Jena Malone’s precociousness was present from the start. Her chilling big screen debut as the young Ruth Anne “Bone” Boatwright—who suffers tremendous abuse at the hands of an alcoholic father, in 1996’s Bastard Out of Carolina—garnered her a SAG nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She was eleven.
Watching her easy grace and commanding presence on screen over the intervening years—even in small but pivotal roles like the knowing narrator-sister to Emile Hirsch in last year’s Into The Wild—it’s easy to see why she’s often been compared to Jodie Foster (she even played a young version of Foster in 1997’s Contact). Hearing her rhapsodize about her “craft” makes the case even clearer that Malone, now 23, is something special, several notches above the current generation of young actresses wobbling through Hollywood.
Of her Broadway debut last year in the Tony Award-winning Doubt, she says, “You’re not given a lot of time to breathe on screen—it’s a lot of fast moments, a lot of easy solutions—but onstage, you’re given two hours to work, to find, to bleed, and to live. It’s just so immense.”
Her art is clearly serious business to her, but she doesn’t take herself that seriously. When she’s not acting, she immerses herself in her other passion, music, making demos at her home studio in Lake Tahoe, under the name Jena Malone and Her Bloodstains. Or she records on-the-fly in taxicabs in New York. Her music’s got an unstudied freak-folky art-rock vibe to it, and her personal style matches it well. “Now that I’ve cut my hair short, I’m really into dressing more like a man—ties with dresses and blazers,” she says. “But I also really want to dress like a trapeze artist from the ’30s in Paris. I keep having all these dreams of outfits.” On the day we meet, she is wearing a slightly tattered lace-trimmed frock that she’s put on backwards. She wore said dress to her mother’s wedding two years ago, only it was “front-wards” that day, “just to, you know, give my mom a little normalcy. Like, Okay, I can do this—for you.”
Things weren’t always so peachy between them. Malone emancipated herself from her mother’s care when she was all of 14, and set up shop on her own in Los Angeles.
But these days the two are good pals; the fingerless gloves that proudly display her dark, chipped nail polish come from a recent shopping spree with mom at Target. “I basically live out of thrift stores and raiding people’s closets, but I was amazed at the amount of things that I was drawn to at Target.” Over a gargantuan Cobb salad at Craft in New York City (“Yowzer!” she cheered when it arrived), Malone sat down with BlackBook to talk about her latest challenge while filming Carter Smith’s frightening feature length debut, The Ruins: the near-starvation she voluntarily put herself though for the role, and living in a state of emotional terror so human, so tangible, that she’s still rattled by it.
BLACKBOOK: The story of four young tourists fighting for their lives at an ancient archeological site, The Ruins is a very different kind of movie than anything you’ve been in so far. A horror movie isn’t exactly what viewers would expect to see you in. JENA MALONE: I recently saw 50 minutes of it and it’s really intense and kind of hard to watch. And I understand why, because it’s sort of a psychological thriller that has moments of gore. There are no real moments of like, “jump!” There’s not that sort of on-the-edge-of-your-seat feeling. It’s more of a survival story.
BB: So it’s a more real fear? JM: Yeah! There is no tangible bad guy; there’s just “human nature,” which is the worst one of all. [Laughs.]
BB: What about this project appealed to you? JM: The script shocked me. There wasn’t a lot of dialogue. There was a lot of description and just painting a picture of the space that these characters enter. And that fascinated me. Here was something that was about young people that wasn’t about their antics and it wasn’t about their personalities and it wasn’t about where they are in society. It’s really basic and it’s really human, and I’d never done something like it before. And the director, Carter Smith, did this short film called Bugcrush that went to Sundance a few years ago, and I really liked it. It was the most creepy and disturbing thing I had seen in a long time.
BB: How so? JM: He is making films how David Lynch makes them, in the sense that he’s not making films anymore—he’s making these crawling, living organisms that get into your skin and you can smell them and you can taste them and they’re quite tangible. Those aren’t the films that I’m necessarily in love with as an audience member. Mostly those are the ones that I’ll take my little sister to and try to scare her and then treat her for ice cream afterwards. This was horror like Cronenberg or Lynch does horror, which is more psychological horror, “human nature” horror. I like that. I wanted to gamble with that, I wanted to see where it would take me.
Previous photo: Dress by Moschino Cheap & Chic, belt and bangles by Chanel, shoes by Sergio Rossi. This photo: Shirt by Moschino Cheap & Chic, dress by Moschino, shoes by D&G, cuff by Chanel.
BB: And where did it take you? JM: It was a really intense shoot. I think I had a breakdown on almost every level—physical, emotional. We were all on this deprivation diet and it was just about maintaining this really intense state for three and a half months. I mostly work in independent film, where you don’t have as much time and everything happens so fast. But with this it was like, wow, we had three days to shoot two pages. Man, that’s a lot of time to second-guess yourself, which can be a beautiful thing but can also be really scary.
BB: It can be crippling. How did you negotiate that? JM: Just learning how to keep your rhythm, keep yourself afloat, and trying to learn the art of patience and the art of sustaining yourself. I was eating basically steamed meat, and raw vegetables, and that was it for three and a half months. Usually, I eat, like, everything. And just to have that taste—small though it may be—of deprivation gave me this focus and awareness of what it means to not have and to want and to crave and to be withheld. I had never done that for a part. So I felt like it was almost cheating, because it was a really easy way to get into that space. I mean, all I was thinking about was food. I was hungry all the time and weak, and your emotions change.
BB: Was starving the actors intentional so that you’d look a certain way? Or so that you would get into the mindset of these people? JM: Mindset, yeah. Well, some people had to lose weight or bulk up, so certain actors were put on different diets. But I got there and wasn’t put on anything and I felt like, We’re all in this together. We can’t be going out as a cast, and I’m eating dessert and having coffee with foam.
BB: So you chose to be on it? JM: That’s why I’m saying that it felt like an easy way out as an actor. To be able to have this bond without having to build it metaphorically with your cast members.
BB: It’s also a way to go deeper with your character, to explore further. JM: Absolutely. People talk about Method acting. I worked with Daniel Day Lewis, and when you see him in a room in character on set, it makes so much sense. I don’t understand why anyone can’t do it that way, because all it takes is extreme focus, extreme concentration, and extreme dedication, which are naturally part of what it is to be an actor. I respect people like Emile Hirsch. On Into the Wild he went there one hundred percent. I think of him as an older brother now, and I’m so proud of him. Because I did The Ruins after Into the Wild, I talked to Emile and I said, I’m using you as a model, because he went there.
BB: What’s interesting is that it sounds like you didn’t have to go there for this role, but you chose to. What do think that says about you? JM: The thing is that I wanted it to be good. I didn’t want to do it half-assed. It actually took me a really long time to get out of that headspace after I finished working. I entered into some strange form of depression, which I think every actor, every artist does after some creative, emotional, intangible release. You live on a tight-wire for a bit, and you come back down to the ground, and you’re going to feel turned upside down. And that’s absolutely normal. But this one was a little bit harder to shake off.
BB: How long did it last? JM: I’m still trying to understand it.
BB: What’s your understanding of it now? JM: That sometimes you give a lot to something and you forget about your reserves. I walked away from The Ruins and felt like I had depleted my inspiration. That’s something that doesn’t really happen to me. Like, eating this salad, I’ll want to do it in a way that will bring the life into it and out of it, in any moment, you know? And I’m coming around to it but I didn’t feel inspired. I didn’t feel creative. I started looking up the words that I was fighting with. What is depression, what is inspiration? If you talk about it in architectural terms, depression is sinking down from your own floor to get a better perspective. Or a different perspective. So maybe it’s actually an important thing; you have to go down to come back up.
BB: Having another art form to turn to must help refill the well, so to speak. What is the story with these “taxicab recordings” you make while you’re working in New York City? JM: I started becoming a freestyle singer when I was here in New York, doing the play Doubt. I would be so confined in the play, everything was a regimen. I had to drink water and not a lot of coffee and not a lot of milk before—it was more about cleansing and trying to be a really even and clean slate before I went on the stage. And sometimes it was really intense. I found that I needed release, to just scream or something. So I started walking home and freestyling to myself and it just turned into every time I got into a taxicab the recorder would go on and these ten-minute intervals would happen. Sometimes with the cabbie singing back with me, sometimes with them asking questions, me asking them what their favorite songs were. I probably have 50 hours of material. Eventually I’ll do something with it that’s more substantial than just leaving it on the hard drive. Because there’s some interesting stuff there.
BB: Was it about the potential of creating something, or was it just the experience itself? JM: I want to sing for people, I want to give it to people. And in this weird way I feed off this energy of having to sit with someone in a car, trapped there, they can’t go anywhere. Whether or not they are listening, I’m still wanting to give them something beautiful.
BB: Whose work has helped informed your approach as a musician? JM: I’m always listening to Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Tom Waits, and PJ Harvey—her, I’m obsessed with. I love her album White Chalk. It’s so haunting I find it hard to listen to, like it’s almost too beautiful. I find it hard. You have to be in a space for it. But I saw her live when she when she was touring with that album. I’ve never cried before when I saw music. But she’s playing all of her instruments, recreating songs she did in ‘91. And instead of having a full band or getting that drum sound, she’s literally just banging on a thing, getting some keyboards, and singing. And that’s totally inspiring because that’s how I set up my studio. I don’t know how to play anything but I’m playing everything. It’s kind of the only way to do it. Just do it yourself.
BB: You became independent at fourteen, so learning to do things on your own came early for you. What’s your relationship with your family like now? JM: It’s beautiful. It’s nice to be close to my family. To be able to go home and be able to be a daughter and a sister.
Dress by Lorick, sandals by Miu Miu.
BB: What did it take to get to the place of closeness with your mom and your family? JM: Just time. Time, and just getting to be in a room alone together and be like, Alright. Let’s have a bottle of wine. Let’s sit here and let’s talk. Let’s just be. I was young, stubborn, so it took me time to be like, “I want to get to know her.” But I respect her so much. I find her happiness and her joy in life so beautiful. She’s got an immense childlike joy that I don’t think will ever be taken from her. And it’s great to have her as someone I look up to. Because when you’re a teenager you sort of hate your parents, regardless of who they are. Like with any other family, you have the breaking away period and then the coming back and then you get to reach this really strange and beautiful place where you kind of see eye to eye with your parents. Wow, I’m an adult, you’re an adult, and look, we’re both childish and fucked up. Amazing! Right?
BB: You had a breaking away from them way earlier than most people. JM: Yeah. Well, 14, 16, 18—in this day and age, things are happening earlier and earlier. I just feel like, if a child is ready just let ’em go. Let ’em explore.
BB: What was that period like? JM: I learned a lot about myself. I feel like I am who I am because I was able to do that. With everything I did, there were obstacles. Just to be able to put the power in my name and turn it on, I had to fax four pieces of paper to this person and have the court call this person and go in and talk to them to make sure I was normal. I felt like, I just want to be responsible. Is that so weird? I just want to pay my bills, do my grocery shopping, and be normal, but it was so hard. Normalcy shouldn’t be something you’re given. I understand that it’s something you have to fight against and fight with to a certain extent. If it’s too easy, I think people would never leave it.
Photography by Shawn Mortensen Styling by Bryan Levandowski