Jena Malone had a very busy 2014. This year alone the actress appeared in Oren Moverman’s festival favorite “Time Out of Mind” as Richard Gere’s daughter, returned to “The Hunger Games” franchise in “Mockingjay – Part 1,” and acted alongside Joaquin Phoenix in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice,” which opens this Friday following its world premiere bow at the New York Film Festival in October. Keeping busy is nothing new to Malone, who’s acted every year of her life since she was 10 years old in films as varied as “Donnie Darko,” “Saved!” and “Sucker-Punch.”
Indiewire caught up with Malone to discuss “Inherent Vice” and this stage in her career.
You strike me as someone who has read a Thomas Pynchon novel or two.
I have literally never finished a novel! I’ve read his stuff kind of like poetry or prose, just a sentence or paragraph at a time, and I’ll put it down and pick it up at another time. It’s so funny that I’ve never finished them though.
Why is that?
I don’t know. It feels like poetry to me, which makes me sort of want to slow sip them I guess.
So what did you make of the screenplay then? Especially since I’m told the script so closely follows the source material.
I had never read this particular book, so when I read the screenplay it was so intensely Paul’s voice. I read his rhythms and tones and humor. Because I’m such a giant fan of his work, it felt like his story. Only after did I think I had to read the novel. It had to be a feat for him to adapt this novel but still make it in his own voice. It’s these two master voices that still really well together.
Did you get it when you read it? Having not read the book, I didn’t have a clue what was going on.
I feel like I never try to get any film I read. I just want to meditate on the feeling it gave me. Some films give you very linear associations of plot and some form of an ending. Other films take you on a ride and leave you with a feeling, which I think is more appropriate for the novel and for the era that we’re kind of depicting. The beginning of the 1970s was such an awkward adolescence. It was like this dream coming off of the free love revolution of the 1960s. So Thomas really wrote a novel that you kind of understand but that you can’t quite grasp, which I can imagine, for me looking back at what the period was, seems very similar.
You would have thrived in the 70’s as an actress.
Oh I would have loved it! Those are some of the best films ever! Paul wasn’t around, so it’s pretty amazing to be alive now and working with the greatest American filmmaker. It’s a gift.
Are you a hardcore PTA fan?
I’m not sure how to evaluate what hardcore means, but I’ve certainly been a fan of his since “Hard Eight.” He’s only made seven films, so he’s still sort of in this beginning phase when compared to other great directors who have such large bodies of work. I just love it. I love his myths, I love his narratives, I love his characters, I love his rhythms, I love the way he loves actors, I love basically his set design and vision. I just feel like he gets it on so many levels. It was such a beautiful opportunity to meet him and to get to know him as a person and see how he actually works and to sort of dispel this myth of how I thought he worked.
How did the experience of working with him actually compare to the myth you had about the guy?
Talent is unapproachable. It’s not a real thing. It can feel massive, but actually meeting and working with an individual is a completely different thing. When you’re approaching it being, “Oh, you’re this talented thing,” it’s very hard to ever find a mutual ground. With Paul, he’s so down to earth and gentle and funny and easy, he adds this ease to the set. Nothing is forced. Things are tried and tried again with him. I feel like he’s constantly editing and writing as he’s directing, allowing things that aren’t working in the moment to find life in other moments and changing things and watching things. He lets things spill. He’s not afraid to say he doesn’t know which way is up. It’s pretty courageous. You amass a 50-man team behind you on a film set and for a leader to say, “I’m still discovering,” is pretty ballsy, you know? Most people want to pretend they know everything and know what they’re doing, but he’s so humble and gracious about it.
Joaquin Phoenix has cultivated this mysterious persona with the press, so I’m curious to know what it’s like to work with him.
Generous, giving, caring, joyful. Really just a pleasure. He’s constantly trying and learning and laughing. He has this innate ability to try things new and unexpected without it feeling inauthentic to the scene. He was a complete joy. I would absolutely love to work with him again. We have this giant scene where we just sat at opposite ends of a table and read pages worth of dialogue, so it went by so fast. By the end I couldn’t believe we were already done!
I was looking over your IMBb profile today and it starts out by saying you’re an “up-and-comer,” which I found hilarious given how many years you’ve been in the business. Do you feel like a veteran of sorts? How would you define yourself in your career right now?
I don’t know! The hippies didn’t know they were hippies, they were just living their lives. It’s always with time that we then form definitions. Sometimes I feel like a kid, sometimes I feel like an adult. Sometimes I’m confident and other times I have no idea what I’m doing. I appreciate still learning and loving it as I go.
Do you feel like you’re going through an especially significant moment in your career right now? “The Hunger Games” made you a little more well known to more mainstream audiences. Are you in a more secure place than ever?
I never look to film work for security. It’s such an ephemeral thing. It doesn’t really exist because one moment you’re up and then the next you’re down, and side to side, and vertical. But it does feel like a very exciting year. There’s been so much beauty. There’s been so many beautiful films reaching audiences I’ve never reached before, which lets me interact with fan bases on new and intimate levels. I get to push myself as an artist. I turned 30 this year, and I feel like I’ve been waking up to this galloping noise because I constantly want to create. It’s super exciting.
You haven’t let up since you broke out as a child actress at 10. What do you attest that to?
I don’t know. It’s funny that you think I’ve kept at it because I’ve taken so many breaks. You get full and you have to step away from the dining room table. You have to inject and eat in a different way. I feel that I’m constantly letting it change. Taking breaks is a beautiful thing. I’ve been fortunate to be able to come in and out and do the work I love. I’m blessed I’ve been able to be in this business as long as I have.
A lot of that has to do with the choices you’ve made as an actress. You do edgy indie far and bigger studio stuff, too. What’s it like to go back and forth? Or do you not see projects in those terms?
It never feels different. The only difference is craft service or whether I drive myself to set or not. Small films I drive myself, bigger ones I usually have a driver and there’s usually nice catering. [laughs] But beyond that it’s the same. It’s about the director and the character. Filmmaking is such an intimate experience, so it never really feels grand unless you’re shooting a grand scene in the moment of it. Unless it’s like “Sucker Punch” or “Hunger Games” and you’re walking into this giant built theater where there’s art design everywhere, that feels like a kid in Disneyland, but it’s always people talking and reacting. It’s simple stuff we do no matter the size of the film.