TORONTO -- For Renee Zellweger, the task of becoming Judy Garland was too daunting to contemplate all at once. Such a character needed to be assembled piecemeal: a bit-by-bit metamorphosis starting with the voice, followed by workshopping the songs and then building in the mannerisms, the hair, the make-up, the stage presence, and so on.
"It was a series of experiments, an exploration that we all shared trying to understand and see what was possible, seeing what we could conjure," says Zellweger. "It was always in motion."
The accumulation of all those layers, in Rupert Goold's "Judy," can feel like a magic act. There are no signs of the nearly two years of work that went into Zellweger's Garland, just the dazzlingly detailed final draft. "I felt like we took hundreds of little steps away from Renee," says Goold, the British theater director.
And yet as much as Zellweger's performance is a whole-bodied acting feat, it's not mere mimicry. Her Garland may be show-stopping Oscar bait, but it's also a delicate and deeply felt character study. Its power lies in the fusion between Zellweger and Garland — how they naturally connect despite diverging in drastic ways. Both were American sweethearts whose public personas, forged at the heights of fame, cleaved away from them.
"I understand the differences between the projections that land on a public persona and the truth of the human experience," says Zellweger. "There are certain things about her experiences that I understand having lived the life inside Hollywood."
In "Judy," based on Peter Quilter's stage musical "End of the Rainbow," Zellweger, 50, is playing Garland in 1968, at 46, just months before she died of an accidental overdose. Garland, having exhausted all her other opportunities, is performing — sometimes gloriously, often shambolically — a five-week run of shows at the London cabaret Talk of the Town. Plagued by health and financial woes, she's been chewed and spit out by the Hollywood machine that made her the star of "The Wizard of Oz" and "A Star Is Born."
She's also haunted by flashbacks with MGM chief Louis B. Mayer, who turned her into one of the most famous people on the planet but who also fiercely controlled her. The executive is depicted as being responsible for her addiction to diet pills, preying on her insecurities (he called her "my little hunchback") and, according to an unpublished memoir by Garland, regularly groped her.
"Judy," which opens in select theaters Friday, is about an indomitable performer whose deepest traumas have come from the very thing she loves. It has obvious parallels to the current #MeToo era of Hollywood. Zellweger, herself, was one of Harvey Weinstein's most consist stars. He was partly or significantly behind Zellweger's three Oscar-nominated roles ("Bridget Jones's Diary," ''Chicago" and "Cold Mountain," for which she won).
Zellweger has said her experiences with the producer never approached the kind of abuse others have detailed. But the Texas-native (whose high-profile romances have included Jim Carrey, Jack White, Bradley Cooper and Kenny Chesney, to whom she was briefly married) is well acquainted with the way an onslaught of fame and the cycles of show business can turn destructive.
"She's delivering to expectations that can be extraordinary for a sustained period of time. I know what it's like to do that for a limited period of time," Zellweger says of Garland. "I can imagine what that must be like — that your identity and your joy and your ability to take care of yourself is wrapped up in constantly delivering something that requires that you not."
"Judy" is the apotheosis of a resurgence for Zellweger. Her performance has so bowled over festival audiences that she's widely considered this year's front-runner for the best actress Oscar. Speaking at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month, Zellweger — effervescent and unguarded, wearing jeans and sneakers — had little to say about that. But making "Judy," she said, was "magic." Since childhood, Garland has existed intertwined with own visions of Hollywood. "Her influence is indelible," she says. "How you dream with her."
Like her subject, Zellweger has negotiated her own battles with the ups and downs of the film industry. After a string of forgettable films and fatigued from constantly going movie-to-movie, she took a six year hiatus from acting beginning in 2010.
"From the inside, there's been no break. There's just been working in a different capacity that allowed for other things that a person needs to do when you live once," Zellweger says. "I needed to do a little growing and learn some different things and have some authentic exchanges to fill the well again."
"It was necessary," she adds. "I wasn't healthy. You can't sleep three hours a night for a sustained period of time and it not have consequence."
A red carpet appearance in 2014 returned Zellweger to headlines, with tabloid reports and online commentary focusing on how she looked different. Zellweger at the time said she was "living a different, happy, more fulfilling life, and I'm thrilled that perhaps it shows." She penned an op-ed titled "We Can Do Better" lamenting the superficial double-standards women are held to.
In 2016, Zellweger returned with "Bridget Jones's Baby" and a handful of projects have since followed. But "Judy" is something else. That Zellweger was the choice for the role, Goold says, was both natural and a reach. Zellweger, he notes, is blonde, sweet, comic — in many ways far from the forceful diva that Garland was. But her emotional connection to Garland added a deeper empathy.
"We talked about what it is to be a female performer over 40, how that was Garland and to a degree how that's been for Renee as well. But not a lot," says Goold. "It felt like a very intimate, very gentle filmmaking process. It felt like we were capturing something in a cupboard. She responded to that."
What they ultimately conjured, piece by piece, reaches a crescendo in a climactic rendition of "Over the Rainbow." ''Judy," in the end, is no tragedy. It's a celebration of a resilient icon for whom trouble didn't melt "like lemon drops."
"When you understand what led her toward those circumstances, it's impossible to dismiss it simply as sad. This is a woman who's heroic," says Zellweger. "She always showed up and she kept going. That sets her apart from people who are simply extraordinary. She's one in a million years."
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP