Ever since starring as an angry little girl in Stepmom, Jena Malone has played ... angry young women. The latest is Johanna Mason, the ax-swinging tribute from District 7, in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. Vulture spoke to the actress, who swears she's upbeat in real life, about auditioning for the role (she was "frothing at the mouth"), stripping down in an elevator, and her less beloved action movie, Sucker Punch.
Congrats on your huge opening weekend. Did [producer] Nina Jacobson or [director] Francis Lawrence start an e-mail chain to the cast congratulating you guys?
No, they sent a really beautiful vintage bottle of Champagne, which I think is far better than an email chain any day. [Laughs.]
Yes, I’d say so. Francis has said that a lot of the actresses who auditioned for Johanna just came in and played her as a bitchy girl, but that you came in and seemed genuinely mad. You actually intimidated him. Were you mad? What did you do?
Before the audition, I was like, Fuck, I’m so not an angry person. I mean, I can do intimidating or whatever, a little bit. But I’m much more of a happy-go-lucky, make everyone feel comfortable [person]. Anger’s not something you can fake. It’s something that channels through you, out of nowhere. It’s a hard thing to control. So I was like, Fuck, this is going to be a little complicated, and I don’t wanna go in there and give him something fake and ridiculous. And so, I don’t know what happened, but the morning I woke up, everything started pissing me off. My alarm didn’t go off right; someone called me at five in the morning. I got out of bed on the wrong side of the bed. And I was like, Whoa, whoa, whoa, what’s happening? And I was like, Oh, wait. She’s totally taking over. And so by the time I got to the audition, I was so pissed off. And they were like 30 minutes late, some actor was in there before me, he kept coming out and putting his headphones on and then going back in. And I was like, Jesus, this guy. They’re, like, coddling everybody. He’s trying to cry, he can’t cry. I was so pissed off. They’re wasting my time. By the time I was in there, I was seething; I was frothing at the mouth. I don’t even think I said hello to Francis. I just walked in and said, “Tell me when you want me to start.”
You say that you’re actually an upbeat, happy-go-lucky person, but you do play these mostly sad or angry characters.
It’s more challenging playing things that are foreign to you, and I guess these are things I’ve wanted to explore as a woman, as a storyteller. It’s not as interesting always playing the happy-go-lucky girlfriends. So I guess I just tend to search out women that are a little bit more complicated or complex, and they tend to find me, too. That’s just how it happens.
It’s crazy to think some of the younger Catching Fire fans might not have even heard of Stepmom.
No, but it’s so not true! Going on this mall tour, every other girl that came up, she’s like, “Donnie Darko’s my favorite” or “Stepmom’s my favorite.” It really gives you a belief in the eternal shelf-life of film. That’s what’s so exciting about being in the film industry: If something doesn’t stick right away, it can still affect an audience in 20 years, 50 years, 100 years.
Hunger Games is considered such an empowering movie for young women, whereas Sucker Punch got a lot of criticism for being the opposite. Do you think the criticism was fair?
No. Even as an audience member, seeing that film — I thought it was such a surreal, beautiful gift. I mean, imagine Warner Bros. creating a surrealistic action film about young women being tortured and abused in a mental illness home. I mean, you try to sell that! It’s so commendable that Zack Snyder wanted to make that his first film doing his own original material. I just think it’s so ballsy and so dark; I think it was above and beyond its time. I don’t know. I tend to not really worry about what critics say or whether a film does well or not because then it just goes back to the shelf life, and people get to enjoy that film for ages and ages and ages. And maybe they’ll see it without the context of what society viewed it as.
Going back to Catching Fire, there are already GIFs of you stripping in the elevator. Not sure if you knew that.
No, I didn’t! And by the way, I didn’t even know what GIFs were. My little sister has been trying to teach me about, like, memes and GIFs. Now I’m kind of obsessed with them.
I love how the face Jennifer Lawrence makes seems more like a Jennifer Lawrence reaction than a Katniss reaction. Not to suggest that she’s not doing a good job acting, but —
Yeah, like I almost pulled her out of herself for one second.
Right. Francis has said how those three together — Josh, Jen, and Woody — can’t really keep straight faces, they get silly. Were they especially giddy given the nature of this scene?
I mean, I kind of came in like a whirlwind, so I couldn’t help but maybe own it, so I felt like maybe they were a little bit less in their energy and being more respectful to mine. Because I had to do this complicated, seven-second strip tease in an elevator that was in a real hotel with real people around. This one time, just when I’m like, “Okay, thanks, let’s do it again sometime,” the doors open, there I am naked, and there’s a guy holding four coffee cups in a little to-go thing, trying to get in on the elevator. I was like, Uh, this is the most awkward moment of my life. I think I literally fell down and was just rolling around on the ground laughing.
But were you actually fully nude?
Actually, it was too complicated to get fully nude. My costume, taking the entire thing off, including the shoes, would have taken me 30 minutes. So we were able to make it look like I was getting naked, but it was a little too complicated to do that. We would have needed like a 500-story elevator, someone working the buckles of my shoes — yeah, I would have needed a whole army of midgets to help me.
You obviously haven’t shaved your head yet, so does that mean you’re not going to have to for Mockingjay, or you haven’t started shooting your part yet?
I haven’t started filming yet; I start in December. Johanna doesn’t come in until the middle of the Mockingjay novel, so she’s off being tortured. It’s so funny, whilst doing the press tour, that was also like my research tour. Because I start [shooting], like, next week. So I was like, Fuck, basically I get off the press tour and then have to shoot. So I was reading all of these things on torture and thinking all this dark, deep, intense shit ... while I’m wearing high heels, hugging these 15-year-old girls.