THE QUEST FOR BEAUTY
Jena Malone on ‘Neon Demon’ and the Necrophilia That Stunned Cannes: ‘I Was Almost Sobbing’
The indie favorite opens up about motherhood, her top-secret ‘Batman v Superman’ role, and the ‘depravity’ that shocked (and delighted) Cannes.
A year after filming her provocative turn in Nicolas Winding Refn’s glam femme horror The Neon Demon, Jena Malone gave birth to her first child. So while Refn and co-star Elle Fanning were hitting the red carpet in Cannes in May, Malone was prepping for the arrival of her son, whose entrance into the world was heralded in a loving Instagram post: “What an incredible blessing to be chosen by this amazing, kind, gentle and beautiful soul to be his parents. Humbled and in complete awe that we get to experience the most ancient and transcendent love that exists. Thank you Ode Mountain DeLorenzo Malone.”
By the time Malone stopped in on the press tour for Neon Demon this week, her partner Ethan DeLorenzo and their 3-week-old baby by her side, she found herself in the unique position of discussing such seemingly disparate topics as new motherhood and, well, lesbian necrophilia, thanks to the memorable scene that had Euro critics crying “depravity!” upon Neon Demon’s French debut.
It’s nothing indie cinema’s most versatile actress can’t handle with grace and, unsurprisingly, considerable thoughtfulness. The soft-spoken Malone, 31, has been in the business since the age of 12, which is when she made her professional acting debut in Bastard Out Of Carolina as the titular Ruth Anne “Bone” Boatwright, a performance that earned Malone an Indie Spirit Award nomination. More recent projects include So Yong Kim’s Lovesong, the massive Hunger Games franchise, and Mitchell Lichtenstein’s gothic thriller Angelica.
This summer Malone’s buzzy secretive appearance in Warner Bros.’ Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice sent fans into a tizzy. Her role was cut out of the theatrical release but will be woven back into a forthcoming extended cut, sparking rumors that she was playing Barbara Gordon aka Batgirl.
Chatting with The Daily Beast in Los Angeles, Malone, who reunited with her Sucker Punch director Zack Snyder for the role, laughs off the hubbub while keeping mum on what exactly she’s up to in the DC franchise. “That’s why I did it,” she smiles mysteriously. “A friend calls you up and says ‘Come and play,’ and of course you come and play. I didn’t realize it was going to be such a big thing…”
How Malone ended up working with Drive and Only God Forgives auteur Refn was a different story. The Danish director co-wrote Neon Demon with Mary Laws and Polly Stenham, conjuring a tale of beauty, ambition, lust, and desperation set within the cutthroat world of fashion. He cast Malone as Ruby, a make-up artist who takes young wannabe model Jesse (Elle Fanning) under her wing as she descends into an intoxicating scene surrounded by predators, suitors, and rivals like the haughty Gigi (Bella Heathcoate) and the hungry Sarah (Abbey Lee), who all want a piece of her je ne sais quoi.
Malone remembers thinking her audition was going horribly awry before she found out Refn wanted her for the role. “He seemed a little off-putting,” she laughs. “Once you get to know him you know he’s so sweet, but I thought he was a little cold and I thought, ‘I don’t think I’m getting through to this guy. I probably should leave because this is not working.’”
But bringing her onboard was more fruitful than Refn might have anticipated. She hit it off immediately with Fanning, and their onscreen chemistry sparked creative inspiration in Refn as filming was underway. His method of shooting in chronological sequence makes for a constantly malleable narrative, and as the sexually-charged friendship between Malone and Fanning’s characters developed in surprising ways in front of the camera Refn decided to rewrite his original ending.
“We kind of hijacked it,” smiles Malone, whose character was initially fated to play out a different, more pointed arc. Instead, she explains, she was allowed to give Ruby a more complex ambiguity: Is she driven by unrequited love for Jesse, or a much darker metaphysical agenda?
“She didn’t have to become as weak as originally had been planned,” Malone offers. “Her vulnerabilities were able to be more human and less predictable, allowing her to kind of live in a more psychedelic way of this in-between.” Unlike menacing model frenemies Gigi and Sarah who covet Jesse’s magnetic beauty, Ruby sees the promise of something else.
“With her, the quest for beauty is different. It’s an interior beauty, of self love and wanting to be loved and to be seen and touched,” says Malone. “The beauty of feeling desired and being desirable.”
The most memorable scene in Neon Demon doesn’t belong to Fanning’s naïve, sought-after Jesse but to Ruby, who recoils when her romantic and sexual advances on the object of her affection are rebuffed. She exorcises her desire upon a female cadaver, in the morgue where she works part-time, in a scene fraught with a charge of sensationalism, but also surprising emotion.
Refn may have originally written the scene between Malone and the adult actress he hired to play the dead woman as just a kiss, but “I knew that with the way he writes it’s not just that,” Malone explains. “He underwrites on the page so that an actor can overwrite in their head and I think it’s a really interesting technique. He did it throughout the entire film.
“After doing the first take I think he got the vision of what he wanted, and both of us were very careful about verbalizing what we wanted because we wanted to just allow it to happen. I kept thinking I was going too far. On the next take I said, ‘Thank you for letting me have that take for inspiration; on the next one I want you to tell me exactly what you want me to do.’ It was great. Sometimes in a love scene you just need to be like, ‘Hand here, this here.’ I think once I had that freedom to live in that, it became something completely different. Every time we finished a take I was almost sobbing, crying on top of her.”
At Cannes, that sensual scene was said to contribute to the boos that rang through the Palais. But Malone shares a considered, thoughtful take on the motivations of her anguished necrophile.
“Getting to really feel that intense loneliness, that intense need to be touched and to feel attraction, to feel connection to someone—there’s no form of depravity that you won’t cross to just feel that for a second,” she says. “I feel like I knew that psychologically going into the scene, but truly physicalizing that in your body was so extreme. I was like, wow—I love her so much more now because of what she has put herself through.”
She pauses. It’s an admittedly funny thing to say about a scene “that involves a dead body,” she giggles.
Maybe it’s that Malone’s now revisiting that scene as a new mother, her maternal instincts and emotions surging. Motherhood, she explains, has impacted how she sees Neon Demon and its cautionary take on the toxicity of self-obsession and narcissism among young women.
“As a parent I think your priorities shift instantly,” she muses, “and it’s making me respect Nic so much more for having so much involvement with his family when he works, protecting that, and keeping that really important in his life, and also in his work. To be the father of two girls and know that it’s important to ask these kinds of questions, for them. I think that’s really great.”
The Neon Demon of Neon Demon could be read as a number of things—brutal ambition, intoxicating beautylust, female envy, Los Angeles, even Fanning’s ingenue character herself.
“I’ve almost seen more of it, extreme and super archaic knife-cutting surgery stuff in the South, with women in their forties and fifties,” Malone says. “And teenage girls in upstate New York or Manhattan getting nose jobs and competing. I almost see it less in [the entertainment industry] because it’s more of an image-based society where they talk about it more, it’s more of a healthy thing. We really do put makeup on guys and girls and go and do photo shoots—whereas I think in society at large it’s much more closeted, and it’s much more dangerous.”
Giving interviews just days after the tragic and historic mass shooting in Orlando, Malone is deliberately attempting to maintain her sense of optimism.
“I feel like we should all be talking about [Orlando],” she says. “This film talks about something that’s just as urgent. It’s not as urgent to policy change today—no. The darker side of our beauty obsessed, lack of self-love is a broader issue that speaks to a lot of things. Orlando speaks to policy change—today. Yesterday!
“It’s hard, because it’s a very emotional thing, being a new mom,” she explains. “It’s almost like you and your child take on similar aspects where I’m hungry when he’s hungry, I’m tired when he’s tired. You become more sensitive to light and cold and hunger and people’s energies. When I read about [Orlando], I was sobbing. It’s a really hard thing emotionally. I’m kind of protecting myself a little bit because those emotions kind of come out of you into literally feeding your child. So I’m trying to think of other things.”
Malone threw her support behind presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders through the primary campaign. His ideals match her sense of hopefulness, even if, as she admits, it might not be Bernie’s time to shine.
“He speaks for the change that I’ve been wanting since I learned about politics when I was 14 years old,” she beams. “We’re on the precipice right now, and whether you want to talk about it scientifically, whether you want to talk about it emotionally, you want to talk about it physically, we are on the brink of extinction in a lot of ways. And we have to do something different. It’s not working. It’s really not working.
“I just feel that change needs to come,” she continues. “It doesn’t have to be Bernie Sanders. It doesn’t have to be this, it doesn’t have to be that. But he’s actually doing something about it and he’s actually using his voice to make changes that we need to see.”
As for GOP frontrunner Donald Trump, “I feel a lot of human beings are scary,” says Malone. “Humanity, when allowed to become whatever it wants to become, can be a very dark and scary thing. But we were all children once. We were all infants, without an understanding of what the world was.
“The world,” she continues, aglow with with a gentle, soothing peacefulness, “is imperfect. We are imperfect, you know? So I try not to judge because everyone has the capability for change. Even the scariest, most villainous creatures have the capability to change—so you have to keep believing in them.”