By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Meanwhile, Jena was working nine months of the year, making life comfortable for her mother and herself, still dreaming about running through the forest.
“I started looking at properties in Colorado and Montana, and I started -- I‘m such a strange child -- obsessively going out and buying log-cabin magazines and designing this huge log cabin that I was going to build, for me and my family,” she says, laughing at the memory of it. “It ended up, my room had a dance floor and a vault that you opened and it turned into a kitchen, and a porch -- the ultimate dream house -- with a slide to the pool . . . I was 12. I actually really wanted to build it. I designed the kitchen, and my mom’s room, and the living room.”
Debbie went along with the idea -- it sounded like the sort of security she and Jena and the coming baby could use. But Jena soon cooled on the log cabin. She was about to turn 13, and wanted something with a little more pizzazz.
Acting coach Lesley Brander, who for many years worked with Beverly Strong, recalls her first impression of Jena, whom she met soon after Jena arrived in Hollywood.
“What made her stand out was that this little girl said to me, ‘You know, I don’t really like this script, I don‘t want to go out on it,’” says Brander. “This was Air Force One, with Harrison Ford . . . She said, ‘I think I’m gonna go and I‘m just not going to do my best work.’ Nobody had ever said to me, ‘I don’t want to go out on this.‘ She actually did go, and I’m sure she did not do her best work. She knows what she wants, she absolutely does.”
What Jena wanted was to move to New York.
“I know that, usually, it‘s a mother’s job to kind of look at the circumstances, look at the outcome and what will happen with this decision,” says Jena, illuminating the extent to which she had become not merely the provider but the decider, “and that wasn‘t what my mom really did. At the time, I thought moving to New York was going to be the right decision.”
She and Debbie rented a home 30 minutes north of the city, and Jena, who was tired of being tutored, attended the Professional Children’s School as a ninth-grader. (She had skipped sixth grade, and had combined seventh and eighth the previous year, a testament as much to her intelligence as to educational requirements being a hindrance to working.) Within months, she was offered Stepmom, and after some initial reservations about the hypercommercial nature of the project, she took the role. For Jena, New York was heaven.
Not for Debbie. “I didn‘t move to New York because I wanted to live in New York,” she says. “I moved to New York because Jena so badly wanted to go to a regular high school. So I made that decision to better her career, and her life. We couldn’t afford it. We couldn‘t afford it at all. Moving to New York buried us. Everything began falling apart.”
Despite Jena’s earning $325,000 for Stepmom, and receiving a $75,000 housing allowance, things did begin to fall apart. “We were taking cabs everywhere, we went to Broadway shows, we bought clothes,” says Debbie. “We were living like we were in New York.” At the end of five months they‘d spent $125,000. And there were more expenses to come.
“There was the kind of heavy factor over my head that I was going to be supporting three people,” says Jena, who celebrated her 13th birthday on the set with Susan Sarandon, Julia Roberts and her new half-sister, Madison. “Then I found out that we didn’t have enough money in the bank, and that‘s kind of when all the money problems started.”
Problems started for several reasons. Debbie panicked. And there was undoubtedly some aspect of jealousy involved. Jena was palling around with movie stars and getting accolades in the press and commanding huge fees, while Debbie struggled with postpartum weight and her enduring invisibility. She was 35 years old, and began to see her influence on Jena slipping away, her daughter’s need for a mother becoming less essential, edging toward inconsequential. She wanted to do something to ensure she did not get left behind.
“When Jena got Stepmom, she got more money than I ever thought she would get,” says Debbie. “So I did not want to blow it, and I told her -- and at the time we discussed it and she knew exactly what I was doing -- I said to her, ‘Honey, I think we should invest some of this money, and this is where I think. Why don’t we start setting it up so that when you turn 18, I have an income. Doesn‘t that sound good?’”
The “investments” turned out to be down payments on homes for Debbie‘s father and her adult brothers (who, she says, were “about to be kicked out of their house”) and a loan to one brother to start a day-care business (which he never opened). All told, over $80,000, with no paperwork, no plans for when the money would be repaid.
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