YRB Magazine Interview: Actress Jena Malone

Photo by Seth Kushner for YRB Magazine

Would you like half?” Jena Malone asks me at the start of our interview, referring to her bottle of Vitamin Water. Sweet and soft-spoken (and extraordinarily polite), you may not know her name—yet—but chances are you’ve seen one of Jena’s films. From Into the Wild to Saved! the young starlet has already racked up over 35 big and small screen credits, and at 23-years-old she’s just getting started. That’s why we jumped on the opportunity to chat with Jena about her upcoming films, her burgeoning music career and her take on the world of fashion. 

YRB: So, what projects can we look forward to seeing you in this fall?

Jena: The Go-Getter will still be out this fall. It’s this independent film with Zoey Deschanel and Lou Taylor Pucci. It went to Sundance two years ago, and it’s such a beautiful film about a road trip and coming of age. It’s the most, sort of, sexually deviant character I’ve ever played, just in the sense of a young woman understanding what sexual manipulation is within her own femininity. I think there’s a point when every woman realizes that her looks or her body or her temperament can win her certain things with men. And [my character explores] how to push those limits, and how empowering that feels, how strange that feels and how, in the beginning, it can be very innocent, and she kind of gives Lou Taylor Pucci’s character the ride of his life. And then I’m working on this film right now called The Messenger, which should be coming out in the fall/winter.

YRB: I had a chance to check out some of your music on MySpace. Can you tell me a little bit about that side of your career?

Jena: What song did you hear?

YRB: “New Year Come.”

Jena: Oh, that’s by Jena Malone and Her Bloodstains. All that music came from two demos that I made myself, produced myself, engineered myself with the help of musicians—like I recorded a friend playing guitar over the phone. For “New Year Come” I had a friend of mine from Lake Tahoe (where I live) come in and play violin and help me do an arrangement, and he also let me abstract it, cut and paste it and put it together. I wrote that two years ago on New Year’s Eve.

YRB: So you write the lyrics and the music?

Jena: Uh-huh. But I don’t know how to write music, and I don’t know how to read music. It’s just more intuitive, and working with ProTools and finding something that I like and trying to sort of re-edit that and shape it…but Jena and Her Bloodstains sort of disintegrated. Then I had this dream in January that I was gonna build a shoe—a sort of mobile, one-woman music cart—that I would be able to play anywhere, and I wanted it to be in the shape of an old leather shoe, you know, like the story, “There Was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe.” So I started doing these designs for it, and it ended up looking like this crazy contraption made of chicken wire and cardboard, with all this electrical equipment. I eventually realized, fuck, this is not gonna work. But then I bought this old steamer trunk and I was about to drive down to L.A., and I was looking at it in my bedroom, and I was like, “That’s it! That’s what I’ll build the instrument out of”—because it’s compactable, and I can wheel it around on a dolly. So I put all of my instrumentations in there—a little karaoke amp, a keyboard, a drum machine, a little mono-synth, some hand percussion instruments—and set it all up, and it was absolutely everything I could have wanted. I put it in my trunk the next morning, drove down to L.A., and started experimenting with it. I brought it over to a friend of mine’s house, and we set it up and we just jammed. I jammed on the shoe, he jammed on the piano, and we wrote four songs in one night. And I was like holy shit, I’ve never met a musician who’s able to follow my extractions and add a certain groundness to it; to make it a little more linear. So now we’re in a band called The Shoe, and we just finished an album called At Lemjay’s Garage. It’s a six-track EP. I also started a record label called There Was an Old Woman Records.

YRB: As an actress and musician, how do you feel about the stigma of “actors-turned-musicians”?

Jena: Well, I think the stigma just lies in how we define what an artist is.

YRB: What would you say you’re most recognized for, or would want to be most recognized for?

Jena: Well, the thing you’re most recognized for is never the thing that you want to be most recognized for. I mean when I got Punk’d I found that more people came up to me because of that than for anything else I’d ever done, which was very disheartening. But I think as an artist you want to be recognized for the most recent thing you’ve done because it’s the most personal to you, it’s the most intimate, and it’s what you’re saying at that moment.

YRB: You’ve worked closely with some pretty major celebrities—from Susan Sarandon to Sean Penn—is there anyone that’s been the most fun work with, or anyone you want to work with? What about a particular film that was especially fun to make?

Jena: I’ve wanted to work with Ben Foster for a very long time, and I’m getting to work with him now [in The Messenger]. I thought he was amazing in 3:10 to Yuma and Alpha Dog. I’ve worked with Emile [Hirsch] a couple of times and thought he was amazing. The most fun film I’ve done is probably Saved! because it was the first time I had done a film besides Cheaters where everyone was the same age. It’s like summer camp—we’re all there for the same reason, but there’s also free time, and you’re spending dinners together, you’re going out for karaoke together and throwing marshmallows off the patio.

YRB: Let’s talk about fashion for a minute. What kind of style do you have? What are you most comfortable wearing: high fashion or sweats?

Jena: I’m probably the most comfortable in something that makes me feel outside of myself, in a sense. I was a tomboy my entire life, and then I turned 21, broke up with my boyfriend and started finding that I was suddenly drawn to clothes that were a lot more girly and feminine.

YRB: What are some of your favorite labels or designers?

Jena: I love Sonia Rykiel, and I also love Linda Loudermilk.

YRB: What would you say are some of your greatest musical influences?

Jena: For music it’s been a very specific group of artists: Tom Waits, Neil Young, PJ Harvey…

YRB: As a young actress in Hollywood, how do you avoid falling victim to the Paris and Lindsay-type of existence?

Jena: The thing is, you are what you eat, you are what you wear, you are what you think, and that’s it. So I feel like whether that is for them a heightened sense of reality or not, what we get from it is some version of what their selling—to themselves, or to the public or to their mothers or to their friends. I’ve only ever sold who I am. They exist so I don’t have to. And I’m glad that they fulfill their space in the collective conscience; if they didn’t, other people would. And what they’ve been hawked as, and what the press has over-established them as, is helping to implode these crazy obsessions with celebrity. So in a way, whether we love them or hate them, it’s a very beautiful thing because they’re actually helping turn the tides. I think the public is a little bit sickened by our own interest, and what our interest has turned these women into, or allowed them to be turned into, and we’ve seen a lot of negative effects that our overindulgence has allowed.

(A version of this article originally appeared in YRB Magazine)

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