Renée Zellweger
Photo by Ryan Pfluger

Renée Zellweger: “I try to concentrate on something true”

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Short Profile

Name: Renée Kathleen Zellweger
DOB: 25 April 1969
Place of birth: Katy, Texas, United States
Occupation: Actor

Ms. Zellweger, as an actress, what do you do to stay grounded?

I spend a lot of time alone. I run a lot so there’s a sort of physical expelling of anything that is extraneous. I have responsibilities and challenges like everybody does: sick friends, friends with babies… And those are the things that I tap into, they are the treasures in my life. More so than work or what people think of your work, those things are defining. There’s not a whole lot of consideration for things that aren’t projections; I try not to spend time on things that don’t matter.

Often that is easier said than done.

Of course — there’s so many things that you can’t control; intangible things especially. But there are are certain things that you can control, and those are the things that I focus on. The things that I can’t control I just leave alone. When I’m working, for example, I always try to concentrate on something that is true, something that moves me in the context of the story that we’re trying to tell through the film, and just trust that.

“It’s a collaborative medium. It doesn’t work unless everybody shows up and does their bit.”

Can you give me an example?

Well, the singing in Judy, I tried to negotiate my way out of it! (Laughs) I just always felt that that kind of performance wasn’t for someone like me, who hadn’t made a life of it. But it was something that felt very important to Rupert Goold, the director. He’s had very close relationships with performers all his life as a theatrical director, and so he wanted it to be an authentic representation of what happens between an audience and a performer when we filmed it. And I appreciate that. I’m actually glad that he wanted to do that and I understand it now. And you can’t tell a story about one of the greatest performers of all time without properly encapsulating a genuine exchange.

So how did you go about taking control of a situation that you might not have been entirely comfortable in?

Teamwork. It was fantastic just trying things every day with the different departments. I worked with the film’s composer and he’s extraordinary. It’s a huge team of people so I had a whole bunch of stage moms, who just kept kicking me in the pants to try it, just insisting that I just work. There were exercises every day, trying to make those notes come out of my mouth for the first time ever, secretly, quietly sequestered in my car, away from a vocal coach, because I didn’t want him to quit on me. (Laughs)

So often acting is thought of as a natural ability, it’s easy to forget the work that goes into it.

For me, I don’t want to let my partners down, it’s a collaborative medium, there’s hundreds of us getting together to make this one piece of art, and it doesn’t work unless everybody shows up and does their bit. And I don’t want to let people down, working as hard as they are; it matters to everybody there. It’s a job, it’s work, but it matters, you want it to succeed. You want it to be good, for reasons that are very personal sometimes. And in this case, cooperatively, this mattered to us because she mattered. Performing is Judy Garland’s identity really, she doesn’t know life where she isn’t valued for her extraordinary gift. And probably her value and her self-worth revolves around that a great deal.

Would you say things are more flexible for performers and actors these days?

They have more agency, that’s for sure. They participate more in decisions that are made and hopefully they have advocates. So certainly it’s different, it’s almost unfair to compare the situation and time, because you can hardly imagine what cinema meant at that time because that was the zenith, wasn’t it? I mean, it shaped not just a conversation, but history: who we idolized, who we wanted to be, how you aspire to have your life become — that was all shaped by cinema. And to be a young girl who gets to participate in that, I mean, imagine the power and balance there… It’s quite different.

“I always thought I was in a good place. It might not have been right, but it wasn't bad.”

It’s also a fair bit of pressure, though.

Of course. I mean, nobody expects me to be the greatest singer who has ever lived when I walk on stage. People really expected that of Judy Garland, even when she hadn’t slept, she was jetlagged, she probably hadn’t eaten… So all of these things add up to an inability to fully access your instrument. I mean you hear stories about how Celine Dion won’t speak because she is interested in protecting her instrument. This was not the prerogative for Judy, who had to make a living and take care of herself, which is extraordinary to imagine considering that she had been working at the highest level since she was a child. It’s really something. I don’t think I would have been able to empathize with her situation in the same way 15 or 20 years ago.

How come?

I hadn’t really experienced the chaos that can result from forgetting to prioritize yourself, forgetting to take care of yourself or not feeling that you are able to. I wouldn’t have understood the fatigue of the schedule in living away from home for years, not being able to establish a home even if you did have one. These are things that you have to be in the profession for a while to properly understand. It goes far beyond the excitement that folks who don’t share the experience might perceive it to be. It’s quite complicated and it can be dehumanizing. I don’t know that early on I would have been able to recognize it beyond the peculiarity of it! It’s unnatural to live in this profession and have a public persona, it’s very bizarre.

Would you say you are in a good place now?

I always thought I was in a good place. It might not have been right, but it wasn't bad. I always felt like a happy person, but I didn’t realize that the chaos was taking its toll — you have to be away from it to recognize it.