The first scene of Netflix’s new thriller, What/If is bound to become the stuff of scene chewing legend. Before viewers have any idea what the streaming show could possibly be about, they see Academy Award-winner Renée Zellweger swaggering around her character’s luxury high-rise penthouse while staring out at the San Francisco bay. What follows is the staccato of a two-minute-long monologue about purpose and fate, risks and greatness, told to no one but a small recorder. Zellweger punctuates the soliloquy by yelling, “At any cost.” Zellweger double punctuates this introduction by looking intently into the middle distance while writing “At any cost” on a notepad and then underlining those words twice.
Has any character ever stormed onto television with more unapologetic excess? Zellweger’s What/If character, Anne Montgomery, is bound for internet infamy (the impending in-home archery alone!). But, there’s more to this fictional business barracuda than daffy, hairspray-wigged camp.
On the matter of camp, does Zellweger herself see Anne — with her bows, arrows, and solo philosophizing — as camp? “Mmmm. I. Mmmmm,” the actress tells Refinery29 over the phone, thinking out loud. “She’s elevated, but not camp. I think that she’s outrageous. So I think it fits without crossing the line. Because her audacity makes it authentic. I believe her.”
What/If, created by Mike Kelley, the man who made red Sharpie-exacted revenge a television success with ABC’s Revenge, does a lot of work to get viewers to also believe in Anne. The anthology spends its 10-episode first season dropping little kernels of her identity. She is an ultra-successful Bay area venture capitalist whose pre-1990s backstory is a complete mystery. She gets everything she wants at any cost. She is extremely interested in a genius scientist named Lisa Donovan (Suburgatory's Jane Levy) and her hot husband Sean Donovan (Blake Jenner). She excels at both fencing and manipulating. Anne only uses one of those skills to poison the Donovan marriage, and pointy swords are not involved.
We’re left wondering what Anne actually wants from these young and happy lovers. At first jump, viewers will assume the story is a modernized version of Indecent Proposal. Anne does even offer science-y entrepreneur Lisa millions of dollars in funding in exchange for an evening alone with her dashing spouse. But, “It sort of subverts the notion in terms of the male-female roles, and then we go from there,” Zellweger explains of the proposition.
Nevertheless, Demi Moore’s 1993 hit isn’t the iconic film that inspired What/If at all. Instead, that honor goes to an even older classic: 1967’s The Graduate. While explaining how Kelley lured her to an extended television role, Zellweger says, “I loved that it was socially relevant, and loved what motivates Mike Kelley to write … When he said ‘Mrs. Robinson and [her portrayer] Anne Bancroft’ — I was done. Let’s go!” Yes, What/If is actually a riff on Mike Nichols’ doomed little trio, with Zellweger in the modernized Mrs. Robinson role. Hence, Anne’s name in the first place.
“He is fascinated by her, with this woman who was so powerful and yet is so dissatisfied and is full of self loathing and is powerless to change her circumstances,” Zellweger says. “He thought ‘Well, what if, instead of spiraling into alcoholism, a woman who possesses that kind of powerful and alluring sexuality and appeal, she channeled that power into something that was productive instead the boy down the street? What if she created an empire that enabled her to change her circumstances and manipulate the people around her instead?’”
The result was Anne Montgomery, a woman who find out your darkest, dirtiest secrets and then splay them in front of you with a smile — all in the middle of the dinner party she helicoptered you in for at her own personal sun-drenched vineyard. This actually happens to someone in What/If.
Although fans may see Anne as a villain here — and she certainly can be, ask Sean’s ex-girlfriend Maddie Carter (Allie MacDonald) — Zellweger isn’t complaining. “This is a woman who sees embracing your strength and being unapologetic about your ambition and your audacity and leading with your sexuality to manipulate and be very calculated in your presentation and your intention as essential,” the Netflix actress says. “And somehow it’s ridiculous for any woman not to. And I think that’s kind of refreshing.”
That’s why even Anne’s most bizarre habit, passive aggressively pruning a tree in her apartment, has greater import than being a mere hobby. “I think it has to do with manipulating outcomes. I think it’s a metaphor,” Zellweger says with a laugh, thinking her many impromptu horticultural scenes.
It’s no wonder she’s open to What/If for another round, whatever the new batch of anthology episodes may involve. “Oh sure,” she says of the possibility of a season 2 comeback. Are there any other beloved screen sirens she would like to channel next? “I don’t know. I guess it depends on what’s in Mike’s head for another round,” she demurs with a very Anne Montgomery smile in her voice.