Jena Malone, star of films including Stepmom, Saved!, and The Hunger Games franchise, has been acting for most of her life. But fans have never seen her in anything quite like The Neon Demon, Nicolas Winding Refn’s psychological horror film that notably earned a smattering of boos after its Cannes Film Festival premiere in May and has polarized critics ever since.
The Neon Demon, which opens June 24, might seem crass upon first glance, especially for an audience like Cannes’: It’s a rather bloody affair revolving around a 16-year-old model, Jesse (Elle Fanning) pursuing dreams of breaking big in Hollywood, navigating the ruthless world of cutthroat competition as a pair of jealous, narcissistic models (Bella Heathcote, Abbey Lee) consume — sometimes literally — her angelic vitality. The whole thing unfolds with a pointed grace, tied together by a throbbing electronic score, gorgeous cinematography, and Refn’s signature brand of balancing quiet introspection with disturbing action.
Malone plays Ruby, a lonely makeup artist who befriends Jesse in the early days of her budding fashion career. But, as cautionary tales about the entertainment industry consistently remind us, intentions are never as pure as they seem on the surface; superficial beauty rules, and kindness is often only skin deep.
The actress, 31, recently gave birth to a boy, and in a recent interview tells EW The Neon Demon is the type of socially-probing movie she wants her child to see when he grows up, and why she thinks it fits into a larger discussion about gender politics in its own dark, twisted little way.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The Neon Demon features some pretty intense material. What would you say to people who might be turned off by what they’ve read about this film so far?
JENA MALONE: I’ve read some of these things where they’re like, “Oh, it’s so violent,” but it’s not that violent at all, comparatively to the evening news or even PG-13 thrillers where there’s so much gun violence. For some reason, gun violence is so acceptable, but seeing someone do something as extreme as eating an eyeball is so not okay — even though it’s obviously fake. Seeing someone riddled with bullets is so easily acceptable. I find that ideology a little strange. People who know Refn’s work can believe in the consistency of his tone, and I think that’s all they have to think about.
Perhaps the film is hitting on very specific things that make people uncomfortable, and they just don’t know how to deal with that?
If we’re talking about that sort of everyday person, I think silence makes people uncomfortable when they have to start filling in their own answers. They have to start questioning themselves and what they think about what’s going on in the world instead of what other people are telling them to think, and that’s a very uncomfortable thing to do for some people. But, some people want that kind of stimulation; they want something to be evocative, to bring something out of them, to make them question the mundane and what’s going on in society.
When you first read this script, were you having these reactions? And how would you describe the film in a nutshell to someone?
If it’s handled in the right way, violence is important to watch because it talks about something that humans do. It’s not like we’re not violent. There are these aspects of humanity we have to discuss to be able to feel comfortable with and understand the boundaries of.
I’m such a fan of Refn’s work and I was excited to see what he was doing, particularly when I knew it was mostly all about young women, because in his other films there’s been more exploration of the masculine identity. I was interested in how it paralleled where we are in society, where men have lost the stronghold of masculinity that they’ve held for 2,000 years, whereas women are reclaiming parts of the masculine for themselves. There’s an unfooting, like it’s not as much of a sure hold of how to be a man and what that means. It’s interesting that Nick, as a father of two young women, wants to ask these questions of the darker side of [women’s] power trips and their own jealousy and their own sense of identity. These questions we’ve been asking to men; it’s interesting now for women to start asking questions about the darker side of womankind.
I think it’s really ballsy of Nicolas to start the ball rolling with a concept film — almost a genre film. It’s a lot to take on, and he does it so smoothly and gracefully and so conceptually, and a lot of people can see it as a lot of different things, and yet it’s not preachy, it’s not political, but it’s still something I would want my daughters or my little sister or every teenage boy and girl to watch. It discusses things that are happening in society without shoving it down your throat.
What attracted you to the role of Ruby, then? Did you see her as an opportunity to explore different parts of yourself as a performer?
In the film, beauty is so about what’s on the surface, but I like that what’s motivating Ruby is this inner beauty of self-love. It’s not that she’s trying to become more beautiful — she’s actually trying to become loved, which is a lot about what beauty is: acceptance and wanting people to love you, so you change your outside to match the needs of what you want on the inside.
For me, I can dress up; I’m very much like a normal woman. I wasn’t raised to value my beauty above everything else. I was very much a tomboy. In Hollywood, I’m like, “Oh, right, I’m learning how to use these feminine arts,” but it’s not something I was raised thinking was very important, so it was nice to be able to take on a character who [reflected] a different side of society and beauty, that it’s more inner beauty and the need to be accepted and loved and feel beautiful, not just in the sense of physical beauty, but [in terms] of lust and desire as well.
The characters’ personalities lend themselves to being molded by the entertainment industry, though, into what they become by the film’s end, which is sort of monstrous. Not that there are people out there eating eyeballs, but is this film accurate in terms of how it depicts that cutthroat mentality of people — mainly women — in Hollywood?
I’ve seen it at the post office; I’ve seen it at the grocery store; I’ve seen it at a restroom at an awards show; I’ve seen it at a shopping mall; I’ve seen aspects of it in high school. I don’t think it’s contained by Hollywood; it’s part of us all. I think, if anything, Hollywood is just a microcosm of what’s going on in the real world; it’s just a smaller, more contained entity of it.
About the scene where you “have your way,” so to speak, with the cadaver — what was the atmosphere like on set that day, and how do you prepare yourself to do something like that?
[Laughs.] There’s no preparation!
I’d be disturbed if there was!
I’d actually been working at a morgue, that specific morgue [in the film] with the head mortician. I’d been learning how his job worked and how to do makeup. Basically working there, I felt like I was prepared in the sense of technically, but nothing can prepare you for that kind of reality [of necrophilia] to step into. I think I was just like, okay, let’s just do it and see how it feels. It ended up feeling so lonely, which really cued me into the character. [The act] was so desperate. I think after one of the takes I was sobbing on top of [the body].
No! In a good way! It was like this release where I felt in touch with Ruby’s loneliness and isolation. At first I was like, “Oh, it’s sexual, it’s out of want, it’s out of desire,” but once I got into the process, I realized how deeply alone she was and how it affects humans so much, not being touched and not being loved, that she’s pushed into this environment where it’s okay to get it however you can, you know? I felt like there was a part of her I loved even more for getting it however she could, but it was also about getting in touch with this deeply lonely and dark place that had never been fed for her. I didn’t realize how lonely this character was until I got into that scene, which opened up the whole character for me.
As you delved deeper into the character, did you bring a lot to her that wasn’t written on the page?
One hundred percent, but I think Nicolas asks that of every single actor. He wants you to give every single thing you have. Every idea, he wants you to dig deeper and ask as many questions and bring as much as you can to it. A lot of rehearsal was just asking questions and going over the scenes and seeing how far can we take it. I love working that way. I love putting as much into a scene as you can, so I think between him and I we really got along in that way. Once I knew that was the kind of director he was, I was like, “Great! There’s so much I want to give you!” He just ate it up with a spoon. Not all of it ended up in the movie, but I think the character is so much richer because he allowed me and all the other actors to explore.
You’ve said before that you choose projects more by director than by script, so what specifically attracted you to Nicolas’ style?
I like that there’s a hypnosis he puts an audience under. I love that he’s not afraid of silence. His use of silence with music empowers characters instead of devaluing them with sweeping orchestras where the music is the emotion. A lot of filmmakers rely on that. His music is so penetrating. It forces you to create your own emotion. I really like that he likes that kind of juxtaposition, that kind of violence of music. It’s a narrative people don’t explore in films. I loved Bronson, Drive, and Valhalla Rising, but when you love a film, it’s hard to describe. It’s like why you like a person; you’re like, “Nope, I just like that person.”