Renée Zellweger is in an almost comically good mood. “It’s a beautiful day!” she practically sings in her Texan drawl as she answers the phone in California. “There was a storm yesterday. I swear they named Los Angeles the day after a rain, for sure. It’s so pretty here. The air, the mountains!” It’s easy to see how the Academy Award winner became a national treasure as Bridget Jones – a role that’s almost impossible to reconcile with the character she plays in her latest Netflix drama, What/If. Twenty years after she first became America’s sweetheart as the cardigan-obsessed Dorothy Boyd in Jerry Maguire, Zellweger is taking on her first role as a femme fatale.
What/If is best described as a gender-flipped, 21st-century answer to Indecent Proposal – the brainchild of Revenge creator Mike Kelley. Zellweger stars as Anne Montgomery: a phenomenally wealthy, aggressively sexual venture capitalist living in San Francisco. Rather than a down-and-out young couple, however, it’s a brilliant clinical scientist Lisa Donovan (Jane Levy) and her paramedic husband Sean (Blake Jenner) that Anne propositions: she will make a cool $80 million investment in Lisa’s revolutionary medical start-up in exchange for a night with Sean, no questions asked. If you had to sum her character up in a word, it would be ruthless.
“Isn’t she fun? So fun. Oh my gosh,” Zellweger says. “I would never, but she would, and she does.” Kelley’s inspiration for the character was none other than The Graduate’s Mrs Robinson if “instead of channelling her self-loathing into alcoholism and the boy down the street, she had decided to build an empire”. He even named the character Anne after Anne Bancroft, who famously played the housewife-turned-seductress in Mike Nicholls’s original film. “As soon as I heard that, I just said, ‘Take me to wardrobe,’” Zellweger crows. A few months later, and she had transformed into the emotional puppeteer on set, wearing a Tom Ford dress and stilettos while nursing a dirty martini and plotting the downfall of those around her.
Her preparation for the role included viewings of Fatal Attraction, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, and Basic Instinct – what she calls elevated morality tales – not to mention interviews with a number of high-profile female investors in Silicon Valley. “I just had to understand: how do you trust your instincts when the consequences of your decisions are so vast?” she explains. “I admire that. I also learned all kinds of details about their lives. One of the most powerful and influential venture capitalists in the world rides around San Francisco on her scooter! Not that Anne Montgomery would ever be caught dead on one of those…”
Zellweger’s performance is a large part of what makes What/If so patently ridiculous and grippingly entertaining all at once. She slides $100 bills toward bartenders with a suggestive eyebrow raise; practices archery in her kitchen as if this is totally normal behaviour; and stares broodingly out at thunderstorms through her penthouse windows while narrating her memoir into a ‘90s-style Dictaphone. Then, there’s her in-your-face desire. “I mean, hooray, right?” Zellweger says. “Hooray for her and her audacity. I love that she’s entitled and takes up space and leads with her sexuality. I wish I had a smidge of her entitlement! Let’s see more of that please. Why is it so exceptional?”
It’s a question that she’s been asking more and more frequently since turning 50 in April this year. “I don’t believe that our appeal as women disappears,” she says. “It just evolves, if only people were willing to recognise it. At 21, you have an attractiveness that’s… obvious. You only really come into your own a bit further along in your life. I think women are exquisite after a particular age.” Does she feel any different after the milestone birthday? “You know, I feel like a kid. It’s a clean slate. You get to a point where you recognise what you value and live by it with a greater degree of ease. You forget about the societal pressures that you never even realised were influencing your decision making. Good luck to every girl until you get to 50, that’s all I have to say! I’ll be thinking about you, but just wait – what fun. Oh my goodness.”
What/If is just the beginning of what Zellweger has in store this year. In Judy, the hotly-anticipated Judy Garland biopic due out this autumn, she plays the Hollywood icon shortly before her death in 1969, when her alcoholism and barbiturate use spiralled fatally out of control. Not only did she have to navigate the emotional highs and lows of Garland’s final days for the part, she also had the small task of performing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and other classic hits for a live audience. So, what made her decide to take on some of the most challenging roles of her career right now? “I just feel liberated. This is a celebratory time for me, a time for living fully. I’ve just learned that you can’t wait for permission. If you’re inspired make a change, just do it – because you’re never going to be invited to try. So… Let’s go!”
What/If is available to stream on Netflix now.