Jena Malone talks life as a child star

Are the Kids Alright? is Yahoo Entertainment’s video interview series exploring the impact of show business on the development and well-being of former child entertainers, from triumphs to traumas.

If the entertainment industry were a school, Jena Malone would have graduated several times over by now, having racked up more than 80 credits, in movies such as Stepmom, For Love of the Game and Donnie Darko, since the mid-1990s. And yet…

“I never stopped feeling like a child in Hollywood,” she tells Yahoo Entertainment. “But there’s, like, the moment when you have your first romantic scene or something that’s not a teenage experience. I think it’s not necessarily about the project. It’s about what you’re experiencing, when you start coming into your womanhood or masculinity or whatever, just coming into yourself in a deeper way, out of the child’s perspective. That starts adding resonance to everything you do.”

Malone considers The Messenger, a 2009 drama she did with Woody Harrelson, Ben Foster and Samantha Morton, to have been that moment for her. In it, she plays the girlfriend of a U.S. Army staff sergeant who’s on leave from the Iraq war. The well-reviewed film hit theaters in November 2009, the month Malone turned 25.

She had begun acting at 10 — she knew she wanted to do it as early as 5 —first appearing in Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone” video and a 1996 episode of Chicago Hope. The same year, she starred as a little girl who endures physical and sexual abuse in Bastard out of Carolina, for which she was nominated for a SAG Award. And the jobs kept coming, including the part of Susan Sarandon and Ed Harris’s daughter, Anna, in 1998’s Stepmom. They had split and Harris’s character was seeing Julia Roberts’s, whom Anna resented at first. It was a hit.

Julia Roberts and Jena Malone star in 1998's

Julia Roberts and Jena Malone star in 1998’s “Stepmom.” (Photo: Columbia Pictures/courtesy Everett Collection)

“I think I was about 12 when I started being recognized,” Malone says. “I think it was Stepmom that really changed that moment for me. I’m glad that I experienced it when I was tiny, because then I got to have a bigger conversation with it. It didn’t throw me off.”

By the time she was 15, in real life, a court had granted Malone emancipation from her parents, after she said her mother had “squandered” her earnings through “excessive spending and mismanagement,” according to court documents obtained by the Associated Press.

She also managed to stay professionally successful during that tricky transitioning-child star period, appearing in movies such as cult favorite Donnie Darko (2001), Civil War drama Cold Mountain (2003) and Saved!, a 2004 teen comedy, as she reached adulthood. Now 37, she’s co-starred in several movies in the Hunger Games franchise, the 2016 thrillers Nocturnal Animals and The Neon Demon, as well as on Billy Bob Thorton’s Amazon show, Goliath, last year.

Jena Malone, middle, attends a party following the

Jena Malone, middle, attends a party following the “Saved!” premiere, with her co-stars Macaulay Culkin and Mandy Moore, on May 13, 2004, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

In her new movie Adopting Audrey — out Aug. 26 — she plays an adult woman who puts herself up for adoption.

“I find that Audrey’s conundrum or rather place that she’s questioning is, What do I need as an adult from the relationship with my parents?” Malone asks. “Because that seems like a pretty normal part of the human conundrum. I think it was that that drew me in.”

Malone has reconciled with her own parents since that court case.

“I have a better relationship with my parents now than I ever did,” she says.

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