Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: Jena Malone has been acting since she was a child, and despite barely more than two decades onscreen since her debut appearance in something other than a commercial—Michael Jackson’s music video for “Childhood,” for the record—she’s already amassed a body of work that would look impressive for a lifetime career. Working with famous directors, appearing in beloved cult cinema and gigantic blockbusters alike, Malone has earned a reputation for bold and compelling performances, whether in intimate indie dramas or fighting CGI animals alongside Jennifer Lawrence. When she spoke with us recently to promote Angelica, a new horror thriller set in Victorian London, the actor was actually calling from London (the present day, not some weird time-travel situation), and was happy to talk about the strange emotional and intellectual journeys she has embarked on for the various roles throughout her career.

Angelica (2017)—“Constance”

The A.V. Club: You actually shot this one a couple of years ago. You were in London then, too, right?

Jena Malone: We shot it mostly in upstate New York, and then about two weeks in London for exteriors. We were able to do half and half, which saved them money. In Yonkers, there’s some really incredible old mansions that we were able to utilize.

AVC: When you’re shooting dark material, are you somebody who, during the shoot, becomes a little more subdued, or are you one of those people who tries to make it lighthearted in between takes to counter the material?

JM: I think every day is different, you know. For me, it’s very hard to separate how you work with just everyday life. Because life—it’s what a film is. You go to work, one day is a holiday, the next day you have diarrhea. One day is your mother’s birthday and the next day someone trips and falls, but it’s hilarious on set. I never have one routine that works, but pretty much because of the content, it required a level of concentration, which, for me, requires me to keep a still, non-humorous environment around me. But I’d say that every single time I’m in the hair-and-makeup trailer or in the chair for touchups or anything, it’s jokes and laughing and fun because it’s sort of what the equivalent of hanging out around the water cooler is. And then you go back to work and you do the things that you love and it’s nice to be able to have both compartments.

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But particularly with this film, it’s set in a time that I’m obsessed with, so it was such a joy to dive into it. It’s so lush and obscure and violent, this era. It’s the birth of the middle class. It’s the very beginning of science starting to meddle with female sexuality—in a bad way, obviously. But it was interesting—science took hold as a new religion. I mean, besides the costumes and the accent. For me, remembering that set, it’s remembering the costumes and the layers and the accent and living in a corset and really researching that era, which I love. I love that, as an actor, you get to become an expert of anything for a day. But it’s been four years, so now I’m like, “What was that movie about? What was I studying?” [Laughs] You stockpile so much information, and you can’t keep it all.

AVC: Is it almost a thing where someone will mention a topic and you’ll be like, “Wait! I know that! Or, I knew about that...”

JM: And then all the sudden, I’ll vomit all this stuff, and they’re like, “Wow, you really know a lot about that.” And I’m like, “Yeah, I forgot that I knew all about, like, how to decorate a home in 1870s London.”


Michael Jackson’s “Childhood” music video (1995)

AVC: According to IMDB, this was your first onscreen appearance. Is that right?

JM: Absolutely incorrect, but I love Internet Movie Database’s attempt to understand. It was like the fourth or the fifth thing I did.

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AVC: Do you remember shooting that music video?

JM: Oh yeah, for sure. It was almost like the first big budget thing I was a part of. And what I mean by “big budget” in an 11-year-old girl’s mind is there were cranes and incredible catering, and the spread of food that I saw was so luxurious—I remember all the kids had all these trailers to hang out in. It was excessive compared to the student films and small commercials that I had done previously. It felt really exciting, and I think it was the first time I ever worked with green screen. I like the high-stakes environment in the sense of, you know, they were doing long shots. I think it was the first time, as a young actor, that I realized, “Wow, if I mess up, all these people have to go back to one and redo a very long and complicated take.” I think it really inspired in me that I want to be a good team player with a certain ideal of a work ethic. Which was really cool, and I have a great work ethic now, so thank God I was inspired as a kid to want to do that.


Bastard Out Of Carolina (1996)—“Ruth Anne ‘Bone’ Boatwright”

AVC: That’s a major role for one of your first gigs. Were you intimidated or nervous at the time, or did you take to it pretty easily?

JM: I was such a funny child. I don’t think I ever outwardly showed that kind of fear or intimidation. I was so excited. I was so ready to take on challenges. An interesting thing about that film is it was the first time that it really showed my spirit of choices I wanted to make as an actor. I had been auditioning for a lot of commercials at that point. I got a commercial agent and I’d gotten a Mars Bar commercial or Good Humor or whatever. I remember after I booked these two, everyone was like, “You’re doing so great!” I remember looking at my mom and being like, “I don’t want to do commercials. I don’t want to go on any more commercial auditions.” And she looked at me and said, “Why, Jena?” “Because they treat me like a child.” You walk into these commercial auditions and it’s like, “Okay! So now, you’re eating cereal!” I’m 12 years old. I want have a conversation that engages my intellect. I want you to ask me questions so that I can make thoughtful decisions about a character and a role and a story.

I was a total bookworm, a nerd. It was the first time I read a script—everyone was like, “Oh, it’s a very hard script,” all this stuff, and I read it and I was like, “I want to do this. It’s an important film. This is the kind of work I want to do.” Literally, I’m 11 years old. I wish I got this on tape. That film, for me, looking back, was the birth—the template of my choices, because I didn’t become interested in commercial movie work. I became much more interested in work that felt meaningful to me. That was the first time I was able to exercise that opinion, where I was like, “This is what I want to do,” and people around me were like, “Okay. Alright. I guess we will listen to the child.” And thankfully they did.


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Donnie Darko (2001)—“Gretchen Ross”

JM: Oh gosh, that is such an interesting film. It kind of represents similar… it’s representing how I make choices but also it’s representing a new way that films are being made. It was the first time that it was a true independent film that was actually called an independent film, in my mind. It was a super-young director. It was an edgy, weird, amazing script. And they wanted me to be a part of it. I don’t even think I auditioned. I think I just went in to meet with the director. I think a lot of my team and my people around me were kind of like, “This is kind of like, whatever,” and it was me being like, “No, this is, like, the best thing that I could be doing right now.” But it was really representing a new form of making movies.

And it was cool because I was holding onto an older paradigm. I remember walking into the audition thinking the casting assistant was the director because it was an older woman, and I had worked with a lot of women as directors. And it was this 24- or 25-year-old young director. I thought he was the casting assistant. I loved being 16 years old and witnessing the death of the paradigm and the emergence of this new paradigm: young, independent, working-outside-of-the-system type of storyteller was emerging, and it was a really amazing experience to be a part of that.

AVC: It seems like it almost parallels your career, in that you filmed that right in the throes of teenager-dom. Was that a project where you started to feel that transition from being a quote-unquote “child actor” to being an adult actor? Or was it always a steady evolution to you?

JM: I mean, that’s something that people talk about. I don’t think you really—you’re still playing teenagers. It’s not like you’re going, “I’m an adult actor playing 16 years old.” I think it’s the type of thing where you read a script and you’re like, “Oh. I’m too old for that part. Oh, I don’t identify with this at all. I’m not going to go in and play the 21-year-old anymore. I’m not interested in that.” I think it mirrors life. You don’t really see your transformations until long after they’ve happened. I think it felt right. It was energy attracting energy. I was a young, independent actor wanting to do outside-of-the-box material. Here was a young, independent director wanting to create an out-of-the-box story. It was that thing where you will attract what you want in the universe, which is a really cool thing that I’ve seen pretty much my entire life.


Inherent Vice (2014)—“Hope Harlingen”

JM: That one is sort of—when a baseball player’s been playing the game for a long time and they finally get to play with one of their heroes. It was like the whole thing was butter. It was heaven, getting to collaborate with Paul Thomas Anderson as an actor. And I say “collaborate” because he really does respect the process of acting and upholds it to the highest and really allows the actor to work and live and recreate and rewrite and understand and interpret a role. It was incredibly freeing and easy. He puts you at ease. It’s the type of thing where, afterwards, you’re like, “Oh my God. I will never get on the steam train again. I’m going to be taking bullet trains from now on. There is no need to spend 18 weeks going across the country when I have bruises all over my body when I can do it efficiently, smoothly, and incredibly well with a well-built machine,” and that’s what a Paul Thomas Anderson film feels like for me.

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AVC: It was such a sprawling cast. Were there people you found yourself unexpectedly spending time with while you were shooting?

JM: Joanna Newsome was someone that I didn’t realize I had met—well, I mean I did realize we had met previously. An ex-boyfriend of mine that was from where she grew up, we had met and then forgot and we reconnected and got to spend some time together. Not necessarily on set, but through the press campaign, because on set it was just Joaquin [Phoenix] and I. I didn’t really work with anyone else. Clive Owen, very briefly.


The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013), The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part 1 (2014) and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part 2 (2015)—“Johanna Mason”

AVC: That might be the performance of yours that most seems like you had an absolute ball playing a character.

JM: Oh my goodness. I was so happy. It was everything I wanted. For me, what that film represents is the ultimate realization of manifestation. For years I had been wanting to engage in a film that could reach to the heart of middle America, and across the world. I love action. I love that genre. I love sci-fi. I had tried to play the Hollywood game in a lot of ways, and then in a lot of ways didn’t. I refused to. And so I feel like Hunger Games is this ultimate manifestation of me putting in the work, the work being seen, and getting to do the work that I’ve always wanted to do. Because I had to fight really hard to get that film and to convince people I was the right person and had the right blah blah blah. Two percent of getting a part is your talent. Ninety-eight percent is everything else out of your control.

I had been wanting and putting energy into the world: I want a part that I can sink my teeth into. I would love to do science fiction. I would love to do all of these things—action. And it came. It came in a wonderful way that made it so rewarding because it wasn’t given to me. It was something I had to fight for, and it was something I really cared about. So then, of course, it became the best thing ever because it was the best characters, the best director, the best cast, the most fun I’ve had, and also probably the thing I’ve become most recognized as. It’s interesting how your true desires can be manifest in this world. That is just a prime example of that.

AVC: When you returned for Mockingjay, did the experience change much?

JM: No. The only thing that changed was that I wasn’t around as much. It was like an eight-month shoot and Mockingjay was one part so I literally worked for, like, two weeks on that film. I think I was experiencing that extreme FOMO. “So—you sure you guys don’t need me on set today? ’Cause I could just fly to Paris and I’ll be there, like, tomorrow.” I think the real pinnacle for me was Catching Fire. It established such an interesting character. We all got to pull our weight. Mockingjay part one and part two, you’re just sailing home, but still sad and strange for the ending of it. But the real pinnacle for me was Catching Fire.

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Saved! (2004)—“Mary”

JM: Saved! is interesting because we had tried to make that film and I had sort of attached myself to it for almost three years. It was going to be me and Anne Hathaway, then it was going to be me as the Mandy Moore character, then it was going to be not me and it was going to be this person. It was one of those things where it’s maybe a good fable: Pick the thing you love and stick with it because it’s very easy to lose faith in a project. There was a moment where we were supposed to fly to Florida to shoot the film and I guess they had gotten some bad financier that was part of the mafia there, and there was this shady parking lot money drop deal that never happened.

AVC: That’s like something out of a movie itself.

JM: Literally two days before flying to rehearsal, the film was cancelled. It’s amazing. It’s the stuff good folklore is made out of. And then a year later—I think maybe eight months or something—we ended up going to Vancouver and shooting it the way that it needed to be shot. That’s a great moral: Find something you love and just stay with it, because it’s so easy in Hollywood to have a very short attention span and jump ship and not be loyal. And I think that that film—it’s going to stand for the ages. It spoke so specifically to such a wide group of people. It’s definitely the film that the most people have come up to me saying, “I love that film” with tears in their eyes, that it moves them or they were seen or heard or validated. That is so cool.

AVC: It’s funny looking at the film now, because it’s such a sweet little story. But it was actually controversial at the time, as it featured a teenage girl getting pregnant from her boyfriend, who is then sent to a gay conversion therapy facility. 

JM: I know. It’s so funny. The thing is, every film I’ve done is controversial. I try to think about that and I’m just like, “Oh my God, yes, I really have no interest in societal norms.”


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The Ruins (2008)—“Amy”

AVC: This was the first straight-up horror film you made.

JM: Definitely. It was definitely a horror film. And I think this was an interesting side step within my career choices. This is sort of an engagement in the Hollywood game. This was me saying, “Okay, I’ve never listened to my agents beforehand. I’ve never taken anyone’s advice. But!” This had all of the makings of something great. I loved the director. I thought the book was great. I had just stayed away from this sort of more traditional horror. But I was like, I should take this chance. I should stop being such a stick in the mud. And it ended up being such a fun, rewarding experience, even though it was not well received or whatever.

It’s interesting—when you try to engage Hollywood with their terms, I feel like you never succeed. Playing by the rules or playing it safe never works. It was a good example of, “Okay, you can have a good time doing that, but it didn’t serve you. You didn’t do that and now you can go do all these other movies like everyone told you you would be able to do.” I think it was a good lesson for me to be like, “No, you’re done. Only do what you love and continually try to push yourself out of your comfort zone because that’s where you will excel. That’s where you will thrive.”

AVC: That actually is a good segue, since we’re talking about the Hollywood system…


Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice (2016)—“Jenet Klyburn” [director’s cut only]

JM: [Laughs] But I’m not in the movie.

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AVC: It must be weird to learn your entire part is cut from the theatrical release.

JM: No, it wasn’t. I had some scenes. It wasn’t—for me, the beauty of working with friends is that someone can call you up and be like, “I’d love for you to come and do this part for two days.” And you’re like, “Yeah. Awesome.” It negates all of the bullshit of auditioning and going between agents and all this other stuff and Zack Snyder and I really love working together and get along and have very similar work ethics. So when he was like, “Hey, I’ve got a little something for you,” I was like, “Awesome.” I didn’t really think much of it, nor did I expect anything of it. It was just one of those great, you know—two blocks away is a baker and here I am as a grain farmer. Cool, I’ll be over on Monday. We can make a loaf of bread. No big deal.

But for me, the funniest thing that I learned about that is you don’t have to be in a movie to let everyone think you’re in a movie. I learned a really interesting lesson in the sense of false PR—by me being just on set of that, there were all these swirling rumors that I was Robin. And I was like, wow, this is actually a really interesting technique to get a job—to pretend you have it. It was definitely a lesson in public relations that I hadn’t fully engaged with that I would love to reinterpret in maybe a political anarchist type of way. It’s cool.


Sucker Punch (2011)—“Rocket”

AVC: You mentioned that you and Zack had enjoyed working together—from this experience?

JM: That for me was kind of the ultimate—that was the best working experience I’ve ever had. Because it wasn’t—I believe in holistic medicine, science, education. I don’t believe in separatism, that science and art should be separated, I think they’re all similar teachings in the same flower. And so for me, that film was the first one that treated me not just as an actor, like my emotional thing, but as a body and a voice and a muscle and a brain and to require me to not only build a character but to build my body, to build my strength, to learn martial arts, to learn heavy artillery, to learn how to clear a room. I was asked so much and also given the opportunity to really learn that. A lot of films don’t have the time or the energy or they don’t think it’s important.

We trained for three months before we started filming and most people train for two weeks. I was given such an incredible opportunity to completely transform my mind, body, and spirit that, for me, as a weirdo bookworm overachiever, I was so happy to be given that opportunity. Because I was always the tiny skinny girl that just climbed trees. I ended up deadlifting 225. I could do a rack deadlift—225 is my max deadlift, but I could do a rack deadlift of 300 pounds. I was a machine! I did more than I thought I could ever do, and I was 24, and it was an incredible time to prove those things to myself and expand what I felt my idea of being a woman was. That’s why it was my favorite. It was such an incredible opportunity.

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AVC: Has there been a project of yours that you feel hasn’t gotten the attention it should have?

JM: I don’t know. I feel like every film doesn’t really get noticed in the way you want it to, and then you wait five years and you realize the impact that a real shelf life has. I think every film that I’ve done has done what I wanted it to do. I guess it would bring me back to Angelica, because we did this so long ago. This director has had the worst time of, like, the wrong financier pulling out, the CGI company quitting midway, someone leaving the company—he’s just had the hardest luck getting this film to a point where it can be seen. I think it was even pre-2015—I think it was the end of 2013. It’s been such a long time. I’m like, “Oh my God, I’m never going to see it.” This was definitely that type of film where I’m like, “Yeah, this needs to be seen already.” Particularly in this climate, where there’s such an incredible—my mind is so dead, “incredible” is the wrong word for it—but for the patriarchy, this dismantling of the patriarchy. To go back to the beginning, the 1870s, where we started dissecting the woman and putting her in the place we thought she deserved to be. This is an incredible time for this film to come out, so I’m so happy.

AVC: That was an impressive way of bringing it all full circle from the beginning of our conversation.

JM: Well, thank you. I’ve been at this a long time.