Why Jena Malone won't play the Hollywood game

Jena Malone is only 23 but is already a Hollywood maverick, passing up obvious roles in favour of darker tests. She tells Lesley O'Toole why
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It is almost impossible to think of another young actress whose career closely emulates Jena Malone's. Now 23, this modern-day American bohemian has, however, been compared with Jodie Foster – with whom she has worked, perhaps not coincidentally, twice. Like Foster, she's a questioning, eloquent creature, who's not quite sure what she wants from Hollywood but is definite about what she won't do for it. Also, like Foster, she is precociously, prodigiously talented.

The Ruins, a Mexican-set horror film based on a book of the same name, showcasing attractive young actors and released by Paramount, a major American studio, seems an unlikely choice for Malone, who nonetheless elevates the piece. "It's a thriller about the darker aspect of human nature," she says, with much intonation, and talks animatedly about filming in Australia, which was too sunny for her liking. "The sun is so penetrating. It took a lot out of me. I wore scarves and hats and actually had to make an umbrella with a netted tarp around it because there was no shade. I could still smoke under there, though."

Watch the trailer for The Ruins

Apparently she needed to. "This was probably the most physically intensive thing I've ever worked on. Very labour intensive, maintaining heightened, unsustainable states of hyperventilation and heat exhaustion. It was tough."

Malone skews towards dark, always has. Though she has appeared in high-profile films in the US and UK – Cold Mountain in 2003, Pride and Prejudice in 2005 – she does not embrace or court them. From an early age, Malone was reading her own scripts, making her own decisions not based on box-office projections. But it took her a few years to figure herself out. "I didn't really understand why I had more of a connection to Bastard Out of Carolina than, say, The Parent Trap. I realised it was because I'm not really good at playing a normal person."

Based on Dorothy Allison's searing novel about child abuse in the South in the Fifties, The Bastard Out of Carolina was directed by Anjelica Huston and subsequently rejected by TNT, the cable channel then owned by Ted Turner, which had commissioned the piece. Turner deemed it too disturbing to air on his network so it played on a different one, Showtime, winning as much acclaim as the best TV movies do. Malone, inevitably, was singled out. As the title character, she is repeatedly abused in every conceivable manner. Her hideous, physical and psychological ordeal aside, Malone, from California, also perfected a Southern accent.

For the role she was nominated for Screen Actors Guild's Female Actor in a TV Movie or Miniseries and, at the Independent Spirit Awards, for Best Debut Performance. She was then 11. Now she is one of Hollywood's best-kept twentysomething secrets.

What makes her gravitate towards the parts she does? "My strange upbringing?" she says, uncharacteristically short on words but smiling broadly. Malone has already been candid about that upbringing. "My hometown is hard to determine precisely. We moved around a bunch, generally in the Reno and Lake Tahoe area. We were poor white trash. You skip out on rent one month, find a cheaper place the next week. You constantly find new ground, new places."

Acting, though, was in her blood. Her mother Debbie was a single mum at 22 who loved to act. Malone insists she had the bug by four. "Because my mother was always doing theatre, instead of me having a babysitter, I was the dancing flower in the background of Bye Bye Birdie, a crowd person in Fiddler on the Roof." Following the family's move to Las Vegas – by now she had a younger half-sister, Madison – Malone persuaded her mother to move to Los Angeles so she might pursue an acting career. She starred in a student film, a Michael Jackson video and an episode of TV's Chicago Hope before landing The Bastard Out of Carolina. She played the young Foster in Contact, her first major studio film.

At 14, Malone and her family moved to New York where she attended the Professional Children's School, having mostly been home-schooled previously. A few months later, she evidently believed something was amiss with her earnings (then managed by her mother) and filed for legal emancipation. By 15, she was able to work adult hours on set.

In many ways, she was already an adult off it. Even at 11 or 12, Malone had decided she would not play the role the pre-teen glossy girl mags thought its readers should be playing.

"I can remember thinking: 'That's what I'm supposed to look like? That's what I'm supposed to wear?' Maybe because I'm a tomboy I'm going to fight to the bitter end that girls don't have to wear a lot of make-up and high heels to look beautiful."

Today, she is super-cute in a floppy eco-beret, T-shirt, jeans and no make-up at all. In 2004, after making the delicious little-seen satire Saved, she took a year off, left LA, moved back to Tahoe and enrolled in a photography course at a community college. "I wanted a year to myself. I shaved my head, didn't shower, shovelled snow, went to college and got dirty. It was really enlivening. I really think the least wise thing you can do as an actor is just keep working because the most important work I do, I don't get paid for. That's all the watching and listening and learning and the quiet moments – the reading, examining and getting away from everything. You have to be able to have multiple perspectives of different aspects of human nature. Anything truthful about being a human you won't find as a celebrity."

If parts of Malone's life are regular, others are not. "I was raised by two mums who were lovers. When I was younger it wasn't anything that was abnormal. I had two mums and for me that was really exciting because when I was younger most people seemed to like their mum more than their dad so I'd be like, 'Ha, I've got two of them!' And I feel I got a lot of love, respect and acceptance from them. I had a really healthy normal relationship with my parents."

Her father is also present in her life in some capacity – the hat she has been wearing was a present from him: "It's kind of my lucky hat." She also notes that whenever she travels, she carries with her pictures of "my dad, two mums and little sister".

She travels frequently. Her first job post-college – Lydia in Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice – was filmed in England. If Pride and Prejudice was a surprising Malone movie, unlike, say, cult fave Donnie Darko (2001) or The Ballad of Jack and Rose (2005), Sean Penn's Into the Wild was not (she plays the protagonist Chris McCandless's sister). She calls that experience "beautiful. Sean is a truth-seeker. He is absolutely wanting to examine and find the truth in every moment whether it's ugly, beautiful, raw, powerful. He's a poet and that film is a story of the whole human soul. A full bloody heart."

She would not presume to call herself a poet, although she does write "a lot" of it. But it's clear she identifies with artists like Penn who have pointedly danced to their own career tune. But she is currently in the grip of a different fever.

"Making music is a new passion that has taken complete control of my life. It's something I really haven't been able to control. I have some sort of weird singing-Tourette's, actually. I can't stop it. It's all very improvisational and free-form."

She met her band in New York in 2006 while starring on Broadway in Doubt opposite Eileen Atkins and Ron Eldard, her abusive stepfather in The Bastard out of Carolina. She has already released her first album on an independent label but struggles to describe her music. "I couldn't. I am the worst at that. 'It sounds like the inside of my brain,' is the best description I can come up with." She names PJ Harvey, Tom Waits, Meatloaf, Bob Dylan and Neil Young as influences and describes her first New York musical performance last year in rapturous terms. "It was the most beautiful and creative thing I've ever been part of."

She is currently filming The Messenger, in which she's a soldier's widow embroiled in a love affair with another soldier (Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson and Samantha Morton also star). She is attached to Allison Anders's next film, Comfort.

Malone has popped up on American TV since we met, promoting The Ruins, and looking not remotely tomboyish. She has a flower in her hair, a funky fringed bobbed haircut and even a smidge of underwear showing beneath her dress. Jena Malone, it seems, is ready for her close-up.

'The Ruins' is out on 20 June