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Jena Malone: American Dreamer

Between epic road trips and outsider roles, Jena Malone is this generation’s answer to Dennis Hopper – she reveals how she defied the norm to carve her own path in Hollywood

Jena Malone has a thick, goopy eyelash stuck to her cheekbone. It is green. The eyelashes in their proper place above her eyes are also green and thick and goopy. She had to ‘do’ Jimmy Kimmel Live! last night, she explains as she flits away the lash and picks up an overstuffed taco she copped from a vendor at Grand Central Market in downtown LA. The late-night host joshed Malone about some Instagram pictures of a road trip she took across America with three of her friends last year. The road triplets – Malone, Jacqueline Suskin (a poet) and Shelby Duncan (a photographer) – called themselves “The Flying Panties”, as in “flying by the seats of our panties”. Kimmel found this amusing to no end.

Malone has developed herself a uniquely uncategorisable image in Hollywood that allows her to be a creative polymath. In person, as on Instagram, she is freewheeling and attentive, with a penchant for philosophising about the nature of celebrity. Her artistic branches extend to other areas of entertainment, but not in a cheesy or attention-seeking way. Malone’s approach is altogether rawer and more urgent than might normally be expected from moonlighting celebrities. She’s more Dennis Hopper (the photographer) than Shia LaBeouf (the performance artist) when it comes to non-actorly pursuits. To wit: she’s played in bands her whole career, first with Jena Malone and Her Bloodstains, and then her current band, The Shoe, who released the effervescent album I’m Okay in 2014. So, The Flying Panties? Yeah, it’s funny, but it’s also accurate.

But Malone’s talk-show appearance was the culmination of several weeks devoted to the Hollywood ritual of glitz and glamour. She is in the midst of promotional work for the teen-rebellion picture The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2. Her character, the churlish Johanna Mason, is a fan favourite who brandishes a razor-sharp axe and a sharper wit. Though Malone used to hate the bright lights, she now soaks it all up like a solar panel, revelling in the uniqueness of the experience. “I was at the Berlin premiere for Mockingjay – Part 2, and I was like, ‘Wow, this is something not many people will get to experience,’” she says. “The adrenaline that you get is very similar to being a gladiator, except I’m no longer fighting to the death – I just have to look cute. When you walk out, it’s deafening. The noise is not even for you. It’s just that another human has walked out of a car.”

“Compare me to most 30-year-old women. I know a lot that haven’t been on their own... I can be in any situation and learn how to thrive instead of needing comfort zones” – Jena Malone

Malone’s awareness of her position in the world of celebrity comes from experience. Though she only recently turned 31, Malone has been acting for nearly 20 years. Born in Sparks, Nevada in November 1984, Malone scored a role in Anjelica Huston’s directorial debut Bastard out of Carolina (1996), a disturbing account of child abuse in the 1950s American south, that earned the young actress an Independent Spirit Award nomination.

From there, Malone’s childhood got even more bananas. She impressed as the young version of Jodie Foster’s Ellie in Contact (1997). The following year she earned $100,000 for a pivotal role in the family drama Stepmom, in which Susan Sarandon and Julia Roberts (the stepmom) vie for her affection. It was a middling movie, but the big wage caused its own drama in the Malone family.

As well as the usual agent’s fees (normally about ten per cent), 15 per cent of a child actor’s earnings must be held in a ‘Coogan Account’ (a required trust named after Jackie Coogan, a child actor who battled his mother in court after she spent all his earnings). After a purported mishandling of the remaining money by her mother, Malone filed for emancipation at the age of 14 in order to access her Coogan Account. She moved into a house in LA with a couple of friends and set out on her own.

“It was a bad situation – I was paying my roommates to be my assistants,” she says, shifting in her seat at the picnic table we’re sat at in the market. “I was on the lease, so they were living with me, not paying rent, and a lot of people kept moving in. I was 14. I couldn’t drive for that first year. I got my driver’s licence early, because of the emancipation. It’s that thing where kids in middle America get tractor licences to run a tractor at 14. So, under the guise of a tractor licence, I got to get a licence right when I turned 15. I was allowed to go to and from work – because I’m an actor, work is everything. But that first year was a little rough, because I was hiring friends to drive me around.”

Thorny as they were, Malone feels that those early years on her own helped her to become a “creator”, providing her an education in hard knocks and figuring out her own necessities. “If I encountered 14-year-old me in a grocery store, trying to sign up for a rewards card and whipping out her emancipation papers, because she just wants the coupons, I would feel so sad for her,” says Malone. “But what it gave me is incredible. Compare me to most 30-year-old women. I know a lot that haven’t been on their own. I can handle a lot of situations. I can be in any situation and learn how to thrive instead of needing comfort zones.” Proof of her current thriving: since our interview, Malone has announced her first pregnancy – with one of her signature Instagram Polaroids, of course, accompanied by a poem (“Some words I wrote years ago when I was thinking about my own mother,” the post read).

Though the first years on her own were, in her words, alternately “pretty rough” and “pretty great”, Malone managed to string together an impressive run of appearances in cult indie movies between 2001 and 2004. Donnie Darko, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, The United States of Leland, and Saved! positioned Malone as a kind of low-key every-teen, a relatable proto-sad girl at a moment when being emo or goth meant you were a genuine outcast. It was Richard Kelly’s 2001 Donnie Darko, however, that really gave Malone the space to develop her strangely magnetic screen presence (as well as launching Jake Gyllenhaal’s career). The film resonated with weird kids everywhere, and Malone appreciates the special club which remembers her for that film in particular.

“It’s like somebody coming up to you and being like, ‘We went to high school together,’ and instead of them being like, ‘We ran track,’ they’ll be like, ‘Oh my god, do you remember that piece of art that hung on the wall, and it was so weird, and everyone hated it? I loved that piece of art,’ so of course you want to talk to them,” she says, polishing off a taco, a dollop of sour cream dripping on to her plate. “You’re so excited about that, because it’s something dear to you, but not everyone knows about it. Everyone comes up to you and wants to talk about track, and it’s so boring.”

“When you’re not comfortable in your skin, you don’t want to be a gladiator in an arena being judged a thousand times. It can be really painful” – Jena Malone

During Malone’s indie years, she solidified her outsider status. She refused to wear make-up for photoshoots, and figured out how to present herself as strong, punky, and wholesome all at once – an image she strove to project for the sake of her younger sister, who she seems to always be looking out for. She knew that the shoots, interviews, and premieres were part and parcel of her career, but despite her love for acting, she wasn’t yet comfortable with the machinations of Hollywood. “When I was younger, I hated it,” says Malone. “It caused me so much trauma. I didn’t know how to survive that. I didn’t know how to make it cool for me. I wasn’t a freestyler yet, and I wasn’t comfortable in my skin. When you’re not comfortable in your skin, you don’t want to be a gladiator in an arena being judged a thousand times. It can be really painful.”

The complex emotions Malone felt in her youth have transformed her into a force on-screen. In recent films, she’s fluctuated between mournful and sexy (M Blash’s underrated The Wait), flirty bohemian (Paul Thomas Anderson’s hard-boiled comedy Inherent Vice) and, above all, fierce and angry (the Hunger Games films). After so many indies, it was actually as Johanna in The Hunger Games – a near $3 billion franchise – that Malone found new ways to express her talent. She excised a lot of anger through the character, particularly in Catching Fire, telling me a few years ago (in a separate interview) that the ire she had to bring to the screen nearly broke her, seeping into her life, nearly killing her as she found herself seething with road rage on the already dangerous streets of LA.

Though she was fast-tracked into leading roles, Malone is at her best as in character parts. She recently signed on to play a bit part in fashion designer-cum-film director Tom Ford’s next film, Nocturnal Animals, due sometime in 2016. “It’s just a cameo,” she says, just as a man in a wheelchair at the end of the picnic table notices her and tries to surreptitiously snap a photo. “I’ve been enjoying that recently. I’ve been the lead, but I rarely do it. I did it so much when I was young, all these things where I was the lead, where I was just like, ‘This is so boring.’ It’s too goddamn easy just to play the whole thing, and I don’t think I’ve ever been ready to do what I want to do with that yet. I’d much rather do what Paul (Thomas Anderson) allowed me to do in Inherent Vice, where I could just come in and do something amazing with incredible people for a day, kill it, then leave.”

She reaps much more screen time in Refn’s The Neon Demon, coming to cinemas in the UK on July 8, but she’s no less dedicated to the role. In fact, she credits Refn with bringing out the method-school side of acting that Malone is constantly seeking, but rarely accessing. “It was a mind, body and soul possession,” she says. “I’ve only had that happen accidentally on set, where I don’t remember who I was or what I became. This was a Nic Refn possession.”

In The Neon Demon, Malone inhabits Ruby, a make-up artist who acts as a mother hen (as real-life make-up artists are wont to do) to Elle Fanning’s model newcomer Jesse. The film is a parable of sorts, about youth and beauty and how those two things are becoming one. The people who gravitate towards Jesse are obsessed with her youth, which sends them into a cannibalistic frenzy. For Malone, it’s something that hits close to home, having been a child actress and seen the world through that skewed lens. “(Being an actress), I’ve had to model,” she says. “But the experiences in the film are a heightened version of what I think all women, whether they’re in Hollywood or not, feel. I could feel elements of this film’s themes when I was ten years old looking at magazines. And I’m sure young boys probably felt very similar things when they’re looking through magazines: ‘Oh, this is beauty? This is what I should want? This is desire?’”

Inspired by Refn’s own time as a commercial director in the fashion industry, The Neon Demon reflects upon the male gaze. “He (might have been) working with an actor who is one of the most beautiful women in the world, and the client says, ‘She’s too fat. She’s not pretty enough,’” says Malone. “And also, he has two daughters, so a lot of it comes from him being like, ‘This is fucked up.’ Because he already sees it in his daughters at seven years old, being like, ‘Am I pretty? Am I fat?’ That’s where the idea for this story came from.”

When I ask her how she maintained her own balance through her early success in an industry where the beauty of young women is a commodity to be exploited by older people, Malone points out that most child actors actually get by without any problems, but that the public only wants to hear about the ones that don’t. “I got through it fine,” she says. “I’m not a crazy person. I might have a different understanding of it if I was in rehab. I really just kept working, and not caring about much else.”

“You’re building myths and stories for people to soak into their genes – it’s like a new religion. It’s new identities. And particularly for women. I think it’s a really important thing to be a female voice and make films for the next generation” – Jena Malone

At this point in her career, Malone is so seasoned that she’s starting to appear with the same actors years after working with them for the first time. A recent part in the mini-series Hatfields & McCoys reunited her with her For Love of the Game co-star, Kevin Costner. “It’s nice to have a sense of community among your peers, even the ones you’re competing against,” she says. “Not that I’m competing against Kevin. Although I would love to be. If we were both up for the same part, that’s when the death of gender truly begins.”

Malone laughs, but she still feels the constant burn of sexism in the film industry. “I sense it all the time,” she says. “I deal with co-workers that walk in on press tours, and yeah, I’m looking really nice – I don’t always look like this. I look really beautiful right now. And then all they talk about is that. They make sexual jokes and make people really uncomfortable. Can’t I just be valued for my other shit? That’s been a constant since I was 16 in this industry, and it’s not about monetary things, because I never think about that stuff, because I feel like I’ve never been at a level where I can demand so much. But it’s not fair to be seen only as a sexual object. That’s the weirdest part. Particularly when you’re 16 fucking years old.”

It’s for this reason – along with the fact that she has found herself having to guide shoots helmed by inexperienced directors in the past – that Malone is trying her hand at stepping behind the camera. She is in the middle of writing two scripts, but there are no flying panties when it comes to her newfound career path. “I want to become a better writer first – my favourite directors that I’ve worked with – like M Blash, Paul Anderson and Nic Refn – they’re all amazing writers,” she says. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years, I already know so much what I would want to do, but I have a long time to figure it out, and I don’t want it to be something rushed, because for me, important. You’re building myths and stories for people to soak into their genes – it’s like a new religion. It’s new identities. And particularly for women. I think it’s a really important thing to be a female voice and make films for the next generation.”

Image credits:

(1) Background: collaboration between Carter Smith and Jena Malone; (l-r) Jena Malone; Ethan Delorenzo 

(2) Background: Jena Malone; (l-r) Ethan Delorenzo; Neil Krug

(3) Background: Jena Malone; (l-r) Shelby Duncan; Ethan Delorenzo