Glass meets one of the most exciting young actors in Hollywood – Jena Malone

Jena Malone – On a sweltering LA day, Glass meets one of the most exciting young actors in Hollywood
Jena Malone is like a rare bird that appears sporadically enough to keep people enchanted by her, yet not so often that they are not left wanting more. Even after acting for over 18 years (she began aged just 12) and receiving 22 award nominations and seven awards, Malone is still managing to maintain the trajectory of a star on the rise, of an up-and-coming one-to-watch, with each of her breathtaking performances giving a tantalizing glimpse that the best is yet to come.

Through intelligent film choices (Malone is known to have turned down blockbusters from an early age in pursuit of more challenging and interesting roles), she has successfully navigated her way through the quagmire of overexposure and typecasting so rampant among young comediennes and has, in the process, made herself known as a very different kind of actress.

From her debut appearance in Bastard Out of Carolina, for which she was awarded an Independent Spirit Award for Best Debut Performance, to the roles that made her name in films such as Contact (1997), Stepmom (1998), Donnie Darko (2001), Pride & Prejudice (2005) and Into the Wild (2007), Malone has proved that she can hold her own against the likes of Jodie Foster (to whom she has been compared repeatedly), Julia Roberts, Ed Harris and Keira Knightley among countless others.

Glass Magazine Jena MaloneJena Malone. Photograph: Nicole Nodland

And her role in the recent Hunger Games franchise – Malone’s first foray into blockbuster territory – marks the dawning of a new chapter for the young actress, especially as rumours abound that she is set to play Batgirl in the next Marvel production, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

As well as acting, Malone has also released several albums as a singer and musician through her band The Shoe, and is a trained photographer. At MAMA gallery in LA last year, she exhibited photographs taken while travelling through Burma, the proceeds of which were donated to a not-for-profit supporting girls’ education in the country. Furthermore, she also plans to create a publishing company through which to publish the poems she writes (which have already proved popular on her Instagram page).

At just 30 years old, Jena Malone really does seem to have the world at her feet, but the question now is whether she will be able to maintain the fine balance between offbeat artist and Hollywood blockbuster star, as bigger and bigger films request her presence.

Jena MaloneJena Malone. Photograph: Nicole Nodland

Where did you get your drive from to become an actress?
I think a more interesting question is, how do you maintain that drive. Wanting to act is just a random idea that you have. My mom did a lot of plays – she was an actress and a singer when I was younger – so I was kind of raised in that environment. So I think this is where I caught the bug, I guess as one would say.

So how have you maintained that interest or drive then?
You know, what is interesting is that you are not in control of that sometimes. You know, I think that with everything it’s your interest that guides you, and wanes and fades and changes. When I was younger I thought I wanted to do certain types of films, and I think now I want to do something completely different. It’s always surprising me – I feel that I don’t control it, it’s like its own living thing of what I want from it.

You started in films very young. How do you think you have managed to achieve the near impossible of graduating from a child star to a well-respected adult actress? It seems to be a pretty big hurdle for most people.
Not really. I think that there are just a couple of people that are talked about. I think there are a lot of people that quietly and politely make that transition and don’t make a fuss about it. I think it is more that there are one or two extreme bad examples which people, oddly, get really fixated on and think it is a really difficult transition. But what is more interesting to me is the actual transition in life which is hard.

I think a lot of people, kind of, from their youth to their teens to adulthood, lose something. It’s a very awkward and painful transition for most people. You know, being a thirteen-year-old girl and then all of a sudden being a 21-year-old woman and what that does to your psyche and what that does to your heart. So I think just like anybody else, I don’t know if maybe I had a good environment, maybe my head was on right. I don’t know how anyone survives “teenagedom”, we just do.

Jena MaloneJena Malone. Photograph: Nicole Nodland

You were a pretty capable teenager – you co-produced your first movie when you were just 18. Most people that age are just thinking about going to bars and having fancy clothes. How did you even know how to produce a movie at such a young age?
Well at that point, I had been acting and working in the film industry for eight years. It is basically like being a dentist and then opening up your own practice, you learn by doing and then you want to do more. You know you want to have more control, you want to do your own thing with it because that is creative as well, not just the part of acting but also the art of making a film. It is just as creative, interesting, vibrant, wild.

You have also managed to maintain an image of a very cool young actress through your choice of roles. Was this by design or accident?
I think that is just the way it happened. I am very picky and I have really weird taste and I only want to make films that are something that I think I would want to watch as an audience member and something that I would like, you know?

Speaking of your weird taste, there seem to be a lot of forums online discussing your music, which is described as being very experimental and very different. (Malone’s music is actually beautiful, tender and highly impressive). What kind of genre would you say that it is?
Music for me is more about exploring narrative in experimental ways to understand character, so I do a lot of improvisation. We kind of go through a lot of genres. I don’t know, the album I put out last year is kind of, very simple kind of love songs. Just because it is kind of a small record, and we use weird sounds, people think that it is kind of …

Crazy experimentalist.
Yeah, maybe. I would say, listen to it online and then tell me what you think. If anything I would say that it is a little alternative, but it is pretty traditional.

And why did you choose the name The Shoe for your band?
I basically jimmy-rigged or half assembled/built this steamer trunk for all of my instruments I wanted to play on the street. Once I assembled it I started to practise a bit on it. I felt like this old woman living out of a shoe, and it just kind of stuck.

Jena MaloneJena Malone. Photograph: Nicole Nodland

What instruments do you play?
I kind of pretend to play everything, but I do not play anything that well. I like anything to do with my fingers, keyboard, piano, electronic drums, loppers, synths and percussion instruments. I do a lot of vocal effects and loops and layers.

And you are also a budding photographer?
Actually that is what I went to college for …

I read that at one point you were considering ditching acting and going into photography full time?
I was never interested in going into it full time. I think this is one of those things as an actor, you are given a lot of space – that is a polite way of saying it – the impolite way is saying I have a lot of time off. I have a lot of time to twiddle my hands so I think to be a really satisfied actor you have to try and find another passion.

So I had a lot of time to explore every form of narrative story telling. Music, photography, poetry, writing, so I think they kind of help me further what I want out of being a storyteller. I started doing photography because I wanted to be a better storyteller.

Why do you think it is so important to tell stories?
Because for me, when I was growing up, that is how you learn about the world, through books, films, music, stories that your elders tell you, and knowing a story is so exciting. You know the first time that I had a story to tell, when I was five years old, I just remember telling stories and people being so fascinated by that. Like, what is a story?

It’s a lesson, it is something you want to teach someone, you want to build a story around the lesson of life. You know we all pass on but the lesson will survive. So it feels like we are kind of modern day mythmakers. There is a kind of spirituality to it in the sense of wanting to pass on knowledge through the form of storytelling.

If you could share one pearl of wisdom that you have learnt along the way, what would it be?
Just one? I think for me I have learnt to think on my feet, you know? I have learnt it as I go; I just jump in and I learn an instrument, I just jump in and I learn how write poetry, I just jump in and act. I have never held back by thinking, “Oh, I am not right for that” or “I am not educated enough”, “I am not the person for that job.”

All you need is to believe in yourself and honestly you can do anything. You can pick up a pen, you can pick up a paintbrush, you can pick up a camera or a dental instrument, you know? If you believe in yourself, you can really change your world.

Did you go to the dentist this morning by any chance?
I know (she laughs), why am I talking so much about dentistry? It means nothing to me! But yes, I did, and also I was working late last night so all of my metaphors are a little rusty. My brain is a bit dead so I’m just pulling for references, sorry!

What have been your most memorable experiences while acting?
Acting for me, the most memorable experiences are the ones I do not remember. Because when I get really lost in it, when I lose my sense of self and am completely caught up in the moment, then I come out of it and I am like, “Oh my god, where did I go?” Those are some of the most thrilling, tantalising, addictive moments for me as an actress and it has only happened a couple of times. There are these really specific moments when I am like, “Wow, I lost myself in that character!” and I became the character, the character became me. There is like this possession. I cannot control it, it’s like this gift given to me.

Jena Malone Jena Malone. Photograph: Nicole Nodland

Who has been your favourite actor or actress you have worked with?
Hmmm … I really liked working with Joaquin Phoenix. I really thought that was incredible, lots of exciting things going on with him. He is really kind, caring, and special and like an animal on screen, and I think working with Daniel Day-Lewis was really incredible, those two are like, right up there.

And what would you like to achieve in your lifetime? You are so multifaceted I can’t imagine there is anything you haven’t determined yourself to achieve.
I don’t know, I don’t really think about life like that. I have little projects, like right now I am starting my own publishing company because I want to start self-releasing books of poetry of mine, so that is kind of what I am focused on, what I want to achieve right now, but that will change. Because it will happen and I will be like “Ok, that is that”. Honestly I just want to keep telling stories.

The theme of this issue is freedom and in the name of freedom of speech we are asking everyone in the issue to tell us what they want to speak out about, if there is something that they feel is unjust or that they feel strongly about.
I think that there are just so many things. I mean the interesting thing about freedom is that you do not know what it is until you lose it. Freedom is a hard thing to define until you start losing your freedom. And what is freedom? It’s the ability to say and do what you feel within. But you know, freedom is not going and killing someone down the street, freedom is also about being…

Right. Freedom for me is a funny thing. It gets tossed around so much with people saying things like, “Oh you are taking away my freedom of speech,” and all these things, but you know we are entering into an age where we have no privacy and the art and the act of freedom has become violating. With things like cyber bullying, taking away people’s voices, not allowing children to watch things, not allowing women to be educated.

We are constantly limiting people’s freedoms with the idea of justice, and for me the true idea of freedom is allowing everyone their own compass of justice. When I say I trust your compass it’s like, I trust your inner instinct of good and I think that a lot of people are made to feel that they cannot trust their inner instincts, trust their own compass.

You know we are always like, “Oh no, I cannot do that, the kids cannot see this or do that” and they don’t know who to be, they don’t know how to act. I think it makes a lot of people grow up in a way that they lose themselves because of that lack of freedom, that lack of privacy. I don’t know, it’s a bit of a rant, I’m tired. (She laughs)

Do you think that it is more so in Hollywood, where you have to constantly watch what you say and do?
No, I think it’s more about the digital revolution that we live in and I think it is more about living through the news and living through the printed word, living through the internet and living through a false sense of identity which is not you but the internet. I think the internet has kind of swallowed our freedom and it hasn’t given it back to us in a way that we’ve learnt how to transcend it.

One of your recent Instagram posts said that Instagram and magazines were making you feel insecure. How do you feel about the way women are portrayed in the media? Does this follow with your idea that we’ve lost the art of privacy, and also, it seems, our ability to exist without constant validation?
Yeah, it is a different age. I grew up without that, but does that mean that I grew up feeling any more secure with myself? I mean, growing up with MTV and things like that, and growing up with magazines and films, and whether you are in or out of church, there are always shackles on identity that society puts on you that does not naturally live inside of you. But for me, I think another thing that I was writing about on Instagram, is that I do not want my daughters to be ‘Instagram pretty’.

I want them to be fully breathing, fully living, specimens of love. I feel like there is a danger in the two-dimensional picture that we start valuing above a woman’s true beauty. I just see it again and again and again on Instagram and even in real life, with what people put out, with how they dress and who they want to be. I have got into a point where I recognise it so well. It’s the obsession with the two-dimensional image that is not real.

It’s a dangerous thing to grow up with because it sets an unreal parameter to live in that you will always be living in comparison with. Instead of saying, “I want to be my best self,” people are saying, “I want to be this person or that person.” They should be saying, “I want to be my best self because myself is the best that I can be.”

Jena MaloneJena Malone. Photograph: Nicole Nodland

Instead of trying to be their best self, people are just trying to be their best “selfie”.
Right. I feel like it is a really important thing to talk about with kids. I have a 17-year-old sister and I think being in The Hunger Games and all of that has really broadened my fan base to include this teenage revolution and I feel not obligated but inspired to talk to them about these kinds of things.

Because I’m a 30-year-old woman and I have been through that and it is an important thing to talk about. And you know it is silly because politically we are so screwed in so many ways, but to me being Instagram pretty – that is psychological warfare.

It is so damaging to the most beautiful things inside of a woman, which is her sense of self, because if that gets damaged then everything else gets damaged, life choices, freedom, creative abilities, emotional abilities, there are so many things that are tied to your sense of self, that without that we just raise monsters, we really do. –

by Nicola Kavanagh

Photographs:  Nicole Nodland
Styling: Jak at Atelier Management
Make-up: Bethany McCarty
Hair: Bobby Elliot at Tomlinson Management Group

From the Glass Archive – Issue 23 – Freedom

Jena is on twitter here