For somebody whose latest film traces the last days of an entertainment icon and is already being mentioned in the same sentences as the magic word “Oscar” when it comes to its lead performance, Judy director Rupert Goold is looking remarkably relaxed. With the film’s red carpet done and dusted and the public now getting to see Renee Zellweger’s much lauded performance as Judy Garland, he’s in his element talking about a project that he found a genuinely satisfying experience.
It’s not his first full length feature film. Better known for his work in the theatre, especially in his current role as Artistic Director of the Almeida Theatre in London, his first feature was True Story, with Jonah Hill as a journalist whose identity is stolen by James Franco’s accused killer. He’s less inclined to talk about that, describing it simply as “challenging” and recognising he’s not the only theatre director to make the move to the big screen. “There are a whole bunch of other British theatre directors who have tried film, some to great acclaim and some less successfully, but I’ve really enjoyed making this film so, fingers crossed, somebody will let me do one again.”
He also admits that, when the script arrived, he didn’t look at it for some time, not being a Garland aficionado and having some pre-conceptions as to what it might be like. That all changed when he met its writer, Tom Edge and, although for Goold the Garland story was essentially “all new”, he felt his experience in the theatre would be valuable in bringing it to cinema audiences. “I do spend a lot of time around performing and performers and understanding what that is and thought maybe I could bring a bit of insight into that.”
Instead of spanning her entire career, the film concentrates on the last few months of Garland’s life in the winter of 1968, when she came to London to give a series of sell-out concerts. Her motive was simple: she needed the money to make sure she got custody of her children. And while Goold found that “real and grounded”, he feels that those concerts represented something deeper for her. “What I thought was interesting in this period towards the end of her life is that she’s like a gambler who’s had great wins and great lows and has got to the point where they’ve got one chip left and everything is gone. So they sober up and say ‘OK, this is my last go. I sober up and then I’m out.’ And I think she was planning to retire, or radically change her life if she could make the money she needed.”
Renee Zellweger’s performance in the title role has attracted huge attention, ever since the first stills from the film were released. Yet, even though she still has a huge fan base, Goold recognises “There are a lot of people who won’t know Judy Garland but will know of Renee Zellweger. Renee would say in a flash that Garland is one of the great 20th century American lives. Renee is a wonderful actress but not with that sort of profile, but she’s still nonetheless a storied American actress, who knows what it’s like to have glory and suffering in that process. I think what’s captured the imagination about the film is her performance as Judy Garland.” His reasons for choosing her for the role were many, from her singing ability, as seen in Chicago, to her wise-cracking humour, which is an essential part of Garland’s persona. “But above all, it was because she’d lived it herself, in a way.”
Towards the end of the film, Judy (Zellweger) looks at the audience and asks if they will ever forget her. Will her memory live on? Goold believes the answer is simple. “As long as there’s power connected to some form of playback device in the future, people will be watching The Wizard Of Oz. Hopefully this film will be part of her celebration and her memory. I think also, if you look at her acting, the clarity and ‘in the moment’ freshness and directness of her acting is still very there. I think you could put her in a screwball comedy now and she’d be just as electric.”
Rupert Goold was talking to Freda Cooper.
Judy is in cinemas now.