Being Jan Brady was never easy. An awkward adolescent in an overpopulated house on the ’70s sitcom The Brady Bunch, Jan was the quintessential overlooked middle child. Eve Plumb, the original Jan, is still trying to escape her Brady past: She turned down a cameo in the smash Brady Bunch Movie – and would rather talk about her role on the ABC Saturday-morning series Fudge. But in the movie, where the groovy ’70s meet the anarchic ’90s, something strange happens when newcomer Jennifer Elise Cox spoofs Plumb’s breathy blond: Neglected Jan Brady steals the show.
Sherwood Schwartz, who created the TV series, didn’t realize Jan was having an effect on the national psyche when the series originally aired. The focus was on teen idol Marcia (Maureen McCormick), whom every girl was supposed to want to be and every boy was supposed to want to date. ”I used to want to be Marcia,” says Cox, ”but I was always more like Jan.” She wasn’t alone. Fans identified with Jan, and when it came to scripting the movie, the writers used her angst (”Glasses! Oh, Mom, no, not glasses!”) to drive the plot.
Casting Jan became the most important choice first-time feature director Betty Thomas (best known as Hill Street Blues‘ Sgt. Lucy Bates) had to make. Thomas was hoping for look-alikes, and she found a carbon copy of McCormick in Christine Taylor. But Jan, as always, proved more difficult. ”People Jan’s age  didn’t understand the movie,” says Thomas, so she cast only child Cox, 21, a lifelong Brady fan who moved to L.A. with her mother, Kate, a copywriter, after graduating from a performing arts high in Manhattan. With only a few professional credits, Cox hopes that by playing the ignorable Brady she won’t be ignored herself. So far, so good. A week after the film’s opening made it No.1 at the box office, she landed a guest spot on CBS’ The George Wendt Show (see story on page 28).
Because she doesn’t resemble Plumb, Cox had to work to nail Jan’s essence, which Thomas describes as ”neurosis that has gotten out of hand.” She took it step-by-step.
*Achieve Balance. First this New Yorker had to learn to ride a bicycle. ”I was a total spaz,” she says. ”Everyone made fun of me and I felt more and more like Jan.”
*Tune In. Cox studied the TV show to mimic Plumb’s facial expressions, which mostly reflect envy (of Marcia’s beauty and younger sister Cindy’s cuteness) and doom (when Marcia gets all the credit, Jan deflates with a sigh). Cox intended her send-up to be affectionate, but she acknowledges a debt to Melanie Hutsell, whose vicious 1991-94 satire of Jan on Saturday Night Live showed how funny the spurned Brady could be.
*Pucker Up. ”[Her look] was almost constipated,” says Cox, who demonstrates by pursing her lips and squinting her eyes. Her perky hairstyle, ”pulled back tightly with curls on the side,” helped too. Cox caught the way Plumb would bounce through scenes, trying to accentuate her nonexistent hips and make her hair swing like a metronome.
*Inhale. Then there’s Jan’s voice. ”It’s breathy,” Cox explains. ”Most of the time, it’s kind of ’70s mellow, but when she talks about Marcia, it gets very intense.” In the film, we hear Jan’s angel and devil talking-a takeoff on the famous 1971 ”Her Sister’s Shadow” episode, in which Jan gets an award she doesn’t deserve and wrestles with her conscience.
*Wig Out. When Cox dons a huge black Afro to make a splash at a school dance, she’s wearing the same wig worn by RuPaul, the cross-dressing singer who plays Jan’s guidance counselor. ”The first time I met [RuPaul] we instantly bonded. We had the same favorite movies: Mommie Dearest, Mahogany, and Sunset Boulevard.” Yes, this is definitely the new Jan Brady.