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Adam Brody on being Seth Cohen and hating the way Jennifer’s Body was marketed

Adam Brody on Gilmore Girls (Screenshot), at the Shazam! premiere in 2019 (Photo: Michael Tullberg/Getty Images), and on The O.C. (Screenshot)
Adam Brody on Gilmore Girls (Screenshot), at the Shazam! premiere in 2019 (Photo: Michael Tullberg/Getty Images), and on The O.C. (Screenshot)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples
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Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that Adam Brody’s role on The O.C. was a “cultural reset.” With Seth Cohen, Brody introduced a new brand of affable music nerd; he was the original “softboi,” so to speak—and some young men still strongly identify with the character. But rather than relegating himself to rom-coms and the type of fare pursued by his 2000s teen-dramedy counterparts, Brody has consistently found himself in roles that are miles away from the character who turned him into a star, like a terrifyingly realistic creep in the Best Picture nominee Promising Young Woman, or a too-old drummer in a band made up of teenage girls in Kevin Smith’s Yoga Hosers. When The A.V. Club spoke to Brody in late February, the actor discussed how he feels about being recognized forever for The O.C., how much Jennifer’s Body marketing sucked, and why his brief appearance on The Amanda Show was so impactful to his career.

This interview discusses spoilers pertaining to The Kid Detective’s ending.

The Kid Detective (2020)—“Abe Applebaum”

The A.V. Club: [Writer/director] Evan Morgan first approached you about The Kid Detective in 2012 and sent you the first act. It wasn’t until over a year later that you actually saw the finished screenplay. What drew you in? 

Adam Brody: Evan is a tenacious fellow. I met him at a party at a film festival and he told me about a movie that he was promoting, that he had produced and had co-written and edited called The Dirties. That movie is very special in its own right. I saw him at Sundance that same year, and he sent me a link. I haven’t seen it in now, eight years, but it was wonderful. It’s a movie that sort of starts as a found-footage comedy, and very funny and very grounded. And the third act builds towards this school shooting that is just a straight tense drama. It was special. I knew [Morgan] was talented. He showed me the first act [of The Kid Detective]. He’s a fantastic writer. We talked a bit about it and then he disappeared for a year, I didn’t know what happened to [the movie]. And then I got an email with the whole script. It was pretty close to what you see on screen. I mean, it wasn’t like a whole lot of stuff had to be reworked. Stuff got cut through the long script, but it was fantastic. And then it was pretty much a five-year slog and just trying to get it financed.

AVC: Without knowing the ending, were you trying to kind of piece it together and become your own detective?

AB: Well, no, because [Morgan] didn’t even know what the mystery was. He wasn’t sure if you wanted it to stay in the town, or have the kid detective go to the city and have the whole mystery there. He would have come to the conclusion anyways. But I suggested at the time, “No, you stay in the town and use the world you’ve already built.”

AVC: The ending’s so interesting because even after Abe gets closure on knowing Gracie’s still alive and is finally the town hero again, he breaks down. How did you interpret the ending?

AB: It’s a very late coming of age. He’s never dealt with even Gracie’s disappearance when he was 12. The pressure… His parents should have been able to—they’re well enough intentioned, but didn’t know how to handle it. [The trauma of Gracie’s disappearance] was sort of swept under the rug, I believe. I think it’s weighed on him this whole time, and it was very stunting for him and his development. And 20 years later, he has some closure on it, but it’s devastating in its own right. It feels like a very hollow victory to him and is very sad just on the surface—I just think it’s something he hasn’t even really ever processed. It’s finally welling to the surface. I love the ending because you have that juxtaposed with the parents sitting there, not knowing what to do. As they haven’t known what to do for the last 20 years, and then the cheery title and song come up, and it’s awkward. It’s a lot of things at once.

Gilmore Girls (2003)—“Dave Rygalski”

AB: It was a joy. It was phenomenally well written. I remember at the time chafing a little at how exacting they were with the dialogue. They had two script supervisors. I’ve never seen that before or since. One for continuity’s sake and the other purely to go through dialogue and after every take go to every actor “You missed the pause.” I thought that was… I didn’t love it. In hindsight, almost 20 years later, I realize that’s still some of the best written stuff I’ve ever gotten to do and the rarity of it… If they wanted it word-for-word perfect, they’re writing at such a high level, they deserve it. Who was I to chafe at that?

AVC: You left Gilmore Girls to star in The O.C., and Dave in a way feels like a more wholesome version of Seth Cohen. Do you think that playing Dave was what led to you being cast in The O.C.?

AB: Personally, I don’t think one had much to do with the other. I would say that Dave was short-lived so who knows what missteps he would have made in a longer arc, I’m sure he was not as infallible as he seemed. So it’s not a real fair comparison with Dave; he only got one window into one relationship in his life but he really put it all out there and sacrificed and it was a little bit heroic. Even though he was likable, and it’s been a long time, and maybe I’ll reassess when I see it again, but I don’t know if Seth was ever heroic. If you recall, please let me know. I’m open to be proven wrong, but I can’t recall him doing anything quite heroic. Not that Dave was like, you know, Braveheart or anything. But he seemed like he sacrificed. It seemed like he kind of drove himself crazy to win over Lane.

AVC: A lot of fans thought Dave was a far better fit for Lane than Zack, even though we only saw Dave for such a short time. Do you ever wonder what the show would’ve been like if you’d been cast in The O.C. later on and had been able to explore Dave and Lane’s relationship?

AB: I’m sure it would have been lovely. It was based on one of the writers and his wife and their relationships, and they got married in real life, those two characters. So they were definitely destined to be together on the show.

The O.C. (2003-2007)—“Seth Cohen”

AVC: No matter what roles you take on, you’re always recognized for your role as Seth Cohen. It comes up in every interview no matter what project you’re promoting. How does that feel?  

AB: It’s fine. It’s up to me really to not let it derail or overshadow whatever I’m trying to promote or talk about. Not because I’m so bored or wouldn’t talk about it all day, it’s just just because, strategically and pragmatically, if I’m promoting something else… But it’s a big part of why anyone identifies with me as an actor—if I have any fans, [The O.C.] is the biggest part of that, and I’m thankful for it. And in any way that it garners goodwill towards me, now or in the future, I’m thankful. It’s an honor to have been part of the culture and pop culture in such a distinct way. I think people have good memories of it and have warm thoughts of it, and that’s nice.

AVC: As someone who’s worked as a music journalist for quite some time, I’ve noticed that many men in the industry—whether it’s musicians or music journalists—take pride in identifying with Seth Cohen and consider him their idol. Is it weird for you to see so many people strongly identify with him?

AB: I’ve definitely heard something to the effect of, “Oh, I felt like a dork in high school and then I saw Seth Cohen and I realized, hey, he’s cool and he likes a lot of the same stuff I like.” So in any way that he gave people confidence or self-confidence, and acceptance and even pride. What an honor.

AVC: The interesting thing about Seth is that he’s not always likable—he’s pretty flawed, but people still are very attached to him. 

AB: He’s flawed. It’s been long enough since I’ve seen it, I don’t really remember the choices he made as a character. I remember more the tone and his language than I do the actual storylines. I don’t remember, honestly, much of his choices, but it almost doesn’t matter. But that’s a slightly different thing than I think what people are identifying with, I don’t think they’re identifying so much with the “I had two girls, and I decided to date them both” or whatever. I think they’re identifying with a little more of the aesthetic. But that’s okay, because in a way, it’s a less, I don’t want to say it’s a less masculine aesthetic, but it’s less macho, it’s less testosterone-fueled. I think we all could use that as a culture.

AVC: You told GQ that you were a big Death Cab For Cutie fan when you were cast in The O.C. How much of your interests informed how [creator] Josh Schwartz wrote the character?

AB: That was written in when I joined; there was definitely a character on the page. I think that I informed a lot, and Josh took a lot from that. I mean, he took a lot from all our lives—in a nice way, we were all flattered by it. There’s a character, a bad guy in the last two seasons named Volchok, and that’s the name of my agent, who is good friends with [O.C. creator] Josh [Schwartz], so it was a term of endearment.

Then at the same time, Josh is very into indie music and so we went to a lot of concerts together those first couple years. And he also put a lot of himself into the character. [Seth Cohen] is really like half him, half me.

Jennifer’s Body (2009)—“Nikolai Wolf”

AVC: You didn’t get to do your own vocals in Jennifer’s Body, but did they initially try to have you sing for the movie?

AB: No. In fact, I turned [the role] down. I was friends with the producers and I was like, “Well, I can’t sing. I certainly can’t sing this song.” It’s like a power ballad, kind of… “Through The Trees” is hard to sing, and I couldn’t come anywhere close. I was like, “If I can’t sing, what’s the point? This part is like 50% singing.” Then I thought, “Oh, the movie’s so cool. I should just do it.” And so I did it. Then, ironically, hands down my favorite part filming it was the singing, even though I’m just lip-syncing. It was a blast, just doing it on stage anyway.

AVC: The movie’s sexist marketing hurt Jennifer’s Body from being understood as a feminist horror flick that’s about toxic masculinity. When the movie came out, were you concerned that people wouldn’t quite get it?

AB: I thought the marketing was insane at the time. I thought, you know, you have a movie starring two women about misogyny and female friendship and directed by a woman, written by a woman, who won the Oscar for screenwriting that year. And they just buried all of that. Megan Fox is in her most human and sympathetic role to date at that time, and they hid all that. They didn’t lead with [screenwriter Diablo Cody being] the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Juno. They just marketed just for dudes and “This is about Megan Fox being hot and that’s all you need to know. Oh, and there’s a lesbian kiss.” I think guys were disappointed. Even with the imagery, I mean, there’s so much… that movie is nothing if not full of cinematic imagery. I remember seeing it for the first time before the ads came out and thought that, honestly, the thing I was most struck by was how much I liked the look of it, like the palette, and then I saw the poster. I was like, “This isn’t even in the movie! It’s not remotely in the movie. This looks like Goosebumps! Sexy Goosebumps!” I could shit on that ad campaign for days.

AVC: It’s great that now Jennifer’s Body is finally getting the attention it deserves.

AB: Yeah, it is. It’s overdue, and it would’ve helped back then. At least it’s getting some of its due now.

AVC: When all the thinkpieces and the big BuzzFeed article that came out a few years ago, sparking the conversation about how important the movie is, were you initially surprised that those conversations were happening?

AB: Yeah, pleasantly. I think Megan Fox, in general, has been a little bit of a… I don’t know what you’d call it, I don’t know if martyr is exactly the right word. But she certainly was a little crucified. I think she’s having some of the same reappraisal that Britney Spears is having right now. Everyone really ripped into a young woman surrounded by toxic men that skated off scot-free. I think it’s like so wonderful and exciting, what’s happening with the culture right now. And the reappraisal is wild and I’m part of it too. I’m not so wise, I haven’t always been on the right side of history. This is a little off-topic, but like you’ve got the Donald Trump Access Hollywood tape. And it was bad at the time. It was bad when you heard it in 2016, but I remember hearing it last year, and I hadn’t heard it in three years. I hadn’t heard it since, like, pre-#MeToo and it’s way worse [hearing it now]. It like feels even like a much bigger transgression than it felt like at the time—I’m always speaking for me, obviously. It made plenty of people want to puke at the time. It made me want to, too. I can tell I’ve even changed since. I think we’re going through a cultural revolution and it’s fucking exciting. and I think we’re going to end up at such a better place for everyone.

Promising Young Woman (2020)—“Jerry”

AVC: You played Jerry, who is ready to take advantage of a seemingly drunk Cassandra. Your role in Promising Young Woman reminded me a bit of your character in Jennifer’s Body, Nikolai, but a far more realistic and terrifying version. Did you see a connection between both of these characters who are eager to harm women?

AB: No, I think they’re very different in their own minds. They’re two different sides of the same coin. One is a very outwardly sadistic and narcissistic sociopath, and the other has internalized all that. [Jerry] is not as vicious at all, but has some of the same misogyny and patriarchy brewing inside him, and is acting on it and acting on his perceived rights. The difference being that I think with Promising Young Woman it’s 95%, subconscious. If he was really honest with himself, he could admit to a little of it. But by and large, I think a lot of him thinks he is being charming, and they’re hitting it off. And he is putting blinders on and doesn’t want to know if that might not be the case. He’s not asking any questions of himself, that’s for sure. Whereas, [in] Jennifer’s Body, [Nikolai] is just a psychopath.

AVC: Pop culture has a way of pointing a mirror at society and opening up important conversations. In the case of Promising Young Woman, the movie sparked a wider conversation about consent post-#MeToo about how women are often taken advantage of by men. Did taking on a role in the movie make you have these conversations with women in your life?  

AB: Yeah, that’s a conversation I’ve been having pre-Promising Young Woman, too. I think we’re all having it. I think Brett Kavanaugh was an interesting conversation for the country to have. It’s one part of a huge reappraisal we’re doing right now. I can’t say for every field, but in my field, on set, it’s palpably different—I don’t want to sound flippant, or I definitely don’t want to sound like things are cured and everything’s great, [but] it’s a huge journey. I just think everyone’s consciousness is being raised. Promising Young Woman’s been a part of a conversation and reappraisal of my own life and just culture in general.

Yoga Hosers (2016)—“Ichabod”
Jay And Silent Bob Reboot (2019)—“Hot Topic Guy”

AVC: This was your first time working on a View Askew production with Kevin Smith after he directed you in Cop Out. How did he explain the ridiculous plot of Yoga Hosers to you?

AB: I don’t totally remember, but we’re pals and I’ll just do whatever [he asks me to], so he doesn’t really have to pitch me hard on anything. But I think he just said something to the effect of like, Nazi bratwurst. That’s the long and short of it.

AVC: You also play a musician in this one, but this time you’re the drummer. How much drumming experience did you have before the movie?

AB: I had a very casual band [Big Japan] with some friends in my 20s where I played drums. I don’t call myself a drummer, because I’m not and I don’t know that much, but I can play drums so that’s actually why [Kevin Smith] hired me for the movie. Funnily enough, he just looked up actors that play drums and he was like, “Hey, I know that guy.”

AVC: It’s so fun seeing you also return to the View Askewniverse in Reboot. You get to play a Hot Topic emo guy! With Barsuk emo under your belt, and now Hot Topic emo, is there a type of emo guy you haven’t played yet?

AB: I have played every type of emo guy. I don’t know. I’m not that familiar with the type of emos, but I’m sure I could invent a new one, maybe.

AVC: Kevin Smith is the rare director who doesn’t take criticism to heart and just does whatever he’s passionate about. It seems like he focuses on making sure his sets feel like a comforting, family-like environment. What did you enjoy the most about working with him?

AB: I’ve had more fun on his sets than probably any set. He’s a whole industry unto himself and universe. He’s very fun to be around. He’s a very gifted speaker, and very, very engaging. And I’m always a little flattered, truly, and thrilled when we do work together, and we get to sit and hang out and just talk for a while. I’ll go over to his house every couple of years and have a great conversation, and that I can kind of keep up half of the conversation with him and engage him. The fact that he finds me engaging is a little flattering. He’s also been so nice to me and such a, for lack of a better word, fan. I really appreciate it. He’s always so complimentary, and makes me feel good. Makes me feel very funny.

The Amanda Show (1999)—“Greg Brady”

AVC: There’s an episode of The Amanda Show that’s one of your first times on TV. You’re playing Greg Brady and you and the rest of the Brady Bunch are beating random people up. Was that episode a promo for Growing Up Brady, in which you played Barry Williams?

AB: I wasn’t promoting Growing Up Brady. But that was my first offer. Because we were just recently playing part of the Brady Bunch for their Amanda Show skit “When Bradys Attack,” they offered it to part of that Brady Bunch cast [including me]. I wasn’t too proud. I happily just took it and did it, and don’t remember a thing.

AVC: So, in a way, The Amanda Show inadvertently kickstarted your career and turned it into what it is today.

AB: I don’t know if I go so far as to say that, but maybe in a butterfly effect way. Maybe they’re responsible for Donald Trump, in fact, that’s what I think.