My Wild Nights with Jena Malone
Photo by Danielle Bacher
[Editor's note: Soon-to-be-award-winning gonzo music journalist Danielle Bacher prowls the late late night scene for West Coast Sound. For this installment, she hit the town with actress and musician Jena Malone of Donnie Darko, Hunger Games and new Paul Thomas Anderson flick Inherent Vice].
Sometimes in life you get to meet a movie star. Three things can happen: 1.) You geek out in your two minutes together, get a quick photo and brag about it on social media for the entire week. 2.) The movie star is an entitled asshole who blows you off. 3.) You actually like this person and would consider being friends in another life, if you too were rich and famous.
Number 3 is what happened to me, but Jena Malone apparently doesn’t care that I am not famous and definitely not rich.
I became friends with Malone after hanging out with her on two separate occasions for this column. I did not know her beforehand. We’ve now started working together on a musical project, so this "Wild Night" is a little different for me. Part of me didn’t want to write this story, because I assumed I had gotten too close to my subject. Can you become too close to your subject? I’m still unsure.
There were no smoke and mirrors, no bullshit and no excuses with her. This woman is the real deal. Welcome to Jena’s World.
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6:58 p.m.: Her face is milky white, but when she laughs it turns bright pink. Her hair color changes by the week; brown to blonde to fire engine red. She knocks back “sipping” mezcal in about three minutes. Maybe less. She likes to get high. She enjoys smoking American Spirits, sometimes several in a row. She hates being alone. She fits the Billy Joel song “She’s Always a Woman” perfectly: She can kill with a smile and she can wound with her eyes.
She hates men who cheat. She slapped and punched the last one that did it to her.
7:00 p.m.: “Do you want a drink?” Jena inquires. “I can feel you want one.”
She sits next to her musical partner, Lem Jay Ignacio, at a wooden table at Fifty Seven, a hip restaurant that recently opened Downtown. The two perform music together as The Shoe.
She looks over at him and makes a pleading face. The grip of her hand around mine doesn’t loosen. She stares, amused. She leans in closer to me — casual, sly and almost comforting. I order two of the same cocktail for myself: some concoction with rum, chamomile, grappa, fresh lime and sugar.
Jena Malone and Lem Jay Ignacio
7:32 p.m.: “So, you grew up with two moms. What was that like?” I ask.
She reaches for a folded white napkin and places it on her lap. She giggles the giggle of a nervous schoolgirl, then sips from her champagne flute and regales me:
"When I was younger, I didn’t know it was any different. They never really came out as gay. My godmom was more open about it than my mom. My mom still renounces it. She doesn’t like to talk about that. It was the only relationship she had with a woman. She found Christianity when they broke up, and she started dating men again.”
Jena's mom laughs off the homosexual relationship now, which she finds odd since it was such an integral part of her childhood. “You fall in love with people, regardless of sex. In the world that she grew up in, it was never accepted,” she says. “I think they formed a beautiful bond out of intense hardship.”
7:45 p.m.: Jena was born out of wedlock. Her father was married to another woman (with six kids) when he slept with her mom. She didn’t have much of a relationship with him; they didn’t even share a phone call until she was a teenager.
“I used to stalk my dad,” she admits. He worked as a card dealer at a casino in Reno, Nevada, and she would spy on him.
One day, she called out of the blue and asked to have dinner with him. “It’s been a house on fire ever since,” she says. “He’s like this amazing handler, gypsy hustler, storyteller salesman, who has lived like 17 lives, been in and out of jail, ran from the law and lived under different aliases. He’s a crazy man, and now we talk like every day. He drinks and he smokes and he takes care of me when he comes home.”
Lem Jay responds, “Sounds like a fucked-up country song!” I agree.
“It’s cool, though,” she retorts. “People always tell me they were forced to have relationships with their estranged parents, like early on, but because we came together in a cool way of, ‘I just want to meet you, see who you are and what are you made of,’ there was no resentment or weirdness. It was pure fascination on both sides!”
7:47 p.m.: The server cuts in and tells us that our drinks will be another minute. Yes, it’s been 47 minutes and we still don’t have the drinks we ordered.
8:05 p.m.: Another server comes over (this is not his section), interrupts our conversation and very obviously hits on Jena. “Remember me?” he asks. “I talked about all that weird stuff about Elvis and then you let me sing Elvis for you that one time.”
“What?” she responds.
I interject: “Can you do us the biggest favor and get our drinks? It’s been over an hour.” We also finally order the halibut and the chicken.
8:15 p.m.: “Do you smoke pot?” asks Jena. “Do you want to take a little walk?” We get up from the table and walk away. Jena takes out a spliff and smokes it. Lem Jay smokes one of Jena’s American Spirits.
We talk about their band playing in weird places that no one ever knows about or notices. Jena enjoys playing low-key, discreet venues, like random places outdoors. “It helps the audience to feel like they are getting something different.”
She stops for a moment and looks over at a dog walker who is obviously not walking his charges. In fact, the animals are fighting.
“I love seeing people in those in-between moments,” she says. “I appreciate that about Downtown, but I would never live here. If I wanted to live in a downtown area, I would live in Paris instead. This city will never be that cool. It will always be a little awkward because it tries so hard. It’s a continual growing pain.”
At 14 years old, Jena was emancipated. She had a bunch of back taxes due because her family had mismanaged her money.
“We never had money before," she says. “I think I had made close to a million dollars by that point. We didn’t have an accountant, and we didn’t really understand taxes. We owed about $250,000, and in order to not go to jail, I had to incur all these crazy lawyer fees and claim bankruptcy and deal with that at such a young age.”
8:25 p.m.: We head back to our table, and our drinks still haven’t arrived. “Do you want to just leave?” Jena asks.
“Nah, this is hilarious,” I say. “I’m kind of going for the longest time I’ve ever spent trying to get a drink at a restaurant in Los Angeles.”
8:36 p.m.: The server that hit on Jena comes back over to ask what drinks we ordered. “Sorry, I would make the drinks myself if I could just walk behind the bar and do it,” he says. “I’m sorry you are having a shitty experience. Obviously, you aren’t going to have to pay for them. Do you want a bottle of wine instead?” We say yes. (No bottle of wine ever arrives.)
“The worst part about mistakes is learning how to tell people they are making mistakes, and it’s only about functionality. It’s not about being sorry. It’s just about getting it right,” says Jena. “Let’s just leave.”
8:38 p.m.: Our original server comes over with an entrée of halibut. There is also a roasted chicken with mousse of liver on crostini. “I’m not even hungry anymore,” Jena says to the server.
Finally, half our drinks arrive. She takes a sip of her mezcal with fresh lime and honey. I have a drink called a Smoked Peach, which is not what I ordered, but I down it anyway.
8:42 p.m.: I’m not sure if Jena is high or not, but she begins to tell me that she likes draping her breasts in sunlight and on flowers and water and ropes and silk. She doesn’t understand our society and what we are clothing our bodies in.
“Booty shorts, things that give us yeast infections? Uncomfortable lingerie?” she wonders, appalled. “That’s gross. It’s not artistic. There is this need to want to look beautiful in a certain way.” She seems undisturbed talking about yeast infections while eating.
We get deeper. She tells me that she has “a timeless shelf life,” but remains hopeful for the future of art. “I’m a weirdo. I will die. My clothes will die. But we are creating things that will last such a long period of time. There is something beautiful about that.”
Jena started meditating about a year ago. She says that she falls in and out of practice, still trying to build up her fortitude. She studied with a teacher for four days and was given a mantra.
“It’s not about anything else but the quieting of your mind,” she says. “You get to take yourself out of you. It’s literally cleaning your self from yourself. It helped me a lot.”
8:50 p.m.: Another patron from the restaurant comes over to our table. “Excuse me, do you have another person with you?” he asks. “Do you mind if we take your bench? We need it for our table.”
By this point, we are ready to cut our losses. “Just take it, we are going to leave,” says Jena. “I need to get out of here.”
9:00 p.m.: We start to walk over a bridge heading towards Little Tokyo. Jena is humming the tune to a Shoe song.
“It’s like we are in Paris,” she says. She pulls up a music video on her phone that she made in the Catskills. She has me listen to their song “His Gorgeousness” as I walk. It’s a lilting, whimsical folk-pop tune. I really enjoy it, but an ambulance and assorted traffic noise drown out some of the sound. She takes my camera and starts taking photos of me, singing her own song all the while.
9:20 p.m.: We realize we are going the wrong way. We see some random Mexican guy dancing in a warehouse.
“Let’s ditch her! Let’s do a crime and ditch her. Stuff her with drugs, make her cry and ditch her,” Lem Jay says to Jena. “Then we can kill her and bury her body in a whorehouse!”
I seriously hope he’s kidding. I can’t quite tell with these two.
9:52 p.m.: Finally, we call an Uber and end up at a karaoke joint called Cosmos. Jena and I sing Elton John’s “Your Song” together. It was terrible, because I’m not the best singer. She seems to think I was pretty good, though.
10:45 p.m.: We take Uber back to my car and then head to the next bar. I can sense tension between Jena and Lem Jay. He’s had a few Sapporos and looks like he’s ready to start a fight.
Then, sure enough, he starts screaming and yelling at Jena. Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” is playing in the background, and this embarrasses me because Jena played a lead role in Donnie Darko, which features a cover of it. I wonder if this bothers her even more. It's also interesting background music to a very intense fight. She was singing along before things started to spin out of control.
I pull over. Lem Jay yells “I quit!” and slams my car door and leaves us. It’s really awkward.
10:50 p.m.: Jena is tearing up, but she feels it was just a stupid fight about band crap. We arrive at the bar in Silver Lake and meet her boyfriend. He listens to her bemoan the troubles of the band. Even though Jena is visibly upset, he somehow continues to talk only about himself. This guy seems like a gigantic douchebag, I think to myself.
One week later...
6:30 p.m.: There she is, puffing away on a cigarette outside a trendy restaurant called Zinque on Melrose. She blows out a plume of smoke and smiles. She’s still blonde, but her brown roots are growing back in. She’s wearing a low-cut floral print dress and a white overcoat with black trim. She’s barely wearing any makeup, but she wears it well.
She informs me that the band is back together and everything is fine. She apologizes for the other evening. I give her a big hug, but she immediately tells me some troubling news.
“So I broke up with my boyfriend. The one you met last week. He cheated on me with many women. I went on his computer and found countless evidence that he was trying to meet up with this girl in New York. She confirmed it.
“I ended up going to the bar he was at after he got back and wouldn’t leave until he confronted the situation," she continues. "He kept denying it. I ended up hitting him and punching him a few times. I don’t believe in violence, but it felt so good. I felt like Superwoman.” I hope this is not a common occurrence in Jena’s World.
7:45 p.m.: She adjusts the strap of her handbag on her shoulder and ducks into my car. Kate Bush’s “This Woman’s Work” is on, and we are both singing along. She seems to know most of my music. We are driving to the Cinefamily on Fairfax.
“We officially wrapped Mockingjay today," Jena says. "It’s a little sad. It’s crazy.”
Frankly, I find it far more interesting not to talk about all the movies she’s been in. I think she prefers it that way, as well.
"So are you over men?" I ask.
“No. I have such a weird and innocent point of view with love. But yeah, I want to cut out my sex parts.”
“What?” I ask.
“There are parts that make me want to, like, mutilate a lot of beautiful parts of me,” she says. “Like I just feel like I love love. I love giving to people, whether it’s a man or a woman or a chair or a concierge or a taxi cab driver.”
What Jena means is that she’s had a lot of loss in her life, but she isn’t fazed by it. “I think it’s going to take a horrible thing to make me jaded by love,” she says.
She explains that by becoming an actress at a young age, she had to grow up having empathy for killers and drug addicts, understanding for ignorance, stupidity and major egos. It was challenging for her, but it was part of her job.
“I know people can be really shitty," she says. "I’ve been the worst person in the world at times. We all have. But what I can’t tolerate is when people don’t learn from their mistakes. When they can’t actually see that they have taken a path down the wrong way. The only way I have ever learned in life is through my mistakes.”
“What kind of mistakes?” I ask.
“I have cheated... I was so accountable for it, instantly. I spent a year in atonement after it happened, giving everything I could. If you can’t feel sorry for inflicting pain, you have become a monster.
"There are a lot of lost men and scam artists out there," she continues, still thinking about the cheating ex-boyfriend. "I thought I was a good judge of character, but I’d rather be too trusting then never feel anything.”
8:04 p.m.: We arrive at the Cinefamily. I park the car, and we walk around to the back of the movie theater. Jena calls out through a wooden hole in the fence to be let in. “When is the last time I put my lips on a wooden hole and called someone’s name?” she says, laughing.
Danielle Bacher and Jena Malone
8:07 p.m.: We are standing around eating green apple Tic Tacs, talking about abused women. I know, what a light-hearted conversation.
I bring up Terry Richardson, the fashion photographer with a reputation for making creepster sexual advances on his subjects. Jena has never shot with him, but had a chance when she was young and said no.
“You can’t abuse women,” she says. “Yes, you can have sex with multiple people. You can be deceptive and be an insane person, yes, that’s happened throughout the history of time, but you can’t abuse your position of power by manipulating the innocent and the young.”
8:11 p.m.: Jena smokes a joint and it reminds her that she once got jumped in New York on Christmas Eve in the East Village almost four years ago.
“I got accosted by a very big Puerto Rican man,” she says. “It was crazy.”
It was 2:30 a.m., she remembers, and she had just left a bar after a few drinks. “I was having a weird altercation with these kind of Jersey girls who were shouting all these profanities like ‘I’m going to kill your mother, you slut, you cunt’ at people walking down the street. It was so offensive. I asked them, ‘What are you doing? You can’t say this to people.'”
Her assailant came out of a car the girls were leaning on, picked Jena up, and threw her headfirst to the concrete, knocking her out.
“It was so crazy. This guy on the street saw it and called the cops. There was a huge bump and I had a semi-concussion, but I had to take a flight the next day to go home for Christmas. One of my sisters had been dating this guy who worked at a hospital and he was kind of sketchy. He gave me this pill to ease the pain and my tongue started rolling back in my throat. I never even take aspirin! I was seeing double. I was so out of it. I was sweating profusely and I couldn’t swallow. Luckily, I had my two moms there to help me.”
8:15 p.m.: We have another conversation about men and defending ourselves against violence. Jena hits the joint, and says, “There is crazy violence toward women. It makes me feel like men have had such a long reign since the beginning of dawn. Why is there such violence toward our sexuality?”
She pauses a moment to exhale and continues: “Why aren’t fathers raising their sons in a way that makes them respect women? We also need to hurl bottles and learn how to defend ourselves. No other pain is recognized as honorable except giving birth. Not even our period is acceptable pain. If men had to do it, there would be a national day.”
8:30 p.m.: We walk into the theater. We are watching a bunch of shapes being manipulated on a screen from old school computer art or something. I have no idea what I am watching. Maybe I just don’t get it, or I need to be very high right now, but this shit is making me dizzy.
8:40 p.m.: It’s kind of cool as you keep watching, but it’s also making me anxious. I whisper to Jena, “Is this place haunted? It’s really cold in here, and I might have just seen a ghost.” (I later find out that the theater is, in fact, haunted.)
“Oh, no. I don’t know,” she responds. She takes my notebook and writes: “The artist to the computer. Maybe just people. Maybe just scientist.” I have no idea what this means.
9:33 p.m.: “Want to get the fuck out of here?” Jena asks me.
“Yes!” I respond, as I accidentally spill some of her white wine into her lap.
We walk outside and Jena starts singing a tune I don’t know. She’s always singing something. She giggles and keeps singing. I love this about her.
She looks at me and says, “Let’s go to the bar!”
10:10 p.m.: We head over to a secret bar that has no name. I’m told I’m not allowed to write about it, but I will say Kristin Wiig is here. How Hollywood is this? I can’t even write about where I am and to get in here, you have to know someone who knows someone who knows someone.
10:35 p.m.: Jena lifts up her dress to show me that she is wearing black bicycle shorts underneath. She sits down and folds her hands between her legs. She takes her right hand out and grasps a spicy cocktail, takes a sip and picks out the pepper inside.
Some of Jena’s girlfriends join us at the bar. Lola, one of them, hands me a taxidermied bird she found in the room. We all decide that we would like to go dancing at La Cita downtown.
10:55 p.m.: One of Jena’s friends drives us to the next location. They are smoking some weed in the car and laughing continuously.
We park the car and Jena pulls down her pants to pee next to a silver minivan. She pees the most perfect line you have ever seen.
11:20 p.m.: The club is packed, and “I Wanna Be Sedated” by the Ramones is playing loudly. Two girls next to us are making out on the dancefloor and feeling each other up. I’m not sure if they are a couple or they just like the attention, but a group of men are watching the entire scene like a movie.
12:25 a.m.: Jena is lying on the dancefloor touching herself (no, not like that). She’s moving her hands all over the floor and having a great time. It’s nice to see her in a situation in which she can let go.
12:44 a.m.: We exit the club and walk together outside into a parking lot, waiting for another Uber. Jena jumps on the guardrail and starts walking it like a tightrope, doing poses for my camera, one after the other. She almost falls about five times.
While we are standing on the street, a girl comes up to Jena and asks, “Are you from Donnie Darko? I love that movie so much! You look just like that girl in it.”
“No,” Jena replies. “But I get told I look like her a lot.”
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