Renée Zellweger was already a seasoned silver screen pro and Oscar winner, by virtue of her performance in 2003 epic Cold Mountain , by the time she hit the red carpet this year. She had already scooped a handful of trophies on the way, from a Golden Globe to a Hollywood Film Award. Which Hollywood actress gained more than 20kg for a role? But the journey she took from the screen to the Oscars stage that night as the lead in Rupert Goold’s Judy Garland biopic, Judy , was anything but easy. “I tried not to think too much about how adored Judy is, and has been, through the generations and how she is an icon for the ages,” Zellweger says. “I tried to take that off the table and instead to look at the film as an exploration of the human experience on the other side of stardom. Otherwise I would have just run away. I let myself be propelled by curiosity and admiration instead.” Of course, to play one of the entertainment industry’s most well-loved actresses would in itself be no small feat, but to truly capture Garland, Zellweger also needed to do justice to the famous songs from Garland’s glittering career. Though no stranger to vocal performances herself – her work in Chicago (2002) earned her a yet another Oscar nod, after all – Zellweger’s set list this time around was defined by the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz. “It touched me very deeply,” Zellweger recalls of her first time replicating Garland’s most famous on-screen song. “It was the end of the live performance sequences that I had been sharing all week with the 300 actors who were playing the audience. It was the final moment of celebration that was shared between us, and all of our affection and admiration for Judy felt very alive at that moment. “You find yourself thinking of what that song meant to her at that time in her life and the nostalgia we all feel about it changes form as we go through our lives.” Angelina Jolie and Nicole Kidman tackle mental health issues on screen Though the weight of expectation would prove heavy for any actress, Zellweger was in some ways perhaps best placed in her field to shoulder such a burden. Irrespective of her penchant for playing the soft-spoken leading lady, there has always been a hint of steel beneath the blonde hair and baby face. This desire to do things her own way was highlighted in no small regard by her six-year self-imposed exile from Hollywood from 2008 to 2015, owing to a slew of badly received films and associated acting fatigue. Which celebrities sparkled the most on the red carpet? “I was bored with myself after 25 years of living other peoples’ lives and I needed grow as a person,” she says. “It was important, that time. You’re not in people’s consciousness any more, so they don’t immediately make the connection. It’s a quieter life, and I love it.” There is no denying it took real strength of character for Zellweger to step away from an industry that was – and still is – notoriously throwaway when it comes to female stars over 40. The strength of Zellweger’s return to the screen, beginning with the comforting familiarity of a third Bridget Jones flick – 2016’s Bridget Jones’s Baby – and culminating in a second Academy Award triumph for Judy , has put paid to any rumours that she would be retiring from Hollywood for good. The #MeToo movement is a crucial period not only for women in my industry but for women in every branch of society Renée Zellweger “I never once thought I’d never do it again because I love acting – it’s my bliss,” she says. “I appreciate it differently now because I’ve figured out how to bring the peace I have in my personal life into my professional life. It’s not the same chaos, because I’ve learned what I can take on and when it’s too much.” Such a mindset could be called upon when it came to take the lead in Judy , for Zellweger’s hiatus was preceded by harsh critical treatment and intense tabloid speculation. “I think one of the wonderful things about telling this story about this stage of her life is that it shows it was not completely tragic,” she says. “She was hopeful, and she got so much joy out of connecting with her audience and performing. She never gave up. Never.” Will Smith shares the secret to a happy marriage Zellweger has shown that for her, too, giving up was not an option when it came to her career. Having turned 51 on April 25, she has long had to contend with the scrutiny that women in film are placed under – from her failed relationships with the likes of Bradley Cooper and ex-husband Kenny Chesney to unproven speculation about plastic surgery. Oscars 2020: the worst and best dressed celebrities on the red carpet Now she stands as something of a beacon for women in the industry – living, award-winning proof that you can have a Hollywood career on your own terms. “A whole new generation of women is growing up with positive female role models,” she says. “We’re seeing that reflected more and more in film and TV, which is hugely important. “Women want to be influential and we are entitled to the same opportunities as men. The #MeToo movement is a crucial period not only for women in my industry but for women in every branch of society. We need to keep pushing and make sure this process of change keeps evolving and does so in the right way.” Seeing her take the Oscar in a crowded field, against the likes of Scarlett Johansson and the precocious four-time nominee Saoirse Ronan , one cannot help but marvel at how far Zellweger has come. “My acting career began with a few small roles while I was still living in Texas,” she recalls. “I spent a lot of time at a cafe with a dear friend of mine and one day I decided to make a videotape with him. I sent it out as an audition tape to Los Angeles and got an immediate call to work on Love and a .45 . “If he hadn’t shot me that day with his huge camera, maybe this wouldn’t be my life.” Even when clutching her iconic golden statuette, after the speeches and the ceremony had died away, those thoughts of her roots and beginnings were never far away. “I told my mum to please keep your phone nearby on the coffee table,” she beamed. “But my phone is in someone else’s bag right now, so I haven’t called anyone ... although my mum is first on my list!” Besides Spartacus, which Kirk Douglas movies should you see? Renée Zellweger’s greatest career milestones 1995: Lands her first starring role in the slasher film Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation. 1996: Rises to fame by playing Tom Cruise’s love interest in J erry Maguire. 2000: Wins her first Golden Globe award for best actress for the black comedy Nurse Betty. 2001: Wins hearts worldwide with the romantic comedy Bridget Jones’s Diary. 2002: Along with Bridget Jones’s Diary , she is nominated for best actress at the Academy Awards for the Broadway-inspired musical Chicago. 2004: Wins a best supporting actress award for the war epic, Cold Mountain. 2008: Stars in the sports comedy Leatherheads alongside George Clooney. 2010: Begins a six-year hiatus. 2016: Returns to the silver screen with Bridget Jones’s Baby. 2020: Wins several best actress trophies – including an Academy Award, Golden Globe Award, Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Award and British Academy Film Award (BAFTA) – for her portrayal of American singer Judy Garland in the biographical film Judy. 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