Megan Fox is a fox. And not just in the way you might think if you’ve seen her in a tiny bikini in a men’s magazine or leaning over the hood of a ’76 Camaro in “Transformers.” Yes, Fox is beautiful and often scantily clad, but dozens of beautiful girls arrive in Hollywood every day who are more than happy to pose nearly naked. Unlike them, Fox has a quality that sets her apart: Fox is sly. Canny. A devoted student of stardom, past and present, she knows how to provide her own color commentary — a narrative to go with the underwear. In the age of the 24-hour news cycle and hungry blogs, Fox has supplied a seemingly endless stream of tantalizing quotes. She has detailed her fling with a stripper named Nikita; compared Michael Bay, the director of “Transformers,” to Hitler; and revealed that she has her boyfriend’s name tattooed “next to my pie.” Fox has a provocative way of describing any situation: her girl-on-girl kiss in her latest film, “Jennifer’s Body,” is “like crazy kiddie porn”; Disney’s “High School Musical” is about pedophilia (if you watch it, as she did, after getting high); and the reigning heartthrob Robert Pattinson is too young and too pretty to be sexually compelling. “I would eat Robert Pattinson,” she said.
None of these comments were accidental. All of them made the Hollywood press, especially on the Internet, swoon. Some of Fox’s comments may have been fiction (sadly, there was no Nikita), but most seemed startlingly honest and entirely quotable. Fox, who is 23, understood instinctively that noise plus naked equals celebrity. And after having appeared only in “Transformers” I and II, in which the true stars were giant robots, she created a rebellious, frankly sexual persona and talked her way into the limelight. The only problem is, having come so far so fast, how do you stay this year’s girl when the year is almost over?
This question seemed to be on Fox’s mind when I met her one morning in late September at the Four Seasons Hotel in Manhattan. She lives in Los Angeles but was in New York to host “Saturday Night Live,” and she answered the door of her hotel room dressed in black leggings, a low-cut tank top under a gray, loose-fitting long cardigan and large, rectangular glasses, which gave her a kind of “sexy librarian” look that vividly contrasted with her pinup image. Fox is small and narrow, with a tiny waist, and she wears her long, thick dark brown hair parted in the middle, which gives her a vaguely Indian quality. Her most striking feature is her eyes — they’re bright blue and catlike, and they look half-closed even when they’re wide-open. For all her raunchy talk, Fox is surprisingly dainty and ladylike. She took ballet for much of her childhood, and she has a natural stillness and grace. She’s not warm or particularly friendly and doesn’t seem at all interested in small talk. Instead, she’s self-contained and a bit wary. She will answer any question, but she resists true dialogue. With Fox, it’s not a conversation but a presentation.
Fox arranged herself in an armchair behind a round table covered with plates of eggs, melon, potatoes and toast that had been ordered by her publicist from room service. The television, which was mounted near the ceiling, was tuned to “The View,” and Fox made no effort to lower the sound. She watches a lot of television, hours and hours of reality-based shows, from “Jon & Kate Plus Eight” to “Ghost Hunters” to “Say Yes to the Dress,” which is about women searching for the perfect wedding gown. “I don’t know why I love it, but I do,” Fox said now, as she picked at a plate of steamed spinach. “It’s really confusing to me, so I study it. They all cry when they find the dress. I don’t understand why they all cry.”
Fox said this as if she were contemplating an alien species. Having conquered the male audience, she was now trying to figure out what women want. Four days earlier, “Jennifer’s Body” opened, and despite Fox’s many salacious interviews and alluring photos, the movie performed poorly, winding up in fifth place at the box office. “Jennifer’s Body,” which was written by Diablo Cody (who won an Oscar for her original screenplay for “Juno”) and directed by Karyn Kusama, was aimed at women. Fox plays a sexually sophisticated high-school girl transformed into a zombie demon that must feed on humans to survive. She satisfies this desire by first seducing and then eating men. Not surprisingly, and despite the heavily publicized 64-second lesbian makeout scene, men did not buy many tickets. Neither did women, who tend to prefer movies that feature more approachable, less vixenish actresses, like Sandra Bullock or Jennifer Aniston.
“People expected ‘Jennifer’s Body’ to make so much money,” Fox said flatly. “But I was doubtful. The movie is about a man-eating, cannibalistic lesbian cheerleader, and that pretty much eliminates middle America. It’s obviously a girl-power movie, but it’s also about how scary girls are. Girls can be a nightmare.” Fox paused and stared up at the ladies on “The View.” “ ‘Jennifer’s Body’ wasn’t rated PG-13 like ‘Twilight,’ ” she continued. “It was a hard R, and kids couldn’t get in. So they bought a ticket to another movie and snuck in.” She smiled. “If I was to have a message, it would be to be a different kind of role model to girls. With ‘Jennifer’s Body,’ I want to say, It’s O.K. to be different from how you’re supposed to be. I worry that’s totally lost.”
In the last month, Fox and her team — her agent, Chuck James, and her publicists, Leslie Sloane Zelnick and Dominique Appel — have grown increasingly nervous about her media image. The lack of success of “Jennifer’s Body” highlighted their concern: the outrageousness that made Fox an instant star was not attracting a paying audience, especially among females. They were hoping that hosting “S.N.L.” and some recent appearances on talk shows on which she seemed demure might help to change the dialogue about Fox from the out-of-control sex bomb to the Fox they know, who is a homebody with a longtime boyfriend (the actor Brian Austin Green, who is 36) and a fondness for spending Saturday nights at Red Lobster, where she likes the cheese biscuits. That, they maintain, is the girl that girls should see. But Fox is less certain. “Women tear each other apart,” she told me now. “Girls think I’m a slut, and I’ve been in the same relationship since I was 18. The problem is, if they think you’re attractive, you’re either stupid or a whore or a dumb whore. The instinct among girls is to attack the jugular.”
Fox says she believes that Hollywood reinforces these stereotypes and prejudices. She seems to think that her constant references to sex are a kind of feminist stance, that while she may seem like a headline-seeking provocateur, she is simply navigating a complex and chauvinistic world. “If I had been a typical starlet and said all the right things, I wouldn’t have escalated to this level,” Fox explained. “I sit down and do an interview and I talk like a person and that, for some reason, is shocking. All women in Hollywood are known as sex symbols. You’re sold, and it’s based on sex. That’s O.K., if you know how to use it.” Fox paused. “It’s been a crazy year. I’ve learned that being a celebrity is like being a sacrificial lamb. At some point, no matter how high the pedestal that they put you on, they’re going to tear you down. And I created a character as an offering for the sacrifice. I’m not willing to give my true self up. It’s a testament to my real personality that I would go so far as to make up another personality to give to the world. The reality is, I’m hidden amongst all the insanity. Nobody can find me.”
Fox was interrupted by the doorbell. James and Sloane Zelnick had arrived to take her to Rockefeller Center for an “S.N.L.” rehearsal. James, elegantly dressed in a suit, was carrying a large fruit basket from Lorne Michaels, the producer of “S.N.L.”; Sloane Zelnick, who, like her client, wore black leggings and a long cardigan, handed Fox a bag of leggings and matching tops.
This group is fascinated by leggings. When Fox saw her other publicist, Dominique Appel, the next day, she was wearing leggings with sewn-in knee pads. “Are those the Lindsay Lohan leggings?” Fox asked. “The ones that are made for getting on your knees?” It was suggested she get a pair. Fox shook her head. “Oh, no, I can’t wear those. If I wore them, it would be on the Internet in five minutes. The blogs would have a field day.”
“We have to go,” Sloane said now. Fox looked over at a pair of silicone breast enhancers lying on a side table next to her phone. They resembled raw, skinless chicken cutlets. “Do I need to bring my boobies to ‘S.N.L.’?” Fox asked. Sloane Zelnick thought for a second. “It’s just going to be a read-through. You don’t need boobies for a read-through.” Fox picked them up and put them down. “I like a job that doesn’t require my boobies,” she said.
IN 2005, WHEN the breakdown for “Transformers” was sent to agents, the character of Mikaela Banes, a sexy gear-head high-school girl, who with her boyfriend discovers a race of bellicose robots and kind of saves the world, was described to Fox as a 16-year-old Angelina Jolie. At the time, Fox was 19 and working in New York, playing the wild teenage daughter on an ABC sitcom called “Hope & Faith.” She had just signed with a new agent (James), and the first audition he sent her on was for “Transformers.” When he read the breakdown of the character, he knew Fox would get the job. In looks, in temperament, she was the next Angelina.
Historically, Hollywood likes to look for a close (and usually younger) facsimile of its reigning stars. When Julia Roberts became less interested in romantic comedies, those parts went to Sandra Bullock. When Robert Redford was more attracted to directing than to being a leading man, Brad Pitt was waiting in the wings. Jolie was unique: from the start of her career, she combined stunning looks, talent and a penchant for extreme behavior. She was openly bisexual, had many tattoos and flaunted her fascination with drugs, blood and self-destructive behavior. Until she adopted her first child, Maddox, in 2002, Jolie was Hollywood’s favorite wild child. She won an Academy Award, she was the sexiest woman alive and she was a media sensation. What better person for Megan Fox to emulate?
And while Fox hasn’t shown Jolie’s acting talent, the rest could be approximated. The physical resemblance is striking: Fox is shorter and less lush, but the pillowy lips are similar, and in a sea of Hollywood blondes, Fox, like Jolie, is brunette. If there’s an Angelina playbook, Fox followed it. She has seven or eight tattoos, depending on whom you ask, including a reference to “King Lear” (“We will all laugh at gilded butterflies”) in gothic calligraphy on her upper back that stylistically mirrors a tattoo on Jolie’s upper back. Like Jolie, Fox told journalists that she was bisexual, that the actress Olivia Wilde was “so sexy she makes me want to strangle a mountain ox with my bare hands.” Fox emphasized the outrageous, especially in her first big cover article for GQ, in which she embroidered her love affair with the stripper Nikita, defined herself as a man in a sexy woman’s body and announced her thoughts on Angelina. “I don’t even consider her human,” she said. “She’s like a superhuman goddess.”
The Jolie comparison would probably have been made by the media eventually, but Fox sped up the process. By linking herself to Jolie, she sped up every process. And when Jolie became a mom and a good-will ambassador, Fox was ready to step into her shoes. It was an easy fit. Fox enjoyed creating entertaining copy. If she invented or amped up the scenarios, she could (theoretically) manage her image. And, like Jolie before her, she told entertaining tales of darkness and lust. “When I sit down to talk to men’s magazines, there’s a certain character that I play,” she explained. “She’s not fully fleshed out — she doesn’t have her own name — but she shows up to do men’s-magazine interviews. There’s something so ridiculous about always being in your underwear in those magazines, and you know the interview is going to run opposite those pictures. So, there’s a character that talks to all of them.”
Fox, who is an expert shedder of skins, complains that the Jolie comparisons are now “the bane of my existence,” which is part of the reason she wanted to host “S.N.L.” Her complaints seem exaggerated — who wouldn’t want to be compared to Angelina Jolie? — Fox maintained that, unlike Jolie, she has a sense of humor and that her interviews are meant to be funny rather than provocative. “People compare me to Angelina Jolie, and she’s so serious and stoic,” Fox explained. “I’m the opposite. When I do interviews, I say things that I think are hysterical. But because we live in a world of sound bites, you’re not allowed to have a sense of humor. Sarcasm doesn’t translate in print at all. And neither does self-deprecating humor. I’m not a tigress like Angelina. Of course, people want me to be. But I want to be the contradiction of that.”
It’s hard to see how Fox’s most recent controversy can be construed as humorous. In an interview in the September issue of Wonderland, a British style magazine, Fox was asked the innocuous question “What are your most favorite and least favorite things about working with Michael Bay?” She never elaborated on the positives; instead Fox compared him to the power-mad dictators Napoleon and Hitler and claimed he was “a nightmare to work for.”
This outburst made big news and prompted three unnamed “Transformers” crew members to write a scathing letter excoriating Fox as a “thankless, classless, graceless . . . unfriendly bitch” who shows up late, is rude to the crew and cannot act. Although he claimed not to “condone” the crew’s letter, Bay posted the anonymous screed on his Web site, which led skeptics to believe that he may have written it himself. When I called Bay to ask about the letter, I was referred to Paramount, the studio that has made $1.5 billion on the “Transformers” franchise and does not want further noise. “Transformers” III is set to begin production in the spring, and Bay and Fox will be reunited. When Fox’s team heard that I phoned Bay, they were concerned: they, too, want to erase the controversy as if it never happened.
Bay never did call me back, but Fox was less quiet. “I got myself in this whole mess,” she told me. “But it doesn’t matter. I know that the things they said about me in the crew letter were not true, but Bay is not happy with some of the things I’ve said about him. I was waiting for someone to defend me, to say, ‘That’s not accurate,’ but nobody did. I think it’s because I’m a girl. They left me out there to be bludgeoned to death.”
Despite the fact that few would dispute that Bay has misogynistic and messianic tendencies in his films, it was Fox who started this particular feud. She was not a victim. “I get urges,” she admitted. “Sometimes I so desperately want to clarify. I recently had an urge to get a Twitter account to explain myself. But me contradicting a news story is not going to make my words fact. It will just create a new news story. There’s no solving this: it’s completely its own monster. You have to come up with clever ways of getting your control back.”
On an unusually warm Friday afternoon, Fox was rehearsing a sketch about Russian brides in Studio 8H, where “S.N.L.” is taped. The premise was that an American man had to choose between the gorgeous Megan Fox as Katya and the S.N.L. cast member Fred Armisen in drag as Svetlana. Fox was essentially required to wink at the camera, wriggle seductively and look sexy. She did this very well. Of the two, Armisen had most of the lines and was there to provide humor. Fox was aware of her role on the show. “I did research,” she told me earlier. “When women come on ‘S.N.L.,’ there are a lot of sketches dedicated to how hot they are. I’m really uncomfortable doing that. I’m more comfortable being self-deprecating. But no one wants me to be that way, for some reason.”
The producers had told her that she didn’t have to do anything she wasn’t comfortable doing. She told them she didn’t want to sing or dance (which has been the salvation for female guest hosts like Catherine Zeta-Jones, Anne Hathaway and Scarlett Johansson), and the writers of her opening monologue were having trouble coming up with a premise that pleased her. “There’s one specific pitch that we can’t do,” Fox said. ‘They wanted me to do a Q. and A. with the audience for the opening monologue. And Hitler is in the audience. Hitler stands up and says, ‘Why did you compare me to Michael Bay?’ ” Fox laughed. “Which is funny, but we can’t do that.”
Giving hope to men everywhere, Fox told Cosmopolitan magazine that her ideal date would be “a sexy sandwich” with Andy Samberg and the roly-poly comedian Jonah Hill, so Samberg thought about recreating that image for the monologue. That idea was also nixed. It was the day before the show, and the monologue still wasn’t written. On the set, Fox, in her usual uniform of leggings, low-cut T-shirt and long cardigan, was practicing her lines, which were in Russian. In a strange way, “S.N.L.,” which required her to play seven different characters, was more acting than Fox has done in her entire career. “I’m not one of these people who grew up studying acting or went to theater school,” Fox told me at the hotel. “I don’t know if I’m talented, I don’t know what I can do or can’t do. I had no skills at all. As a child, I had it in my head that I was supposed to be doing this, and then I did it. But I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Fox was born in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Her mom, who Fox claims looks exactly like her, separated from her father, who was a parole officer, when she was 3 and eventually divorced him. She then married a much older man, who moved the family to Port St. Lucie, Fla. Fox’s stepfather was very strict. He was religious, and Fox grew up Pentecostal and attended a Christian high school. “I was always alone,” she recalled. “I withdrew. But I wanted to be an actress from the time I was 2. My mom said it was the only thing I ever said I wanted to do. When I was 4 or 5, I watched ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ and for a year, I asked her to call me Dorothy. When my mom explained to me that Dorothy was not real, that an actress plays her, I decided I wanted to be an actress.”
She modeled briefly in catalogs, and when she was 15, an agent sent her on an audition to be an extra in “Bad Boys II,” directed by Michael Bay, which was shooting in Florida. “They put me in six-inch heels and a stars-and-stripes bikini,” Fox said. “Sent me to Michael. He approved me. Then they put me in the scene under a waterfall. You got $500 extra if you were willing to get wet, and I was thrilled to get wet. I was still a child, but for those two days I was being treated like a grown woman. I felt like I should be in a bikini dancing under a waterfall: that is where I thought I belonged.”
From an early age, Fox was restless. At 14, she regularly stole her mother’s car and was constantly punished, which only made her more rebellious. “I was always trying to get away,” Fox said. “I hated authority figures telling me what to do. They wanted me to be conservative, but when I was a kid, I was obsessed with looking like Barbie. I was wearing the smallest clothes I could find. My mom wouldn’t let me dye my hair blond, but I used Sun-In, and I had orange hair for two years. What can I say? It was Florida. But my mom was right: being brunette was the one thing that made me memorable. I didn’t look like anybody else. So I clung to that.”
Her first acting role was in “Holiday in the Sun,” an Olsen twins film that went straight to DVD. By 15, she persuaded her mother to take her to Los Angeles for pilot season, where the television networks cast their new shows. At 17, she moved to L.A. and landed the role of Lindsay Lohan’s enemy in Disney’s “Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen.” “I played the bitch, of course,” Fox recalled. “I was always cast as the bitch. The light-haired girl is the sweet leading lady, and the dark girl is the sexy bitch.” She paused. “I didn’t know how to act when I did that movie. I just mimicked all the bitches I’d seen other people play on TV.”
By 18, Fox was on her own. Her mother went back to Florida, and Fox moved to New York to co-star on “Hope & Faith,” which taped in Queens. The comedy, which ran for three seasons, was about mismatched sisters and was shot in New York to accommodate the schedule of one of its stars, Kelly Ripa. “I had two lines a show,” Fox said, “but I was working, so I was happy.” One week, Brian Austin Green, who was part of the original cast of “Beverly Hills, 90210” (he played David Silver), was scheduled to appear as a guest star. “He played himself,” Fox recalled. “Kelly Ripa’s character was kidnapping him for some crazy reason. I didn’t know who he was from ‘90210,’ but I liked him right away. Everyone was around the monitor watching a scene, and Brian accidentally touched my leg. I remember literal electricity shooting through me and out me from every direction. It was like magic.”
Despite the nearly 13-year age difference, Green and Fox have been a couple for five years. He’s still an actor (recently starring on “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles” on Fox), and they live together in the Hollywood Hills, with a menagerie of animals. This long-lasting domestic bliss has had no impact on Fox’s sex-symbol status. Unlike, say, Jennifer Aniston, Fox’s tabloid narrative is not tied to what guy she happens to be dating. The women who read Us don’t identify with Fox. She’s too extreme. Fox figured that out early, as soon as she was cast in “Transformers.” “You have to be put in a box in this industry so they can sell you,” she explained. “They need to get hits on their blogs or sell their magazines. So everyone is something. And if I’m not a party girl, which I’m not, I then have to be the outrageous personality.”
There would be a fairly easy way to enlarge her persona: Fox could look for a role that appealed primarily to a female audience. Jolie, who always had a stronger following in male-oriented movies like “Tomb Raider,” changed her image by appearing in the action-filled romantic comedy “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” But Fox isn’t convinced she should risk losing her male fan base. “It might be a good business move,” she said. “And I get sent romantic comedies. But I’m fearful of doing those. I’m 23 — I don’t belong in a romantic comedy yet. Those movies are very safe. They’re tailored to middle America, which is why they make the money that they make. But I don’t want to do that yet.”
For all her complaints and anxieties, Fox likes the game she’s in. She understands where she fits in this cultural moment. If she gave that up, she’d risk becoming just another pretty actress. “My mother never really believed that I would be successful,” Fox said, “but I never second-guessed it at all. I never once even got depressed. I’m my own thing. I don’t feel like there’s anyone else like me.”
IT WAS ALMOST Halloween, nearly a month after “Saturday Night Live,” and Fox was in Los Angeles, eating truffled French fries at a restaurant in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. She was dressed like a Midwestern mom out for a fancy lunch, in tailored slacks and a navy short-sleeved top with a demure scoop neck. The color of the top brought out the blue in Fox’s eyes, and her hair, which she had curled, cascaded around her shoulders. She looked very clean: not at all bohemian or willfully cool or in any way hipsterish, like most of her contemporaries, the young actresses who populate the pages of fashion magazines. Although she just signed a deal with Armani to replace Victoria Beckham as its underwear model, and to serve as its jeans model, Fox does not seem particularly fashion-conscious or interested in style. Instead, she’s a student of personalities, of careers, of image.
On her right forearm, Fox has an intricate tattoo of Marilyn Monroe. Although she has read biographies of Ava Gardner, Elizabeth Taylor and other movie-star icons, Fox is particularly fascinated by Monroe. While Gardner led a wild life, her work is forgotten. Monroe created a legacy: her persona is instantly recognizable. It’s not a character she played in a particular movie like, say, Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind.” Monroe was her own brand before branding existed. “She lived her whole life as a character playing other characters,” Fox said. “And that was her defense mechanism. But Marilyn stumbled and lost her way. She became overwhelmed by the character she created. Hollywood is filled with women who have tried to cope. I like to study them. I like to see how they’ve succeeded. And how they’ve failed.”
While she’s known for her willingness to inspire and incite controversy, there’s a disconnect in Fox between her work and her media-centric persona. She’s not daring in her personal life or in her performances — in fact, she is only provocative in the pages of magazines or on the Web. On “S.N.L.,” she shied away from exposing too much about herself, especially in the opening monologue, which is, traditionally, personal. “They made fun of my reputation,” Fox said. “They showed imaginary naked photos of me.” She found this funny. In the fake shots, Fox’s head was attached to bodies that clearly weren’t hers, but she wasn’t entangled with the likes of Nikita or Michael Bay. Instead, her face was grafted onto the body of a woodland creature. It was fanciful rather than sexy. “S.N.L.” was a success — Fox worked very hard, and she seemed game, but she was careful not to go too far. For a girl who has made a career out of being unpredictable and lewd, she was curiously demure.
Maybe this is part of a new act for a new year. Or maybe, Fox saves the crazy stuff for a more controlled environment, like a men’s magazine. It’s risky to abandon one character without creating another. Still expecting the old persona, I asked Fox if she considered going as Monroe for Halloween. “Oh, no,” she said. “I’m going as Minnie Mouse. I won’t be disguised as Minnie Mouse, but for some reason, I really wanted to be Minnie Mouse. It’s cute and it’s not slutty or trashy. Everyone in Hollywood buys their costumes at Trashy Lingerie, and they’re the slutty Dorothy or slutty whomever. I went to that store to buy a red tutu for my Minnie costume, and there was a Snow White costume. And Brian was like, you should do that. But I didn’t want to be the slutty Snow White. Not this year.” She paused. “But I did think it would be funny to be Minnie, considering some of the things I’ve said about Disney.”
Fox didn’t expect to be in Los Angeles for Halloween. She was set to begin a new film, “Passion Play,” which will be shot in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, N.M. Because of a budget dispute, the production’s start date was delayed. In the movie, Fox will star opposite Mickey Rourke, who plays a trumpet player who gets into deep trouble when he sleeps with a mobster’s wife. “He’s wandering in the desert,” Fox explained, as she ate half a French fry, “and he comes across a traveling circus. I’m part of the freak show. I play a winged girl. I have bird wings that sprouted out of my back during puberty. And I’m on display. Guys pay money to look at me, and Mickey and I have a tragic love story.”
“Passion Play” was written by and will be the directorial debut of Mitch Glazer. “Mitch is emphatic that I not have white angel wings,” she continued. When they came to fit the wings at her house, she fainted. “I was almost naked with a bunch of men I didn’t know,” she recalled. “It was very hot, and the body cast kept my organs from getting enough oxygen. I couldn’t breathe, and I passed out.”
This will be the first film that Fox has done in which she’s required to embody a complicated character. In her next movie, “Jonah Hex,” which is based on a comic book, she plays a prostitute. “I had my first sex scene in that movie,” she said. “I had on underwear and silicone covers that you wear over your breasts. I would never be naked in a film. You should never say never, but my body parts are all I have left that are only mine. The world owns everything else.”
She paused. It was a little confusing to watch Fox’s former personality recede before my eyes. In a few short weeks, she had gone from happily outrageous to virginal and controlled. It was, perhaps, a healthier attitude, but pale by comparison. “I have to pull back a little bit now,” Fox said. “I do live in a glass box. And I am on display for men to pay to look at me. And that bothers me. I don’t want to live that character.”