Independent film ingénue turned mainstream character actress Jena Malone began her career at age 12, but avoided the path of preciousness in favor of emotionally challenging roles in often-bleak stories of families in crisis. Her film debut in the gritty memoir of childhood abuse, "Bastard out of Carolina" (Showtime, 1996) immediately earned critical notice and led to a string of acclaimed cable television movies showcasing Malone's remarkably mature performances as resilient young girls. Following a few mainstream offerings including the chick flick "Stepmom" (1998), Malone spent her teens amassing an impressive resume in independent films like the cult favorite "Donnie Darko" (2001), the satirical "Saved!" (2004) and Sean Penn's lauded "Into the Wild" (2007). With "Pride and Prejudice" (2005) and the military drama "The Messenger" (2009), Malone wisely explored her range and made a relatively seamless transition from her troubled onscreen childhood to versatile young adult roles before braking into the mainstream with hits like "Sucker Punch" (2011) and her role as Johanna Mason in "The Hunger Games" franchise.
Born Nov. 21, 1984, in Sparks, NV, Malone was raised by her mother, and spent her early years living in 27 different places around Lake Tahoe and Las Vegas, including trailer parks and the family car. When she was 10 years old she and her mother, who generally supported the family on welfare, decided their next move would be to Los Angeles. It seemed her young daughter held dreams of becoming an actress and at that time in their life, they had nothing to lose by trying. Thousands of families have made similar pilgrimages each year but Malone's paid off within months, and with her only acting background in school plays, she was cast in the music video for Michael Jackson's single "Childhood," as well as landed a guest spot on a 1996 episode of "Chicago Hope" (CBS, 1994-2000) in which she portrayed an abused girl who receives a kidney transplant.
Malone's television debut set the tone for her subsequent career, in that she repeatedly showed an innate ability with grueling roles as hardscrabble kids enduring unthinkable trauma. Her breakthrough that same year came as the star of Anjelica Huston's controversial adaptation of "Bastard Out of Carolina." Malone demonstrated a veteran's aplomb in the difficult central role of a young girl subjected to violent abuse by her stepfather. The newcomer earned nominations from the Independent Spirit Awards and the Screen Actors Guild and took home a Young Artist Award. She followed her acclaimed turn in "Bastard" with another gritty but critically acclaimed Showtime movie, "Hidden in America" (1996), in which she was cast as the daughter of the poor-but-proud Beau Bridges.
Off-screen, Malone continued struggling to lift her own small family out of poverty and made great strides when she was cast as the flashback version of a scientist (Jodie Foster) in search of life elsewhere in the solar system in the science fiction blockbuster, "Contact" (1997). She earned a Saturn Award for Best Performance by a Younger Actor and the same year was Golden Globe-nominated for taking on the pivotal role of a preteen who takes a stand against bigotry in Arkansas in "Hope" (TNT, 1997), from novice director Goldie Hawn. It seemed Malone could not walk on screen without capturing the affections of viewers and critics alike, though she was still far from a household name at this point. In short order, she won a Young Artist Award for "Ellen Foster" (CBS, 1997), in which she starred as a teen shuttled between the homes of friends and family members following the death of her mother and because her abusive, alcoholic father is unable to care for her. While Malone's agent urged her to go after mainstream family films, the young actress just did not feel connected to glossy, normal suburban kid roles; sticking instead to independent films. There were a few exceptions. In "Stepmom" (1998), a popular chick flick, she starred alongside Susan Sarandon and Julia Roberts as a teen struggling to find a place in her life for her new young stepmother (Roberts) while remaining loyal to her terminally ill mother (Sarandon). She took home a Young Artist Award for her conflicted character.
Shortly after that film's success, Malone sparked headlines when the 14-year-old filed suit against her mother seeking emancipation and charging mismanagement of her earnings and failure to pay taxes. Emotions flared between daughter and mother, who, by all admission, was unqualified to manage the rigorous demands of her daughter's burgeoning career. The contentious family drama ended in early 2000 when Malone won legal emancipation from her mother, which no longer limited the actress to child labor laws, giving the 15-year-old sole control over her finances and career decision-making. Meanwhile, she had a supporting role as the daughter of a single mom (Kelly Preston) and love interest of a failing pro baseball player (Kevin Costner) in "For Love of the Game" (1999). In the HBO film "Cheaters" (2000), Malone branched out from victim to schemer as one of a group of students at an underfunded public school who consider "throwing" an academic competition. Malone teamed with Glenn Close in the pioneer family movie "The Ballad of Lucy Whipple" (CBS, 2001) and went on to have a breakthrough year in two movies that put her firmly on the indie film radar. First she starred with Jake Gyllenhaal as the girlfriend of a teen plagued by post-apocalyptic visions in "Donnie Darko" (2001), and then supported a rebellious, blue-haired Hayden Christensen in "Life as a House" (2001). Both films showcased Malone's natural screen presence, as well as her ability to embody young characters wise beyond their years.
Coming off such near-cult successes, she was praised by critics for providing perhaps the best performance in the indie "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys" (2002), a 1970s-set coming-of-age story that again teamed her with Jodie Foster. Expanding her repertoire, Malone had a supporting role in the CBS TV biopic, "Hitler: The Rise of Evil" (2002), as a niece close to Hitler who died under mysterious circumstances. Her performance as a pregnant trailer park teen trying against all odds to rouse some family support in the indie "American Girl" (2002) was only seen at film festivals, but Malone returned to independent theaters in the equally bleak "The United States of Leland" (2003), in which she had a supporting role as a heroin-addicted teen whose mentally challenged brother (Michael Welch) is murdered.
For her first headlining feature film role, Malone offered a wry turn in "Saved!" (2004), a pleasantly subversive meditation on morality and the religious right disguised as a teen comedy, where Malone was pitch-perfect as a formerly popular Christian schoolgirl who re-examines her life and faith after becoming pregnant in a misguided bid to "cure" her boyfriend's homosexuality. She went on to star and co-produce the surprisingly bad straight-to-DVD feature, "Corn," about a single mother fighting the genetic engineering industry. Critics agreed the effort was less "Erin Brockovich;" more "Children of the Corn." Rebounding with her first success in a costume romantic comedy, Malone offered a high-spirited turn as the flirtatious, impulsive Lydia Bennett - young sister of Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) - who nearly leads the family to ruin in Jane Austen's classic "Pride and Prejudice" (2005).
Joe Wright's Golden Globe-nominated literary adaptation offered a profile boost for Malone, who continued to prove her mettle with families-in-crisis with the "The Ballad of Jack and Rose" (2005), starring Daniel Day-Lewis. In 2006, the 21-year-old drama veteran made her Broadway debut in Patrick Shanley's Tony Award-winning play, "Doubt," and her stock continued to rise with her supporting role as the empathetic sister of an idealistic college grad (Emile Hirsch) who embarks on an ill-fated wilderness trek in "Into the Wild" (2007), helmed by Sean Penn. Malone joined Lou Taylor Pucci and Zooey Deschanel at the Sundance Film Festival to unveil a significantly more lightweight road movie, "The Go-Getter" (2007), which found Malone noticeably tarted up. Boldly navigating through that difficult stretch between teenage and adult roles, Malone did not commit any egregious lapses of judgment in either "The Ruins" (2008), a college-aged thriller set amid Mayan ruins, or "Lying" (2008), a female ensemble drama. She had a supporting role in Oren Moverman's directorial debut, "The Messenger" (2009), and that same year starred in a grueling four-hour off-Broadway production of "Mourning Becomes Electra." In 2010, she starred opposite Cam Gigandet in the indie drama "5 Star Day."
Malone returned to higher-profile fare in 2011 with the effects-heavy action/fantasy misfire "Sucker Punch," but went back to her indie comfort zone with the understated films "For Ellen" (2012), starring Paul Dano, and "In Our Nature" (2012), featuring John Slattery. In 2012, she appeared in the acclaimed miniseries "Hatfields & McCoys," along with Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton, and the following year, she had one of the biggest roles of her career in the dystopian sequel "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire" (2013) as Johanna Mason, a fierce competitor of the film's heroine, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence).
Cast (Feature Film)
Music (Feature Film)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Appeared in Michael Jackson's music video for "Childhood"
Made screen debut in Anjelica Huston's "Bastard Out of Carolina" (Showtime), earned nominations for an Independent Spirit Award and a SAG Award
Cast as Beau Bridges' daughter in the Showtime movie, "Hidden in America"
Appeared in Goldie Hawn's directorial debut, "Hope" (TNT), nominated for a Golden Globe Award
Played a young Jodie Foster in Robert Zemeckis's sci-fi drama "Contact"
Played Susan Sarandon's daughter in the family drama, "Stepmom"
Cast as Kelly Preston's daughter in "For Love of the Game"
Acted opposite Mary Stuart Masterson in the drama, "The Book of Stars"
Co-starred as a precocious teenager in "Life as a House"
Starred opposite Jake Gyllenhaal in cult sci-fi drama "Donnie Darko"
Portrayed Geli Raubal in the television movie, "Hitler: The Rise of Evil"
Starred as a girl attending a Baptist high school who becomes pregnant in "Saved"
Co-starred with Ryan Gosling and Kevin Spacey in "The United States of Leland"
Cast as one of five sisters, opposite Keira Knightley in "Pride and Prejudice"
Made her Broadway debut as Sister James in John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt"
Portrayed the sister of Emile Hirsch's Christopher McCandless in Sean Penn's adaptation of the non-fiction book, "Into the Wild"
Co-starred in the horror film "The Ruins," along with Shawn Ashmore and Johnathan Tucker
Co-starred in "Sucker Punch," an action-fantasy film written and directed by Zack Snyder
Appeared in the TV miniseries "Hatfields & McCoys"
Featured in the blockbuster sequel "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire"
Reprised her "Hunger Games" character in "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1" and "Part 2"
Played Hope Harlington in Paul Thomas Anderson's period crime dramedy "Inherent Vice"
Had a minor role in the extended cut of "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice"
Cast in the horror flick "The Neon Demon"
Co-starred in the drama/thriller "Bottom of the World"
Co-starred with Taylor Schilling and Christian Slater in the drama "The Public"