Jena Malone is an American actress who works mainly in film. Jena's career started when she was a child, yet unlike many child actors she managed to make a relatively smooth transition to teenage and adult roles, and she is still acting at the time of writing.
Jena's Childhood and Early Career
Jena was born in November 1984 in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, USA. She was brought up by her mother, and Jena candidly describes her origins as 'poor white trailer trash'. Her upbringing was not particularly privileged as she and her mother were often lacking money and moving to different homes. However, Jena had the chance to participate in community plays in Nevada, and when she expressed a desire to try more acting, her mother agreed that they may as well move to Los Angeles for a while to see if it would work out.
Although this is a risky move and can lead to failure for many other aspiring actors, Jena was fortunate. She worked hard, found an agent and shortly after they arrived she was able to start work - first in a student film, commercials and a music video. This led to a leading role in the 1996 film Bastard out of Carolina, which chronicles the abusive childhood of Jena's character, an illegitimate child nicknamed Bone. Although Jena's acting was immediately admired and she was nominated for several awards including a Screen Actors Guild, there has been some criticism of the violent nature of the role and the fact that, despite her young age, she filmed two rape scenes. There was speculation that she was chosen as an inexperienced actress specifically because of the nature of the role. Jena, however, claimed to love the script and the story, even when she first read it as a ten-year-old.
Following Bastard out of Carolina, Jena's acting projects often portrayed her as a girl with 'issues' - she regularly played characters who were victims of abuse, teenagers who were pregnant or children with divorced parents. Jena was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for her role in 1997's Hope, and played the young version of Jodie Foster's character in Contact the same year. She decided she would like to try living in New York, where she quickly obtained a new role, and the following year Stepmom was released, in which Jena's character and her brother try to come to terms with their stepmother who comes on the scene after their parents' divorce. This film earned Jena her third Young Artist Award. Jena said she realised she wasn't good at playing a 'normal person', and was less interested in roles with such characters.
As Jena's career boomed, her life with her mother became difficult. Although understandably not all is known about her situation, Nancy Rommelmann's article, Jena at 15, explains how after Jena's mother began spending her daughter's acting money essentially unauthorised, it became necessary for Jena to have access to her child actor trust fund to pay off expenses and tax. She therefore had to petition the courts for legal emancipation. Jena felt that her mother was not correctly handling her earnings and career, yet the situation was hard for her mother too, who found that as the legal guardian she had to be on set with Jena the whole time, although she wasn't doing anything. Hiring other people to be on set with Jena simply meant that Jena wasn't getting the supervision she needed. Jena admitted that she felt obligated to take some guest starring roles which she did not wish to do, simply for the money. Jena passed her high school equivalency test, received emancipation and began living on her own, just before she turned 15. Her relationship with her mother also became ugly, as she refused the idea of counselling, instead opting for a restraining order and a (rather unequal) court battle. Emancipation was seen as necessary, but all Jena's representatives and people making a living off Jena were quite possibly in support of the emancipation simply because it would mean they would get paid, not because they were concerned for Jena's welfare.
Jena's career continued with a role as the enigmatic Gretchen, girlfriend of the title character, in the fascinatingly popular 'cult' film Donnie Darko. She also appeared in Life as a House and had a chance to act alongside Jodie Foster in The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, which also starred Kieran Culkin. In 2003, Jena then acted alongside Macaulay Culkin, in Saved!, a satire of Christian fundamentalism, and had a small role in Cold Mountain. She also found the time to attend photography courses at a community college.
More recently, Jena learnt a British accent to appear in the 2005 adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, where she played the flighty Lydia Bennett. She is continuing to work regularly, often in independent films, and made her Broadway debut in 2006.