SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “What/If,” streaming now on Netflix.
Writer and executive producer Mike Kelley’s latest piece of dramatic storytelling is a limited series morality tale that starts with a high-powered, wealthy woman named Anne Montgomery (Renee Zellweger) offering Lisa, a young woman with a startup (Jane Levy), the investment she needs — if she gives her one night with her husband Sean (Blake Jenner). What goes on during that evening will be protected by a non-disclosure agreement, and if he breaks the terms and shares the details, Anne will take control of the company. But that is just the tip of the iceberg for “What/If.”
While Kelley says the 1993 film “Indecent Proposal” was very much his “jumping off point” for this story, he was inspired by other “social thrillers” of the 1980s and 1990s, including “Fatal Attraction.” Borrowing from a traditional film’s structure, he weaved together 10 episodes of story that exposed a secret for each individual character, at a different point in the story. Angela’s (Samantha Marie Ware) affair with her boss (Dave Annable), for example, was shared early on, but both the reveal of just how sociopathic her boss was and how far he’d go to teach her a lesson came much later. Meanwhile, in the middle there was Lisa’s brother figure Marcos (Juan Castano) revealing to her that he was the one who set the fire that killed her parents, coupled with the truth emerging that Anne was actually her birth mother and therefore Lisa was not chosen as some random benefactor but had been watched her whole life, albeit slightly from afar.
“It is definitely tricky to balance all of those,” Kelley tells Variety. “What I wanted to do was make all the secrets and choices resonate with all of the other characters’ stories so that it had an impact. Obviously when [Marcos] reveals to Lisa what he has done and the fact that he has carried it around, that has an impact on how she receives the giant secret that is coming from [Anne].”
The character of Anne Montgomery, who Kelley calls “the most curated character I’ve ever created,” is one that he admits has been in his mind for a long time. “The reason that chess is a metaphor that keeps repeating is because she keeps thinking ahead all of the time, so she’s already decided how she’s going to react in a certain way. Obviously things don’t go exactly as she had planned and while the character could be getting a couple of notions of what she’d do, she was unprepared for exactly where it went — but very quickly on her feet figured out how she was going to get to the end game,” he says.
The key to creating a woman who could manipulate everyone around her but not come off as too campy a super-villain, he believes, was in one part the fact that Anne always put people in a situation where they would be the ones to have to make the choice. For example, she didn’t force Lisa and Sean to take the deal in the first place, and she didn’t force Sean to blurt out what happened during the night spent together, effectively putting him in breach of the contract and losing Lisa’s company.
“I feel like it’s important to recognize our responsibility in our own fate, which kind of deconstructs the idea of fate in general,” Kelley says. “When I opened the show very specifically with Anne contemplating the idea of everything happening for a reason, her whole point is, ‘Everything happens for a reason, but that reason is you.’”
The other essential ingredient was Zellweger’s choices in the performance of Anne’s calculated essence.
Kelley says he told Zellweger all of Anne’s secrets beforehand so that she could lay out a plan to portray her, choosing select moments to let the girl she was before she made herself into the woman she presents herself as shine through.
“This is a woman who takes up a lot of space but is so tightly wound because she cannot make mistakes — she doesn’t know how. There is nothing that is accidental, from the drink that she chooses to the clothes that she wears and the things that she reveals to the people around her or will admit to herself,” Zellweger says. “It’s fun to be so contained and not at the same time.”
Although Zellweger admits her process to get into character was the same as any project, she admits she had different boundaries in terms of “how broadly” she could express something.
In fact, for Zellweger, a major draw to the project was the chance to “to do something that was not so restricted by the rules that usually applied to the work that I do.” Tonally, she considers “What/If” different than her past films because the stakes are so heightened, while from a character perspective, she was excited to get to explore “different language than I would choose in my life, the sense of entitlement, and the ambition, and the unapologetic manipulation of her sexuality,” which she considers Anne’s most important tools.
“I wanted to do things that, or make choices that, I’m not allowed to, usually,” she says.
For as much as Zellweger enjoyed “getting to laugh” and at times “be audacious” during the production of “What/If,” she also dove into some emotional complexity — namely when Anne had to confront her past and make her own choice about how to move forward, knowing the version of herself she worked so hard to create had been somewhat exposed and therefore could not continue as pristinely as she had been operating thus far. Her decision was to burn down the building she had grown up in — and allow the world to think she was still in it when it was destroyed.
The use of fire as a device in this moment was important to Kelley in order to represent “duality — because fire also killed Lisa’s parents. But fire as a metaphor had an overarching reach on the show’s central theme, too: “It is destructive, but it is also extremely cleansing,” he says. “It’s weird because when we were filming this we shot the last scene of the show with Anne in this incredible home in Malibu and then a week or two later the whole place went up in flames [due to the wildfires]. But now if you drive through there it’s gorgeous again, there’s all this new life. And that’s an evergreen theme, literally.”
Much like how Anne never explicitly told people what to do but rather posed choices that challenged them, Kelley himself wanted to challenge his audience with “What/If.”
“We’re living in this moment where everything is so morally ambiguous and no one is being held accountable,” he says. “I think people are looking around and saying, ‘This f—er is getting away with this, and this f—er is getting away with that, and why can’t I get a piece of this?’ I think it’s just important in the moment we’re living in to decide, ‘Where are we? What is the thing I’m not willing to do?’ Make a choice about where your moral line is. And if you want to break that, then suffer the consequences or live the lesson.”
Yet, Anne’s own choice — to fake her death — didn’t have her doing those things. Kelley admits that the position she put Lisa and Sean in was one that would have seen Anne as the victor, no matter the outcome: “She either gets to keep that company and gets to decimate her opponents and continue on, or she’s created a formidable new version of herself who is going to go out there and perpetuate what matters to Anne Montgomery or the person inside and Montgomery,” he explains.
In the end it was the latter, although now that she has to start over, and that there is someone out there — Lisa — who knows the truth, Kelley intentionally left things open-ended so the audience could talk about what resonated with them individually and therefore what kinds of consequences they think there may still need to be for some of the later series actions.
“Anything that causes a little bit of emotional controversy is probably good for television,” Kelley says.