Jena Malone’s Long, Strange Trip From Homelessness to Hollywood Stardom

As a teen, she wowed in films like Donnie Darko and Saved! Now Jena Malone is 30, and with roles in Inherent Vice, The Hunger Games, and a massive superhero film, all the rage.

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“I’m a total weirdo,” Jena Malone confesses.

The spritely actress has just returned from the modish milieu of Art Basel, where her experimental music duo The Shoe regaled the annual orgy of art (and cocaine) connoisseurs with selections off their sophomore album, I’m Okay.

It’s been a pretty mental year for the self-described weirdo. She shot six films, toured her second album, held her first solo photography show in L.A., and turned 30. In recent months, she’s been seen sporting a fiery red ‘do, reportedly for her upcoming role in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice as Carrie Kelly, the female Robin from Frank Miller’s non-canonical graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns. And that’s in addition to her axe-wielding badass Johanna Mason in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 and its sequel due out next year, as well as her scene-stealing turn as a reformed junkie in Paul Thomas Anderson’s gonzo neo-noir Inherent Vice.

Adapted from the Thomas Pynchon novel of the same name, Vice follows the zigzagged path of Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a private eye in 1970 Los Angeles who’s been charged with investigating the disappearance of his ex-squeeze’s lover. The mission brings him in touch with an oddball cast of characters including a hardboiled, flat-topped detective (Josh Brolin), a career-minded D.A. (Reese Witherspoon), and a cocaine-huffing dentist (Martin Short). Malone plays Hope Harlingen, a reformed junkie-turned-mother who urges Doc to find her spacey husband, Coy (Owen Wilson), who’s apparently fallen in deep with some Manson Family-types.

Malone first met Anderson by chance over a decade ago following the release of the cult hit Donnie Darko. She was just 17, and they ran into each other at The Apple Pan, an iconic ‘50s-era burger joint in L.A.

“To be honest, I didn’t even recognize him,” Malone recalls. “He was bearded, and I was so young. We talked about movies and had this great conversation, and at the end he was like, ‘It was nice to meet you… I’m Paul.’ And I thought, ‘Wait… is that Paul Thomas Anderson?’ I had a big fangirl moment, and thought I’d never see him again.”

Then, last year, she received a call from Anderson: “Hey, do you remember when we met over ten years ago?” He cast her as Hope, an ex-addict with an impressive pair of fake chompers—the result of years of drug abuse. According to Malone, Hope’s character serves as a metaphor for 1970, a former junkie starting anew with new teeth, a new haircut, and a family. “It’s like the death of this dream of free love,” says Malone.

Drugs permeate the DNA of Vice, from its spliff-sucking protagonist to a memorable scene wherein one of the film’s characters literally inhales about two ounces of pot. In Malone’s eyes, drugs can have a profound effect, as well. “If you’re using them responsibly, drug experiences can be very eye-opening,” she says. “It’s really just about the intentions that you put into it.”

It’s almost a full-circle moment for Malone, this role of an ex-flower child in a PTA film. Her very first performance onstage came at the age of 4, when she cameoed as a dancing flower in the musical Bye Bye Birdie.

Her mother had a musical theater background, so Malone grew up backstage, watching productions come to fruition. But that was probably the least unique thing about her childhood.

Malone’s father, who dealt cards at a casino in Reno, was married to another woman when he impregnated her mother. She didn’t have much of a relationship with him until they reconnected when she was a teenager. So, Malone was raised by her mother and her girlfriend.

“They were lovers,” says Malone. “I had two moms, and it was awesome. Double the pleasure! The more love you have as a child, the better.”

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Because they were short on money, the family moved around a bunch—with Malone living in 27 different places by the time she was 9.

“We were just so poor,” she recalls. “We’d hop out of apartments, lose jobs, find a cheaper place, get kicked out, live in cars, and live in hotels. It was glorious.”

She adds, “I don’t think it was a tough childhood. I actually found it quite pleasurable, and it prepared me for this strange, gypsy lifestyle of an actor. It’s a beautiful thing to give children diversity of where to live and how to live; it makes you believe that security is built within instead of four concrete walls that you call a home. It was a unique way to grow up, and to see life in a different way.”

But throughout all this, Malone describe herself as “oddly responsible,” wanting to help her moms pay the bills as young as 10. And it was that age that she booked her very first audition ever—a UCLA film student’s senior thesis short called Sunday’s Child, which paid her a small sum. The 10-year-old looked her mother dead in the eye and said, “I’ve got a job, so let’s give it a year and see what happens.”

The following year, at age 11, she landed the role of Bone Boatwright in Anjelica Huston’s Bastard Out of Carolina. It was a very trying part that forced her to inflect a Southern accent, and also suffer terrible physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her on-screen stepfather, played by Ron Eldard. But Malone’s courageous turn would put her on the map, earning a 1996 Independent Spirit Award nod for Best Debut Performance, as well as a SAG nomination.

Another dazzling turn as Susan Sarandon’s rebellious daughter in Stepmom followed, and in January 2000, at just 15 years old, Malone became legally emancipated. “I wanted to be an adult, and I felt I’d already been an adult for a very long time.”

Though her early characters were a bit more passive, e.g. as Jake Gyllenhaal’s love interest in Donnie Darko or a besieged knocked up teen at a Christian high school in Saved!, Malone’s recently morphed into a silver screen ass-kicker with her Hunger Games character of Johanna and, if the rumors are true, Robin (she says her lips are sealed). “It’s not a place that I naturally live in,” Malone says. “I’m much more klutzy, soft-spoken, and responsible.”

Indeed, Malone seems to be in a very good place—both personally, and professionally. She’s drowning in projects, with six films scheduled to hit cinemas in 2015, and has been reportedly dating a fella for the past year.

“It’s a really inspiring time, so it always makes me thankful to think of how I was raised, the things I was given, and the lessons I was taught, because it all becomes who you are,” she says. “It’s been an incredible journey, and I feel very blessed.”