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Jena Malone on Channeling PTSD for The Hunger Games and Why All Women Should Shave Their Heads

Photo: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

Jennifer Lawrence is undeniably the star of The Hunger Games series, but whenever Katniss has to share screen time with Jena Malone’s character, District 7 victor Johanna Mason, it’s Malone who ends up stealing the scene. Think back to the elevator in Catching Fire, when she stripped in front of fellow tributes Katniss and Peeta, with a wink to Haymitch. Or when she swore during her interview. Or in Mockingjay — Part 2, when she “borrows” Katniss’s morphine drip, or her reaction to Katniss’s decision to kill President Snow. Her wicked grins, outbursts, and inappropriate behavior are some of the few sane responses to an insane world. Malone chatted with Vulture about boning up on PTSD, missing scenes from the book, and how every woman should shave her head at least once.

What was it like to embody Johanna Mason, with all her anger?
One of the best things that [director] Francis Lawrence brought to the series was not only his love of the books — he knew them inside-out, and he would reference them constantly — but he had everyone go and meet with a posttraumatic-stress-disorder specialist before we started filming Catching Fire. I got to talk to him for a couple of hours, and he recommended some books. Learning what really happens to people when they go through a traumatic life-or-death situation just kind of blew my mind. How it changes the body. How it changes your personality. How it changes your reaction time to things. That’s where I started. I read a few books about these soldiers in war and combat coming home, and the anger and dissociation between real life and what is their life. And it just clicked! As soon as I started understanding what that horror is, what that anger is, I realized that she had developed all these ways to be able to survive. She’s using her humor, her combativeness, and her unpredictability to keep people at arm’s length, but also to protect herself. Like, her getting naked in the elevator is an intimidation technique, but it’s also a nod to where she will be going. And the fact that a woman can use her nakedness as a weapon, and then someone later could use that same nakedness as a weapon against her, as a form of torture? It’s a wild thing! A wild, wild thing.

But once I figured out her core, all the hardness was easy to play with — albeit hard to hold on to! Anger doesn’t make you feel warm and fuzzy at night. But it was amazing to channel! It’s definitely super powerful, tapping into that kind of energy, but also really exhausting. I remember on Catching Fire, I’d come home sometimes and people would be like, “Let’s go out and drink!” And I’d be like, “You know what? I am so beat, I’m actually just going to go crawl into a hole and die.”

Did you work out with the counselor which stages of PTSD Johanna would have after her various traumas? In her life, she goes through two brutal Hunger Games and a round of torture in the Capitol. Are there layers to how all that changes her?
It doesn’t really work like that, necessarily, where it’s like you get it triple time. Once something traumatic happens in your life, everything is triggered from that point. Everything is kind of a reminder of that first point of entry, although it could deepen and sharpen. Like helicopters might make you feel weird. Or this smell might make you feel bad. There can be different trigger points. But mostly, it’s all from one point of trauma. And her humor is her protection mechanism. It’s how she survives in the world.

So I talked to the counselor about the humor, and the idea of enlarging your personality to make it the biggest personality in the room, so that you don’t have to talk about how you really feel, which is sort of the biggest hole in the room. It’s an overcompensation mechanism, really, for young children — when they don’t feel valid, when they don’t feel safe, they pretend to be much stronger, braver, or smarter than they really are. It was fascinating to learn about that stuff, because it’s something we all do, even without dealing with this kind of extreme trauma. These triggers are the kinds of things we all work with and deal with in normal day-to-day life.

Did they ever have, in any iteration of the script, any of the scenes regarding Johanna’s fear of water following her torture in the Capitol? How she would refuse to shower because she had been electrocuted through water?
No! When the script came in, they had to condense a lot of that stuff. But the fans would have loved it! They’re pissed that it’s not in there! I totally get it, because I was upset, too. Like, Where’s all my stuff?! Where’s all the stuff I do with the training? I’m supposed to be roommates with Katniss! I was excited to do all that, but it just didn’t make sense. Katniss was already a soldier, you know, and it didn’t feel like she needed to be trained for a battleground. She was already such a great soldier, so I feel like they kind of just wanted to hop along in the story. Things have to go. It can’t all be the book.

With Johanna’s post-torture behavior, I did look up different things — torture techniques, and starvation, and what jaundice does. And morphine addiction. A lot of it was so heavy, I was like, I don’t know! It’s hard to stick all of that in one scene. So I decided, Okay, I just need to let this be Johanna really raw. Without any clothes. Without any makeup. Without any hair. Without any weapons. Without any instruments devised. Just let her walk in with no pants on, not a smidge of anything that she owns. All she has is her body at this point. And just let her sit down and try to have a conversation with a woman that she moderately dislikes and majorly respects, you know? That’s what I focused on, more of their relationship.

Without any hair, because her head is shaved bald. Your head, however, was only shaved a little in the back. The rest was a bald cap, CGI, and a bald-head double, right?
Yeah, because we jumped around in shooting. I only shot ten days in ten months, and it wasn’t really feasible for me to be bald for the whole time because we did some of the ending stuff before we did the bald stuff, and there just wasn’t enough time, and it didn’t make sense. We were going back and forth, out of sequence — we did some of the hospital stuff, and then some of the exterior execution stuff, and then some more of the wedding stuff, and then the roundtable stuff, and then more of the execution stuff. So they were like, “You don’t have to do it for this one.” I was like, “Oh. Okay.”

Were you disappointed? “But Natalie Dormer gets to shave her head!”
I’ve shaved my head for roles before! [Laughs.] And I was ready to do that! I’ve shaved my head twice now, and I love it. I did it once when I was 18,  and once for this film that I was about to leave to do, but then it fell through about two days before I got on set. It was devastating because there I was, with a mohawk! [Laughs.] I was like, “Okay … what are we going to do?!” But I loved it. Every woman should shave her head at least once. It’s an important thing to see what your head feels like, what your senses feel like, and also what you feel like as a woman, when you’re stripped from these very identifiable things, you know? So you can figure out what is really feminine inside.

Plus, it must be freeing in some way. It’s a fresh start.
I know! After every breakup, after every movie, I always want to cut my hair off. Whenever we finish a chapter in our life. But I finally got to the point where I’m like, You’re not in your 20s anymore! You don’t have to change your hair every two seconds. Let it be.

You’ve mentioned that when your sister, who was a big fan of the books, learned you were cast, she told you, “I just don’t see you as Johanna.” Has she come around?
Oh, she totally sees it now. [Laughs.] I think she was just giving me shit. She’s my No. 1 shit-giver, as she should be.

How Jena Malone Channeled PTSD for Hunger Games