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‘What/If’ Star Blake Jenner on Creating Chemistry With Jane Levy, Renee Zellweger

Blake Jenner first rose to fame in 2012 when he won “The Glee Project” and therefore earned a role on “Glee” proper. In the years since, though, he graduated from teen heartthrob status to meatier, edgier roles in films such as “American Animals” and now the Netflix limited series “What/If,” in which he stars opposite Jane Levy and Renee Zellweger.

How conscious an effort have you had to make to avoid being pigeon-holed or seen only for high school projects?

“The Glee Project” was my absolute first in to the industry. I had done a few little things here and there but that was my first outing to a vast audience of performing every week and people getting to know you and your talent. If it weren’t for that I don’t think I would have had any of the opportunities I’ve been so lucky to encounter over the past few years. I love singing, and I think I somewhat have some dance talent, but I’ve never really had classes [for either]. My first love was always acting, so after “Glee” it meant a lot to me to do different things and show different shades of my capabilities and just of me as a person. So I talked with my agent, and one of the things that stuck out to me in one of the first meetings I had with him was he said, “We just have to make sure you don’t get stuck as a song-and-dance man.” And I completely agreed with him.

Was there a project that you think was a turning point where the industry did start to see you as more than just a guy from “Glee”?

Out of the films I’ve done, “American Animals” is the most different thing I’ve ever gotten to do. As a kid, I had this weird fixation with documentaries, and I still do, but when I read that script, and it went in and out of documentary form into narrative form, I was just crazy about it. I had never read anything like that before, and I just thought that it rang so true to who I was. I thought, “If I got this, this would be a highlight of my career.” The scenes went from one to 100 as the kids are robbing this library and they get seduced by the mystique of all of these crime movies they are watching to study for this whole thing, they forget where true life begins and imagination ends, and I just found that so interesting. But I also got to do this play, which was a musical adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac with Peter Dinklage and Haley Bennett with Goodspeed Musicals. I hadn’t done theater since I was in high school, and that was something that I never thought I would be able to do [professionally]. I had the most amazing time. It was a comedy and just getting the laughs in the moment, the immediate gratification, you learn so much.

What drew you to “What/If”?

I loved the character and I was interested in getting to know more of his past. From the beginning you get a taste of the fact that this guy hasn’t had the easiest road. I also knew Renee was going to be involved, they were putting together a really good team, and it was going to be on Netflix. I was like, “This would be a step up and a really cool character, too.” For me, it’s always about doing things differently — for the pure sake of not being pigeon-holed and keeping an audience on their toes, and also just so I keep learning. It means so much to me to always get better.

There are some parts of your character’s backstory and behavior kept secret from the audience. How important was it to you to be clued in so you knew when to reveal certain things emotionally and when to hold back?

The beginning and end of it was always clear, and we always knew where it was going, although we didn’t know too much in the middle. I never like to know too much personally because information can color your performance more than you are. But knowing where it picks up and ends is really cool because you do have a sense of closure and a sense of stability with your cast and creator, and also you get to fill in the blanks. So it’s a little window to figuring this thing out while being grounded by the end result. For me, that helps. What’s cool is that people can rewatch these things and study the characters a bit more and see the backstory of a look or a hand gesture. What’s cool about our show is when you finish it, you can rewatch the whole thing knowing the secrets and turns and twists and see how somebody looks at someone and have it mean something completely different to you than the first time you watched it.

How did you handle how the information was parceled out?

We would get the scripts episode to episode, so I would learn things about the character years before we meet him in the pilot three episodes later, so what really helped was having creator and showrunner Mike Kelley. Right after I read the script we got on a FaceTime call, and granted some of what we spoke about wasn’t in the show, but he gave me every shade of color that this character had in his heart and his mind and his soul. He walked me through his past and his family life and it really gave me a sense of how his heart was changed or what corner of his heart he spoke to certain people from and what things he’d have to compartmentalize. He had that whole road paved out when I started talking to him, but then if we got to Episode 2 and there was something I was spacing on, you could always text him and talk to him. We had a really supportive environment to make sure we were well-rounded from an acting standpoint and talk us through any plot points we needed to make sure it was all pumping the right way. But I do try to steer away from the future so you can live in the moment.

Your character, Sean, is married to Jane’s character, Lisa, but begins keeping secrets from her. What was most important to how you developed the layers of their relationship?

Our first day we had pretty intimate scenes and I had never met her before so we contacted each other and had dinner before we started shooting to get to talk about the project and to get to know each other. We had this intimate relationship on paper but had to build somewhat of a foundation. But it’s just being open. We made a pact to just always be there for each other and to be open and not be shy, and that carried us through the whole thing. That was probably the most important aspect of the whole thing because my character relies on hers, and Jane is such a strong actress and a strong woman that it really balanced that out. This is the first long-term television job I’ve had since “Glee” and with a limited series you get a little more time than a film to get to know a character and research them but it’s the same kind of schedule as a movie schedule. So you get to know everyone and you get a little more comfortable being there every day. You get more confident as an actor with these people within the character, but also you get to form a family, and I don’t think, as an actor, you can be vulnerable on a set without trusting every person on that set. And I think we all, collectively, got really comfortable with everyone on that set from base camp to the directors.

Yet, there is more of a mystery around Renee’s character’s motives when she propositions Sean, so did you find you had to work differently with her in order to keep that mystery organic?

Renee is just one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. And I was star struck because I was such a huge Jim Carrey fan growing up that I had seen “Me, Myself & Irene” probably 50 times or more and I had seen “Jerry McGuire” a bunch, too, so I went up to her and I said, “Listen I’m going to sound like a huge fanboy, but you’re just so incredible in everything you do.” She was really nice about it. And I had some great moments with her and some great bonding time as well, but I think it helped that we didn’t dive into the homework as much as I did with Jane because it was important for my character to have some distance between her character. Renee is just so good; she really shape-shifted and that was so inspiring to see.

What did you find most challenging about the show or the shoot?

Most of those moments are the smallest moments — the scenes that are like four lines: two lines for your character and two lines for another character. There’s so much pressure to get that point across and earn it quickly. These people are so emotionally-charged but yet this is such a brief moment in their journey as people. It’s like when you auditioned for a role, like I did a lot when I was younger, where you have one line. You have to kill that line because that line is everything! You need to get the point across with that brief moment. I think the most important thing is being emotionally charged in your eyes and making a connection, which is why I think it’s so important to be close with your co-stars.

What do you need to get into the right headspace on-set for such an emotionally-charged character or moment?

The first thing I do on every single job, after I get the job, obviously, is a stream of consciousness exercise, which is something I learned from the director Kelly Fremon Craig when we were doing “The Edge of Seventeen.” I get on Final Draft on my computer and I just write from the character’s perspective without judging myself. It’s kind of like actor therapy when you’re trying to get to know a character — at least for me it is. What’s important for my character: what he loves at this moment, what he cares about, what he doesn’t want to lose, about how he felt in his family in a young man when he was growing up, how he felt about himself. I spoke with Mike Kelley about it and he encouraged me to go even deeper, and from then on I would do it from episode to episode, just to be able to know within myself that I had some jurisdiction within who this guy was. Music helps me a lot, but from a starting point, this stream of conscious exercise is it because I know I’ve done my homework and I’ve gotten to know this guy. I can look at it; I’ve written some golden nuggets of information that I’ve jotted down on my scripts, too, and that makes me feel like I have blood in the water. It makes me more confident and worthy of the words that are being given to me to speak.

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