Jena Malone: from childhood actress to blockbuster queen

Jena Malone is the fiery, kick ass star of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Mockingjay - Part 1 and 2.

by Paul Flynn
04 November 2014, 2:40pm

Beau Grealy

"When I was ten I was doing all these commercial auditions," she says. "I walked out of one and said, 'Mom, I don't want to be doing this, I hate them, they're making me be me and I don't want to be me. I want to create characters.'"

The words fell on deaf ears. "My mom was like, 'Alright, Jena, just do the Cheerios commercial.'" So Jena tried talking to her representative. "Imagine saying that to your agent as a 10-year-old girl?" Imagine. Dressed in a vintage Emporio Armani tube top, a thrift shop miniskirt and cumbersome sneakers, she is a striking looking woman. She's immediately full of prepossessing, expressive Californian openness. "I read Bastard Out of Carolina, and I was like, 'Yes! This is what I want to do'." Imagine. Her debut feature was a painful, excoriating treatise on the mother-daughter bond. "I wanted to create characters and I wanted to do it in things that are hard and challenging." It sounds like Jena Malone got to the energetic core of acting very young. She just wanted to access her imagination. "I mean, of course I was a precocious weirdo."

I fought hard for my role in The Hunger Games.I certainly was not their first choice.

Part of Jena's early confidence must be attributed to her erratic, nomadic upbringing. "I grew up in a really beautiful, non-traditional way. I had two mums, we travelled around a lot, lived out of cars and motel rooms. We never had a lot of money, but when I look back at my childhood, it was always so happy and free. I was always creating in the forest, running around wild." Cash flow could be problematic as the family tumbled across California, never quite knowing where to call home, before settling in Lake Tahoe. "There were a couple times when we went hungry. There were food stamps. But I feel like there was a level of real life in that. I understood what was real and the pressure of that, and how precious it is when you do get something important, a job that's meaningful or a toy that's meaningful to you. I understood the value of that. There was never a bubble to burst. I hit the ground running."

Malone is a highly engaging conversationalist. Her energy is an infectious blend of hippy-ish optimism and pragmatic can-do-ism. The fact that she eschewed commercialism so young and is now, on the verge of turning 30, most famously associated with the biggest commercial film franchise in the world, The Hunger Games, is a pleasing note of irony in her haphazard, heartfelt life story. She debuted as Johanna Mason in last year's episodic blockbuster and finished filming the upcoming two last films earlier this year. Her character was an instant favourite with the fans.

"If you put the right things out in to the universe, the right things will come to you," she says, a mantra that has turned out to be presciently specific to her career path. "People tend to focus on the negativity of [working as a child] and they don't remember the beauty of it, which is that at 10 years old I was given a voice. My opinion was valued and I was asked questions. I was asked to be creative and I made decisions about how a scene would be. I could try things out. I feel like a lot of young women aren't given that until much older. So yeah, I had responsibilities, but I was a dork. I loved being responsible. I was way more responsible than my mum. That was part of my nature. So I feel like I thrived in that environment, whereas some people crash and burn."

Jena first came to wider public attention in the 2001 cult classic Donnie Darko, which she starred in at 16. "That film was made, it was underappreciated, no-one saw it, and it lost money, and now look what it's become. I'm interested in the shelf-life of things. I feel like creatively at that point I was in a good place. I was working with so many rad directors and it was just another rad film to work on. It was in the after-effect that I was like, 'Oh, wow, I was part of something that really changed things.'" Donnie Darko proved to be a useful precursor to her later work. "It liberated a young audience to the cult film world in a way that I think they'd never been allowed before. That was before Comic Con. I feel like Donnie Darko set off this youth appreciation of the underground. Like The Hunger Games does now."

There is little that excites Jena more than the inner workings of the teenage psyche. She may be a lone voice crying out in support of modern youth, but she intends to voice her support loudly and regularly. On this subject, too, she is mesmerising. "Kids want the truth now. They don't want to be belittled and excluded. They want to know what war is like, what self-sacrifice is like, what true love is like. How beautiful that this is our new generation of hearts, you know?" Her inclination towards this idea started at home, too. If anyone learned at a young age that home is where the heart is, it was Jena Malone. 

I have to love every character that I play. That's another gift of starting acting at a young age. You get a full study of human nature, in a way that school never teaches you.

"I have a sister who's 16, so she's kind of the inspiration for my life. She's an amazing, lion-hearted, courageous woman." It was her kid sister who first alerted Jena to The Hunger Games. "She told me I had to read it and she reads like 12 books a day. I finally did and I was like 'Woah, you're so right. It's so good.'" Buoyed by the books, she made the casting call. "I fought really hard for it. I was definitely not their first choice. Luckily I scared the shit out of them and they auditioned me."

Like the rest of the human race, Jena adores Jennifer Lawrence. "I am just so happy that she exists in the world," she says. "Such. An. Inspiration."

The temporal shift from film to music is all part of Jena's teenage inclusivity awareness programme, and ties neatly back to her wilful appreciation of the conditions of the heart. "One of the reasons I made this album in a different way is because I was so affected by the fan base of The Hunger Games, their passion and their love. All I want to do is make music for them. Honestly? Just teenagers as an audience would be fine. I got so far on my soapbox, I can't get much further, so why not give everything to them? They're the seeds that will have to struggle through. We're floating through life."

If you know a teenager - indeed, if you are one - looking for a positive, odd musical role model in a sea of high-stakes, cutthroat commercialism, they could do far worse than be pointed in the direction of The Shoe's delightful second work, I'm Okay. For the sub-demographic bored by Taylor Swift, Jena's music will likely be everything.

"The most important thing is keeping the optimism of the heart alive. That's what acting has taught me from a young age."

"On set is my first home," she says of her film work. "I'm still building a home in music. There are still nerves. I feel like I'm five years old. I'm figuring out how to manage things and manage people and make things happen. It's a slow burn. I have more of a grassroots mentality, not shoving it on people. A lot of people think that what we do is experimental, but for me it's the process that is experimental. At the end of the day, it's about storytelling, about stories translating more than the perfection of the pitch of the voice, or the perfection of the keyboards, or the sound. All of that is paint. The story is what's important. In ten years' time, when a 14-year-old boy finds this he's going to respond to the story. He's not going to know that an actress made it or that they were free-styling. He's not going to know any of the context. Just the music."

The album reaches its lovelorn pinnacle in the useful, autobiographical, Broken Hearted Love Song. "I originally wanted to do a Townes Van Zandt cover on the record, I was toying with that a lot. I mean, he's such an incredible lyricist. But when I put his words in my mouth, they sounded so masculine. It didn't feel authentic, me telling these stories of a man. So I thought 'Fuck it, I'll write a country tune.'" The song begins with a happy-sad poetic couplet about not being able to say I love you: "I'm getting fat now, pretty darling. I'm starving for what's not being said."

"It stuck. It was when I was seeing someone but not really. All these forms of connection were there apart from the ability to say 'I love you', which everyone always postpones for so long. But really, if you feel it, it should be the easy thing to say."

Jena is a great believer in love. "The most important thing is keeping the optimism of the heart alive. That's what acting has taught me from a young age. I can't judge a character because he's a killer. I have to see all of his different inlets and outlets in order to love him. I have to love every character that I play. That's another gift of starting young. You get a full study of human nature, in a way that school never teaches you."



Texto Paul Flynn 
Fotografía Beau Grealy 
Estilismo Karla Welch

Peluquería Maranda Widlund @ The Wall Group.
Maquillaje Darlene Jacobs.
Asistente de fotografía Jules Bates.
Asistente de estilismo Erica Cloud.
Producción Pippa Mockridge.
Jena lleva total look Louis Vuitton 

Jena Malone