Though she stars in one of the most-hyped horror flicks of the year, Jenna Davis isn't really a fan of the genre. She remembers cowering at R.L. Stine's The Haunting Hour, for example — though her opinion of horror is certainly evolving.
"I think I've hopped onto the horror train now," she tells me via Zoom.
Davis is the voice of M3GAN, the AI-powered robotic doll that serves as the centerpiece for Blumhouse's M3GAN. The film generated significant hype when its trailer dropped in October, mostly because of its titular character, who quickly became meme fodder across the internet. M3GAN's killer-sweet demeanor and uncanny dance moves struck a chord — keeping would-be audiences hooked in the months leading up to the film's release.
Davis is a newcomer not only to the horror genre but also to acting in theatrical releases writ large. She's spent most of her acting time on television shows — including the likes of Raven's Home, 2017's That's So Raven spin-off series — and, when she's not acting, she's working on her country music career ("Spending lots of time in Nashville," she tells me) and up-keeping her social media presence.
With M3GAN finally bringing her antics to movie theaters this week, Davis talked with PAPER about connecting with a killer robot, leaning into horror culture and whether or not M3GAN's murderous ways are justified.
When the movie trailer dropped, there was a huge response on the internet — it was immediate. How was that for you? Did you expect that?
Oh, no, I didn't expect it. I don't think anyone expected it to blow up like it did, but I'm so grateful that it did, and I'm so excited that people love it. It's just so surreal. I hope people love the movie as much as they love the trailer.
Oh my goodness, I saw a bunch of reaction videos to the trailer on YouTube, and those alone were fun to watch, so I'm excited to see how people react. I've loved going to screenings and seeing people watch the film.
The audience at my theater was having so much fun. It's definitely a movie to see with other people.
It's pretty family-friendly, too. My mom and I were talking about it and now, the third time we've seen it, we're still finding new things about it. Recognizing parts we didn't notice before, little things with other characters. If you watch it again and again you'll keep finding new stuff, so everyone can go watch it three million times now.
So what kind of prep did you do for this role?
Before the audition I did almost nothing. I had very little info on it. I didn't realize it was a Universal/Blumhouse movie — I probably would've been so freaked out if I'd known that. But I recorded the audition here in the closet in my bedroom over a year ago.
But in regards to prepping for M3GAN, I found her pretty instantly. It was a very collaborative process between me and the director. She has a fun side, but she also has a dark side that very much evolves during the movie. Overall she's just fun. I mean, what other characters are dancing down the halls of an office like they're on TikTok?
I didn't really take inspo from horror characters, I just brought her to life on my own. That's what I do whenever I audition: I make my choice and the production either hates it or loves it.
Are you a horror movie fan in general?
When I was younger, definitely not. I was scared — I'd close my eyes and everything, I was deathly afraid. I remember my mom and I watched R.L. Stine's The Haunting Hour and I would get afraid, I thought Goosebumps was too scary. But I've opened my eyes more to horror. I mean, I am an adult now.
We've been getting questions from friends and family asking if M3GAN is scary, but it's more suspenseful than anything. It's not gory, you're not going to feel gross watching it. The technological elements are more important than the horror, really, and I think it's really relevant to our generation. This generation understands her. Hopefully she's gonna take over 2023.
Obviously M3GAN is a robot — she has human characteristics but she's not human. Did you find it difficult to connect with such an inhuman character?
You know, it was actually pretty seamless. She's so realistic. She's human in the way she interacts with people. When you look at her you have to do a double-take — she's not like Siri or Alexa. Because she's so realistic, I found I could relate to her in some weird way. But she is still an AI, so I had to find that boundary. In some lines, you can hear a little bit of Siri in there. There are moments like that where she sounds very smart, spitting out facts and things like that. That's where you can really hear that she's an AI.
You've done voice work before, so this wasn't entirely new to you. For this particular role, though, was there anything that helped you develop the tone you used for M3GAN's voice?
I recall in my first auditions I kept her tone pretty quiet and kind of sweet. She has a connection with Cady that's very different, she always wants to be there for her because that's what she was programmed to do. My audition was the moments when M3GAN and Cady first meet, when I'm introducing myself, and I wanted it to be more personable. Not like Siri — she's always very monotone, she always talks the same way. I wanted different levels so I kept a softer tone, though at times she kind of goes off the rails, obviously. I wanted it to sound like she's listening to you and she understands you.
The conversational tone really works well for the comedy of the movie.
Thank you, I think that's really the fun part. She's like, "I'm M3GAN! I'm happy!" and then in one second [snaps fingers] you're done. That's what Mr. [Gerard] Johnstone wanted us to embrace, too — how fun she is. And how unpredictable and how you never really know what's going to come out of her mouth next. Even when she gets asked about killing people, she's still so much like, "Who, me?"
The killer doll genre is really a thing now. Have you seen any others?
I haven't really seen many. I do remember, going back to R.L. Stine's The Haunting Hour, there was a creepy doll in there. She didn't speak, but I did get some inspiration from that because I thought about what it would be like if she spoke. I studied her motions.
Lots of people have been asking me whether M3GAN is a doll, if she's possessed. But she's not, she's AI. She's in a different lane than dolls. Watching her be put together in the movie really helps to understand it. Seeing the process is a really cool part of the movie because it makes you think, Could this happen in our lives?
What was the recording process like for you?
I came in after the filming process and spent the majority of my time in the studio behind the mic. It was really a collaborative process between me and the director, whether it was via Zoom or he was in the room. He had a very distinct vision of who he wanted M3GAN to be and I applaud him for that. Sometimes we were all dressed up, sometimes we were in sweats. It's different than on-camera acting, when you have that person face-to-face, and that's a little bit difficult, but it's like — even just communicating with you via Zoom here, we still have a connection, even though it's through the screen. That's kind of how M3GAN is, in a weird way, because of how powerful the technology is.
M3GAN does some singing in the movie, too. I won't spoil the songs, but it's spot-on. Was that your voice, too?
Yes, that was me! I am a singer. I usually do more country music and country-pop music, so I spend a lot of time in Nashville. Funny enough, they wanted me to sing worse. I'm singing and they're like, "Jenna, we need this to sound more like Elmo, more like kids' silliness." That was fun to play around with, but I've never in my life been told to sing worse. As a singer, you always want to sound your best. When I went to watch the final version I was like, "Oh my goodness, which versions will they end up using?" Because we did every type of thing you could imagine. It was nervewracking. I didn't want people to be like, "Oh, she's a bad singer," because I do have a signing career as well, I want to maintain that. But I'm happy with what they chose. She's a character, it's not perfect.
Was there any part of the process you found more difficult?
The scenes where she grows in anger were more difficult because, you know, when you have somebody to react to in those situations it's easier, because you really feed off one another. I really had to dive into what that felt like. It's easier when you're actually fighting someone, that back-and-forth. That was maybe the only challenge. I'm happy I had that because, as an actor, it's only strengthened me. I'm thankful for it. I'm always up for a challenge, I'm like, on to the next!
M3GAN became pretty iconic right when the trailer dropped and has only become more so since. She's all over the subway platforms here in NYC. What does it feel like to have your voice attached to a figure that's already so recognizable?
It really is an honor. It just feels really unreal. My mom and I always talk about having a movie in theaters and now, going into it, I'm just like, "Oh, that's me. Is this real?" The marketing team really has done an incredible job, they killed it. It's just such a cool experience. Horror culture is so big, I didn't realize how big of a fan base horror really has. And from the trailer, I've seen most of them accept her, and I hope the majority will accept her and love her. And you never know, she may come back. I would hope so.
What did you think of the ending? We won't spoil it for the readers, of course.
The ending leaves room for more possibilities, and that excites me. But I don't know — I guess we'll see.
Were you surprised by the ending when you first read the script?
It was more surprising seeing it on the screen than in the script. It's a little spark.
Did anything else in the movie hit harder when you saw it on-screen versus when you read it in the script?
Definitely when the other characters talk about M3GAN. And watching her be created, that was very, very cool. The beginning of the movie does an excellent job of really describing each aspect of her. Seeing other peoples' scenes, the ones I wasn't in, really cleared everything up for me — seeing it and hearing it just makes everything make more sense.
So obviously M3GAN is problematic. But is there anything we could learn from her?
You know what, I've heard a lot of debate about whether her kills are right or wrong. She's not killing for her own enjoyment. She's killing to protect who she was deemed to protect. It's like, These people hurt somebody I love and care about. Somebody told me last night that they were kind of rooting for her because of that. Usually, you don't root for the villain. That's the interesting thing, these kills are all — I don't want to say "for a purpose" because that sounds wrong — but it's difficult.
Of course, killing anybody in any regard is completely wrong. And it makes me question whether, in the future, she might just kill for enjoyment.
I know you're not a huge fan, but would you be interested in doing more horror moving forward?
Yeah, absolutely. I think I'll probably stay away from demonic stuff — because that stuff, I'm like phew! But it's definitely of interest. Now that I've played the villain, I think it'd be fun to play the victim. It's been fun to play the villain, she's so far different from myself because I'm very much a goody two-shoes. Family members and friends, hearing the voice and then hearing my own voice, have been like, "It's so freaky hearing you do this."
But it's been so fun. It's fun to explore somebody who's so far different from you. Yeah, I'd play another villain, I'd also play a victim who, you know, gets slaughtered and screams, I'd do that whole thing.
So what else does 2023 hold in store for you?
I have another film coming out that will be released in theaters — I'm not sure the exact date yet. And then a few other things that I can't specifically talk about. Prior to this, I was more on TV, so I'm thrilled to be doing more films. And then I do my country music, that's always fun. And I do my social media. I call myself a three-legged stool. I have my acting leg, my singing leg and my social media leg.
But yeah, it's 2023, and the movie comes out this week. It feels like a pretty great way to start off the year.
Photography: Ashley Roberts
Styling: Lisa Marie Cameron
Hair and make-up: Yara Cadena
Photos courtesy of Universal