‘It’s such a fight to star in anything good, period’: Adam Brody on swerving typecasting, FX’s Fleishman Is in Trouble, and yes, The OC

Adam Brody plays finance bro Seth in FX’s ‘Fleishman Is in Trouble’  (FX)
Adam Brody plays finance bro Seth in FX’s ‘Fleishman Is in Trouble’ (FX)

Adam Brody is not Seth Cohen. I have to remind myself of this when the actor appears on screen looking exactly like Seth Cohen. The mop of curls that made Brody, now 43, a Noughties teen icon on The OC are still there, still mop-ish. Only there’s a little grey woven in now. Since then, Brody has embarked on a career that has splintered in exciting and unexpected directions. You can hardly blame him for not being overly ecstatic to rehash a decade-old role. “OK” is how he feels when he’s asked about that show these days. Regardless, he is unfailingly polite. Always charming, sometimes warm.

It doesn’t help, though, that his latest role is also called Seth. “They’re very different characters,” Brody assures me. This new Seth is a scene-stealer in FX’s Fleishman Is in Trouble, a TV adaptation of Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s bestselling novel. The series follows Toby (Jesse Eisenberg) as a newly divorced doctor dad-of-two who is busy dipping his toe – or other body parts – in the dating pool when his ex-wife Rachel (Claire Danes) disappears. Toby’s search reconnects him with college pals Seth (Brody) and Libby (Lizzy Caplan). The plot screams thriller, but the series has more in common with Marriage Story than with Gone Girl. It’s more of a marriage autopsy, if you will. Not exactly happy viewing with your partner. Brody disagrees. “I think people will watch this and feel pretty good about their marriages.” He did.

Brody has been married to Gossip Girl star Leighton Meester (one of a handful of teen stars to have been as widely loved as Brody was) since 2014. “If I’ve learnt anything, you have to really swallow your ego and pride,” he says. “You have to listen and accept the other’s perspective – and probably compromise.” It’s good advice. They’re coming up to their 10th anniversary. The Seth of FX’s Fleishman is a finance bro, clinging to the last vestiges of his youth while his friends decamp to the suburbs and have kids – a choice that, Brody would like to clarify, doesn’t make him selfish. “You don’t have to settle down. You don’t have to have kids,” he says. “In fact, don’t if you don’t want to, for God’s sake.”

If ever there was an actor in danger of being typecast, it’s Brody. It’s surprising, then, that Fleishman is the latest in a string of works that turn his boyish charm inside out. Life after The OC looked very un-Seth. He did a tonal 180 with Jennifer’s Body (more on that later), the horror-comedy Ready or Not, and the crime drama StartUp. By all accounts, Brody has had a long and varied career, including a turn in Billy & Billie, a criminally underrated series about stepsiblings who fall in love. For what it’s worth, Brody has never felt pigeonholed. “I’ve always had enough confidence about it, where I’m like, either I won’t be because I’m good enough not to be – or if I am, then it’s my own fault.” And if he was? Well, Brody laughs, there’s worse things. “I like what I do. I enjoy and am decent in the romance and romantic-comedy space,” he says. “I also don’t think I carry a machine gun as well as some other guys.”

The years have made him realistic – and frank – about the business. “It’s icing on the cake if you like the stuff you’re making, and that’s not always the case,” he says without an ounce of bitterness. Later, he tells me that “it’s such a fight to be in anything good, period. I don’t think anyone, save a few people, are turning down those opportunities, regardless of what it is.”

Granted, he has always been a bit like this. “Very practical and pragmatic” is how he describes his own entry into acting. Brody was 18 and working at Blockbuster in San Diego when he made the decision to follow in his friend’s footsteps and move to LA to act. It was the early Nineties, and teen shows were thriving. “It seemed like there was this thing happening a few hours away, where if you’re 20 but you look like a teenager, then there were all these ensembles you can be in.” Boyish dimples alone don’t guarantee success – especially if they aren’t paired with some acting experience, which in Brody’s case, they weren’t. He gave himself a deadline of a year to make it. “If I wasn’t ascending by then, I wasn’t going to stick around for five or 10 years and miss my college window.”

Within the year, he was cast in Growing Up Brady. The 2000 film is an adaptation of Barry Williams’s autobiography about his time as a child star playing Greg on Seventies TV show The Brady Bunch; Brody won the role of Williams. To this day, he calls it the “biggest step up” in his career. “No matter what I do, nothing will feel that big again.” Brody celebrated his 20th birthday on set. “There I was, driving through the gates of the Paramount lot every day, making more money than I had ever made,” he recalls, wide-eyed. “Obviously I wasn’t rich, but I could pay my rent for two years, which is crazy.” A young Kaley Cuoco acted opposite him as Maureen McCormick, who played Greg Brady’s TV sister Marcia. The actors ended up dating – which was definitely not the case for Brody and Cuoco, who were 19 and 14 respectively at the time.

Growing Up Brady was, he says, “epic”. When it ended, Brody found himself at a loose end and alone. “Because Kaley Cuoco was so young, I didn’t really make any appropriate friends to keep,” he says. “I didn’t know anyone in LA. I didn’t have any friends, really, or a social life. Not only that, I didn’t have any other jobs.” Brody went home to San Diego where he sat around for months. “I felt like I had nothing to go back to yet,” he says. Just around the corner – both in his career and (possibly to his annoyance) in our conversation – is The OC. The hit teen drama ran from 2003 to 2007. Across nearly 100 episodes, Seth Cohen, comic-book nerd and Death Cab for Cutie stan, defined a generation. (Lately, though, the tide has turned concerning Seth’s lovability. “It’s true, I can’t think of anything he did that was sacrificial for anyone else,” laughs Brody, admitting he is far from an expert on this stuff. “It’s ironic because I played him, and yet I’m the farthest thing from the authority on him, because I haven’t seen the show in so long.”)

Adam Brody as Seth in ‘Fleishman Is in Trouble’ (Matthias Clamer/FX)
Adam Brody as Seth in ‘Fleishman Is in Trouble’ (Matthias Clamer/FX)

Whether he remembers it or not, Seth Cohen was etched into the teenage psyche for a good decade. But that was then, and this is now. Which is why, when I broach the topic, as anyone interviewing Brody surely must, I do so with an apologetic caution. How does it feel to be asked about The OC after all this time? There’s an audible shrug. He knew this was coming. “To answer your question, I’m not going to expand on it but it’s fine. It feels OK. I don’t know.” In fairness to Brody, he does speak freely about the series when it’s relevant. I get the sense he’s only bothered when The OC is the main topic. You’d think participating in the inevitable 20th anniversary pieces this year would be his idea of hell. Surprisingly, it’s not. In fact, Brody is slightly worried that he hasn’t lived up to the hype.

It’s a lot of pressure to be nerdy and sexy. Heavy hangs the head

“In retrospect, I don’t know if I gave a good enough interview about it.” He may be over The OC, but that doesn’t mean he’s willing to let his fans down. In truth, not wanting to “totally screw over the fans” is part of the reason why Brody never considered exiting the show early, even if, creatively, he was done with it. “Leaving didn’t seem like an option or the honourable thing to do. I didn’t want it to go on for ever, but I had a contract and I was going to honour it,” he says. “I had some basic standards of professionalism.” It never looked like he was phoning it in, even towards the end. “I was,” he flashes a smile. “In fairness, it was a different show at the end. The quality wasn’t the same, and it’s nobody’s fault. It’s hard.”

That makes me wonder whether the teen heartthrob label was ever a burden when he was young. “Yeah,” he deadpans. “It’s a lot of pressure to be nerdy and sexy. Heavy hangs the head.” But seriously? “No, not really. I guess if I’m being honest, for a certain generation, or for those who grew up with a crush on me, I don’t want to disappoint in my older age. I want to be able to keep the fire alive.” He laughs. “But I wouldn’t call it pressure.” The fire still roars. Just last year, he was named Gawker’s Sexiest Man Alive.

Rachel Bilson and Adam Brody star as Summer and Seth in ‘The OC’ (Fox)
Rachel Bilson and Adam Brody star as Summer and Seth in ‘The OC’ (Fox)

Brody eventually left the sandy beaches of Orange County behind – however, not before he had cemented that lovable goof image with a guest role as Dave, aka the best boyfriend ever, in Gilmore Girls. The world was his oyster after that, but it’s fair to say, no one expected Jennifer’s Body. The 2009 horror-comedy, penned by Juno writer Diablo Cody, starred Megan Fox as a flesh-eating demon wrapped in a fuzzy pink sweater. Brody gamely embraced his role as a wannabe rock star who stabs a girl to death in the name of fame. “Do you know how hard it is to make it as an indie band these days?” his character reasons. “There’s so many of us and we’re all so cute.” You’ve got to hand it to the studio executives. It didn’t take them long to realise that casting Brody as another nice guy in skinny jeans wasn’t the best play here. Brody? In a romcom? Meh. Brody as a murderous devil-worshipper in an emo boy band? That’s a winner.

Back then, not everyone agreed. Jennifer’s Body was universally panned. “To have it receive such tepid reviews – and in a way, to be a punching bag – felt s***ty,” he says. “It wasn’t my movie, so I didn’t take the brunt of it, but it still felt a little unjust.” Justice eventually arrived, not swiftly but sweetly. In 2018, Jennifer’s Body was reappraised as a cult classic. Admittedly, a large majority of those unhappy viewers at the time had been teenage boys dismayed that the film was not the softcore porno they’d been promised.

Amanda Seyfried, Adam Brody and Megan Fox in Diablo Cody’s ‘Jennifer’s Body’ (2009) (20th Century Fox)
Amanda Seyfried, Adam Brody and Megan Fox in Diablo Cody’s ‘Jennifer’s Body’ (2009) (20th Century Fox)

“[The marketing] couldn’t have missed the mark harder.” Brody rolls his eyes. Everything he had loved about Jennifer’s Body – its neon Gothic visuals, for example – was abandoned in favour of a male fantasy. And an unimaginative one at that. “The film was a marketing person’s dream, and then to see them do that...” Brody means the poster: a saturated solo shot of Megan Fox perched on a classroom table in a tiny plaid skirt and high heels. “Part Goosebumps, part Maxim. It’s not even anything she wears in the movie.” He furrows his brow. “The film was directed by a woman, starring two women, written by that year’s screenwriting Oscar winner, and instead they’re like, ‘Let’s bury all of that. Don’t tell anyone that. This is for people who like Transformers.’” It’s a testament to how much things have changed that when Brody appeared alongside fellow internet boyfriends Max Greenfield and Bo Burnham as insidious sexual predators in the 2020 Oscar winner Promising Young Woman, it was noted as a brilliant coup of casting.

When Brody was growing up, his parents – a lawyer and a graphic designer from Detroit, Michigan – worked long hours. “As most parents do,” he says. “So I was left to my own devices a lot.” Asked if it was a particularly creative household, Brody offers a straight-up “No” coupled with a wry chuckle. “I love them! But it wasn’t a big cultural show-and-tell.” (Instead, he thanks his parents for what they didn’t put in his head. “I’m glad they were Democrats!”) He is proud of what he calls his “blue collar” acting journey. He came up through commercials as opposed to a fancy conservatory, and has previously called himself an “entertainer” type of actor. “I say it to be somewhat humble, but I agree with it. ‘Artist’ feels wildly overly romantic and grandiose for what I do.” He pauses, and then continues with a hint of shyness. “But at the same time, I’ve started to reappraise a little. Lo and behold, I feel like I can bring a level of craft that I wasn’t bringing 10 years ago. Is that art? I don’t know. It’s creative. It sounds a little highfalutin’ to call myself an artist.” He smirks. “But occasionally, I do feel like one.”

FX’s ‘Fleishman Is in Trouble’ streams from 22 February on Disney Plus