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.
“I know it sounds really stupid, but I was looking at seminars and stuff in the paper,” she says. “And I saw this seminar for ’Fresh Faces Wanted.‘”
She asked her mother if they could go. “You want to do it, you call,” Debbie told her. The following week, the Malones were among a roomful of 100 children and their parents, listening as L.A. “talent broker” Robert Knoll told the assemblage that maybe five of those present had what it took to work in Hollywood. Jena says she knew she was one of those five.
“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.”
A new world that, along with the perquisites, presented new perils. There was really nothing for Debbie to do on the set, where she was required to be at all times, and for which she received no compensation. This left her no choice, she says, but to quit her temp job and live off Jena‘s earnings. Then there was the money itself.
“It felt unreal. It felt like, ’This is not gonna last,‘” says Debbie, who’d never made more than $10 an hour. “And scary at the same time, because now I had all this responsibility of handling the money. If you take a young girl like me, which I consider myself when Jena first got involved, it was the first time I had ever really lived on my own, and . . . I got so overwhelmed. I had to take care of all the receipts, and this, and this, and Jena and auditions. It was just too much. It was too much.”
It‘s an old, sad song. “People all too easily claim that events outstripped their capacity to cope with them, and unless you understand the mentality of a stage parent, who is dedicated to living out their ambition through their child, you don’t get it,” says Paul Petersen, founder of A Minor Consideration (AMC), a nonprofit organization made up of former child actors (Petersen played son Jeff on The Donna Reed Show) who give aid and support to child actors “past, present and future.” “Let me quote Lonnie Burr, one of the original Mouseketeers: ‘Just seeing a child in show business tells you a lot about the parents.’ You don‘t see doctors and lawyers [doing this], it’s a waste of time. For most kids in the business, the interview process is, say, 20 interviews to get one job that pays $1,000? That‘s below poverty wage.”
“Almost every child I have ever worked with, the parents are people that don’t have jobs, obviously, because they‘re [on the set] all day,” says Sharon Orick, a video and film producer for 20 years. “And they’re really kind of despised. There‘s almost no one who doesn’t think it‘s gross to work your own kids.”
And it is work: In addition to school duties, children are, depending on their age, permitted to work up to nine and a half hours a day, a cap that is regularly flouted. Jena admits to having worked, at age 11, a 21-hour day; Debbie confirms this.
Federal child-labor laws forbid children under 18 from working more than 48 hours a week, with only two exemptions: children who work in the entertainment industry (a category that includes actors, singers, dancers, circus carnival performers and athletes) or who deliver newspapers.
“They still call it the ’newsie exemption,‘ to prevent you from understanding what you’re really seeing,” says Petersen, who is zealously opposed to what he sees as parents‘ pervasive and sometimes sick exploitation of children. “Premature infants smeared with cream cheese and jelly to re-enact birth scenes. Reconstructive surgery at 12. Ten-year-old boys taking steroids. There’s a whole cadre of plastic surgeons in Beverly Hills who call me in desperation, ‘My God, I’ve got a mother here who wants breast implants for her 13-year-old.‘”
The problem, as AMC sees it, is not merely the parents’ sense of entitlement, but the public‘s perception that what these kids are doing is all glamour and good times. Think about it. How long did that baby in the Pampers ad walk back and forth in a saggy diaper? Does Frankie Muniz, star of Malcolm in the Middle and seemingly a feature film every few months, get enough sleep?
“There is this desire for people to believe that, say, the Jackson family aren’t kids who are being forced to work by their parents, which is something that‘s been very well publicized, but that they’re a family that sings and dances for fun,” says Orick. “If you went to your friendly neighborhood chicken butcher, and he said, ‘I’ve got my six kids in the back and they‘re chopping up chicken parts and putting them in Saran Wrap from 9 a.m. to 10 at night, and that’s why I had them!‘ you’d call the police. You might want to report that to Social Services.”
1997 was a big year for Jena: She‘d finished Bastard, was signed to do Hope, was garnering enough acclaim to override her agent’s requests that she accept roles in blockbusters in favor of smaller projects that interested her.
“I didn‘t really understand why I had more of a connection to Bastard Out of Carolina than, say, The Parent Trap,” says Jena. “Then I realized it was because I’m not really good at playing a normal person.”
And yet success was buying her just that: a normal life. With her earnings, she and Debbie were able to rent their own apartment, where, for the first time, each had her own bedroom. Debbie purchased new furniture, and did not feel guilty doing so.
“We had a partnership,” says Debbie. “The child cannot work without the parent, and the money would not be there without the child. Take one away and the whole system falls apart.”
Debbie‘s contribution to the system was to assume financial control. She named herself president of Jena’s production company, set up to allay the heavy taxation to which child actors are subject (though other than loaning out Jena for projects and acting as a clearing-house for checks, the company did nothing, for which Debbie earned between $20,000 and $60,000 per year). She signed Jena‘s contracts. She opened bank accounts. For the first time in her life, she had power.
But not everyone recognized it. As Jena moved further into the limelight, Debbie essentially became invisible. Her obsolescence was showcased during Jena’s first big premiere, for Bastard, in New York City.
“When we got there,” Debbie says, “the press came down and ushered Jena out of the limo quickly, didn‘t even say boo to me . . . I proceeded to go upstairs, ’cause I saw them whisk her up there, and there was a chain, of course, and a guard standing at the top of the steps, and he said, ‘This is a closed event, you can’t come in.‘ And I said, ’Excuse me? That‘s my daughter in there.’ And I could see her in a mesh of press, on the red carpet with Anjelica . . . Most of the night, I was pretty much kept away from her. She didn‘t even sit with me during the movie . . . They just want the child. ’Give us the child! Now you, yeah, just go over there, thank you, ssshhh!‘ That’s how a parent is treated.”
Debbie says the mistreatment was endemic; she does a pretty good imitation of a producer sweet-talking her on the first day of shooting: “‘Hi!!! You look so great. Thank you for being here, you are so wonderful, you have an incredible child, how is everything, do you need anything, do you want us to get groceries for you, is your driver okay, do you want any extra time, what do you want to do this weekend, we can get you tickets to whatever you want.’ And you stand in that and you go, ‘Wow, they must really like me.’ They don‘t care about you at all. All they want is the performance out of the child, and they’ll do whatever it takes to get it.”
With Jena working steadily, Debbie wanted to downsize her support team. Why did Jena need a manager? Why did she need a lawyer? All these people were doing was taking bread out of their mouths, a hyperbolic claim that is actually true: The industry that enables child actors — agents, managers, producers, studios, acting coaches, the owners of the Oakwood Apartments, which accommodates many child actors and their families and charges $2,000 for a utilitarian one-bedroom — has no compunction about buttering its own bread thickly and leaving the child the crumbs. Ergo, while on paper Jena was earning what looked like sizable sums, the reality of what she kept was stark: 25 percent off the top to agent, manager and business manager, then 30 percent to blocked trusts, leaving her with 45 percent, which was taxed at up to 45 percent. While Jena‘s business manager was able to find a few tax loopholes, and Beverly Strong eventually agreed to work on a sliding scale, according to Debbie, Jena never saw more than 7 percent of her earnings. In other words, everyone was making a very nice living off 12-year-old Jena but Jena.
If Debbie had been working, it might not have mattered — the 7 percent would have been gravy. But Debbie was not working. More important, her lack of business acumen rendered her unable to budget what was left. (“I had run businesses before, but they were small businesses,” she says, mentioning that at age 8 she “sold costume jewelry to secretaries, and in high school I sold cleaner door to door.”) This, combined with never knowing when Jena would work, made Debbie nervous, and increasingly suspicious of all the fees to handlers, which she chose to see not as necessary business expenses, but as burdens perpetrated on her personally. The reasons for her anxiety may have been partially hormonal: Debbie was pregnant.
“She so much wanted a little sister,” says Debbie, who, though she’d been dating the father for several years, decided just weeks before finding out she was pregnant not to marry him. “I‘m not saying I got pregnant for Jena, but I think subconsciously — you know what I’m saying? Since I was not doing anything to make money, I was trying to make Jena happy . . . When I first told her, she jumped up and down for joy and danced around me while I cried. It was a terrible scene. Because I knew that this was going to just throw a huge wrench into something that was already a problem. How do I travel with her? I‘m pregnant. A new baby? How do I keep up with her?”
This feeling of losing control contributed to a growing paranoia that others were trying to fill the gap Debbie sensed was growing between her and Jena.
“Her manager, she’d say things like, ‘Jena doesn’t like the fact that she has to be responsible for you.‘ I mean, stupid little things like that, or, ’Jena wonders when you‘re gonna get your own life.’ She just would drop these little hints, like little stabs.”
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.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t write it down,” says Debbie. “We had every intention of writing it down, but things got bad, and then things got worse, and things snowballed.”
Jena accedes that she went along with the loans. Sort of. “Someone comes up to you and says, ‘Your uncles need help, to get a house. Do you want to help them out?’ What are you going to say? ‘No, I don’t want to help out my uncles, who buy me an ice cream cone.‘ You don’t really think about, oh, now the money‘s going to be gone . . . What [kid] is thinking about interest and when they’re going to be paid back?”
In late 1997, Jena‘s accountant told Debbie he needed $150,000 for taxes; Debbie said she’d put aside only $60,000. The accountant asked where the money was, and whether Debbie could get it back.
“I told him I invested it because I didn‘t want to blow it,” says Debbie, apparently unappreciative of the differences among an investment, a loan and a gift. “I’m the type of person, I don‘t want the money in the bank account. I felt safer knowing that it was actually invested in something. And honestly, that much money scared me.”
Money troubles and kids have a long tradition in Hollywood: Jackie Coogan and Shirley Temple were among the youngest actors who made the biggest bundles for the studios and, one would assume, for themselves. Yet their earnings supported their families, and their parents were profligate with the funds. In keeping with California law at the time, the earnings of a child actor rightfully belonged to the parents; if they chose to piss it away, that was their business. In 1938, when Coogan (the eponymous star of the Charlie Chaplin classic The Kid, and later known for his role as Uncle Fester on TV’s The Addams Family) sued his mother to recoup what he‘d made at Metro Pictures, he wound up with $126,000, barely 3 percent of his lifetime earnings. When Shirley Temple married, she was given what was left of her $40 million fortune: $40,000 and the deed to her dollhouse. More recently, Macaulay Culkin received permission from a judge to dip into his trust fund in order to bail out his parents, who’d spent millions of dollars of his earnings — this on top of the percentage they‘d earned as his co-managers.
“There oughta be a law . . .,” one thinks, and there is: After the Coogan debacle, the 1939 Child Actor’s Bill, commonly known as the Jackie Coogan Law, forced studios to deposit up to 50 percent of a child‘s wages (usually interpreted as 30 percent) in “set-aside” trusts that could not be touched and became the child’s upon reaching 18. The remainder was the property and responsibility of the parents, the rationale being that minors were non compos mentis when it came to money matters, while parents would always and only have the best interests of the child at heart. After all, weren‘t they slaving selflessly, primping and prepping and coaching and giving up their own careers in order to help the child achieve his or her ambitions?
“There’s a scene in the movie Gypsy,” says Paul Petersen, “where Roz Russell is complaining that she feels very much cut out of her daughter‘s life all of a sudden, and she says to her, ’Why do you think I sat up all those nights doing the costumes and teaching you your lines and taking you to auditions?‘ And Natalie Wood says, ’I thought you were doing it for me.‘ And for a working kid, sooner or later, that scene is played out in real life.”
While Petersen fully supported the Coogan Law, he knew it needed updating. “You literally had families paying out of pocket in order for their child to work,” says Petersen, who was influential in pushing through a Revised Coogan Law, which was sponsored by Senator John Burton and Assemblywoman Sheila Kuehl (who as a teenager played Zelda Gilroy on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis). As of January 1, 2000, only 15 percent of a child’s earnings must be deposited in a trust. More important, the remainder of the money is now the property of the child; parents can no longer use it to support themselves and their families. If they do, and if the child objects, he may, upon turning 18, sue the parents. The only way to preempt financial ruin before that time is for a child to gain control of his own money. In order to do this, he must become emancipated. a
“Ever since I heard about it, when I was 12, I wanted to do it,” says Jena. “From the moment we moved to New York, actually.”
Becoming emancipated is deceptively difficult: The minor must petition the court and prove, under penalty of perjury, that he has already been operating effectively as an adult, that he earns and manages his own finances, that he is sober and responsible, and that he has previously been living without parental supervision. These requirements are softened should the parent agree to the emancipation.
There were practical reasons for Jena‘s wanting to become emancipated. She’d gain access to her trusts. Jena had earned close to a million dollars at this point, which meant that, under the Coogan Law, she should have had around $250,000 in various trusts. (Less than 30 percent, because some productions had not been subject to depositing money into a trust, a loophole the Revised Coogan Law closed.) Jena told her mother that, if she‘d agree to sign the emancipation papers, Jena would use her trusts to pay off the taxes. Debbie agreed, and in June 1999 signed Jena’s petition for emancipation.
“She was the one that came up with this,” says Debbie. “She said, ‘Mom, emancipate me, I will take the money out of my trust, pay off the back taxes, and we will get current.’ And then she said, ‘On top of that, I will be able to work more.’”
Jena needed to work, because Debbie had no intention of doing so. “When Madison was three weeks old and Jena was doing Stepmom, she turned to me — three-week-old baby — she turned to me and she said, ‘You need to go get a job.’ And I looked at her and said, ‘Honey, you don’t know what you‘re saying. First of all, I cannot go get a new job, I just had a baby. I told you this. I sat down and I told you, I need to be with Madison for at least six months to a year, so that she has a firm beginning.’”
Jena maintains that she did not mind supporting her family. “It was never a problem when I was doing really good work, and I had enough money to support everyone,” she says. “But when it became not enough money, and I kind of had to keep working to just make money, that‘s when it didn’t work out.”
Propelled by Debbie‘s desperation — as she often reminded Jena, she was on the verge of personal bankruptcy — Jena took jobs she did not want, including appearances on Homicide and Touched by an Angel. (“If those could be burned and never seen again,” she says, “I would feel so much better.”)
Debbie chose not to accompany Jena on these shoots, staying instead in New York. To get around the requirement of being on the set, she paid Lesley Brander to act as Jena’s guardian. Brander says that, during this time, Debbie phoned daily, not to speak to Jena, but to complain about finances.
“My whole thing was, ‘Debbie, if you want to have a relationship with your daughter, you have got to get the money out of the middle, because if your daughter doesn’t believe it‘s about love, then what’s the point?‘” says Brander. “Debbie has major control issues. When I spoke to her about just being a mom, she’d say, ‘No, you have to take control of the child, of the money, of the production, of the scripts.’ I‘d say, ’What about just being a mom?‘ It was a question that didn’t compute.”
Debbie assumed that her role as mother was immutable, a steel-trap sort of logic that goes: I am the parent, I make the decisions. But she hadn‘t been making the decisions, not for a long time.
“She wanted so much to be part of my business life, and I just kind of wanted her to be my mom, but it was hard for her to see where the line ended and where the line began,” says Jena. “Without knowing it, I think she gave up her right as a mother.”
In July 1999, with the emancipation papers signed, though not yet processed, Jena and Lesley Brander left for Utah, where Jena would be starring with Glenn Close in the CBS TV movie The Ballad of Lucy Whipple. It meant a month away from Debbie.
Or so Jena thought. A week into shooting, Debbie showed up with Madison in tow, and a big white tooth pinned to her blouse.
“She was selling dental insurance,” says Brander. “First of all, the tooth is like the funniest thing you want to see, and it’s embarrassing. You‘re [a teenager], you don’t want your mom on the set anyway, and now she‘s coming to sell dental insurance with a big white tooth . . . Jena asked her mom, ’Please, I‘m begging you, do not go on the set . . . it’s embarrassing.‘ Debbie would not hear of it. She was like, ’I have a business, you cannot tell me where I can sell or who I can sell to, I don‘t care if you’re embarrassed, I‘m gonna do it.’”
“She never really understood how that kind of jeopardizes what you‘re doing on the set,” says Jena.
Debbie says she went to Utah because it was her place to be with her daughter, that she only hired Brander because she had her hands full with Madison. When asked why she didn’t simply get a baby-sitter, Debbie clouds over.
“Jena didn‘t want me around,” she says. “From the time she was 12, she wanted me out of her life.”
Brander, who was earning $3,500 a week from production as Jena’s dialogue coach in addition to the $1,000 Debbie was paying her to act as Jena‘s guardian, took it upon herself to make sure her new charge got what she wanted.
“I went to the executive producer and said, ’Would you mind putting a thing on the call sheet that says, ”No babies allowed on the set,“‘” says Brander, “because that was the only way I could think of to keep Debbie away. So they actually did: ’No Babies, No Dogs.‘ So we took that call sheet home that day. ’Mom, come and look! You can‘t come down to the set because they don’t allow babies!‘”
Jena also began laying down the financial law: She would give Debbie $30,000, which she expected to last six months. Though Debbie says she specified the time frame herself, figuring “six months was long enough for me to get on my feet,” she went through the money in three months. She asked Jena for more; Jena was reluctant.
“I said, ’Honey, I haven‘t got a job yet, I’m doing my best, you can at least help me move‘ [back to Las Vegas]. She did. Begrudgingly. Everything was begrudgingly. ’Fine! I‘ll give you this. Send me the receipts, I want to see what you’re spending the money on.‘ Can you imagine having your child speak to you like this?”
In order to keep control and remain a responsible mother, Debbie says, she had only one choice: to stop the emancipation.
By September 1999, Jena was in Toronto, filming the HBO movie Cheaters with Jeff Daniels. It was the first time she was on her own (with the emancipation signed but not finalized, the studio allowed a crew member to be named titular guardian), the first time she was playing a naughty girl instead of a wan victim. After several months away from her family, however, Jena decided it was time for a visit.
“I hadn’t seen my sister in a really long time, so I said, ‘I would love to fly you guys out here, to spend a weekend with me,’” Jena says she told Debbie. “So, she comes out, I think everything‘s fine, everything’s great, she leaves that Monday, and the next week I get a call from Lesley, saying that ‘Your mom has gone crazy. She said when she was up there she read your diary.’”
Debbie asserts that she “accidentally tripped on her diary.” Though she says the issues (which she declines to detail) were “normal teenage things,” the fact that Jena had confided in a journal instead of her mother was proof that she was in “serious trouble.” Debbie‘s way of putting out this fire was to call everyone in Jena’s life — her team — and tell them what she‘d read.
“I went to them and I said, ’What are we gonna do? Jena‘s hurting, she needs some help,’” says Debbie. “And they said, ‘Well, you shouldn’t tell Jena you read her diary.‘ I never intended on telling her that. Never . . . Her manager and her personal assistant, they are the ones that told Jena. They went behind my back, they went without my permission and told Jena, in the middle of shooting the movie, and I told them, ’We are not going to discuss this until this movie is over, because I am not going to ruin it for her.‘”
Which is, of course, what happened. That the ruination was perhaps deliberate, that Debbie was heaping on Jena the hurt that had been heaped on her, that she was erecting a wall of doubt between Jena and her handlers, and even Hollywood — one can find any of these ideas plausible. Or one can believe Debbie, who swears that she was “scared to death and didn’t know what to do.”
Jena says that, at the time, she was crushed. “She went through her phone book and told everyone she knew that I was, like, a drug addict and that I was anorexic and that I was a sex addict and that I believed in the devil, and all these horrible things, and she proceeded to tell all these people, but yet didn‘t inform her daughter that there was a problem, and I really — I was really unhappy with that.” She says this with the equanimity of someone who has been badly burned, and has learned that the resulting scar tissue has rendered her impervious to this particular type of pain.
Debbie had other ways of hurting her. Whether driven by greed, desperation or rage, she tried to withdraw in excess of $80,000, basically every liquid asset she and Jena had. With both Jena’s business manager and Debbie calling Chase Manhattan, requesting that the other be taken off as signatory, the bank temporarily froze the accounts. Furious, Debbie flew back to Toronto and showed up on the set, demanding to see Jena, who became so upset that shooting was stopped until she composed herself. Afterward, Jena says, she had her mother “distracted” while she got on a plane to New York. Debbie went on a tear for the next 48 hours, trying to force her way into the room of Jena‘s guardian, threatening to sue HBO, and telling anyone who would listen what her plans were for Jena.
“What she wanted to do . . . was stop the emancipation. She wanted me to move with her to Las Vegas, give up my entire life, obviously, go to school there,” says Jena. “Basically, go back to the same situation that I had tried to get out of.” a
When she realized she’d been given the slip, Debbie went back to Vegas without Jena, and without any money.
“The money was frozen, I couldn‘t get it, she couldn’t get the money, and yet, she still had money,” says Debbie. “She had enough money to get on a plane and go to New York for a week. She had enough money to stay in a nice hotel. She had enough money to get an apartment. She had enough money to pay all her bills. Who was paying all that? Her team supplied her with money for those 30 days, and gave her whatever she wanted . . . I‘m not mad that I didn’t have it, I‘m mad that they were supporting her. She would not have been able to do what she did to me unless they did that for her.”
When Jena moved back to Los Angeles, Debbie followed, insisting that they get into counseling. Instead of showing up for a session, Jena had Debbie served with papers: With Lesley Brander acting as her legal guardian, she filed a suit in Superior Court seeking to prohibit Debbie from future access to her money. She also requested a restraining order.
“I was not allowed to see Jena. Or talk to her,” says Debbie. “I went to [the Hollywood Reporter YoungStar Awards], up at Universal Studios, and tried to talk to her, and bodyguards came up and said, ’Excuse me, ma‘am, we’ve been warned that you‘re here to cause disruption and to cause problems for this girl.’ . . . She won, for Stepmom. And she did not thank me when she went up there, and she used that platform to talk about how parents rip off children.” (As reported by the industry magazine Young Performer, Jena used her moment on the podium to encourage what she called “awareness of the business side of the profession.”)
The ensuing court battle was not much of a fight: While Jena retained one of L.A.‘s top entertainment attorneys, Marty Singer, Debbie could not afford to keep any of the 10 attorneys she contacted.
“They all took it on [the condition] that I would pay them within a week, and I never had any money,” she says, adding that she didn’t have time to file a motion to stop the emancipation.
On November 4, 1999, Singer filed a memorandum of points and authorities, citing Debbie‘s “irrational behavior” on the set of Cheaters and requesting that the court prevent her from controlling any aspect of Jena’s personal or professional life. The following week, Debbie was asked to sign a stipulation agreement in which she would promise to remove herself as a signatory on Jena‘s accounts, to relinquish her rights to any of Jena’s past or future earnings, to stop interfering with Jena‘s professional life, to stop trying to keep the emancipation from going through, and to “no longer ask Jena Malone for money for any purpose whatsoever.”
“I said, ’There‘s no way I can do that, because I am in so much trouble and Jena knows I’m in trouble, I can‘t sign that I’m not gonna ask her for money,‘” says Debbie. But on November 20, she did sign. On November 21, Jena turned 15.
“I knew one day she’d be living in a mansion and I‘d be in a two-bedroom,” says Debbie, sitting in her one-bedroom apartment, which, aside from the dozens of photos of Jena, she hasn’t bothered to decorate.
“You know, they never excluded me, but I wasn‘t invited,” she says, picking up a picture of Jena and Goldie Hawn at the Golden Globe Awards and mentioning a that, when she was pregnant, Hawn offered to take Jena along on a three-week family vacation. “And I thought that was great. But yeah, I wasn’t included.” She begins to cry. “And it wasn‘t hard for Jena to choose that over me.”
As far as the money, Debbie says her conscience is clear.
“I’m not ashamed of anything that has happened. Nothing. And I don‘t feel that I have done anything wrong or vicious or malicious,” she says. “Yes, we have a lot of money problems, but none of them are my fault! Not my fault solely, do you know what I’m saying? It‘s that I hired the wrong people, I wasn’t given the right information . . . I was the captain, I was always the captain, but the crew just totally got together and said, ‘We’re going to‘ — what is that, mutiny? ’We‘re gonna do mutiny. We don’t care if the captain‘s in charge, we just don’t care.‘ . . . And this is what parents have to know, that they cannot walk into this unwise, ’cause I‘m telling you, they want the child, and they’ll take the child at any expense, and the brighter and the more talented the child is, the easier it is, because you tell the child, ‘You know what? You’re good, you‘re an adult, you can do this, why do you need your mom?’ And the child believes it, and guess what, it is so easy to just get rid of the parent. Well, let me tell you something. No one is gonna get rid of me, because I am gonna be here, standing, telling my truth for as long as it takes!”
Debbie is shouting through her tears. “And I don‘t really care what people think of me, because I know what God thinks of me, and I know my position in God, and my position in God is that I am the parent, and I have a right, and they took away my right, and they took away my child.”
And yet she has another child, Madison, now 2, who crawls into her lap to nurse. When asked if she will consider putting Maddie in the business, Debbie scoffs.
“Absolutely not. You know, I had offers for people to be her agent before she was ever born. When I was pregnant, they said, ’Promise me that you‘ll let me manage this one.’ All the time. You know that newborns can start working at 1 month old? Get this: I believed it. I thought that would be great, I thought this would be another avenue for me to do an income, so I did. I got pictures of Maddie, and I took her on a couple of auditions when she was 9 months. And I didn‘t get anything . . . But at that time, I thought that it would be okay. See, I was so unwise. I had no idea what I was doing. But it’s the ignorant that are the most — they really feel they know what they‘re doing.”
Last month, Debbie filed for bankruptcy and moved to Michigan, where she and Madison will live with Debbie’s mother until Debbie can, in her words, “get back on my feet.”
It‘s late April, and Jena is not in fact living in a mansion, but an airy duplex in West Hollywood. She looks relaxed, says she and her roommates watch a lot of TV: They’ve just left a Who Wants To Be a Millionaire phase and are currently absorbed in the Elian Gonzalez tug of war. Not surprisingly, Jena is adamant that Elian “should be able to decide for himself where he lives.”
Toasting a bagel for a visitor, Jena explains that, while living on her own is what she wants, it‘s also a bit like looking into the abyss.
“No one is really going through the same thing as me. I don’t really have any people to see as standards or the way I should be,” she says. “So I have to do all the comparing within myself, so it‘s good, but it’s also kind of hard . . . I get advice from everyone who knows my situation. Actually, I recently read an essay in the L.A. Times, in the Metro section, and the first sentence was, ‘Shame on you, Jena Malone.’” (“Showbiz Mom Gets No Respect” was written by Jamie Class, the mother of a teenage actress, who scolded Jena for taking Debbie to court, while doing her best to elevate all stage mothers to the rank of martyr.)
Then there are the quotidian inconveniences, like not being able to drive herself anywhere.
“I go to get a license and it‘s, like, uproar, an emancipated minor, what’s that?” Jena says. “I passed the test, but the computer can‘t print out a license to someone under 16, it’s just not legal, you can‘t type it in, whether you put emancipated or not. So I have to go get a court order to get a license. I go to the grocery store, everyone’s looking at me strange, like, some 15-year-old with a Ralphs card? ‘Yes, it’s mine. Yes, I know, it‘s pathetic.’ It‘s just, it’s weird. It‘s like mentally, I think I’m in the same world as everyone else, but physically, I‘m kind of not allowed to be in that world. It’s very strange.”
When it is mentioned that Debbie believes that Jena, in her heart, wants the emancipation reversed, Jena does not hoot. She does not disparage Debbie. Rather, her response is delivered with an appropriate amount of affection, a rational distancing, a thoughtful pause.
“I realize what kind of person she is, and it‘s really up to me whether I want to accept it, and kind of not have any expectations and just kind of love her for who she is and realize that she’s my mom and no matter how much hurt or pain, it‘s not the kind of relationship you just write off. I don’t think that‘s healthy.”
Having healthy relationships is paramount to Jena at this juncture. Toward this end, she recently fired her manager, Beverly Strong, whom she felt was becoming too controlling. It was not a happy ending. At their farewell breakfast, Strong (who declined to be interviewed for this story) read from a letter she’d written, one that Jena says was particularly nasty. “In it, she said things like everything my mother had been saying was true, that I was selfish and spoiled.”
Yet Jena shows little sign of being disturbed by Strong‘s opprobrium; on the contrary, as she recounts her philosophy with regard to relationships, she sits up straighter, and her voice gets louder. “Any kind of relationship,” she says, “whether it’s out of love, or business, friendship, whatever, you have to treat each one the same, and if there‘s not respect, and you feel like you’re staying in it just for loyalty, there‘s no reason.”
Jena’s circle is small now, and safe. Her roommate, Dylann Brander (daughter of Lesley), works as her assistant, and Dylann‘s live-in boyfriend, Carlos, will soon be running (along with Lesley) Jena’s new production company, Spilt Milk. They are both pleasant and casual and clearly care about Jena; from afar, the household appears no different from that of any three young roommates, starting out and splitting the rent. And yet the appearance of domesticity is somewhat tempered by the knowledge that the people closest to Jena are still on her payroll.