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Career

Renee Zellweger on the similarities between her life and Judy Garland's

The irony of playing a star who cracked under the pressure of fame is not lost on Renée.

For 23 years Renée Zellweger has been the toast of la-la land, dating rock gods and movie stars, winning awards and glittering like a polished jewel on the red carpet.
It's the kind of fame that makes fortunes but also destroys lives – and for Renée it almost did both.
Thanks to a therapist, she's managed to keep both her fortune and her sanity, but not all who've walked the same path have been so lucky.
In 1969, iconic actress Judy Garland became a casualty of the same Hollywood machine that almost broke Renée − and now, 50 years later, the Bridget Jones actress is bringing her back to life on the big screen.
Renee in Judy.
The irony of playing a star who cracked under the pressure of fame is not lost on Renée, but when she was offered the lead role in the biopic Judy − which opened in New Zealand cinemas on October 17 − there was only one possible answer.
Yes!
"It seemed to me to be a no-brainer," the 50-year-old star admits.
"To be able to spend time exploring her, her life and her talent? What's not to love about a project like that?"
It's this attitude that many say is a sign the actress, who shot to fame in 1996 starring opposite Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire, is well and truly back after a long career break some feared may be permanent.
Despite having three Oscar nominations and one win to her name, Renée walked away from her glitzy life nearly a decade ago with the words of a former colleague, a director, ringing in her ears.
He had taken her aside as her star was on the rise and warned that her life was about to change forever.
"He said, 'Fame is tricky. Think of it a little bit like Medusa. It's insidious. It never goes away. Wherever you go from now on, it's always right around the corner. And if you look directly at it I promise you that, just like Medusa, it'll turn you to stone.'"
In 2010, after a string of flicks that flopped and the ensuing bad press, it seemed Renée had indeed turned to stone.
"I wasn't healthy. I wasn't taking care of myself. I was the last thing on my list of priorities," she explains.
After sitting down with a therapist, the Cold Mountain star realised she was deeply depressed and made the radical decision to walk away from her career. And for six years she stayed away from the spotlight.
Renée says Judy Garland was given no room in her schedule to be "sane".
In 2016, Renée made her big comeback for the third Bridget Jones movie, Bridget Jones's Baby – but it's her star turn in Judy that has the Hollywood grapevine buzzing about a fourth Oscar nomination.
To play the veteran actress, who was a teenager in 1939 when she starred as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Renée spent two hours a day in make-up getting everything from a prosthetic nose to being fitted with a pixie-cut wig.
She read biographies, listened to personal audio recordings and bootleg music performances of Judy, and studied YouTube videos.
Like her role as Roxie in Chicago, the part also required her to sing. She spent a year training with a vocal coach and rehearsed with the film's musical director for four months to master her tracks.
It was intimidating to say the least.
"I couldn't sing any of the songs initially," she confesses.
"I didn't have the strength to do it. Singing in the car was where it first started. I finally found a good use for LA traffic! Judy was riding shotgun with me for about a year."
Judy died form an accidental overdose aged just 47.
The film focuses on the final months of Judy's life, a time when she was in dreadful shape.
She had four failed marriages and was warring with her third ex-husband, Sidney Luft, for custody of her children. She owed millions in back taxes and, after decades of drug abuse, her voice was past its best.
The only place in the world that would pay her for an appearance was London. So she went, but it was far from a success.
Many nights Judy stumbled on stage late and intoxicated, disappointing fans who were expecting to see their darling from The Wizard of Oz.
Instead, they got a slurring wreck who sometimes couldn't finish her songs. It was there in London that Judy died from an accidental barbiturate overdose, aged just 47.
The seeds of Judy's demise, says Renée, were planted back in her childhood by controlling studio bosses looking to maximise profits at all costs.
"Every day there were pills: pills to keep her weight down, to temper her development; to wake her up, to go to sleep. It was a vicious cycle that ruined her for life.
"It wasn't until I did this film that I properly came to appreciate how extraordinary she was. [As a child] she was not allowed to be a human being... Basically she was exploited. I hope people will realise this and understand how truly spectacular she was."
Apart from their shared experience of buckling under the heavy weight of stardom, Renée shares something else in common with Judy − she too suffers from insomnia, and even goes to the movies at midnight sometimes because she can't sleep.
But unlike Judy's multiple marriages, Renée − who's been in relationships with Jim Carrey (57), Bradley Cooper (44) and musician Jack White (44) − has only one under her belt, to country crooner Kenny Chesney (51). Their 2005 union lasted just five months.
The actress has recently split from her boyfriend of seven years, blues guitarist Doyle Bramhall II (50), but politely refuses to disclose if there's someone new in her life.
"I think," she smiles, "a little mystery never hurt a girl!"

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