Jena Malone has been playing difficult characters since her breakout role as a sexually abused child in 1996’s Bastard Out Of Carolina – filmed when Jena was just 11. Since then, she’s played half a dozen iconic characters, including Julia Roberts’ reluctant stepdaughter in Stepmom, the dreamy object of Jake Gyllenhaal’s desires in Donnie Darko and the rebellious Lydia Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Now, she may be best known for playing the angry, sarcastic Johanna Mason in The Hunger Games series – you know, the character who introduced herself by stripping naked in an elevator.
“She’s rad,” Jena tells BUST of Johanna from the penthouse rooftop at the Standard East in New York, looking over the Manhattan skyline. It’s a few hours before the premiere of Jena’s new short film The Rusted, in which she reunites with her Hunger Games costar Josh Hutcherson. Once again, Jena is playing a difficult, complex character – in the 15-minute-film, we see how Jena and Josh’s characters, who are siblings, struggle with the death of their abusive mother and their resulting relationship with each other.
For Jena, it was a chance to work with a friend in a new way. “Josh asked me if I wanted to do it. He sent me the script and I read it and it seemed like a sweet idea and a beautiful story between two siblings,” she says. “I feel like we finally got to be a little bit kind on screen to each other. I’m always being such a bully to him, in a way.”
The Rusted is pretty much the definition of collaboration: it’s the result of Canon’s Project Imagination: The Trailer, a consumer contest spearheaded by Ron Howard. The 15-minute short film is based on an even shorter trailer created by college student Mark Mukherjee. The trailer was chosen by Ron Howard and Josh Hutcherson, then turned into a short film by writer and director Kat Candler.
Josh Hutcherson tells BUST that he asked Jena to co-star in The Rusted not just because of their relationship, but because of her acting abilities.
“We only had three days to shoot it, so it was really important, because you only have 15 minutes to tell this story, to be able to believe that these are brother and sister who have this whole life together and have lived through all these experiences,” he says from the red carpet at The Rusted premiere. “It really helped to have someone I know very well and have worked with multiple times. She was fantastic. She immediately dove in full force and really went in for it.”
But, he adds, “She’s a fantastic actress, that was the number one thing. We wanted to find someone who’s a great actress.”
The Rusted’s director Kat Candler agrees. “She’s a fricking powerhouse of an actress who I’ve admired for however long she’s been acting, since Bastard Out Of Carolina,” she says. “She’s so intuitive about character and about being in the moment and being really, really honest. She’s a freaking badass as a human being and an actress.”
Jena’s acting talents are clear in the way she talks about her work with The Hunger Games. In the last installment, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, out next month, she says she focused on “giving everything you have. Every little bit, every little piece so that it didn’t haunt you the rest of your life that you didn’t try every strange idea that you had.”
It seems like Johanna may already haunt Jena – in a positive way. “I feel like maybe she’s rubbed off on me in some ways,” Jena says. “I feel like I can get angry pretty fast now, because I was exploring anger for so long with her. I don’t think we’re all that much alike at all, but I really admire her strength. I like how ballsy she is.”
Jena may soon play another iconic role. She won’t confirm the rumors that she’s appearing Batman Vs. Superman – “I don’t know about that!” she says – but she has spotted on set and rumor has it that she’s playing Batgirl. Jena does confirm another exciting project, a psychological thriller called Neon Demon, and talks a little about how she has such a varied resume of characters.
Choosing a film is “all about directors, because it really is all about the vision, not so much about the words or the character,” she says, adding that she also loves collaborating with friends.
Asked about the conversation that everyone’s having at the moment – discrimination against female directors – Jena’s response is optimistic. She points out that she’s worked with several female directors – along with Kat Candler with The Rusted, there’s So Yong Kim with 2013’s For Ellen, Francesca Joseph with 2007’s Four Last Songs and Rebecca Miller with 2005’s The Ballad Of Jack and Rose, to name a few.
“I don’t really think about gender like that. I don’t really think about equality like that,” Jena says. “Because we’ve only had the right to vote for so long, really, comparatively to how long men have been in power. Of course there will be more men in positions of power than women. But it’s a really beautiful time of change. Regardless of gender, I’m interested in quality of work and in everyone getting a fair choice to have a shot.”
Soon, Jena may join the ranks of female directors who get a shot. “I want to become a better writer because I would like to direct, but I don’t have any interest in directing material that’s not my own,” she says. “I’m working on two screenplays right now.” She’s not ready to share details yet, but we can’t wait to see what she comes up with.
Images via Canon: Project Imagination, Facebook/The Hunger Games
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