Jane Levy regularly proves herself capable of ping-ponging between genres with ease. Horror fans know her best from turns in Hulu’s critically acclaimed Castle Rock, the fan-pleasing 2013 Evil Dead reboot, and one of the best suspense movies of recent years, Don’t Breathe. Levy also starred in three seasons of ABC’s Suburgatory sitcom, and she first cut her acting teeth on Showtime’s Shameless. She now enters a new realm with the upcoming What/If series, which Netflix describes as a neo-noir social thriller.
Renée Zellweger also stars in this show from Revenge creator Mike Kelley. The premise involves Zellweger’s character, Anne Montgomery, making an offer that’s “too extraordinary to refuse” to a financially struggling married couple, Lisa (Levy) and Sean (Blake Jenner). Naturally, this sexy chess game of sorts proves to carry consequences, both of the immediate and lasting variety, in a tension-filled morality tale that plays out with ripple effects that encompass sex, murder, and every sin in between. Levy was gracious enough to speak with us about What/If and other key projects in her career.
Revenge was a guilty pleasure show for me, and What/If adds an Indecent Proposal-style spin to the mix. How much did those projects influence your performance in this series?
I did research where I watched a little bit of Revenge, which I didn’t previously see, but I heard from many the same sentiment that you expressed, not that it was necessarily a guilty pleasure for all, but people loved that show — people that I didn’t even would have know watched that type of show, and I mean like melodrama. I watched it to get the tone of what Mike [Kelley] was writing, and I watched Indecent Proposal as well. Again, mostly for tonal reasons because our show involves extraordinary circumstances. It’s a little, well, “over-the-top” isn’t really the word I’m looking for, so I think “extraordinary” is the right one. That requires a certain style of acting, so that was just basic research. What I took away most from Indecent Proposal, which is something that I think the actors did so brilliantly, is that I really, really believed in and invested in the love between Woody Harrelson and Demi Moore. They’re laughing together, they’re deeply involved in each other’s bodies, they’re both so young and sexy, and everything works, even their financial struggles because they have each other. I was like, “Oh, that is the key to our show.” Because the whole story in What/If is this couple who is being interfered with, or fucked with, by this outside source, which is Anne Montgomery. That bond is being threatened by her, so I decided that we needed to make sure that bond is really there, and that way, the audience will come on this journey with us.
Yes, and What/If feels even more urgent than Indecent Proposal because your character has a noble purpose.
Yes, definitely. When I’ve been talking about this with people, they’ve asked, “Would you do this?” And it’s like, “Yeah, in this specific circumstance, of course I would take the offer.” Lisa is backed up against the wall, she owes the people that she trusts and loves money, including her husband. Her parents might lose their business. And ultimately, she has this noble, altruistic, goal and desire to save children dying of cancer. Yeah, you can sleep with my husband for one night! However, what’s interesting and, I think, clever, and what’s fun about Mike Kelley’s writing is that Anne Montgomery’s saying that even your altruism is self-serving, and you’d better face that. There’s some truth in that, maybe? And I think that’s what our show is about: Anne poking holes in our theories and our principles and in our choices.
Revenge fans will enjoy seeing Gabriel Mann’s role…
Even though he’s pretty scarce until later in the season. What was it like to work with him?
He’s really a lovely person. I actually don’t have that many scenes with him. The majority of his work is with Renée. But I do know that it is a nice homage or wink to Revenge, and he’s a fan favorite.
Lisa is often in a pretty horrible position, at least in the first five episodes that I’ve seen.
Oh, it gets way worse!
Ohhh. No kidding?
Way, way worse. Really, truly.
Well, Renée’s character is pretty merciless and focused on destiny with almost with a nihilistic outlook. Your character pushes back.
Yeah, I think that my character, well, bonds are very important for her. Familial bonds because she doesn’t have her birth parents. She met Sean, and Sean has become her family, and I do think that is everything for Lisa. So pushing back against Anne isn’t necessarily her morality, it’s her bible. She needs love, and she needs safety, and she needs comfort, and home, which are all constantly being threatened by this nihilistic, as you say, woman.
Who do you think that viewers will root for in this dynamic?
It depends. The genius of Mike Kelley is writing female rivalry and female villains, and I think what makes it not a soap opera and not just a “cunty” drama is that these characters have real, deep human needs, and it’s really funny talking to the press about this show because there’s so much more to reveal in the episodes you haven’t seen. And a lot of what we’re talking about comes full circle in a way that I’m not allowed to share, but I think it depends. And it will say a lot about your character if you’re rooting for Anne Montgomery.
You once talked about Don’t Breathe‘s characters as archetypes, not based in reality. How did you view the characters in this show, beyond being, like you say, dealing with something “extraordinary”?
I think the circumstances are extraordinary. Most of us can’t say that a random person showed up at your husband’s bar and offered you $80 million dollars in order to sleep with them. That’s an extraordinary circumstance, but I don’t necessarily think the characters are extraordinary, except for Anne. Like I said before, this is a real complex dynamic with human characters. And I think that’s what makes this show good.
You’ve played some characters who were already steeped in cinematic or literary tradition, like with Castle Rock and Evil Dead. Is that more or less of a challenge than creating a character like Lisa, mostly from scratch?
I tend not to think about the result when I’m acting. I don’t think that it would be possible for me to show up for work if I was thinking about how the audience is gonna receive it. I think I have some survivor/blocker mechanism that stops me from doing that. So I don’t even know if there’s really a difference besides like a different kind of research, but I guess there would be a different approach, but nothing specific.
How would you categorize What/If, beyond Netflix’s neo-noir social thriller label?
I would call What/If a sexy melodrama about the consequences you suffer when you decide to make a deal with the devil.
Speaking of the devil, you nailed that well in Evil Dead. I know you get this question a lot, but have you heard about a sequel?
I just read on the internet that Bruce Campbell said you were making another one. I have heard many rumors through the years, whether it’s on the internet or through my agent, and I don’t have anything to tell you, although I’m tempted to make something up because that’s what everyone else does who’s involved with the franchise. They love to just rile up the fans every couple of months by saying some nonsense. But it’s incredible to be part of something with such a strong fan base, and I feel so lucky that I was embraced and not rejected by the Evil Dead fans, and I think Bruce Campbell is so cool. And I do not have any immediate plans to be in the Evil Dead universe.
I always enjoy remembering that you originated the Mandy Malkovich role on Shameless.
Yep. That was my first job.
You had a really sweet take on her, and Emma Greenwell made her grittier. Have you kept up with the Gallagher happenings?
I have not! I feel really grateful to that show for giving me my first job and being so welcoming to me, but I actually didn’t even watch the show when I was on it, so I have not kept up with it, but I’m really happy for them that it’s been such a success, and lasted so many years.
Well, it’s still on Netflix, so you could always binge it.
Alright, maybe I will!
Netflix’s ‘What/If’ will begin streaming on May 24.