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How Tom Hanks and Renée Zellweger Disappeared as Mr. Rogers and Judy Garland

Tom Hanks (“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”) and Renée Zellweger (“Judy”) sat down for a chat for “Variety Studio: Actors on Actors.” For more, click here.

During their enduring careers, Tom Hanks and Renée Zellweger have gone back and forth seamlessly between comedies and dramas, played romantic leads and won Academy Awards — she for best supporting actress in 2003’s “Cold Mountain,” he for best actor in 1993’s “Philadelphia” and 1994’s “Forrest Gump.” And in their latest films — Zellweger’s “Judy” and Hanks’ “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” — both actors masterfully transform into real people, with Zellweger channeling Judy Garland in her final days, and Hanks embodying Fred Rogers. 

In conversation recently, the two actors find another point in common: celebrity encounters during their time in the service industry. Hanks was a hotel bellboy; Zellweger supported herself during college as a cocktail waitress in an Austin bar. 

“I carried Cher’s bags!” Hanks says excitedly. “No, you did not!” Zellweger replies. “When she was married to Gregg Allman,” Hanks continues. “I brought in the bags, and I said, ‘I believe these are the bags you asked for, Mr. Allman.’ He said, ‘I don’t know — Toots?’ And then Toots was Cher, and she came in, and yeah, that was her bag.” For Zellweger, “the guys from Bad Company would come in, Nick Nolte came in, Gary Busey came in.” At the mention of Busey, Hanks says, “Oh, that — he was there for a while.” (Hanks later clarifies his joke, saying, “Gary would appreciate it, because he’s bone-dry sober right now.”)

After discussing their before-they-were-famous star sightings, they turn to how they built their characters for “Judy” and “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” 

Tom Hanks: So what is the first thing you do when playing Judy Garland? That’s like playing Elvis, or John Lennon, or something. What’s the first thing you do?

Renée Zellweger: Well, there’s a lot of material. You watch everything. 

Hanks: Did you watch the variety show that she did? 

Zellweger: Oh yes!

Hanks: That was a work of art, really. And the fact that nobody was tuning in because she was —

Zellweger: They were up against “Bonanza.”

Renee Zellweger Variety Actors on Actors

Hanks: Oh, is that what killed it? Oh, my! Sometimes you get frustrated because you’ve found this nugget that explains the entire character, and you can’t find any place to put it in the movie. We had one thing that I found out: I asked Joanne Rogers, “What did Fred drink in the morning? Did he have coffee?” She said, “No, he drank hot cranberry juice.” 

I went to Marielle Heller, who was the director of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” and said, “Is there any way we can get it in?” And she said, “The most we’re going to be able to do is have a glass of red liquid sitting on the counter there while you’re talking on the phone.” I said, “Good enough for me.” 

Zellweger: It’s different when you’re playing a person who’s lived. There’s a different responsibility.

Hanks: The legend of Fred has not gone through the bowdlerization that Judy’s has — everything she went through, and how she became who she was. Did you have an overabundance of information you had to sift through?

Zellweger: Well, you try to be judicious about what it is that you take as fact. So, there was a lot of contradictory information. And there are so many biographies out there by people who claim to have known her.

Hanks: In the film, when you’re in the cab and you’re trying to find a place to stay, Lorna, the daughter, says, “Are you going to sleep now, Mommy?” because you took a couple of pills, and Judy says, “No, these are the other kind, honey,” which means you’re going to go up. So there, you’ve laid down a foundation of somebody who was pretty strung out by that time, suffering from a lifetime of taking mood-altering drugs just to get along with the day. There are those stories of them putting Dexedrine in her and Mickey Rooney’s soup so they could get through those Andy Hardy movies, you know?

Zellweger: You knew about this?

Hanks: Yeah.

Zellweger: Because it’s not something that a lot of people were familiar with. I wasn’t aware of any of that.

Hanks: Do you make mention of any of that in the movie?

Zellweger: There’s a little bit of it. She can’t sleep anymore.

Hanks: Right, right. You look at that output prior to “The Wizard of Oz,” and she had already worked herself into a puddle — like, all those big musical numbers for those Andy Hardy movies. And how old was she when she made “Wizard of Oz”?

Zellweger: She was 16, wasn’t she? Her body was just starting to change, and I think that one of the tools they’d use to keep her slim was binding her. Because they didn’t want her to be voluptuous, because they had finally found a way to market her as the girl next door. And God forbid that Dorothy be sexy, you know? So they bound her, and kept her weight down with drugs.

Hanks: I was disappointed that we didn’t get to see you re-create moments from “The Harvey Girls” or “Meet Me in St. Louis” where — this is from reading that I did — she had that negative self-image that she wasn’t the prettiest woman in the world on camera. And yet, she’s the only one you look at, you know?

Zellweger: I know, she’s just ethereal, wasn’t she? She was so beautiful, it’s impossible to imagine that she’d been broken down to where she couldn’t see it.

Hanks: The expression that she was able to put into what I’m guessing were prerecorded tracks —

Zellweger: In the MGM movies? Yeah, she talks about that. And I heard that she did something like 28 takes of “The Man That Got Away,” until she could recognize that everybody in the room was feeling it the way she was feeling it. And then she was happy.

Hanks: And it is a long time before you sing. I was checking the watch: “OK, this is a movie about Judy Garland; we’re going to get ‘Clang, Clang, Clang Went the Trolley,’ or something, right off the bat.”

Zellweger: That’s interesting — it didn’t feel that way to me. I didn’t think about that, but I do know that [director] Rupert Goold wanted to establish the story in a way that you would understand where she was in terms of her ability to access her instrument at that time. So you wouldn’t be quite sure whether or not she was going to succeed. He wanted to set that up so that it seemed a precarious moment when she stepped onto the stage.

Hanks: I don’t think anybody could believe that Judy Garland was broke.

 Zellweger: Yeah, that was shocking.

Tom Hanks Variety Actors on Actors

Hanks: Or that Judy Garland was not wanted. Judy couldn’t get a job! 

Zellweger: Made no sense. I mean, she’s iconic, and deserves her place at the table of international superstars for all time. So, that she would be having financial challenges —

Hanks: When you find out these things, the fireworks go off, and everybody who’s watching the movie has to collect the back of their head, because you’ve blown them away.

Zellweger: OK, how many years have you been acting now?  

Hanks: I got my first professional job when I was 20. I was at the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival. I got into the Actors’ Equity union 43 years ago. My first actual thing that aired on TV was an episode of “The Love Boat” in 1980.

Zellweger: What was the episode? Because I was watching! 

Hanks: I was cast as an old college fraternity brother of Gopher, who comes on to hit on Julie McCoy. I can’t tell you what it meant to my world. My fifth-grade teacher called me up and said: “Tom, you were on ‘The Love Boat.’” It was a big deal.

Zellweger: Did you have a party?

Hanks: No, I couldn’t afford a party. So we just watched it with the kids. My son, Colin, was only 3 or 4. At the end of “The Love Boat,” you know it’s sailing away and they show the closing credits? And he starts crying. I said, “Why are you crying?” He said, “Because you’re going away.” He thought I was on that boat sailing away. It was really sweet.  

What was your first?

Zellweger: I did a lot of commercials for a while. 

Hanks: My wife did 8 million commercials as well, and I’ve put them together, and I’m astounded how many times I saw her growing up on television. What was an extraordinary thing you had to do in a commercial? 

Zellweger: Coors Light. I had to Rollerblade down a hill carrying a six-pack on my shoulder in a bikini.

Hanks: Of course. Rightly so. 

Zellweger: I didn’t actually go to college to study acting. I was going to be a journalist, and I failed the typing test. And so, I was waiting to go the next semester, and I started to work. And one thing led to the next. I think the first lead that I played was in “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”  It was an independent film that was financed by a local lawyer. That’s where I met [Matthew] McConaughey. We had done “Dazed and Confused” together, but we didn’t meet on that set. 

Hanks: Forgive me — “Dazed and Confused” is one of the most important movies of the 20th century. Were you a senior in that?

Zellweger: I was filler. They needed more senior girls, but I don’t think they had a budget. I was just basically watching. It was a great experience, because I got to understand how the different departments worked, you know?

Hanks: Yeah.  

Zellweger: I wanted to ask you the difference between playing characters where you have a little more liberty in defining yourself and discovering yourself, and playing this person who is well known — who is pretty iconic, in terms of the way that he influenced an entire generation of children. By the way, congratulations. What a beautiful representation. 

Hanks: Oh, thanks, thanks. It’s scary, isn’t it?

Zellweger: You’re such a recognizable, unique person, and yet you disappear in whatever it is that you do. It’s really magic. In the experience of playing him, how was it different to you? 

Hanks: I have played a lot of real people: Charlie Wilson in “Charlie Wilson’s War,” Sully in “Sully,” Richard Phillips in “Captain Phillips,” Jim Lovell in “Apollo 13” — and you get to meet them. And you get to say, “OK, I’m playing you, so you’re going to have to make your peace with me playing you. And you’ll also have to make your peace with me saying things you never said, and doing things you never did. And perhaps providing motivations that you yourself didn’t feel. But at the same time, I want to be as accurate as possible to the behavior and the procedure of what you went through.” That’s a really good bridge to work with somebody to get there.

But Fred is gone. I watched 8 million hours of Fred’s program. And there was an excellent documentary called “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” that is actually a companion piece, I think. When I saw that, I actually said to Mari Heller, “Is there a reason to actually make this movie anymore?” 

The biggest challenge I felt portraying Fred was the genuineness of him. He’s not going through an extraordinary crisis; he doesn’t have a thing that he wants to make happen; he’s not trying to get home from the moon. He’s literally just being Fred Rogers being interviewed by a journalist.

Zellweger: Right!

Hanks: His wife, Joanne, all of his co-workers, and even his two boys — I don’t think they had the language necessarily to communicate that there was no agenda. He was just simply a guy: He was a cracked vessel who worked very hard at his job and took it very, very seriously. And I think that when the job you’re taking seriously is to make 2-year-old kids feel safe in the world, that’s not necessarily a really active choice. You don’t train for that. You instead just have to embody this kind of ministerial quality, because he was an ordained minister. But his church was this television show that he did. And if you’re not specific about that, you’re just going to come off as some sort of saint that always has benevolent, beguiling eyes, and always has a gentle manner on the outside. 

Mari did me a great favor, because in the first meeting we had — and I’m sure you faced this as well with Judy — we discussed: How deep are we going to go on this look? 

I got a wig, but I’ve got a very specifically shaped head, I have specific teeth — are we going to do his teeth? I have a specific nose — are we going to do his nose? How far are we going to go to reconstruct our body into these very well-known icons. And Mari said, “We’ll do a wig, and we’ll do some eyebrows, and that’s that.” I said, “Great.” Knowing that, that tells me where I’m going to have to make the construct of everything else.

Zellweger: And the voice, the lilt in his voice. And his movement, the way that he carries himself — he’s such a gentle presence.

Hanks: I had a great difficulty slowing down.

Zellweger: Interesting!

Hanks: I’m a wiseacre, and I talk a lot, and I have a lot of energy. And to slow down like that — how often does a director come to you and say, “Take more time with this”? They never say that.

Zellweger: No, most of the direction that you get is “Hurry! Speed that up! Act faster!”

Hanks: Yeah: “Just say the words!” And you as Judy, you had this ongoing, constant twitching going on. Were you exhausted at the end of some working days?

Zellweger: Oh, probably. But, you know, that’s one of those things that you train yourself not to pay attention to. Because it’s irrelevant — you can’t do anything about it.

Hanks: When it happened to me, particularly when we were working in the land of make-believe: I could not get enough of Fred in Fred’s house — I actually took naps on the set.

Zellweger: Oh, you’re kidding!

Hanks: Well, there’s a comfy couch there. I wanted to stay there all day. And when they finally wrapped it’s, like, “I’ve got to take off these clothes? I’ve got to go back and be myself again?” I loved being in Mr. Rogers’ house. 

Zellweger: How special.

Hanks: It was very pleasing. 

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