hope. Weirdly, in this lovely trio, she's still the odd one out.

What do you remember about being on set filming that scene?

It was the third day of the shoot and we shot it in a very small flat, which I'd insisted on, like a real '60s council flat. We were all packed in there and I think, in a way, it was the moment the film really took off. That bit where Renée sings "Get Happy," it was quite late in the day, there are only about six of us in the flat at that point -- the minimum camera team, the guy playing the piano is around the corner in the kitchen playing on the keyboard piped into her ear -- and I remember thinking, "This is special." If this film does well or if Renée's performance gets the accolades it deserves, I will look back and go, "I was in the room when she was singing that!"

Is that from real anecdotes about Judy? Or created as homage?

No. What's true is she was very warm to her gay fans. But it was our imagination.

You mentioned that was when the moment you knew the movie was working. Naturally, when you make a movie about someone like Judy Garland, there's going to be a lot of prejudgment from the public. People reacted to Renée's casting, and then Liza came out with her comments. Was that a difficult moment for you, knowing the film you had made, when she disavowed it sight unseen?

No. I've got a friend, he's a dancer and backing singer who had worked with Liza, and he said, "The thing about Liza is she's incredibly passionate and emotional but also will really change her view." Not that Liza has been hostile to the movie, particularly, but I have every faith that she'll see it and find it celebratory. That said, I mean, if somebody made a movie about my mum, I would go, "That's not the story I'd tell!" [Laughs] You know? It's an invasion of privacy at some level, I suppose. And that's the complexity of being a child of a star. It's somebody you want to own in an intimate personal way and yet is sort of in a gaudy way, like, public property. That is complicated, and I've done quite a lot of stage shows about real people and they have all sorts of different feelings about it.

What I will say is that as the director, you fall back on fairy tale or core stories and the character coheres towards the archetype, and so they become something else. So, what do I see when I watch the film? Do I see Judy Garland? Do I see Renée? Do I see what happened in '69? Do I see an imagination of what happened? Do I see just the film we made? All of them. It's unstable. It's like Schrödinger's cat. They're all there. And I can't prescribe how her family will feel about it. Of course I can't. I mean, I hope they... You know, the sort of Post-It note on the wall [when we set out] was, Let's try and celebrate what the life was. And that's what you can do.

Did it make you second guess having someone play her as a character in the movie?

Liza?

Yeah.

No. Actually, in an earlier draft, Liza turned up in London, and I felt it gave Judy too much consolation to have her daughter with her when we needed to keep her hemorrhaged from her family. But no. [Laughs] It's so funny, when you make a movie -- because there isn't an audience there -- it can feel like you're just playing, like you're kids in a room going, "You come on and you pretend you're Liza Minnelli and you come on and pretend you're Judy Garland. And maybe no one will ever see this!" And then of course it goes out there and it's a very different thing.

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