Jessica Parker Kennedy On Playing Medusa in percy Jackson, Deconstructing Heroines, And Fighting For A Cause

Jessica Parker Kennedy On Playing Medusa, Deconstructing Heroines, And Fighting For A Cause

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A voice to be heard on screen and off.

Though she can’t turn people into stone, Percy Jackson and the Olympians’ Jessica Parker Kennedy loves to turn each character she plays, like Medusa, on its head.

Trigger warning: a section of this story talks about rape in relation to the Medusa myth.

Related: Baddies On Baddies: Why We Love A Complex Female Villain

Jessica Parker Kennedy loves a challenge. And playing Medusa on the much-awaited and now megahit Disney+ series Percy Jackson and the Olympians is just one challenge out of many where she’s managed to make the character her own.

jessica parker kennedy medusa pjo percy jackson and the olympians

Photo by David Bukach for Disney+

You may recognize the actress as Nora West-Allen on several seasons of the CW show The Flash (2014-2023), or as the cunning Max on pirate adventure series Black Sails (2014-2017). But more recently, Jessica’s earned praise for her nuanced and empathetic portrayal of the mythical creature Medusa on Percy Jackson. Whether in a lead role or a cameo, as an antagonist or a hero, she’s highly capable of delivering strong and stirring performances that get you rooting for her.

The Canadian actress chats for a bit with NYLON Manila all about working on the Percy Jackson series, playing complex female roles, and her other endeavors as an actress and advocate.

NOT QUITE STONE COLD

“I loved playing Medusa,” Jessica shares. The Greek mythological figure in the Percy Jackson series (both novels and series) is characterized as “Aunty Em,” a kind, welcoming stone carver and owner of Aunty Em’s Gnome Emporium, where she sold stone lawn decorations—that she definitely did not carve herself. The snake-headed Aunty Em, or Medusa, uses her abilities to look people in the eye and turn them into stone.

Medusa’s story, like any other myth, varies in a multitude of ways, but we’ll take the basic story which is relayed in the books and series. Essentially, Medusa was a young maiden that worshipped Athena, but was punished for having relations with the Greek god Poseidon in Athena’s own temple—a great disrespect to the goddess, even if many poets and scholars agree that she was raped. She was then punished by having her hair turn into snakes and turning everyone she locks eyes with into stone.

jessica parker kennedy medusa pjo percy jackson and the olympians

In the series, the story is not as explicit, but it was made clear that that reading of the myth greatly informs both Jon Steinberg’s writing and Jessica’s portrayal.

“So you’re not a monster, what are you then?” Percy (Walker Scobell) asked in the episode. “A survivor,” she replied.

Though a brief, one-episode appearance, Jessica’s portrayal of Medusa was memorable. Though her threatening demeanor constantly bubbled under the surface, she was nuanced enough to earn your sympathy. You can understand where she’s coming from.

“Her story is a tragedy,” Jessica remarks. “She was forced to deal with a massive, life-changing betrayal entirely on her own, then she was blamed for it and then she was punished for it. She is a victim without a single ally in the world. I tried to imagine how alone and isolated she must have felt.”

DOWN TO THE BONE

jessica parker kennedy

Photo by Amanda Peixoto-Elkins

With a career spanning about 18 years, Jessica’s come to hone her storytelling skills on screen in her own way. She loves to portray complicated, internally conflicted characters not only because she finds them to be the most relatable, but also because it’s a challenge she’s always down for.

The tragic Medusa, the sly, powerful Max in Black Sails, and the wacky Bekka in miniseries I Love Bekka & Lucy are among her favorite roles. Jessica’s characters are never perfect protagonists—they’re shaped by their circumstances, they make mistakes, and they struggle to navigate worlds that are often turned against them.

“I like playing people that struggle to fit in because I’ve often felt that way,” she says. Jessica has talked before about her struggles fitting in as a mixed-race woman in America, and how special it is for her every time a young woman of color tells her how meaningful it is to see actors like her on their screens.

“It’s much more fun to play a character who is struggling with something external or internal in their lives than to play someone who has it all together. I try to pick characters that I have to really deconstruct and get to know why they are the way they are.”

HEART OF GOLD

jessica parker kennedy

Photo by Amanda Peixoto-Elkins

Besides being able to nuance the characters she plays with a deft hand, the actress also has a heart of gold. A huge advocate for animals, particularly pit bulls, Jessica is involved with organizations Stand Up for Pits Foundation and Shizzy’s Wildcat Rescue. In real life, she’s definitely not as cutthroat as some of her characters. In fact, she’s the opposite.

Stand Up For Pits is a non-profit foundation that’s dedicated to saving the lives and ending the abuse and discrimination of Pit Bull “type” dogs through initiatives and advocacy. “They’re working hard to end negative and false narratives about bully breeds and to remind people dogs are born inherently good,” Jessica says. “They also raise money to spay and neuter pit bulls, because our shelters are so overrun that healthy dogs are euthanized at an alarming rate.”

As for Shizzy’s Wildcat Rescue, it’s a similar organization that protects and advocates against the abuse and exploitation of wild cats and other exotic animals in captivity and the wild. Jessica shares that “they are focused on changing laws to ban road side zoos and prohibit people from buying wild cats and have them as pets.”

Jessica’s determined to make meaningful impact both through the complex female characters she plays and by supporting the various causes she fights for. She champions the stories that need to be told, the voices that need to amplified, and does it all both on-screen and off. Whatever the challenge may be, she’ll face it with a steely gaze, ready for the next adventure.

Continue Reading: 11 Movie Villains Who Low-key Had A Point