NEW YORK (AP) — Renée Zellweger is known for acting but you could easily write a thesis about her love for music.
The entertainer won her second Academy Award for portraying Judy Garland in last year’s “Judy,” for which Zellweger did her own singing in front of live audiences. She was praised for her performance in 2002’s “Chicago.” And she’s an avid concertgoer and live-music appreciator who jumped up and down in her gown when Eminem surprised the audience at last year’s Oscars and despite being an A-list star, sneaks out to concerts just to get her music fix.
She’s also a proud card-carrying member of the Beyhive.
“She raises the bar when it comes to work ethic. I admire with her that if she’s going to do it, she’s knocking it into the stratosphere or she’s not going to do it,” said Zellweger, who gushed over Beyoncé’s groundbreaking performance at the 2005 Oscars. “She was the north star on that one … She’s the one carrying that gift we’re all so blessed to experience in one way or another.”
So it should be no surprise — unless you’re Zellweger — that she’s earned her first Grammy nomination this year. The “Judy” soundtrack, which features Zellweger covering songs like “Over the Rainbow” and “The Trolley Song,” is nominated for best traditional pop vocal album — an award Tony Bennett has won a dozen times.
“I don’t guess that’s something I thought about to be honest,” Zellweger said in a phone interview about hearing the words “Grammy-nominated” before her name. “That’s not something I walked around imagining. It sure was a thrilling surprise.”
She is competing in a category with musicians whose concerts she’s attended and songs she’s played for years. Nominees include Burt Bacharach, James Taylor, Harry Connick Jr. and Rufus Wainwright, who performs “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” with Zellweger on the “Judy” album.
“It was scary to ask Rufus, ‘Hey, what are you doing? Want to come sing a duet with me?,’” she recalled. “I know people say that all the time, but it’s the truth: I really have been singing with Rufus for 20 years-plus in my car.”
Zellweger remembers seeing Connick Jr. live, describing the crooner as “an authentic person and performer.”
“What you see is what you get,” Zellweger said. “Stomping his foot up there onstage at the Hollywood Bowl and you feel like you’re in the living room with him or something.”
“Speaking of the living room,” she continued, “a friend of mine had won this lottery thing or bid on something. It was a private concert with Burt … and Carole Bayer Sager and they played in the living room. And he played ‘Alfie’ in the living room. Oh, believe me. I was downloading every moment in my memory — just to savor it and to smile on it.”
Getting Zellweger to go on and on about music is light work. The Texan has been going for concerts for years and she even had tickets for a show that was recently canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I sneak off by myself all the time. I love to go up to the Santa Barbara Bowl whenever I get a chance. I’ll fly to Texas and I’ll sneak around Austin to see people play. I’ll go up to Dallas,” she said. “One of the things I think I’ve missed the most is getting to congregate and listen to music in that way. There’s nothing quite like it.”
Convincing Zellweger she’s a real singer is a tougher job. When she’s asked when she knew she could sing, she replied: “I still don’t know.”
“I still don’t think of myself as a singer. I think of myself as someone who’s trying to sing. Or who works to. I still don’t know what I sound like when I’m just being myself,” she explained. “So, yeah, I don’t know.”
She trained heavily to get her voice strong enough to perform in “Judy,” which chronicles the last years of Garland’s life shortly before her death in 1969 at age 47.
“Previously I didn’t know much about what goes into building a voice or that it was even possible. I just sort of did what I was told (and I) was very happy to have things to try. I liked looking at the project and the goal from that perspective. It seemed insurmountable otherwise.”
Zellweger impressed audiences and critics around the world, winning at the Golden Globes, SAG Awards, BAFTAs and Independent Spirit Awards. She had to practice habits like touring musicians do to keep her voice together: “Dairy was out the door. No thanks.”
“I never really understood the whole air conditioning problem, but I did in this experience,” she continued. “I know that there are certain cycles where you are stronger as a vocalist and less strong depending on where you are in terms of your sleeping and resting. All of these things came into play in a really significant way.”
The 2021 Grammys will mark a full circle moment for Garland and her impact on pop culture — Zellweger’s performance of her songs is being honored nearly six decades after Garland made history at the 1962 show, becoming the first woman to win album of the year with “Judy at Carnegie Hall.”
Because of the pandemic, Zellweger most likely won’t attend the Jan. 31 Grammys, but she will be watching — and she will get dressed up.
“I like to be respectful and appropriate. It’s a pretty cool thing,” she said. “It’s not something that you expect is going to be on your list of life experiences so when you do, you might want to cover your pimples, brush your hair (and) take off your baseball hat.”