Jena Malone is on the move! Even our interview takes place as she’s driving up US 395 on her way to Lake Tahoe. What's impressive, though, is not that she can talk and drive at the same time, but just how eloquent she is at fielding my questions while keeping an eye on the road ahead.
At 28, Malone’s a creative powerhouse who not only keeps busy with acting, but is also an avid photographer, and recently directed the band Lavender Diamond’s music video “I Don’t Recall.” You can’t help but feel this is a young woman who knows where she’s going, and that nothing is going to stop her from getting there.
Perhaps Jena’s self-assurance at navigating life has something to do with her nomadic childhood. Raised by two moms, the first ten years of Jena’s life were spent moving from one place to the next (27, to be exact). After convincing her mother to settle in Los Angeles, she pursued acting, and was soon cast in her breakout role in Bastard Out of Carolina, at the age of 11. Unlike many child actors, Malone successfully transitioned, with dignity, from child star to adult actress, appearing in such films as Stepmom, Donnie Darko, and Saved. She also enjoyed a challenging six-month stint on Broadway in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt. Up next, she’ll play the ax-wielding Johanna Mason in the high profile sequel The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.
By the time Jena got to Tahoe, here’s what she told me :
Thom: So how did your shoot go for UTP?
Jena: Oh, it was fun! I worked with a really lovely photographer, Magda, who lives in Highland Park, which is a neighborhood I’m familiar with. It was just awesome, very impromptu, guerilla style. Which I like!
I’ve been following you on Instagram. I really like your photography.
Thanks! It’s not necessarily a passion, but more of a practice of mine, something I’m kind of obsessed with. I took a year off from acting when I was 18, moved up to Lake Tahoe, shaved my head, bought a house, and took up photography at a community college! I built my own little darkroom in my closet, and lived in there for like, 20 hours a day!
What do you shoot with?
It’s a mix of iPhone and mostly film. Right now, I’ve just been creating a lot of content, and it’s just spilling out. That’s what I love about Instagram; it’s so instantaneous and you can just shoot as much as you want. I’m developing a series of photo books that I’ll be releasing four times a year. I’ll hand print them, and sell them via a website I’m creating right now. Some of my favorite photographers were all self-published in the beginning of their careers, so I’m excited!
You worked with Carter Smith on The Ruins. Did he give you any tips on shooting?
He didn’t teach me about f-stops or anything; it was more about me admiring the way he looked at light, the way he looked at women and the color of their skin, and his ability to meld colors in such a beautiful way. We actually got to work together on a photo shoot when we were doing press for The Ruins. I was inspired by how mellow he is, and how free he is with the subjects. I’m just now beginning to feel comfortable asking my friends to pose for me. I was worried that they would be like “No, you’re not a real photographer.” But, fuck it, I had to get over that!
I wanted to ask you about something I read while researching you for this interview. Is it true that by the time you were nine years old you lived in 27 different places?
Well, by the time I was ten. We moved around a lot. I kind of grew up poor white trash, but you know, full of love and happiness. I grew up with two moms, and we were always moving around because we would run out of money and have to leave a place, or we would live in a hotel or in our car. When I was younger I loved it! It was the ultimate adventure.
Do you think all that moving around has helped you, as an actress, adapt quickly to the characters you play?
I don’t think it helps me get into roles more quickly, but it has helped me with living the life of a gypsy, a.k.a., the life of an actor. You know, you’re only home three months out of the year, you’re constantly traveling, you’re constantly living out of hotels, and having to feel safe and secure in places that you’ve never been to before. I feel like I was given, in a roundabout way, this beautiful upbringing which allowed me to not find security within four walls, but to find the sense of security of home within. Which is pretty rad.
How old were you when you started acting?
I did a student film when I was ten, and then Bastard Out of Carolina came about when I was 11.
I know this is one of those typical questions everyone asks a former child actor, but do you ever feel you missed out on your childhood?
It’s so funny, I was just thinking about this the other day. I have a sister who’s 16, and I’m fascinated by these “typical” questions we ask young women: “Do you feel like you grew up too fast?”, “How do you embrace beauty?” I mean, what is the opposite of growing up too fast? I feel like the people I’ve met who have had this idyllic childhood of no pressure, and no worries... I find that they’re kind of lacking, that they tend to be sheltered and have a harder time adapting to change, and figuring out who they are because they were only really given a voice when they turned 18 or so. In regards to being a child actor, I find most people assume there had to be a negative impact. The beautiful thing for me though, and what I’ve learned, is that I was given a voice at ten years old. I was asked my opinion, I was asked what I thought about a scene, or what my character should wear… all these questions that were asked of me as a child actor really gave me a voice and an identity.
What’s been your secret to not becoming fodder for TMZ?
I don’t know. I guess I haven’t really been in the kind of movies that escalate you to that level of scrutiny. Things have changed so much since I started acting 18 years ago. I really wasn’t pursuing acting for the whole Twilight kind of fame thing, I was more interested in playing character parts, you know, just coming in for two weeks and creating something I haven’t seen before, rather than carrying a film. So maybe that’s what’s kept me out of the tabloids.
Are you excited about The Hunger Games: Catching Fire?
I’m beyond excited. I just saw it recently, and it’s such a great film! I always worry about sequels, but the director Francis Lawrence just knocked it out of the park. I was on the edge of my seat! I kept thinking this is such a good movie! I’m just so proud to be a part of it, and the character I play, Johanna Mason, is so fun, with so many layers, and so many things to challenge myself with. Even if this character was in some small, low-budget film, I think I would have fought just as hard to get the part because she’s just so interesting.
Was it a grueling shoot for you?
It wasn’t that grueling. All of the action stuff came easily because I had such an amazing foundation from working on Sucker Punch. I had worked for eight months with Navy Seals and martial artists for that film, so I really knew how to push my body to those extremes. Before Sucker Punch, I never went to the gym, never had any understanding of my own strength, so all the action stuff came pretty easy on Catching Fire. I was also working with the same team that did the stunts on Sucker Punch, so I felt like I was a little bit of an alumni. The hardest part for me was learning how to hold her anger and her violence in my body for 16 hours a day.
You recently described the character Johann Mason as being fierce, a bad-ass, and crazy. What are three adjectives you would use to describe yourself?
I guess… um… optimistic. I’m oddly optimistic! Even in the worst circumstances, I’ll try to see something positive in it, which I think is a good thing. I’m also playful. I have a real tomboy streak in me, very rough and tumble. I guess I’d also describe myself as thoughtful. I like to put a lot of thought into anything that I do. Even when speaking to a stranger, I always try to have a real conversation and search for truth instead of just skimming the surface. So what’s that… optimistic, playful and thoughtful… sounds like I’m describing a teddy bear!
You were in Doubt in 2006. Was that your first time doing Broadway?
Oh yeah, it was really the first time I even stepped on stage.
Was it challenging coming from film and television?
Oh definitely! Every day was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life, and the most rewarding. I think I failed so many times on stage that after six months of performing I was able to find, like, only seven minutes of glory!
You recently directed the music video for Lavender Dia Diamond. How did that come about?
Becky Stark, the lead singer is a good friend of mine, and we wanted to collaborate for a while now. I wanted to direct something, and I had this idea for this song off her new album. We raised a little bit of money, and just went and did it.
Becky Stark is amazing.
I know, what a heartwrenching voice; she’s such a beautiful storyteller.
Speaking of beautiful storytellers, you’re in Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film Inherent Vice. What can you tell me about that?
I can’t tell you much about the character I play, but I can tell you how fucking excited I was to work with Paul Thomas Anderson, who I believe is one of the greatest American filmmakers of my generation. He’s such a rad guy. Literally working with him for just a few days was so life-affirming! The movie is going to be incredible. There are 65 speaking roles! It’s a giant ensemble.
You’re also in talks to portray Carson McCullers in Lonely Hunter.
It’s still in the works. We tried to get it going last year, and then I got Hunger Games, so it had to get pushed. Luckily I’m not going to grow too old for the part. I want to play her from 16 to 50, and there’s so much research to do on her. I feel I could research her for another ten years and still not be ready to play her.
I wanted to touch on your experience of being raised by two moms. Did you ever experience any backlash?
Well, anytime you have something that’s outside of the norm, that’s what you get picked on for. For me I didn’t really know anything else. I had two parents who loved me, and it seemed normal; but then going to public school I realized, “Oh, wait a minute”… I got picked on a little bit, but nothing scarring! I just never felt there was anything weird about it.
Any plans to start a family of your own?
Right now, I’ve got all these creative projects going on, and I look at them like they’re my babies. I try to give them as much attention and love, and to push them in the direction I think they need to go. I think so much about them, and dream about them that, right now, I think my love quota’s kind of full!