‘It Was a Dark Time’: Megan Fox and Karyn Kusama Revisit the Jennifer’s Body Backlash

“I think that it took someone who was, like, genuinely demented at that time to play a demon-possessed man-eating teenager,” says Megan Fox. Photo: Doane Gregory/Twentieth Century Fox

It’s been ten years since the release of Jennifer’s Body, a movie that was panned by the majority of critics upon release and largely rejected at the box office. Movies flop all the time, but there was something distinct about the way Body failed. The story, written by Diablo Cody and directed by Karyn Kusama, concerned a pair of best friends named Jennifer (Megan Fox) and Needy (Amanda Seyfried) who were navigating teenage bestie codependency and the small problem of Jennifer being turned into a boy-eating succubus. It was more revenge story than vampire thrill, intent on subverting horror heroine tropes, skewering the typical commodification of women onscreen, and showcasing a kind of intimacy between teen girls rarely seen in movies.

However, the movie’s marketing campaign tells a different story. Twentieth Century Fox promoted the film around a ginned-up, vixenish version of Fox’s media-friendly persona, seemingly downplaying Body’s potential audience of young girls in favor of horny boys aged 18 to 24. Unfortunately, criticism unraveled accordingly. One reviewer offered the assessment that, “If you’re in search for a way to ogle Megan Fox’s body, there are a lot better ways to do it than subjecting yourself to this [movie]”; another said that Fox “telegraphs Jennifer’s role as the Generic Spoiled Slut” before lamenting that Seyfried was styled from a “luscious bit of blonde honeycomb” into a “sexy librarian” look instead. Even just ten years later, it seems clear that Fox and Jennifer’s Body were caught in the gears of a particularly unforgiving stage of celebrity discourse.

But what a decade it’s been for Jennifer’s Body since its release. A veritable online movement erupted in the years after its theatrical debut, calling for a reappraisal of the filmagain and again. At this year’s Beyond Fest in Los Angeles — 11 days after the official tenth anniversary of Jennifer’s Body — Fox and Kusama joined me (and an audience of fans) to discuss the emotional toll of making the movie, what it felt like to be told the story needed “moar bewbs,” and what it’s like to revel in the film’s prescient message today.

Karyn, you’ve talked about Jennifer’s Body at various points over the years and participated in screenings before. But Megan, this is one of your first times really revisiting the work publicly. Why now?
Megan Fox: I didn’t really understand how it had grown since we released it. I’m not online very much at all, so unless somebody takes me aside and says, “This is happening,” I stay pretty much unaware of it. So I didn’t really understand how the movie continued to gain fans through the years. I have in recent years noticed a lot of Jennifer Checks out at Halloween, but this year all of a sudden, there were all these requests for the ten-year anniversary and celebrating it. I started looking into it a little bit more, really understanding the impact that it’s had, and I just didn’t realize that it was being appreciated now the way that it is.

A unique aspect of the way this movie has been revisited is that it’s not just, “Hey, guys, this is good.” The first piece I really remember coming out that sort of catalyzed this wave was one from the Mary Sue, “So, When Are We Going to Apologize to Megan Fox?” Then there was a big feature from last year called “You Probably Owe Jennifer’s Body an Apology.” I wanted to hear your personal reactions to it being reexamined in that way. 
Karyn Kusama: I mean for me, and I’m going to guess that I share this with Megan, I like to make my work and then move on and not really revisit the experience. Not necessarily for good or for bad, just because I like to keep moving in my life. For me, what’s really gratifying about people coming back to the film and just watching it here with you guys, is it’s being revisited because it’s really fucking good. It’s exciting for me. It’s like, you know, of course the movie has its flaws and a lot of movies do. Most movies do. But I’m really excited by what survives in it, what remains totally bracing and un-PC. I have to say while Megan is up here onstage with me, your performance is so layered, nuanced, and complicated. I don’t think people understood how hard it is to do that role, and you did it and you made it look easy.

Yes. Your performance is canon.
Kusama: It’s iconic.

Obviously you’re giving a really fun performance, just chewing through all that Diablo Cody dialogue, but at the same time there’s a through line of vulnerability that keeps us from ever turning away from Jennifer. How did you bring that duality out?
Fox: I’m not going to sit up here and be like, “You know, when I was studying Method acting … ” That’s not really what was going on. I think in general I’m a much more vulnerable person than people realize. I’m very permeable, and I was at a place in my life and in my career and dealing with fame where I felt I was really struggling with that. So I was sort of raw and very open but also trying to constantly cover it by kind of adopting a Jennifer Check–esque persona in my own life, which was an affect. It wasn’t really totally genuine. So, I think it just happened. I happened to be the right person to play this character at that time, because I was kind of living a microcosm of it already, if that makes sense.

Megan Fox and Karyn Kusama discuss justice for Jennifer’s Body at Beyond Fest. Photo: Annette DiGiovanni / BeyondFest

You recently did an interview with Diablo Cody and asked why she picked you, and she said a lot of people read for Needy, but that she always knew Jennifer was you. Then at the end of the conversation you circled back and said you also felt like you were the only person who could have played this part. Why do you think so? 
Fox: I mean, I think that it took someone who was, like, genuinely demented at that time to play a demon-possessed man-eating teenager, and I was just at a space in my life and mentally where I could fully embody that and be okay doing it. It wasn’t really an acting exercise, per se. It was just leaning into the darkest part of my own shadow. I was ready to do that at that time, because, like I said, I was already struggling against so many other things in my career, and I was like, Fuck it. Let’s just go. Let’s just go deep into this place where I should be hiding all of this from people. Let’s just expose it.

Karyn, you were the one responsible for keeping all the tonal switches throughout the movie on track and wrangling the absurdity of it all, while giving the most vulnerable parts the attention they needed, too. What was the element you’d go back to as the movie’s beating heart to stay grounded.
Kusama: It’s interesting to rewatch the film after a long, long time and just realize that I was always working with really good performances. I think if the performances are honest — no matter what the tone — if there’s a sense of sincerity that’s not necessarily earnest, but, like, something real, it’s a lot easier to navigate a bunch of tones. I was very lucky to have just so many people in the cast, from Amanda and Megan to Adam [Brody] and Johnny [Simmons].

Fox: Johnny was great.

Kusama: And Kyle Gallner. I mean, there are just so many wonderful performances. J.K. Simmons and Amy Sedaris, it goes on and on and that’s such a pleasure. It is a lot of wrangling, but somehow it felt more natural to me because there was so much honesty in the performances.

You hear so much about the aftermath of this movie, but something I don’t know much about is what it was like to make the movie. What was it like creating this thing before any of the backlash happened? 
Kusama [to Fox]: What’s your memory?

Fox: I feel like Amanda and I kind of fell into —

Kusama: The relationship.

Fox: Yeah. We kind of were that relationship on set a little bit. Not quite as toxic, but we were sort of living it a little bit. I don’t know. What was it like for you? I was just in it. Doing it.

Kusama: Megan will remember: I had my son up on set with me in Vancouver. He turned 1 while we were prepping. My husband was coming up every weekend. It was a lot of negotiating real life with the incredible privilege of getting to make a fantasy for a job. So for me it was actually a really exciting time, and it was a fun set for the most part. It was a really fun set. I mean, the sacrifice scene I remember being deeply upset by it. You were deeply upset by it. There were definitely things about it that were like disturbing at the time, but also, it’s hard with dialogue that good not to have fun pretty much every day.

Fox [to Vulture]: Can I ask a question?

Anything you want.
Fox [to Kusama]: For me, as an actor, you don’t make a movie and [say], like, “This is gonna be epic,” or “This is going to be around forever!” When you were making it, were you like, This is a fucking good movie? Or did you not know until you got out of editing that it was like, All right. We did it. We made a good movie?

Kusama: I always felt like it would have its trouble spots. It would have its areas that I can still look at and wish were better, but ultimately the movie works, and the movie worked in my opinion. I just didn’t realize how it’s really provocative for people. Like, something about the way the movie was marketed and where you were in your career, where Diablo was in her career, it was kind of like we got this weird blowback before anyone had even seen the movie. It was really weird. So I always felt great about the movie, but I just try to kind of absorb failure, move on, forget about it.

The crazy thing about fan culture is that we don’t. So while you guys have moved beyond Jennifer’s Body in your life, we keep yelling at each other on Twitter, alternately defending your honor and shouting “thank you!” at people who agree with us. We’ve been on an infinite loop for ten years. But Megan, Karyn mentioned the sacrifice scene and that is something you’ve talked about having a very visceral experience with, and the multiple layers of bringing that victimization to the surface. Could you share a bit more about that?
Fox: I did that Bloody Disgusting podcast, and having people ask me all these questions and having to reflect on it, I realized a lot of things. One of the things was when I was doing that sacrifice scene, there are of course other things that I can pull from my childhood and past, but for me, that scene represented my relationship with the movie studios at the time and the studio executives and directors and just Hollywood in general, because on almost a daily basis, I felt like I was being sacrificed for their gain with almost no concern for my physical well-being. Fuck your mental or emotional well-being. That never is a question when you’re a woman in Hollywood. Whatever they need to do to me or put me through, they were going to do as long as it got them that they needed. So in that moment I think it was a very visceral, very powerful, almost cathartic experience, because I was able to let out everything that I was trying to keep in and not be vulnerable and play tough and fight it. I could just surrender to it and cry and wilt and it was okay.

How did you work with her through that, Karyn?
Kusama: It’s such a kind of meta scene. I find it really difficult to watch actually.

Fox: My mom still won’t watch it. She can’t handle it. She knows what happens ’cause she listened to it, but she won’t watch it.

Kusama: Megan and I agreed before we started shooting it that she was not going to ever wink to the audience. No matter what was happening to her in terms of how other people were behaving, whether they were cracking jokes, the horror of it is that they are cracking jokes. I remember when it was over. First of all, it was exhausting, and you were like quite literally on a giant rock in the middle of the woods.

Fox: In Canada in the winter.

Kusama: In Canada in the winter at night. And it was close to the end, I believe, of our three and a half weeks of night shooting. So we were all probably a little bit demented, but Megan just gave so much. She made it so terrifying and deeply upsetting, deeply disturbing. I remember after that day, what you had said upset you so much about it when we were shooting was how everyone just kept laughing at you. Then to hear the [Brett] Kavanaugh hearings and hear Christine Blasey Ford say, “All I can remember is all these guys just laughing at me.” I mean, I’m getting chills just thinking about what it means for women to routinely feel like their humanity doesn’t matter, and I really think Megan channeled an experience that ultimately is just too universal for a lot of women. That was something really moving to me on that day. There was something so viscerally honest about what Megan was doing.

And Megan you said earlier this year in a New York Times interview that you have your own stories Me Too stories, but that you don’t share them because you’re not what a sympathetic victim looks like.
Fox: Yes.

That’s a really fucked-up weight to carry.
Fox: Yeah, and I’m working a lot on changing my own belief systems, because that’s what informs your reality. But for me, the experience I’ve had thus far in my life is that I felt if I came forward during this sort of explosion of the Me Too movement with the stories that I have — and I have a’plenty — that that would be the one time it was okay to victim blame. So I was sort of in that same prison of not being able to — it’s a feminist movement, right? This is the time. It’s okay to be a woman. It’s okay, because we’re feminists, but am I accepted by feminists? Because I never felt like I was. I was the one woman where it was okay to be a feminist and be like, “Yeah, but not her. She’s stupid and she’s selfish and she’s a dumb cunt and we don’t like her. She deserves that, because she said this or did this.” So, yeah. It is a lot to carry. But again, it’s my job to reframe that experience for myself and create a different reality, ’cause it’s easy to lean into it and be like, Oh, I’m the victim and here’s why. That’s my been my experience so far, but I do feel like it’s shifting in a good way, a positive way, but that was my relationship with the media and the public and with men and people at that time.

And your relationship with the media around Jennifer’s Body, Megan, really is inextricable from how this film was received critically and marketed by the studio. In that recent conversation you had with Diablo, she mentioned a focus group filled with men in the vaunted “males aged 18–24” demographic, and apparently one of the insights provided was the movie needed “more bewbs.” And this kind of feedback was taken seriously.
Kusama: And “more” was spelled “moar.”

Karyn, you received your own message from somebody in marketing when you expressed concern about how the movie was being promoted, right?
Kusama: I guess I didn’t deserve full sentences, but it was something along the lines of — ’cause we had looked at some first drafts essentially of the trailer, and the first trailers didn’t have Amanda in them —

Fox: [Laughs.]

Kusama: So they didn’t understand that the movie had another character, and it was so much about a friendship between Megan’s character and Amanda’s character. It was just so strange, because it just took away the entire story. So I wrote in a polite email, like, “I’m extremely concerned by the absence of our … ” You know, I tried to be diplomatic, and what I got back was essentially, “Megan hot. Focus on Megan hot.” It it was just such a strange — it was a dark time.

At that time, Diablo was coming off of Juno and her Oscar. Karyn, you started out in indie films then went from Aeon Flux into Jennifer’s Body, and Megan you obviously had a lot going on at the time being in a media fire tornado. So what was it like for you both getting back to work and creative pursuits after this movie not only fizzled, but was taken down in ways that felt so set on personally belittling some of the women involved.
Fox: Well, we wrapped this movie, and then I went to directly to film the second Transformers. Um, and then … yeah [laughs]. Yeah, then I probably did something else in the interim, but what ended up happening, weirdly, is that I don’t know if this movie got caught up in editing or what, but Transformers [Revenge of the Fallen] ended up coming out in the summer of 2009 and [Jennifer’s Body] came out in the winter. I never anticipated that people would watch it and there would be a trailer where it says, like, “Variety says Megan Fox is stunning! The performance of her life!” I never anticipated that. I always thought that I was probably gonna get shit on, but I thought it was a good movie, so it should get some good reviews. It’s still the thing I’m the most proud of: this and the arc on New Girl, which was my other favorite role.

So this came out while I was on the press tour, and we had been in Canada. We landed in New York. I was doing the VMAs with Adam I think, and my publicist and agent come into the room and were like, “So there’s a problem. We’ve gotten like 600 phone calls from Steven Spielberg.” If you don’t remember, this was something we referred to as Hitler-gate. I had done an interview for a magazine and I said a whole bunch of stuff — and I feel like a lot of it was really eloquent and good — but the one thing that everybody paid attention to was I referenced, you know, Michael [Bay] can be very difficult sometimes on set, and sometimes he likes to take on the role of a dictator. And I thought it was a good colloquialism to refer to him as a Hitler.

That was not a good idea for many, many, many reasons! I was 23 or 22. It’s something I grew up hearing people say. It had no anti-Semitic slant or anything like that! However, he was very upset. He didn’t like it. He was like, “Now anytime somebody Googles Michael Bay, it’s going to say Hitler next to me!” So we were in a crisis when I landed, and I didn’t realize the level of the crisis, ’cause I felt like I already had so many crises before that. And I was supposed to start pre-production on the third of Transformers a few months after that. So, essentially a lot of things happened. People demanded apologies. I refused to apologize, blah blah blah [applause]. No, no. That doesn’t make me cool! I was a stubborn kid. It would have been easier to just suck it up and go, “Look, I was wrong for sharing it publicly.” I could have taken responsibility for that. I didn’t want to because I felt I’d been so wronged in all these other ways, and I was going to stand my ground and be a Joan of Arc and get on my horse, and it was very self-righteous.

So then Jennifer’s Body comes out. It gets the reviews that it gets. Then I go into production for the third Transformers with someone who was not very happy for me to be in their movie. And that didn’t go well, as a lot of people probably know! What ended up happening is — and there’s much debate about this still currently — essentially, we were never going to make that movie together. I happened to pull the trigger first and quit, and again, not because I’m cool. I would’ve gotten fired eventually anyway. I pulled the trigger first and was like, “I can’t live another six months like this,” and I think I had, like, a psychotic breakdown, or a meltdown, because I quit and Brian [Austin Green] was like, “It’s like I saw a burden just come off of your body, because now I saw you breathe for the first time in like five years.”

But I had to live through the persecution in the media for at least two years after that where it wasn’t just Mike. It wasn’t just people in the studio who were planting stories with like Nikki Finke, or whatever that website is that everybody cares about it, because it’s legitimate if you read it there. I had to go through that, and I was also really getting it from other women a lot. There was someone, a pretty legitimate journalist at the time but I forget who she was writing for, and she essentially said I should have shut my mouth and been grateful, because if it wasn’t for Michael Bay I would have been acting in porn movies. And I’m like, my parents are going to read that. What did I ever do to deserve to deserve that?

You were never even a “scandalous” figure.
Fox: No. I never drank. I never did drugs. I never went to clubs. I’ve been in the same relationship for 15 years. I didn’t understand really what it was, why people project this onto me, why I’m such a mirror for people in that way sometimes. So that was my life immediately after the release of Jennifer’s Body, and it was very difficult and that persisted for several years. I did do Judd Apatow’s movie [This Is 40] where actually, like, two critics said, “Hey, she was almost kind of funny in that! She did okay!” Then I went on to do Ninja Turtles and then I did New Girl, and that was the first time where I noticed there had been a shift where people were like, “Wow! She’s actually good. She’s actually a decent actress.” Some people went, “She’s never been a particularly funny actress,” and I was like, “Watch Jennifer’s Body, you fuckfaces!” If there’s one thing I’ve ever been, it’s a comedic actress.

So that was life, and I went through it for years and felt very buried by it and had a lot of anger and frustration. But I also became a mom, and I’ve had three kids since then. That’s really changed my perspective and my consciousness, and caused me to grow in ways that I can’t describe. It is tragic that it happened in the way that it happened, but also it’s kind of amazing to sit back and go, “Look at how far ahead of our time and we were. We were eight years ahead of everybody else with what we were doing and feeling and thinking and saying and speaking.” So that part’s cool [laughs].

And speaking of those kinds of limits, my question for you, Karyn is, is director’s jail real, and did you feel like you were in it?
Kusama: I mean, director’s jail is real.

Fox: Especially if you’re a woman.

Kusama: I was just going to say, I think it’s a lot more real when you’re female, but also I’m a very persistent, nose-to-the-grindstone kind of person. So I just kept working. I started really seriously working in television, and started returning to the indie space. It took a while, but I made The Invitation and my last film, Destroyer. I feel very, very lucky that I even get to make movies, because it’s a hard thing to do. Fewer and fewer people see them. I’m so thankful that you’re all here on a Sunday afternoon to watch a movie on the big screen as it should be watched. I am not saying this ironically, I am truly grateful to be here.

Select questions from the audience:

I’m 19, so I didn’t watch this movie when it first came out, but when I first watched it I wanted to read some reviews and I was so shocked. When I was 9, apparently it was okay for a professional reviewers to go, “If you want to look at Megan Fox’s body, there are better ways to do it.” And, like, did you just watch the same movie as me? Because, you know, there are so few things in Hollywood that are just strong women that are actually made by women. I guess that’s not really the question.
Kusama: I hope that what the film is exploring is how misogyny and the power constructs of what we call the patriarchy warp everyone. It’s not just men who become damaged in that system. Women become so damaged in that system. And if anything hurt about the process of releasing Jennifer’s Body it was the rejection of critics who seemed to just sort of dismiss the movie and really just get on a train of humiliation-speak. They just felt a power in belittling the film and the filmmaking. That’s a critic’s prerogative, but I’ve found it to be a really fascinating reflection of what the movie was actually about.

I watched this movie when I was 14, and it was kind of like the first time that I was like, “Oh, shit. I think I’m gay.” So I just want to ask, do you think this is also like a movie about sexuality and sexual exploration? 
Kusama: It was so crucial that the reveal was that, actually, Needy and Jennifer had a sometimes-intimate relationship, and that that is part of why it’s so emotionally entangled. It’s not just BFFs. It’s kind of more complex than that. I felt like I got a lot of blowback for embracing the eroticism of that relationship, but for me that was part of the film’s identity. I’ve always embraced the idea of queerness, and I just feel like their relationship was not made more titillating for a young male audience. It was made more interesting for everyone and for the actors playing those characters, because they had a somewhat secret but deeply close relationship.

Fox: I think for me at least, I knew that this scene was not going to be taken for what it was intended to be going into shooting. So there was the pressure of almost anticipating the disappointment. I think I said this on the press tour or before, that the entire trailer was probably gonna be just that scene of me making out with Amanda, and it would be clickbait like, “Megan Fox’s First Lesbian Scene!” So I think it made it hard to experience it the way I would have wanted to, because I was preoccupied with “What is this really going to be turned into?” Which, of course, it was. It was completely misunderstood. From the test, were screenings the bros were like, “Yeah!” and bro-ing out over it?

Kusama: The irony is that I think that the scene is both erotic and really scary, because at this point you see Jennifer’s power and so we’re not sure where this is exactly going.

Fox: Maybe that’s where they thought there should be more boobs.

Megan Fox, Karyn Kusama Revisit the Jennifer’s Body Backlash