June 12, 2002|In the six years since she played the Jodie Foster character as a young ham radio enthusiast in Contact and Jennifer Jason Leigh's troubled daughter in Anjelica Huston's acclaimed Bastard Out of Carolina, Jena Malone has cornered the market on damaged adolescent goods. Maybe you remember her giving Julia Roberts lip in Stepmom, or asking Kevin Costner if he slept with Kelly Preston in For Love of the Game, or committing infanticide and pinning it on her dim boyfriend in a two-parter of TV's "Homicide". Perhaps, like me, you're a big fan of Donnie Darko, to which she brings the balance of calm--she is the film's earthy centre.
The endearingly self-deprecating, indisputably gifted Malone is now appearing in Peter Care's The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, a reunion of sorts with Foster, who's featured in a supporting role as a peg-legged nun. The film has a strange intertextual relationship to Donnie Darko with the backstory of Malone's Margie Flynn, plus it's interspersed with animated sequences by "Spawn" creator and toy guru Todd McFarlane, and the picture foists William Blake on the unsuspecting youth demo. In other words, go see it.
Before I commence with a transcript of my recent telephone Q&A with Ms. Malone, let me say that I wasn't sure how to broach the subject of Jena's hard-won legal emancipation from her mother and ex-handler, the details of which you can find elsewhere. To my surprise, she alluded to it towards the end of our interview; the overall impression I got from fifteen minutes with her is that if there's an actress not yet old enough to vote (she'll be eighteen on November 21st of this year) capable of managing a thriving career, Jena Malone is she.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: How did you come to be in The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys?
JENA MALONE: Well, I read the script. My agent sent it to me, and I had heard that Jodie was involved as a producer, and that Egg Films (Foster's now-defunct prodco -Ed.) was going to be doing it. Immediately I was excited because I knew they only pick projects that they love. And then, after I read it I fell in love with it, it's such a beautiful depiction of what it's like to be young. They really allow these characters to be fully fleshed-out, complicated young people, which is just a rare thing. And I auditioned a couple times. I went in three different times and I thought I sucked.
(laughs) But I take it you're proud of the finished product?
I really... I have a problem liking stuff that I do. Because I think there's a certain amount of, you know, unconscious effort in your inflections. This is one where I was actually really pleased, and I wasn't thinking I was as God-awful as I usually think that I am. The credit's really due to Peter Care, he really created an environment where we could feel safe and comfortable going to these places and living in these characters--he really made it feel real.
So normally you have a hard time watching yourself on screen?
Well, yeah, I do, actually. It's just a strange thing. It's hard for me to be just an audience member when I'm watching because it's you when you're young and there are these awkward things that you're revealing to people. It's a vulnerable experience, but at the same it's vulnerable and it's awkward because it's affecting you. But as long as it's like that and not some sexed-up version of yourself...
Sometimes it's weird because you're presenting these characters that are very different from who you are. I think if I was a young girl watching [The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys] I'd be really psyched to see a character like this portrayed.
What do you think of your cartoon alter ego in the film, Sorcerella?
It's great! I read the script and saw the baseline of what the animation was supposed to be. Sorcerella, Queen of the Shadow Realm!
You met Jodie Foster before when you played a younger version of her in Contact.
We met briefly, yes. We had a meeting where we were to sit down and copy each other's characteristics, and understand what we were supposed to do. But basically when we first met she came in and I was sort of curled-up on the chair tucking my hair behind my ears and all of that and she said, "All right, I'm just going to copy you, actually." I was just like, Wow, I feel like I have nothing to do now. But this was the first time we were able to work together.
And you say she was one of the reasons you pursued the project?
Just knowing that she's involved makes me feel that before I even read the script I know it's going to be something that's actually honest and truthful. If I could have her on every project, I would love to. (laughs) I think sometimes working with adults, it's hard to find people who have that mutual respect for young actors and treat them as they are and don't belittle them and talk down to them. That's one of the best things you can do as a producer and a director and a fellow actor is just to see [young actors] for who they are. Certainly mutual respect is a better environment in which to begin. Definitely Egg Films really endorses that. Peter Care was a firm believer in allowing us to feel like we could make decisions and that we could have points of view and that we were allowed to have opinions about things.
Would you consider that a rare quality, or have you been lucky in this business?
Rare absolutely. I've had a lot of really interesting directors--not to mention any names--where they bribe you and say, "We'll give you five dollars if you do a take well," and they give you baseball cards--
There's an element to it that's just kind of...
Yeah, condescending, and the bottom line is that we're all human. We're all looking for human interaction. If you belittle someone and don't give them the mutual respect that they deserve, it takes away that human quality, you're looking down at them in a way that's just not a very realistic point of view.
You've worked with a number of veteran actresses, some in a directorial capacity like Goldie Hawn and Anjelica Huston. Does that make you aspire to career longevity?
Does it make me aspire to career longevity? No. What it has done is really shown me that these women have continued to do the things that they love. They are smart, intellectual women and they put these strong female characters out there into the human consciousness. They constantly take risks, they're constantly doing the things that they love, and that's awesome. But it's too crazy, this business, to think I'll be in it forever.
I dunno. It's good. I mean, I love it. I'm gonna stay in it as long as I can continue to do the stuff that I wanna do. As soon as it starts turning into something else, it's boring.
Is it true you're thinking about going to college for photography in the fall?
Yeah, I am. I'm moving up there in August but I don't start school until January. Going to a community college in Northern California, so I can kind of hermit myself away and just have a completely different experience from the one I've been having for the past couple of years.
Would you perhaps like to get into directing? Something somewhat linked with your photographic pursuits?
For me, going to study photography is just really learning to understand a simple form of storytelling. Understanding the format, understanding one frame, one picture, learning how to manipulate it to show what you want in contrast to what is shown and what it captures. So, absolutely. To me, photography's a good foundation in visual storytelling, it's exactly what I want to be doing right now.
You know, I feel this town really allows a lot of first-time directors. But very rarely are you given a second chance if you only do what you want the first time. And people capitalize on the whole young director, first-timer thing... I really want to protect my experience in learning what type of films that I'd want to do, I want the first thing to be really great. Whether I'm forty-five or twenty, I want it to be something that I'm thoroughly... Knowledgeable in? I want to be fully ready for that experience. I have a lot more to learn before I can direct or anything, but I want to become a better writer, I want to become a better visual storyteller. Yeah, I have a lot more to learn.
What about the producing aspect of the business? I know that your former co-stars Drew Barrymore and Jodie Foster run or ran successful production companies. It appears to be a trend among actresses who've made a smooth transition from child stardom.
You know, I find producing sort of a heartless job. It's kind of a scary idea to want to be so knowledgeable about the business that you see it's 95% bullshit and 5% passion. I do think any project that in the future I direct I need to produce. I think it's important to have that control, the power of knowing where your film is at.
I dunno, maybe it's just me--it could be damaging to be an actor and also a producer because your head's in two different spaces. But I do believe in developing projects, I do believe in going out there and finding things and producing them from the beginning--from the bottom to the finished product. I really don't believe in vanity producing, just putting your name on something so that you're involved in it. Really producing a film is finding something, taking it from conception and then seeing it visualized, and it's a long, strenuous process and you have to be really ready for it.
It's interesting, you can learn a lot from it, but it's not a job that I want. It's too crazy, this business. There are other things I want to be knowledgeable in. It's a system that you should learn about, it's just not a tool that I want to sharpen.
You seem like you've really kept a good head on your shoulders for someone who's grown up in the scary world of Hollywood.
But the scary world is all around us. Whether the walls are Hollywood or the walls are New York or the walls are Afghanistan. It's just a scary world, you have to know what you want from it, what your intentions are, and know that those things continually change.
Would it be fair to say that you're drawn to melancholic characters?
Unfortunately, being a young actor, there are really just two types out there. There are the ones that are truthful and honest and there are the ones that are plot devices, the stereotypes, the caricatures of what forty-year-old writers want young people to be. Unfortunately, there aren't too many non-dramatic pieces that really show young, interesting characters. I find it very limiting, so the majority of stuff that I've taken has been... I guess they're the films that I'm drawn to. I was never really affected by the big blockbusters when I was younger. I liked Thelma & Louise and Blue Velvet and all those weird films.
Blue Velvet is a great movie. Just thought I'd interject that.
Yeah. I didn't see that until I was thirteen.
I don't mind, actually, playing weird, dark, melancholy. Because, you know, that's all that's out there that's interesting.
Walter Chaw, the other main writer at our website, asked this of Shane West, and I think it's a fabulous question to end on: What do you think of your career so far?
What do I think of my career so far?! Uh... I'm psyched that I've been able to find projects that I really love. There were times when I was younger that I worked for the sake of working, but I think since I've been living on my own, and since I've been fully in control of my decisions and the choices that I make, that I've been really conscious in knowing that I don't want to work in everything, and I don't want to do every project out there. Also, I don't feel at this point in my career... I don't want the starring vehicle. I don't think I could carry a film. I've been able to find smaller, interesting roles where you could take more risks, you don't have to carry the film on your shoulders. I hope I can continue!
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