Not long ago, Jena Malone was so sick of waiting for the phone to ring that she nearly quit acting; now she's back with a vengeance in ''The Hunger Games: Catching Fire''

Of all the terrifying things in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire — the jabberjays, the monkey mutts, Stanley Tucci’s maniacal game-show-host grin — none are a match for Jena Malone. From the moment she steps on screen, defiantly stripping down in an elevator, the 29-year-old actress brings a feral intensity to Johanna Mason, a former victor dragged back into another death match alongside hero Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence). “Once Jena auditioned, it was over,” says franchise producer Nina Jacobson. “Jena has this quality where you don’t want to be enemies with her, but at the same time you couldn’t ask for anybody more fierce on your side.” Her performance throbs with aggression. “Jena,” says director Francis Lawrence, “was born to play somebody like Johanna.”

Thanks to Catching Fire, Malone is finally enjoying a spotlight that’s eluded her for close to two decades. She made her moving debut in 1996’s Bastard Out of Carolina and has been a reliable supporting player ever since. In films like Stepmom, Donnie Darko, and Into the Wild, she showed a raw vulnerability at once deep and slightly dangerous. When Zack Snyder cast her in 2011’s Sucker Punch, she seemed poised to break into more mainstream work. But the splashy girl-power flick flopped hard, and Malone’s phone again went silent. “I was so primed for more, and then there were no parts,” she says. “I was so over the game and going to quit acting.”

Instead of walking away for good, she took camping trips in Big Sur. And she threw herself into photography and her two-person electro-folk band the Shoe (with Lem Jay Ignacio), jerry-rigging an elaborate instrument out of an old trunk. “We used to just go and play on street corners with my generator,” she says. “It’s all just freestyle-based, like Townes Van Zandt or Tom Waits.”

Malone had mostly given up reading scripts when she was approached about playing a ruthless Kentucky girl in the Kevin Costner TV miniseries Hatfields & McCoys. “She was like the Lady Macbeth of the West,” Malone says of her character. “And I thought, ‘Huh, I feel like I can really get into this [character’s] physical body.’ I think it was Hatfields that got me Catching Fire because I’d never played such an evil, feisty girl before. I’ve played dark girls with problems, but most of them were innocent to their own destructive patterns.” It’s that lack of innocence that makes her Johanna Mason so wonderfully ferocious. And the actress is thrilled to have the chance to inspire Catching Fire‘s teenage-girl fan base to embrace their own power. “Who do I want to model fearlessness for? It’s 14-, 15-year-old girls. They’re the true revolutionaries.”

In its $158.1 million opening weekend alone, Catching Fire made more than Malone’s past 10 years’ worth of movies. (The film has since earned $572.8 million worldwide.) She is well aware of the gift of exposure. “I could make the most incredible cake in the entire world, but if only my friends eat it, only my friends are going to know I’m a good baker,” she says. “So hell, yes, this is a giant, massive moment.” She’s hoping the attention might jump-start a biopic of writer Carson McCullers; she’s long been attached to star in the project, but it has struggled to find financing. Meanwhile, on Dec. 2 she gratefully reported to the set of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1. “I love this character. I would play her in an after-school special.”

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
  • Movie
  • 146 minutes