Mourning Becomes Electra’s Jena Malone on Unwinding After Nine-Hour Workdays

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Photo: Monique Carboni

Twenty-four-year-old Jena Malone has quietly built a reputation as a talented young actress while successfully avoiding the unwanted attention that usually comes with it. "I could have had a different path, but for some reason, I'm a dork. I never wanted that," says Malone, who has appeared in films like Stepmom, Donnie Darko, Cold Mountain, and Saved!, and onstage as Sister James in the Broadway version of Doubt. Now the Lake Tahoe resident is back in New York, starring with Lili Taylor in Eugene O’Neill’s four-and-a-half hour play cycle Mourning Becomes Electra, which opens tonight from the New Group. Vulture caught up with Malone on her day off last Sunday to see how she was holding up.

You performed for almost nine hours yesterday! Are you exhausted?
I’m totally exhausted. I think I threw my shoulder out last night, in, like, one of the many different fight scenes. It’s been sore for a bit, but I woke up this morning and was like, “Oh, shit.” At the end of Saturday night, I feel totally crazy, like someone could put me in a mental institution, but I also feel totally alive. And then I wake up on Sunday and I’m like, “Holy shit, my entire body hurts.”

As an audience member, I was a little worried about the long running time.
There are people that leave every night after the second play because it’s like ten o’clock and they’re like, “Okay, I’m done.” We just try to not take it personally.

What’s it like doing such intense scenes with so many screaming matches?
It’s hard to sustain yourself. I do a lot of warm-ups, I eat really healthy, I have to keep a certain amount of focus and let the tension go, because tension can build when you’re dealing with so much anger and aggression. In that space, it’s so small, you don’t need to be over-the-top loud. And I have amazing actors that are throwing things at me every night.

Are you able to separate yourself and kind of calm down during the times that you’re offstage?
Sometimes I can, yeah. I get offstage, and I’m like, “Screw this audience,” or, “Make me a sandwich.” But sometimes I’m like a fuckin’ mess and I just have to crawl into my little dressing cubbyhole and not really talk to anyone. That’s what so magical about the theater. You never know what’s going to happen. You really don’t.

Do you relate to Lavinia, your character?
I identify with her in the sense of wanting to keep her family together, wanting her mom and her father to get along, and wanting her brother to come home and everything to be good. I identify with her obsession with love; she’s been betrayed, but yet she keeps trying. So there’s a lot, but I mean, I’ve definitely never murdered anyone.

It’s pretty well-known that you were legally emancipated from your mom when you were just a teenager. Are you playing off that mother-daughter relationship and drawing on things in your own life?
I feel like every mother-daughter relationship is kind of universal in the sense that there’s a time of trust, there’s a time of betrayal, and there’s a time of reevalution. And then there’s a time of seeing eye-to-eye, which is the best time really. Me and my mom are so great now. We had our little spat when I was a teenager, but she’s one of the bravest people I know. So, yeah, I can’t help but pull from my own life in that way, but I’ve never hated my mother. I’ve definitely been disappointed with her, but disappointment only comes from when you love someone, right?