By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
“I said to my mom, ’Let‘s move to L.A. for a year, just give it a year, see what happens,’” says Jena, as nonchalantly as if she‘d asked for a ride to the 7-Eleven. “So she quit her job and we moved to L.A.”
Knoll got Jena an audition for a USC student film called Sunday’s Child, which she landed. The other child in the film was represented by manager Beverly Strong, who took one look at Jena and asked to sign her; Debbie agreed. Within a month, Jena booked a Michael Jackson video (in which, as a freakish white-faced wood nymph, he sings “Have You Seen My Childhood?”), got a SAG card, an agent. Still, money was very, very tight.
“We were really struggling,” says Jena, focusing on a piece of sausage she‘s pushing around her plate. “We had a change jar, and we’d have to count out the change to go to Taco Bell. Which was great. It never really affected me, it was just, this is our life. It may be different from others‘, but we were very happy doing this.”
When she finishes, she holds her hands palm-up and gives a short laugh, as if to say, I know it sounds a little extreme, but there you go. This smiling stoicism belies a quality that Jena, with her Urban Outfitters chic and accessible sweetness, tries to hide: an iron will that, in several interviews, calls to mind Scarlett O’Hara standing in her desiccated fields and crying out that, no matter the cost, “I‘ll never be hungry again.” It is a quality Jena employed to get herself out of Vegas, and to get jobs to support herself and Debbie.
“What else can a 10-year-old do?” she asks, wrapping her cardigan around her slender frame. “I mean, besides acting.”
“Honestly, I wanted to be an actress,” says Debbie, her legs folded beneath her on a couch in the living room of her small apartment, one of hundreds of identical units in a complex off the Vegas strip. Debbie, 38, has a pretty, open face, and her emotions are easy to read: When she is happy, she lets go peals of laughter; when something confuses or frightens her, her eyebrows knit in distrust. She is often distrustful. Several years in Hollywood, she says, have taught her to doubt people who claim to have her best interests at heart.
In truth, Debbie’s misgivings started earlier. “I went to New York when I was 21,” she says, explaining how her acting dreams played out. “Well, I didn‘t go to New York, I had plans to go to New York -- I had a one-way ticket. And I turned it in at the last minute, because I was so scared I didn’t have enough money. I was afraid I‘d turn out to be, like, a prostitute, walking the streets.”
While Debbie did go on to do community theater, she did not have the confidence or discipline to follow through -- she dropped out of college after becoming pregnant (with Jena), has never had a career, was never able to rent a place on her own because her credit was so bad, and consequently always lived with relatives or roommates. And yet she encouraged Jena early on. Taking a visitor into the bedroom, Debbie stands before an entire wall of Jena’s first head-shots: in an Easter hat, with a lollipop, her small mouth glossed and parted over baby teeth.
“Five years old, as you can see, it was right there, at that age,” she says, gazing at the 8-by-10s before turning to a full-blown poster of Jena, in tutu and tiara, on the set of Hope. “I miss her so much. I was standing about this far from her when that shot was taken.”
Debbie says she supported Jena‘s decisions and a dreams because she felt it was her duty, as a mother and a Christian.
“I told her, ’I will promise you that I will do everything I can within my power to help you over a period of a year,‘” says Debbie, reclining on the bed, surrounded on all sides by photos of Jena, a mini-shrine of publicity shots in plastic frames. “But I said, ’If you‘re not making it’ -- meaning making enough money so that we can survive -- ‘it’s over in a year,‘ and she says, ’That‘s what I want to do.’ So that‘s what we did.”
While Jena worked and attended school (first at home through Laurel Springs School, then through on-set tutoring), Debbie watched from the sidelines. Aside from accompanying Jena, her main responsibility was to become comfortable with the manifestations of Jena’s success: money and status.
“The minute she got Bastard Out of Carolina, I knew that we were on a different road,” says Debbie, still slightly awed at the memory. “We got in a limo for the first time, we got first-class airplane tickets for the first time, we had our own little house that they paid for, a little cottage, with per diem. I mean, it was a whole new world.”