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Jena at 15 

A childhood in Hollywood

Wednesday, Jun 14 2000
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Like most dreams, Jena and Debbie Malone’s was uninformed and optimistic: Daughter and mother would move to Los Angeles for a year so 10-year-old Jena could pursue her acting ambitions.

“It‘s every parent’s fantasy, to have your kid winning an Academy Award, saying, ‘I want to thank my mother and father,’” says Scott Feinstein, a local CPA who handles the finances of child actors. “I‘m not sure I’d believe anybody who said it wasn‘t. Ultimately in the back of everybody’s mind is: I would get credit for having this child who‘s talented, smart, beautiful and makes a pile of money.”

Unlike most fantasies, however, the Malones’ came true, fast, and in a big way. Within a year, Jena was making six figures and starring in Anjelica Huston‘s directorial debut, Bastard Out of Carolina, in which her character is beaten and raped repeatedly, and for which she won an Independent Spirit Award for Best Debut Performance. Over the next four years, she co-starred in Contact, Stepmom and For the Love of the Game, as well as a series of cable projects, including the title role in Ellen Foster (in which she watches her mother die and is then shuffled among uncaring relatives and a drunk, abusive father), Hidden in America (in which, after the death of her mother, she survives on hamburgers her dad scavenges from a dumpster) and Hope, directed by Goldie Hawn, in which her character dreams of escaping the exigencies of the Deep South in 1962. “My situation is dismal,” says Lilly, who has an invalid for a mother and a bigot for an uncle. “If there’s any future for me at all, it isn‘t here.” The New York Times has called Jena “astonishing in her portrayals of children buffeted by abuse and the early loss of parents”; an L.A. Times profile began, “With Jena Malone, everyone just knew.” According to Huston, “She’s not a usual child.”

No one questions Jena‘s talent, which has kept her working steadily since she and Debbie arrived in 1995. Nor that her affinity for tough roles may have its origins in a hardscrabble childhood. She has met her father only once. Her mother was on welfare for much of Jena’s life, and by the time she was 9 they had lived in 27 places, including their car.

“The kids I feel have the most talent in this business are the ones who didn‘t grow up very privileged, that didn’t have TVs and Nintendos and everything else,” says Jena‘s longtime acting coach, Lesley Brander. “All they have is their imagination.”

If humble beginnings prove an asset to becoming a movie star, then there’s an excellent chance Debbie Malone will someday see Jena accepting an Academy Award. Her chances of being thanked, however, are not as good. This past fall, at age 14, Jena filed for emancipation from her mother, whom she accused of mismanaging her money, leaving them all but broke and without a home.

It wasn‘t the first time. While the Malones often lived with Jena’s godmother and her two kids, in a small two-bedroom apartment in Tahoe, there were also packing-up-the-car-in-the-middle-of-the-night scenes, as Debbie escaped bad roommates or bad debts and wound up in trailer parks, motels, sometimes in Las Vegas, where she has family. Jena much preferred Tahoe, where she attended public school, performed, starting at age 4, in community and church theater productions, and led a relatively peaceful life.

“Some of my youngest memories are of growing up in Lake Tahoe, and creating these elaborate fantasies about being this girl who‘s living in a forest, and I have to wash my clothes and build a hut,” she says during breakfast at the Farmers Market. She looks no part movie star and all 15-year-old, in a Spandex tank top, cargo pants and chipped nail polish. Her radiance is something of a shock, as one realizes that her face does not actually resemble a squashed apricot, that the bruised, malnourished onscreen quality is a function of acting. a

When Jena was in fifth grade, she left Tahoe for good to rejoin her mother, who’d been in Las Vegas for a year trying to find work.

“Can you imagine a worse place to raise a kid?” asks Jena, who says she hated her new school, hated the heat, always felt that she and Debbie were in danger. “There was this one place where actually cops came and there was a drug bust in the house we were staying at,” she says evenly, as if the incident had happened to someone else. “It was just not a really good environment, I don‘t think, for anyone.”

She wanted out, and understood that Debbie, eking out a living as a telemarketer, possessed neither the finances nor the deliberate nature necessary to make a move.

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