Afford Jena Malone the freedom and trust to fully immerse herself in a character and she’ll give you cinema gold: why dip your toe when you can go diving in the deep-end? Running with this M.O. from a young age, Malone positioned herself as the teenager’s teenager; portraying outsider characters in a state of perpetual confusion and angst – across Donnie Darko, The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, The United States of Leland and Saved!
As a young actor who never quite felt comfortable within the cookie-cutter mechanics of Hollywood, there were levels of truth in those early performances that have since helped tune a highly personal and polymathic career; whether that’s as the axe-wielding Johanna Mason in The Hunger Games, a predatory make-up artist in Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon or fronting her own band, The Shoe. Yet it’s Malone’s latest role in Refn’s new ten-episode Amazon Prime series, Too Old to Die Young, that’s perhaps her most fitting to-date. Playing a victims advocate by day, energy healer and metaphysical crime boss by night, the character marries Malone’s nuanced acting with her passion for all things esoteric, alchemy, magic and occult. In preparation for the role, Malone sought advice from the White Witch of LA, Maja D’Aoust – here the actor and the Witch reconnect to unlock the psyche.
Maja D’Aoust: Do you remember how we met?
Jena Malone: I was in Boston Canyon when I heard all these whispers about a White Witch living in Los Angeles and how I had to walk up to this really beautiful old Masonic building – there’s something magical in that building, right?
MD: Yes, it’s a philosophical building that was built as part of a colony that was a bit of a cult and arose at around the same time movies started being made in LA. It was one of the first houses to show silent movies and I believe Greta Garbo performed there.
JM: Wow, that’s so cool. I met you with mutual friends and was instantly drawn in by your light. You had beautiful blonde hair down to your ass and you were wearing all these light layers of whatever and pink sneakers – just this magical being in this very magical land of Los Angeles. I was like, “Yes!” I think we started talking about the stars, astrological rhythms and temperatures, and I began looking towards you or asking you to be a kind of guide in my life. What I love about the way you teach is that you’re not looking at me from above, you’re not thinking about me from a pole tip. You know, it’s very earthen, almost like you have that sunny Californian thirst for understanding… like, “Listen, babe, this is how things are.” You make it very real and human.
MD: If you weren’t so far away I would hug you right now [laughs]. One of the main things I feel we bonded over is a connection between working with the archetypes, me from a spiritual background and you from a physical one…
JM: What a cool bridge we get to meet each other on. It’s like we get to do this really beautiful dance together. The real work is understanding archetypes, that’s one of the beautiful gifts of storytelling or acting – as soon as you start pressing into that you see it reflected everywhere in the universe.
MD: I’ve always felt that you have an innate understanding of what I was talking about, even though it might be taboo or esoteric, because you’re actually doing occult work through your practice.
JM: That’s something we talk a lot about, embodying our truth, embodying these archetypes and embodying the storm before letting it pass. I’ve only recently learned – or allowed – this definition of acting to become real embodiment work. I always thought, “Oh I’m just a storyteller, I’m just sort of taking up these tasks and putting them down.” But you realise that there’s a certain amount of metaphysical energy that you can’t dismiss – in the sense of real transformation and real understanding.
MD: I really want to explain that bridge between our work. A lot of people don’t understand what the occult is, but really it’s a system through which you form a self-created soul or character. Usually there are around twelve archetypes, that’s how many zodiac constellations there are, and you’ll see the number twelve a lot. Basically they’re personality prototypes. So there’s the high priestess, the warrior, the fool, etc., and these are all the possible aspects that a human can express. In reality, we’re all those different parts at different times. It’s like an overarching rainbow of possibilities that you choose your actions through, but sometimes they trap you. So let’s say you just keep playing the role of the fool and you’re not even aware that you keep doing these actions and telling the story of the fool; you’re contained under this dome that you have to break out of to grow. With acting, it’s fascinating that you actually consciously build and play these different roles – that constructs your personal character and resilience.
JM: That’s what’s so cool about children, they live beyond archetypes, right?
MD: Yeah, they are the freeloaders, that’s why they’re so fucking wise and beautiful and we look at them with drool in our mouth because we’re like, “Wow, how can you transcend all archetypes to remain human?” They haven’t settled into a phase, they haven’t done enough, they haven’t had an exponential experience to define their characteristics…
JM: So they don’t get trapped in a role, they don’t get typecast.
“The real work is understanding archetypes, that’s one of the beautiful gifts of storytelling or acting…”
MD: They’re fluid. They’re the dream writers.
JM: When I was younger every part that I played had something to do with my own personal evolution, whether I knew that or not. After eighteen I took some time off, I went and studied photography and was re-enlivening my mind differently. When I came back to acting at around twenty-one I felt that I was now a manifestor. I’d say to the universe, “This is what I want,” and in some weird way, it would give it to me. Instead of being that free-floating child without archetypes, there was now a will involved. In my young mode, I was willing things that I thought I saw in myself and in my wants, desires and needs as an actor, but it wasn’t the full equation. I feel like I was kinda missing something because I thought I was leaning too much on my will, like, I wanna do a superhero movie, or I wanna work with certain directors, or I wanna do this. I think that graduated for me once I gave birth to my child. There was an element of the death of control and will, but in that, the birth of true transcendence. So now, stepping back into the role of embodiment, it’s like wow, I am all of the archetypes because I am none of them. And I feel much more of this free-flowing body in the sense of being empowered through knowledge but also allowing those whirling, younger thoughts to take over and take me back to a childlike state. You know? And I’m like, “Okay, I’m ready.”
MD: In the occult, this is called liberation: when you become a totality of all of the archetypes. I feel like in modern society there are so many tragedies that could be avoided if people knew that they could build a character for themselves. Have you noticed some of the discrepancies in people’s ability to know themselves?
JM: Yeah, I have noticed that. I’ve noticed it within myself as well. I think people get lost in trying to define themselves instead of simply allowing themselves. So they wear the hat of the fool like, “Am I the fool?” or the hat of the king, and they don’t allow themselves to see what they are; they just try to define what they are by this kind of non-emotional state. I think a lot of people get trapped in that because they pick something up and it’s too dangerous and vulnerable so they set it back down again and get trapped in this taster’s choice of archetypes…
MD: I feel like some people get lost when they assume an identity. For you as an actor, did you ever feel like your identity was being threatened by taking on these roles – or would you feel like you’ve been brought closer to yourself?
JM: Because we live in a hyper-visualised world, identity is a double-edged sword. So in Hollywood, one of the stamps of approval is identity, right? They wanna see how you’re different from others. I think that in trying to embellish that difference of like, “I’m a rebel,” or “I’m a smartypants”, we’re trying to embellish ourselves for the world and it becomes all we are. There’s a danger in that, and I definitely felt that when I was younger I used my tools of identity to separate myself. I remember being fifteen years old promoting Donnie Darko and I would refuse to wear make-up. I was such a tomboy, and I know that’s like a super non-PC gendered word these days, but that was the world I was raised with, you know?
MD: Yeah, me too.
JM: I was trying to understand my own feelings of that divine masculine and divine feminine inside of me. I remember thinking, “Well I’m gonna be the actor in Hollywood who doesn’t wear make-up, who doesn’t look perfect on the red carpet and wants to be dirty and real.” But even within that there is too much of the bubble.
MD: You limited yourself.
JM: Yeah, and it’s funny how the world wants that. It wants you to push towards a specific identity so it can put you in a box and it knows where to keep you. But then we outgrow those things, just as any actor that starts out doing comedies outgrows the need to make people laugh. They also wanna make people cry. But people get used to that one box.
MD: It’s true because even if you don’t trap yourself, a lot of the audience will. Have you gotten feedback when you try to push past certain roles? Have you gotten support or have people been weird to you?
JM: They all push back until you prove them otherwise. Every role I’ve taken, they’re like, “Oh Jena, you’re not like that, no one would believe you in that role.” I push and I fight and all of a sudden I do it and they’re like, “Now all I see you as is that person.” Before I got Hunger Games no one saw me as a villain, I was always the girl next door. And how does me being the girl next door transcend that archetype? How do you transcend that innocent wisdom? How do you define yourself as a woman of power, a woman of strength, and a woman of courage? Even when I was going into the meetings, I was kinda pissed off, thinking everyone was against me. I’m a good enough actor that people invite me to audition, but I did feel resistance towards allowing me to transcend. What’s so cool is that the universe gave me the gift of anger that allowed me to embody that person in the audition stage with real emotion. There was such violence and tension in my audition the director told me after they hired me, like, “Jena, I was scared of you when you walked in” [both laugh].
MD: You’re such a badass though. This brings us to another important part of the character development conversation: character assassination. Socrates called it ad hominem and if everyone would just Google that and read about it, we might save ourselves from human tragedy [both laugh] – even though ironically he was killed as a result of it. My spiritual teacher is a Native American, we did a lot of will-work and he calls these gongs or boundaries. So the way he describes it is like when an aeroplane has to break through the sound barrier, you know?
JM: Uh-huh, I like that.
MD: He says that when you reach a certain velocity, the environment will reach a similar level to try to prevent your movement through it. That’s a barrier you’re gonna come up against and you have to shoot through it like an arrow, but it requires inner strength and if you haven’t developed your character, a boundary will stop that.
JM: Yeah, and settle back into that pact they take up when they’re seven years old that no longer serves them. It’s hard for any human to find the courage to be totally themselves, it’s like, how do I transform myself in front of myself? It’s almost easier to transform in front of a crowd because they don’t know the road you walk, so you can easily step into a new phase and choose to redefine. I think a lot of people use those tools of newness – new friends, new career – to facilitate a sloppy transformation, but really it’s always gonna be the same person in the mirror because they’re not allowing their core to transform. I’ve definitely borne witness to that as well, looking at myself in the middle of the transition and that inner voice saying, “That’s not you, that’s not real.” Or even going as far as saying to myself, “You’re a fraud!” These words of violence that we all use against ourselves…
MD: The death words. You have to become a master of death and the ego’s death and let yourself grow. It’s uncomfortable and you feel disassociated – do you ever feel this in terms of your acting?
JM: I think particularly now as a mother because there are so many worlds that I’m working within. In one second I’ll be entering a stage as a doctor, the next I’m a teacher and then I’m a mother… then I’m trying to have a fifteen-minute break to do something creative. I think the older you get the more you realise that dissociations are just thresholds, they’re not the space to build a house in. You need the courage to enter through that door. During my twenties – as I was figuring out my manifestation powers – I got lost in a lot of doorways. I didn’t have enough courage to go all the way through. I had this inner voice saying, “Oh no honey, that’s not your door, don’t knock on that door.” But now I don’t have time to listen to that voice. [Maja laughs] I hear that voice like ten seconds after I’ve gone past, I’ve already gone through the door and the voice is trying to catch up [laughs].
“…it’s like, how do I transform myself in front of myself? It’s almost easier to transform in front of a crowd because they don’t know the road you walk, so you can easily step into a new phase and choose to redefine.”
MD: You’ve covered so many characters in your work, and as someone who goes through different realms, from big-budget movies to more independent ones, do you feel like… I mean, some people will get sucked into one place or another but you’ve been able to kinda go into these different places and arise organically. Do you feel like you went into different places from your choices or was is just random?
JM: The thing is, the budget isn’t in the script [laughs]. There’s no monetary imprint in the blueprint of a story, it’s just a story. If I read The Hunger Games thinking that it was gonna be an independent film I would have been just as excited. Story trumps everything else – that was always my understanding. I would have that early on when I was a ten-year-old actor trying to break into the mould of getting work. My child agent at the time would send me out to all these commercial auditions and I remember going to like five in a day, and it was soul-crushing work. I remember climbing into my mum’s car after one and breaking down crying like, “Mum, I don’t wanna ever do that again, I don’t wanna do commercials, I don’t like how they treat me, I feel destroyed in that room.” I wanted to tell stories, I wanted to be respected, I didn’t just want to be a performative model.
MD: But that was your choice.
JM: I found an agent that responded to that and protected that. And you know, my mum was like, “Okay I hear you, I respect that.” I think it’s been a lot of me just saying what I want and having the courage to do so. I still don’t think children are given enough space and they’re supposed to do whatever everyone else tells them. Remember I came to you for advice recently?
JM: Because I’m playing this sort of White Witch energy healer in Too Old to Die Young, who is also a victim support officer. In the political-science realm she is someone who is creating a safety blanket for people to fall on, to pause time, then in her private work she’s healing. So she’s working with trauma on both sides of the coin, which I love. I mean, I just wish more people would push into trauma on both sides of the coin, the physical and the transcendental. Remember we had that FaceTime talk?
MD: That was such an important talk!
JM: I’d like people to know that most professional witches work with people who can’t manoeuvre themselves out of places, they’re having a crisis and having difficulty getting advocacy. A lot of early witchcraft was very tight with psychology – the ability to heal the psyche was all in the witches’ world, and problems of women, in terms of dating, women’s health and also midwifery. And that’s because the science of a woman would not be spoken about.
MD: Totally! And menstruation was so taboo for millennia, which is insane. And still, we’re having issues with women’s’ health. That’s why I feel we’re having such a spike in witchcraft because that’s literally what witches can help with. One of the conversations we had about building your character was about an amazing woman named Psalm Isadora who worked with people who’d suffered sexual trauma or were having difficulties with their feminine identity or sexual identity. She got deep into archetypal shadow work. The occult will help you go into your subconscious and bring those traumatic emotions to the surface. This is what divination does, it takes what you’re hiding in there, shines a little light on it and lures it out.
JM: It was interesting because Nicolas [Winding Refn] let me fully create this character Diana and her calling card was the hunter – that was her definition in the energy work that she did. She worked mostly with men and suffering families, people who had been dealing with the trauma of killing, or the trauma of being hurt in some way. I remember speaking with you about Psalm Isadora and how she used her body as an embodiment of shadow work. There’s a theory that’s what killed her – she took too much on. When I was Diana, I wanted to figure out how she is protecting her heart in her work. How does she remain in balance while working in such an imbalanced world?
“A lot of early witchcraft was very tight with psychology – the ability to heal the psyche was all in the witches’ world, and problems of women, in terms of dating, women’s health and also midwifery.”
MD: Any kind of healing is about fixing a past sin, or fixing something that went wrong. It is about repair and the magic of nature, the magic of the human, the magic of our bodies, and it is their nature to seek equilibrium – it wants to put things back in balance. When someone has suffered a terrible tragedy, it sticks to them like a dark tarry shadow and they have to eat it in order to transform it. They turn it into a useful nutrient by metabolising it.
JM: It’s about building yourself through that experience, being healthy and strong. By building up your inner mechanisms to such a degree, you’re able to eat the shadow of the world until you’re reborn in a triumphant, redemptive state.
MD: So cool! I love this – we’re the witch and the actress [both laugh].
JM: I’d listen to this podcast, I’d be down.