interview by Douglas Eby
She's been acting professionally only a couple of years, but Jena Malone is already inspiring acclaim for roles such as her portrayal of a victim of child abuse in "Bastard Out of Carolina" directed by Anjelica Huston. In the film "Contact" she played the main character: a girl who grows up to become a radio astronomer.
Jena, age 12, has also guest-starred on the TV series "Chicago Hope", and recently starred in "Hope" directed by Goldie Hawn.
One of the reasons Jena wanted to act in the movie "Contact" was the chance to work with Jodie Foster, and play the main character Ellie Arroway as a girl.
Jena recalls seeing Foster work on the set: "It was so amazing. You know, it's different when you see different actors and see how they work; some are great workers, really hard workers, and some are never there to give off-camera stuff, even though they're great actors. So you see how everyone does their own thing, their own little method. Like some people I've worked with like to get everyone tense on the set, so they don't know what he's going to do next.
"But Jodie's such a hard worker. She likes to have her hands in everything, to be involved in the lighting and other things. It's good to meet an actress like that. She knows the mechanics. She does lines so the looping process [recording the sound again later] will be better, or she stops a line for the editors to work with. She knows everything about it, every little thing. And it never shows on the screen, but you can see it when you watch her work. She never misses a beat. I was mesmerized by her amazing talents."
When they first started working together on "Contact", she and Jodie had a meeting to "copy each other's traits for the character" Jena says. "The first day I was watching her, and she was saying different things she did for the character, like played with her hair, or things like that. But after our meeting, she said 'You know what, I'm going to copy you.' It was amazing, because pretty much my job was to do exactly what she did, and then she said she was going to do what I did."
After they started working together, Jena says that Jodie told her "You know, you're probably going to have very much the same career as I did, and I just want you to know something that I learned: sometimes I did things that I didn't all the way want to do. I half way wanted to do them, or something like that, and I always regretted it.
"So, I want you to always follow your heart and do exactly what you always wished for. You're only going to be happy when you follow your heart. You're not going to be happy all the other times. You're always going to say 'I wish I had done this' and you're always going to regret it. And it's not good to have regrets in just this short little life."
Jena first started out doing a student film for a film class at USC (the University of Southern California): "It's amazing when you first do it, everything is so new. Everything you see and you do, it's like 'Oh, wow!' You can do this and do that. I wish I could have that every time I work, learning new things.
I do. You
learn so much on the set, and that's one of the things I love about it.
Sometimes you can just go there and do your job, but I love there and
like, fifty times more.
"Like watching how the lighting works, and all the terminology is, and all that kind of stuff. I've learned immensely, and it's helped me with my school work and my patience, mostly. All you do is wait around, and you get used to it after a while."
But she doesn't just hang out. Like many other gifted young actors, she has found homeschooling a way to help realize her many talents. Before switching to it, she was in public schools, always in a gifted program, and admits "The reason I started homeschool is I was so bored in school. I'd be helping the teacher, like the teacher's assistant and helping other kids.
always that one person who just doesn't understand, and it drags the
class behind. So I was always going ahead, and helping grade papers and
stuff. The great thing about homeschool is you can learn what you
need to learn, and you can take things that you're interested in.
"I take so many extra courses: creative writing and German, and I'm really interested in the Renaissance, and I can really get more in depth on it one year if I wanted to."
The program Jena and her mom found is through the Laurel Springs School in Ojai, California, which enrolls many young actors in both film and television. Stars from shows including "Home Improvement," "The Secret Life of Alex Mack," and "Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman" are involved with the school's homeschooling and online courses.
Jena says she just got a laptop, so that will help her continue her writing interests, as well as school work, while on the set. "And I have this great set teacher" Jena says. "When I'm working on a film set, I always take her. And sometimes when I'm not on a set, she teaches me at her house." [see interview with school director Marilyn Mosely]
Just returning from Texas where she was working on a new film, directed by Goldie Hawn, Jena notes there was "a very weird coincidence: we have the same birthday, and Goldie said that watching me work was like watching herself, and that she really knew why everyone liked working with her. And being directed by her was like being directed by myself; she knew exactly what I needed and when I needed it.
"It was so great. I wish you could do that every single film you do." She adds with a laugh, "I guess you can't." But Goldie "gave me so much advice" Jena remarks. "We're really great friends, we're like soul-mates. The one thing we both feel is that it's so hard to portray one image on film, and then when people meet you, you're a whole different way. Like with Goldie, you think she's some ditzy person, but she's so intelligent, and she's such an amazing woman."
Filmmaking, Jena points out, is still very much a male-dominated business, and it's sometimes hard for a woman or girl to really be respected: "It's very much the image you portray. With Jodie, there's no problem; she's a very strong woman, and that shows in all the characters she's done.
"But she's worked a long time to get there. And even outside the acting world, people still don't really listen to kids, and I think kids have some of the best ideas. Young kids are untouched, and unstressed.
"There's that saying 'Out of the mouths of babes' and really kids are so smart. I don't know what happens, all this stress when you're an adult. But you don't really have to have stress when you're an adult, there are ways to deal with that kind of stuff."
Jena says she first got interested in acting because of her mom, who has been an actress for some time, doing live theater: "I would always watch her, and I loved the way the audience responded to her, and the way she was so great. She's just so amazing.
"When she's up on stage, she like rules the entire theater. And I watched her and said that's what I really want to do. I had five things I really wanted to do: be a teacher, be dancer, I wanted to be a singer, an actor and a writer. And I can do all those things in acting. I think it's wonderful to be raised in the theater."
She is finding it more appealing to act in films, rather than on stage, and Jena finds the biggest challenge is "picking a role to do next, because there's all these things you love and really want to do; then there's things the audience wants you to do, and then there's the agents pressuring you on what they want you to do.
"There's everyone giving their opinion. One of my biggest problems is I can never say 'No' to people, because I'm so nice" she says, laughing. "And in this business, you have to learn how to say 'No', and I am more able to do that now, compared to when I started. Definitely. I read a script, and I can say 'Nope. Nope.'
"Or I'll say 'Yes' and they'll say, 'Oh, no, you can't do this' and I'll say 'Yes, I'm going to.' People ask who makes decisions about my career, and my mom's like 'I don't. Jena does.' Some kids, you know, their moms pick what projects they're going to do, or they say 'Well, honey, you should do this, because it will really help you' or something.
"It's hard to pick something, because everyone has their own opinion. I think it would be really hard to be an agent, because you have to manage someone else's career, and pick what you think would be good, but you never really know what they would think."
But having to make decisions about what projects to do is not something Jena minds: "I love it. I've really learned how to be very strong about certain things I need in work. It's so hard to really get big studios to actually know you're a kid, and to be treated the same way.
"They say 'Oh, she doesn't need her own teacher' or these things; they don't think it's important. But everything is very important. It's like a big name actor asks for their own private home on the location, you know they're going to get it, or anything they want.
"Many of the studios say 'She's just a twelve year old kid; why would she need that?' And that's why my agents are there: to really say to the studios that they're hiring m as an actress, and as an actress there are certain requirements that need to be met."
Working on a sound stage, or on location is something she really likes, says Jena: "I loved all parts of it. The only thing I've ever really disliked was the environment on the set. If it's hot and you have to work. Some locations are so terrible, you can't even breathe, and you still have to act.
"One time I had to sit on a hot tin roof with nothing under me for like a half hour, and a I burned my elbows. So there's those kinds of things, but that comes with acting. You have to overcome new obstacles."
In addition to more acting, Jena would like to direct, and soon. "I've been writing a couple of scripts" she points out, "and I'm thinking of directing before I'm sixteen. It's something that really interests me.
"And I love writing; I've been writing ever since I was seven. There's so many areas, even when you stop being an actor. There's a director, the writer, producer, DP [director of photography], I mean thousands of jobs. And they're all great ones. There's no bad job. Well, except emptying the honey wagon [portable toilet]."
Beside screenwriting, she likes other areas writing: "Oh, yeah, definitely. I used to want to be a children's writer, because I would have all these great ideas when I was little, and I'd write them and draw them, and turn them into class. And I love writing poetry. That's one of my great passions."
Jena points out there are not many people her age who work in films, and says she admires "everyone who stays in the business, and keeps an ongoing career and manages it well. I really admire Claire Danes. She's so amazing, and all the choices she's made for her career are good. I hope to work with her soon."
Jena will start work soon on her new film "Stepmom" with Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon. "I'm so excited" she says. "It's in New York for like five months. That's my 'heaven' with all the museums and all that art and kind of stuff.
"And to work with Susan Sarandon! What could go wrong?" The script is very real, and shows all the different challenges that girls go through. Some movies are so artificial, with little insignificant things.
"But there are big problems that children face, and the way they handle them is by natural instincts, and by how they're taught. And everything that is our natural instincts is natural for us. I think everyone should follow their instincts, and go with what they feel, and follow their heart."
Malone thinks one kind of problem for kids and teens is "being around people that are 'bad seed' types and like to steal or something." Peer pressure, she notes, "is very hard because you have five kids around you doing it, and you don't fit in. But I've really learned you don't have to fit in. No matter where you go, you're always going to be you and if they don't like you for who you are, then what's the point of being someone else?
"Because however old you are (for me it's twelve years) you've worked to be who you are, and then someone says 'I don't like you because you have brown hair' or you don't do something they want: well, those aren't the kind of people you should have around. I've really learned to surround myself with people who are supportive and easy-going no matter what happens. Those are the friends who last."
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interview by Douglas Eby
excerpts published in Blue Jean Magazine, March/April, 1998
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