Date of Birth: November 21, 1984
Jena Malone was born to 22-year-old single mother, Debbie Malone, in Sparks, Nevada. The two moved to Lake Tahoe shortly afterward. Money was scarce. Debbie was often on welfare and they frequently had to move to escape bad roommates or bad debts. They lived in trailer parks, with friends, with relatives, and sometimes, in their car. Despite all that, Jena loved Lake Tahoe and enjoyed playing in the forest and climbing trees. She was also fascinated when she saw her mother perform onstage in community theater, and from the age of four, knew that she wanted to act, too. When her mother got a job as a telemarketer in Las Vegas in 1995, the two moved, but Jena felt unsafe, especially when there was a drug bust in the house where they were staying. After six months, she convinced her mom to move to Los Angeles so she could try acting professionally.
Her first role was in a student film called Sunday's Child. She moved on to commercials, music videos and a guest appearance on an episode of Chicago Hope before landing a starring role in her first feature, Bastard Out of Carolina (1996), directed by Anjelica Huston. Jena played a poor southern girl abused by her stepfather. The film debuted at the Cannes Film Festival and then played on the Showtime TV network. Jena received several nominations, including one for a Screen Actors Guild award, and won a Young Artist Award for Best Performance in a TV Movie.
She again played a little girl from a poverty-stricken family in the TV movie Hidden in America (1996), filmed in Toronto. Playing Willa, the daughter of Beau Bridges' character, she was nominated for a Golden Satellite for Best Performance by an Actress in a TV movie. In her first big budget feature, Contact (1997), she had a small role as the younger version of Jodie Foster's character. For portraying Lilly Kate Burns, a motherless southern girl in the TV movie Hope (1997) directed by Goldie Hawn, Jena received a Golden Globe nomination.
When she played the title role in the TV movie Ellen Foster, a little girl who is taken away from her abusive father after her mother dies, Jena won her second Young Artist Award. Her first starring role in a major motion picture found her acting opposite the likes of Susan Sarandon and Julia Roberts in Stepmom (1998). Jena played a child who has to cope when her parents divorce and her father gets a new girlfriend. She won a third Young Artist Award as well as a YoungStar Award for her work. In 1997, her mother gave birth to Jena's half-sister, Madison, but decided not to marry the father.
Debbie, Jena and Madison moved to New York City when Jena turned 14, so she could attend the Professional Children's School in Manhattan. Jena enjoying being back in school again after having been home schooled and tutored on sets for the past four years. She also enjoyed New York, especially the museums. However, just a few months later, Jena petitioned for legal emancipation when she realized her mother had mishandled their finances, leaving them in debt with the government for thousands of dollars in taxes. The case was tried in Los Angeles Superior Court, and in 2000, Jena became an adult under the law. This also meant that at the age of 15, she was able to work lengthy hours on the set because child labor laws no longer applied.
Unlike many child actors whose parents choose which scripts they'll accept, Jena had always read them herself, and her mother left the choice completely up to her. Jena even turned down several blockbusters, explaining, "I didn't really understand why I had more of a connection to Bastard Out of Carolina than, say, The Parent Trap. Then I realized it was because I'm not really good at playing a normal person."
Jena moved back to Los Angeles and has worked in films such as Donnie Darko (2001), The Book of Stars (winning a 2001 Video Premiere Award for Best Supporting Actress), American Girl (2002, which she co-produced), Cold Mountain (2003), Saved! (2004), Into the Wild (2007) and Sucker Punch (2011).
Her main hobby is photography and she hopes to study it at college one day. To keep in shape, she practices kickboxing. She also loves reading. Jena currently lives in an apartment in Hollywood.