Jena Malone Interview

07 January 2009

Playing naive, pregnant Christian teen in ironic send-up

Playing naive, pregnant Christian teen in ironic send-up "Saved!" fit both Jena Malone's wit and her pensive personality

(Some questions in this interview have come from another journalist present for the Q&A.)

Nineteen-year-old Jena Malone has made more than 20 movies, but she's never made a comedy prior to "Saved!," a deeply ironic send-up of the sheltered world of Christian private schools.

The actress displays a pokerfaced charm as Mary, a naively knocked-up teenager abandoned by her friends when she begins to question her faith -- and before they even know she's pregnant. But the target of the movie's ridicule isn't religion; it's intolerance and ignorance -- a fact that helped draw Malone, who is rather serious by nature, to this movie.

"Belief is such a powerful thing," said the pixie-sized star on a recent trip to San Francisco. "But because it is, it can also be very destructive and it's very easily manipulated. You can say, 'I believe in love, I believe in acceptance,' and yet in your own life, you can actually not (act on) any of those things."

Such is true of Hilary Faye, the devoutly domineering Big Christian On Campus (a role played with evangelical earnestness and just a touch of caricature by pop-singer-cum-actress Mandy Moore) who is the first to turn against Mary. It's Mary's journey toward thinking for herself -- the end result of her ostracization -- that appealed to Malone the most.

"I was really excited to see these important questions being asked in a film that was made for young people. And I loved the humor," she said with an expressive smile while curled up (chin on her knees, arms wrapped around her legs) and all but swallowed up in a cushy chair in her Ritz-Carlton hotel room.

Contemplative (she often stops to think, shifting positions in the chair, before answering questions) and open-minded (while it didn't change her own beliefs, she says she got a lot out of attending church in preparation for this role) -- and in person quite modest and quiet -- the young actress seem well suited for the intense roles that have garnered her critical acclaim in such films as "Bastard Out of Carolina" (her debut), "Contact" (as the young Jodie Foster) and "Donnie Darko" (as off-kilter Jake Gyllenhaal's girlfriend).

As for "Saved!," Malone was due for something lighter, and the story just made her chuckle.

Q: What was your first reaction when you read the script?

A: I just remember the first two pages cracking me up so much. And it also explored a world with a lot of stereotypes and we sort of addressed these stereotypes and then broke down those stereotypes, which I really liked as well.

Q: I loved some of the dialogue. I wrote down, "Please let it be cancer! Please let it be cancer!" (the thought heard running through Mary's head when she learns the other possible explaination for her missed menstral period). That line of dialogue says so much about...

A: ...about what that young woman is going through, the world that she's living in, and sort of the only options that she really has. It's a total credit to (writer/director) Brian Dannelly that he can really get into a young girl's head and make it believable. There were some really (great lines) -- "That's what I call being hung on the cross!" is another one of my favorites (said by a character admiring the manhood of someone posing as Jesus) or "You're not born gay, you're born again!" There are some really funny things in the film.

Q: This all starts because Mary's boyfriend comes out to her (she loses her virginity in the hopes of straightening him out). What was your own high school experience like regarding gay students?

A: Unfortunately, I didn't have your typical high school experience. I only went to one year of high school, but even in my day-to-day (life), I had two moms growing up who were lovers. It was a very hard thing to accept for people in my class, like on Father's Day, we're all making Father's Day cards. You know, which one (do I give it to)? The topic of homosexuality is something I've grown up with and been aware of. I've always had a hard time expressing to my peers what it was like, that it was just something they needed to understand. Sometimes it's sort of the cause of turmoil, but it's OK. I find that fear when you're young is usually a lack of understanding to some degree and unfortunately it speaks volumes about their parents.

Q: Did that perspective give you an extra incentive to do this movie?

A: Yeah, because you're exploring issues that are kind of taboo, that (get) only two sentences of press: teen pregnancy, which we usually hear one very specific story on, and homosexuality within high school. I was really excited to show those two subject matters within a situation of honest people going through kind of crazy things and breaking those boundaries...saying, "Yeah, you're allowed to make choices and you're allowed to question things and you're allowed to make mistakes, as long as you can process them and eventually live with the person you're becoming." That's an awesome thing.

Q: One of the other things I liked about it is that it didn't set out to mock faith or even mock Christian schools. The idea of thinking for yourself is the main thing I got out of the film. By the end of the movie, she's drawing all her own conclusions of about God.

A: And she's still drawing them. She's excited about the journey.

Q: Even Hilary Faye is a person, although she becomes kind of a villainess toward the end.

A: Yeah, but I think one of the most human moments that she has is at the end of the film, when she kind of goes crazy and she smashes into Jesus. She just has this horrible, embarrassing realization that she's been holding onto all these things so desperately in her life, and they're slipping away from her.

Q: Plus, she is the super-Christian, yet her behavior is so un-Christian.

A: Belief is such a powerful thing -- but because it is, it can also be very destructive and it's very easily manipulated. You can say, "I believe in love, I believe in acceptance," and yet in your own life, you can actually not (act on) any of those things. So it's kind of breaking it down, saying if you are going to place a belief in something, you need to be able to question it and make sure that it actually fits in within your own personal life and situation.

Q: You're more mature now and you can probably play the budding sexuality that this character has (with some retrospect), but she's more confused about it. Was it difficult putting yourself into somwhat of a protected, clueless mindset to play this character?

A: It was actually funny going into it, because I'd worked with Martin Donovan (who plays the school's pastor/principal) on "The United States of Leland" and he thought I was going to be playing Cassandra Edelstein (the school's rebellious token Jew), because I am so much like her. He was shocked that I was playing Mary, but that's the exciting thing about an actor. It's not necessarily about what you relate to -- I think the hardest thing to do is actually to play yourself, because you have to be so raw and honest. I don't find that very exciting either, because it's just kind of...

Q: You look more for the unfamiliar than the familiar.

A: I do, because I think there's more to learn. But there is not a wide variety of roles to pick from as a young woman, and these sort of small, complicated things fall through cracks. There's so much more (to say) about being young and being a woman, but I feel like not a lot of those stories are being told, so you have to grab onto what ever small truths you can find and present it in the most honest way you can.

Film is a very powerful medium and I know I was affected by films and magazines and all of that when I was 13 years old. I really responded to it and thought that's who I should be and what I should look like and how I should sound. Luckily enough, for me, I was able to grow up and have a little bit more perspective and realize it's actually complete bull****. It's always been a struggle to be able to find the most truthful and honest depictions of young people.

Q: At what age did you start seeking out unusual roles? How did you end up not doing the Freddie Prinze, Jr. movies?

A: I was very lucky. I think it had a lot to do with (moving) out on my own when I was 14 and making my own choices. I signed all the contracts and was very much in charge of (my) career. But I think also the seed was planted (early on). One of the first scripts I ever read was "Bastard Out of Carolina" and it made such an impact on me as a 10-year-old young girl. I'm still processing how it impacted me. It was such a beautiful story, it was such a powerful story, and it was such an important story.

I was really blessed to be involved with something like that so young. It put that taste in my mouth for things that are important very early on. Then you're on another set where it's not quite the same taste or you're not quite getting as much from it and you kind of feel empty or less fulfilled. And so it started there, but I don't think I was consciously making choices until I was independently making my own choices and no one else was involved.

Q: Before you started shooting, the whole cast was taken to a couple of Christian rallies. What were those like?

A: It was one of the most educational experiences...


(where Malone talks about theology, being "saved" herself, as research for her role, "The Passion of the Christ," karaoke-ing with Mandy Moore, and which Culkin is her favorite Culkin)


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