Next year will mark the 20th anniversary for actress Jena Malone (“Inherent Vice,” “The Hunger Games – Mockingjay”) working in the film industry. She’s only 31, but Malone got her start in the business as a pre-teen, most notably when she was cast as a young Jodie Foster in the 1997 sci-fi film “Contact.” Since then, Malone’s filmography has been one that any former child actor could only dream of. From the 2001 indie cult favorite “Donnie Darko” to the 2007 drama “Into the Wild” directed by Sean Penn to Paul Thomas Anderson’s Oscar nominated 2014 film “Inherent Vice,” Malone says she loves doing it all.
In her latest project, “Time Out of Mind,” Malone plays Maggie, the estranged daughter of a homeless man (Richard Gere) who is trying to form some kind of relationship with her despite the fact she wants nothing to do with him. “Time Out of Mind” has been praised for the guerilla style filmmaking director Oren Moverman instituted during production. During scenes where Gere is on the streets of Manhattan and interacting with New Yorkers, people never realize it is Gere playing the role of a homeless man, which brings an authenticity to the picture.
During our interview, Malone and I talked about the homeless population and how she feels knowing people living on the streets are usually brushed aside by society. We also talked about her passions as an actress, what other art forms she loves, and why she still considers herself a child.
Talk about working with director Oren Moverman for the second time in your career. Of course, you starred in his film “The Messenger” in 2009. What was it about him that made you want to return to one of his sets?
When you ask an actor, “What’s your favorite script you’ve read,” a lot of them would say one of his scripts. A lot of his scripts were always around in Hollywood. He was on the tip of everyone’s tongue for quite sometime. He was writing these incredible character-driven pieces that were so simple and mind-blowing. When I did get an opportunity to sit down with him and work with him on “The Messenger” it was a gift. He’s got such a beautiful vision and a wide-open, vast heart. He’s interested in exploring hard-to-understand parts of our human nature, which I think is really courageous.
Is there a different dynamic on set with a director you’ve worked with before?
Absolutely. You already have a shorthand with them and know what to expect. You also already trust the person. It’s easier to dive in even deeper. It takes a while to gain trust and then to gain a language with the director. So, the fact we could just dive right in without a lot of discussion really was invaluable.
What did you find interesting about your character Maggie?
I think it’s something every woman can relate to – the relationship with her father and the expectation that you have of parents being the caretakers. Sometimes you become the caretaker. There is a sort of anger and estrangement that can happen. Maggie is a young woman who is trying to find her own voice, which sometimes means you have to break down the voices of your parents.
Was the father-daughter dynamic you had with Richard Gere in this film something you had ever experienced as an actress before?
Not really. I feel like this was kind of a new thing for me.
It reminded me a little bit of the relationship between Mickey Rourke and Evan Rachel Wood’s characters in “The Wrestler.” Have you heard that comparison yet?
I haven’t, but I also know that it was about an estranged relationship. I haven’t seen it. I want to see that film.
“Time Out of Mind” and another one of your films, “The Soloist,” are very different, but they do share a similarity in that both lead actors, Richard Gere and Jamie Foxx, played homeless men who have been tossed aside by society. This film isn’t based on a real person like “The Soloist,” but I’m wondering if you allow yourself to think about the people who are in these kinds of situation in real life? Are they on your mind at all when you’re making a movie like this?
Well, for “Time Out of Mind” I really didn’t want to do any research about that because where [Maggie] is coming from is like where the audience is coming from, which is very much a place of judgment. As much as you can care about someone, she just didn’t want anything to do with [her father]. I really wanted to keep that, which I think is a very human thing. We don’t want to see what we don’t understand. We don’t want to take on what hurts us.
Were you able to talk to Richard or Oren at all about their experiences doing their own research on the film? I know they met with a lot of homeless people to understand what they were going through on the streets.
Yeah, they did quite a bunch. I didn’t talk to them too much beforehand, but after we finished the film they told me all of these incredible stories. How they were able to make this film is a story in itself – being able to shoot in places where a lot of people didn’t know it was Richard Gere on the street. Someone was giving him money and giving him an apple and they were actually shooting the movie. What they did was extensive, exhausting research to make it real and actually seeing what happens when a man gets estranged from society.
It’s amazing to me that no one looked at him long enough to realize who he was. Do you think that says anything about the society we live in today and how we brush aside the less fortunate and don’t want to recognize they are there?
Yeah, I mean, homelessness sort of becomes this black hole of humanity. We no longer see it. There’s nothing to see. We judge it and just let it be. I think that’s the worst thing you can do to any human is not know anything about them.
Do you feel this film has a message about the homeless population or do you see it more as a character study on one man who may or may not represent others who are in his situation?
I don’t think it’s trying to talk about homelessness in this grand, sweeping, cure-it-all, fix-it-all type of thing. I think it’s saying that these are humans that have lost their way and have found themselves in these situations. It’s something that we can’t stop seeing. We can’t keep looking away.
What kind of mindset do you have to be in to work with someone like Richard Gere? You’ve worked with some very talented leading men over the years. What was it specifically that connected you to him?
I think he’s a great actor. I think when I found out he was taking on this role I really respected him even more. It’s a thankless part. It’s a very hard character to get into, particularly because of how he’s been viewed in his career. I think it was a bold and a quality move.
I read this film was a passion project of his and that he’s really been wanting to play this role for a long time. Have you experienced that kind of role yet in your career – something you feel passionate about and would do anything to make it happen, but hasn’t materialized yet?
There’s been a couple. I’ve really been trying to make this film about [Southern gothic writer] Carson McCullers for a while now (“Lonely Hunter”). For me, each film is a passion project. It’s kind of the only reason why I’m still doing it after so long. Some projects just take longer. Some are just harder to make.
Next year you’ll be celebrating 20 years in the film industry. After all these years, what excites you the most about acting? It is working with geniuses like Paul Thomas Anderson or making indie films or getting cast in blockbusters like “The Hunger Games” and “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice?”
It’s all the same. It’s about wanting to work with incredible visionaries and wanting to build things I’ve never built before. I’m just trying to push myself and get lost in it more than I’m getting found. The older that I get, that’s more of what I want.
Along with acting, you’re a musician and a photographer. Do you envision acting always being a part of your life or do you think there will come a time when you want to focus on your other artistic abilities and talents?
Well, I think I’ll probably be in the storytelling business until the day I die. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. It’s something that fascinates me. Whether it’s through music or photography or writing, they’re all different forms of narrative. I feel like they are all similar things.
Are you able to take criticism about things that come from you as an individual artist like music and photography more than you might if a film critic doesn’t like a movie you were in?
I think it would be harder. I think I am totally OK with criticism in film, but I’m still learning. I’m still kind of a child in the other narratives.
Is there something as a musician and photographer that you might want people to see out of you that maybe doesn’t come across to them when they see you act?
I’ve never thought of it like that. I think maybe within music and photography I get to do my own form of directing. It’s all coming from me and I get to figure out the aesthetics and the narrative and how it’s seen and what is heard. If anything, I think [music and photography] would be coming more deeply from me instead of maybe a film where I’m just a part of it.