As Jena Malone stands in the doorway of her clubhouse recording studio atop a hill on the east side of Los Angeles, it begins to rain for the first time in months. It’s noon, and I’m watching Malone bob her head to one of her band’s new tracks, a slow-burning torch song she wrote about love and driving, her face softly lit by the gray shine of the sun-stroked sky. “I want to be a storyteller,” says the 29 year old, while she air drums the last of the song’s snares. Malone, perched inside this hilltop recording studio with her high-waisted pants and cropped, bleached-out hair, recalls heady days of yore, when L.A. women moaned into dented microphones.
But Malone isn’t a pop star, or even a cult-y folk goddess who plays Bonnaroo or Coachella on the regular. Her band, The Shoe—made up of Malone and the classically trained multi-instrumentalist Lem Jay Ignacio—is not even signed to a label, and Malone has modest financial expectations for the band’s second album, out this spring. But for Malone, record sales and chart success is far beyond the point. “Even if it’s so small, and it sells 100 copies, as long as one 14-year-old girl listens to it, and it changes something in her day…” she says, trailing off without having to elaborate on this timeless creative desire.
Besides, Malone isn’t relying on iTunes sales to pay the rent. The Nevada native has been acting since the age of 12, when her debut performance in the weepy drama Bastard Out of Carolina earned her an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Debut Performance. Other child-star parts followed (everyone remembers her as a young Jodie Foster in the sci-fi thinker Contact), but it was her role as Gretchen Ross, girlfriend to Jake Gyllenhaal’s disturbed title character in the cult classic Donnie Darko, that transformed Malone into one of the most sought-after young actresses of the early aughts.
One might assume Darko’s unexpected success—which also transformed Jake Gyllenhaal into a leading man—would have warped the bearings of a then 16-year-old Malone, but she quickly puts that thought to rest, reminding me that back then—just thirteen years ago—young celebrities didn’t exist in the Orwellian, everyone-is-watching bubble that engulfs the young stars of today. Malone, in contrast, protected herself from the booby traps of early fame with relative ease. “In comparison to the fandoms now, with things like Comic-Cons and Internet boards, and how the language of fandom has developed, it’s only been in the past six or seven years that this has existed,” she explains. “Donnie Darko was before all that.”
But if Malone’s Darko experience predated today’s obsessive fan worship, the actress tossed herself directly into the vortex when she accepted the role as the plum-haired, axe-wielding Johanna Mason in a little movie called The Hungers Games: Catching Fire, which to this date has grossed $850 million worldwide. In the film, her character, a former winner of the titular games, is furious at having to unexpectedly fight in another life-or-death competition after having been promised a pampered life filled with the spoils of victory. While on a live television broadcast, she tells the interviewer that yes, in fact, she is very angry. “Fuck that! And fuck everyone that had anything to do with it!” she screams, unleashing a rare, bleeped out F-bomb in the family-friendly franchise. Eventually, she forms an unlikely alliance with the film’s protagonist, Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence).
Malone, who is set to reprise the pivotal role in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, the franchise’s third and final installment (it will be divided into two movies), approached the role with the vigor of a method actor. “When you first meet Johanna, she’s got enemy written all over her,” Malone says. “She’s violent and sexual and caustic and nefarious. But she has a big arch of friend or foe. But she’s fierce. What I really wanted to explore with her was learning anger. Anger has to be so genuine or it feels so fake, like a fake sneeze. So, the first week of shooting, I didn’t talk to anyone. I needed to have this intimidation factor. I had all this [angry] energy surging through me. She almost killed me. A month and a half in, I learned how to turn her off, but at first she was dangerous.”
Malone carries that sharpness into her next role, as the lead in the promising psychological drama, The Wait, directed by M. Blash. In the film, she plays Angela, who is beckoned home by her sister (Chloë Sevigny) when their mother dies. A phone call from a psychic telling the sisters that their mother will be resurrected sends them both into distress. “M. and I wanted a lot out of Angela, and it was a sort of out of body experience for me. I honestly don’t remember a lot of the shoot,” says Malone of the fugue-like role.
Following The Wait, Malone transitions into one the year’s most anticipated films with Paul Thomas Anderson’s psychedelic detective yarn, Inherent Vice, the first film adaption of a Thomas Pynchon novel. Part of a sprawling ensemble led by Joaquin Phoenix, Malone reveals that the notoriously reclusive Pynchon consulted on the film and endorsed her casting. “I don’t know the details,” she says. “I just know that he was involved. When [Anderson] cast me, Pynchon was stoked. I guess he was a fan of my work.” Her current slate of projects, which also includes the twisty psychological thriller Angelica, are definitive of her career. “When I look back 20 years from now, these are the films I’m going to be referencing,” she says.
Back at the recording studio, Malone throws on another track. And again, it’s a burner. Cat Power comes to mind, or maybe early Liz Phair. There’s something visceral about the music, and Malone says that her acting informs how she crafts her songs. “We make music improvisationally,” she says, explaining that the songs that come off the top her head are often poetic character studies. It’s a process so rewarding that at one point, she almost left acting altogether. “Right before I got Sucker Punch, I was like, ‘I’m done with acting,’” says Malone of the Zack Snyder-directed pop explosion. “I was making all this music and being a kid again in the sense that I was completely unshackled. At any moment, I could [sing as] a leaf, or an older man in a bar, or a young woman. Within music, I could play any character that I could ever dream up.”
But Malone has acting in her bones, and she can’t shake it. “What I want from acting changes every day, and what it wants from me changes every day,” she says. “As long as that balance continues to be beautiful, I’m on board. But if not, I’m totally okay with jumping ship and starting a camp that does theater experiments, or working with kids. I just trust myself now more than ever.”
Photography by James Orlando.