After auditioning for several projects, Jena Malone was cast by Anjelica Huston in her television film “Bastard Out of Carolina” (1996), for which she earned numerous accolades, including nominations for both the Screen Actors Guild Award and the Independent Spirit Award. She was then seen in major studio films such as “Contact” (1997), for which she won a Saturn Award for Best Performance by a Younger Actor, and “Stepmom” (1998). She then appeared in the independent psychological thriller “Donnie Darko” (2001), as well as the drama “Life as a House,” (2001) and the miniseries “Hitler: The Rise of Evil (2003) and starred in the dark comedy “Saved!” (2004) before being cast as Lydia Bennet in Joe Wright’s 2005 adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Pride & Prejudice.” Jena Malone continued to appear in both independent and mainstream features with supporting roles in the dramas “The Ballad of Jack and Rose” (2005), “Into the Wild” (2007), and the horror film “The Ruins” (2008). In 2007, she ventured into music and released a single as Jena Malone and the Blood Stains. The year 2011 saw her foray into action films with Zack Snyder’s “Sucker Punch,” leading her to be cast as Johanna Mason in “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” (2013), a role she reprised in two sequels in 2014 and 2015. In 2016, she was seen in supporting roles in Nicolas Winding Refn’s psychological horror film “The Neon Demon” and Tom Ford’s thriller “Nocturnal Animals.”
Tara Karajica talks to Jena Malone about her latest film, “Lorelei,” directed by Sabrina Doyle, that had its in-person premiere at this year’s Tribeca Festival, after having been screened online during the 2020 edition due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
What made you want to become an actress?
Jena Malone: I grew up doing community theater with my mom. She did a lot of community theater. She worked three jobs and then, we’ll do theater at night, and that was like a form of babysitting. I was always brought backstage and hung out with her and I feel like it was just an environment of magic that I wanted to be a part of. I really, really loved it as a child, so it was something I wanted to pursue at a younger age.
How did you get on board Lorelei?
J.M.: I had taken some years off because I decided to become a parent, and I was slowly starting to dip my toes back into the acting world. I had just finished working on a series with my friend Nic Refn [Nicolas Winding Refn] and I was ready to start working again. I had almost taken three years off, so it was a little intimidating. I had sort of stepped out of it for a bit and I was now a mom, which was a completely different body, mind, spirit routine. I was ending my breastfeeding journey with my son and so, it’s really complicated to be away from him twelve to fourteen hours a day. But I wanted to do it. I really responded to the script. I loved Sabrina [Doyle]’s vision, and I think this is a story that needs to be told.
Your character in Lorelei, Dolores (Lola), is a grown wild child, a free-spirited single mother who loves her children and the ocean and who can’t be tamed. What is your take on her?
J.M.: Well, I don’t know if it’s that she can’t be tamed, but rather, there’s a really deep and beautiful kind of sacred alchemy that happens when you become a parent. All of that which was before has to sort of die, disappear or have some sort of rebirth. You become a new human in a way, and I think a lot of people have a hard time navigating that transformation. And, I think that she never really got to have the life that she wanted to have before she had kids, so she’s still trying to bring in some fulfilment of her youth, and I think that’s a really normal story for moms; it’s very hard to put your dreams aside and put the things that you wanted to do with your life aside. And, unfortunately, we vilify, I think, a lot of moms for wanting to put their kids in daycare and pursue their dreams. Dolores makes a lot of choices that if she were a man, no one would blink an eye. They’d leave the kids at home to go pursue a career and come back in six months, but for a mother to do that, it’s really unheard of to leave your kids and go and try to pursue your dreams, and she does it unapologetically because she knows she has to. And, I think what’s really important about this parent aspect is that really your kids don’t need much, but they need you to thrive. They need you to be in a space where you can thrive, whatever that looks like, and somehow, at the end of the film, she’s found a way to thrive. And, that is the best thing that you can give your kids, even if it’s the rocky, terrifying journey along the way.
How did you prepare to play her and what were your references? What did you do to become Lola?
J.M.: Well, I was raised by two single women, so I knew the ins and outs. I definitely was raised by what people would call poor white trash before, but there’s not a lot of poetry in that, and it’s just very low income, so I knew the world that I wanted to enter and so, I think it was really about getting back into remembering my childhood, remembering the heroes that my moms were, and also the villains that they had to become to survive in the world. I just had to remember a lot, and I think that Sabrina gave me a lot of tools for remembering.
The love story between Lola and Wayland is one that is born out of youth and potential when they were young and with plans, wanting to escape their normal life and they both had their youth and their plans snatched away from them. What is interesting in Lorelei is not the past that they shared, but where they are in their lives when they meet again and how they try to grow a love in a ruthless environment again. Can you comment on that?
J.M.: I think that everyone has that story and love is such a nonlinear journey. I think it’s really easy to get halfway through your life and start thinking about the loves that had existed before and “What if?” and “What could?” and “If I was this person and if we had different circumstances…” I don’t think a lot of people get second chances to see if those “What if” stories could have more life to them, and I think that this is a really rare opportunity for two people that are in their own catharsis journey of healing, to look back and try to reclaim some of that hope and love and healing in that first love, and try to see if they can do it differently, if they can be different people, but still reclaim some of their dreams. I think it’s a really beautiful, very rare thing that people get. People don’t get that journey very often.
It’s true! Talking about second chances, Lorelei is a love story of Dolores with herself, in the sense that she discovers herself, wants to make up for lost time and reinvent herself, hoping to get a second chance to do it, which she ultimately does get.
J.M.: Yes, yes! It’s all about second chances! I mean, it’s even more about the sixth and seventh chance, and that you have to not be scared about how many times you fail, or you have to keep trying even if it’s the same thing, even if you failed at the same thing seventeen thousand times, it’s worth it to try again. It’s worth it to continue. If you know that it’s something that’s really deep inside of you, it’s important to keep at it.
How much of you is there in every character you play? Do you manage to dissociate yourself from your own persona in order to play someone else?
J.M.: I tend to not play characters that are just simply me. It’s really scary taking on different people, but actually the biggest fear in acting is to just play yourself, to just be completely vulnerable and naked, and it felt like there were two terrains in this that felt very close to who I was just because I was also a single mother on a journey in parenthood, in the struggle, in the grip, in the sweat of it. So, I wanted to allow whatever needed to come up out of me that can be part of Dolores’s catharsis, that could also be part of my catharsis. But I wasn’t strict with it. I wasn’t like: “Well, this is mine and this is hers, she can’t have this and I’m going to have this!” I wanted to allow it to just come in waves, see what I wanted to affect me and see what just didn’t feel like mine, and there was a lot that didn’t feel like mine, but it felt important to still put it into my bones and see how I could make it real.
I can’t play a character that I don’t love. Humans are not just one thing. You’re not just a doctor. You’re not just a mom. We’re several thousand things and it’s all very nonlinear, what we carry, who we are. And, I do think that there’s so much universal truths in being a human being. We all f*ck, shit, smell and cry, and have these very basic needs and so, I think that regardless of who you are, where you’re coming from, we all have lines that can really be very universal. This film called Porcupine is coming out next year and it was intentional to be as close to myself as possible, to just take all the artifice, all the things, all the lines and just really strip it down. But I had never really done that before. Not since when I was a teenager. I think it’s always felt like I wanted to play someone completely different than me and really just try to like discover that person. But I think the older that I’m getting, I realize I’ve done that so much that now, the fear, or the excitement, or the place that I want to dive deeper into is the space of maybe exploring a little bit more of myself.
And, has any character that you have played completely, radically changed you, and altered your way of being and thinking?
J.M.: I think every character should change you a little bit, but I think the one that changed me the most radically – and it’s interesting, it wasn’t about the emotional part of the character, but it was rather the physical body that I had to become – was in Sucker Punch, because I was training so deeply in that and I had never trained my body to become a character. I’d always done more mental, emotional, different kind of physical work. And, I think when I got into that working out, training and being more brutal, pushing my strength and pushing my pain threshold, I discovered something that I’ve carried with me ever since; it’s never gone away. And, I really appreciate what that film gave me about understanding my strengths and my body and how far I can push myself. I don’t think I would have done that if I hadn’t done that film because I’m not a sporty person. I don’t know if I would have found that part of myself.
Do you have a favorite role that you have played or any role that you would love to play in the future that you haven’t yet?
J.M.: There are so many roles I want to play. I’m thirty-six and I played a lot of women in their twenties and I’ve played a lot of teenagers and I haven’t got to play a lot of women in their thirties yet and so, I think there’s a whole other world in exploring what this is like, exploring what feminine beauty and being a human is of this age. There are a thousand things I haven’t done yet. Maybe one of my favorite characters is the one I got to do in the film Neon Demon. I really liked that she was really a very hard character to bring off the page, and by the end of that, I ended up really loving her even though she was completely vile and moderately despicable.
There has been so much talk about women film in the past four years. What is your take on the matter? Have you seen some changes since #metoo?
J.M.: I see slow changes, but I see a lot of optics changes. I see a lot of casting that looks like it’s changing, but there are still a lot of white men behind them, but it’s tiny steps. It’s amazing what one small thing can do, and film is so young. I don’t need to see the revolution in my lifetime; it’s for our sons and our daughters, so it’s just nice to see the beginnings of any kind of change, because change just begets more change and it will grow stronger and stronger and more unique and variable and take our breath away in how it’s going to surprise us. The equality between not just man and woman, but rather just all of humanity. It’ll be less about: “Now, we need women to do this and men can do this,” but it’ll be more about the human, the “they.” Every type of human needs to have more avenues of representation and I think that we’re only just at the beginning of this journey.
Do you have a favorite film by a female filmmaker and is there a female filmmaker you would love to work with?
J.M.: I think Chloé Zhao who did Nomadland is really incredible. I really love Lynn Ramsey. She’s incredible! Claire Denis is wonderful. I want to see more! I want younger, newer, older! I want sixty-year-old female filmmakers! I just constantly want to hear different people’s perspectives and now’s really the time to tell very personal stories. I want the sixty-year-old female director to tell the story of a sixty-year-old female. Each vessel, each body of a film needs to be helmed by someone that represents the film, so I just want all shapes, all sizes, all genders to represent new narratives now.
What are your next projects?
J.M.: Well, there’s a film that’s coming out called Porcupine and Lorelei should be coming out this year. And, I’m working on a top-secret project with Carter Smith. We did The Ruins together. I did the last season of Goliath, which should be coming out this year as well. And, we’ll see what else is next.
Photo credit: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Tribeca Festival.
This interview was conducted (remotely) at the 2021 Tribeca Festival.