Jena Malone on taking the villain role in Antebellum: 'I don't really scare easily'
While her new film Antebellum, has been pegged as an important film due to it directly addressing America's history of oppressing Black people, Jena Malone doesn't think it's useful to say what any particular viewer should take away from the film. "I don't believe that films are like McDonald's. I don't think there is anything to take away from the film except for your own personal journey," she tells EW over the phone.
"I don't like it when people are like, 'Man, I just hope people understand compassion and racism,' or something like that, because then people are gonna go into it thinking, 'Oh sh—, I gotta understand compassion and racism,'" Malone explains. "It's too much pressure."
Without saying too much about the plot of the twisted thriller, Malone plays a horrifically cruel, almost openly white supremacist woman named Elizabeth, who goes toe-to-toe with author and activist Veronica Henley (EW digital cover star Janelle Monáe) in a story that helps the audience "understand that bridge between 400 years ago to now, really seeing that we are not that far from the past, that actually we are still haunted by it because we have never rectified it."
With Antebellum now available on demand, Malone spoke to EW about what drew her towards playing the racist Elizabeth, and the lessons she learned from the experience.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: To start, why did you want to take on this role?
JENA MALONE: It felt important. I don't really scare easily in the sense of taking on roles that are perceived to be challenging. There's an element that feels like it's necessary for me to keep pushing in that direction, just for my own instrument, but also for my own collective growth, you know? I really liked the script. I have a fondness for first time directors that really want to go outside of the box, push boundaries, and I really felt like Gerard and Chris were really pushing all of the right boundaries in all of the right ways. I feel fortunate to be a part of this project. I think it's going to be a really important film.
How did you prepare for the film? As a character who kind of bridges past and present, were there any people from today that helped inspire your take on Elizabeth?
I didn't base this character on anyone really, no. I mean, I did a lot of research, obviously. I felt like it was my job to be more of a historian at that moment. And the modern time elements felt almost easier to research because I feel like a lot of these types of women are hiding in plain sight. I think there were a lot of different types of things that I could research, but it was the antebellum South that, unfortunately, I wasn't as familiar with. So when they gave me that book, They Were Her Property, which talked about female owners of these plantations, it was really, really eye-opening to me.
For me, the biggest thing that stood out — that made me want to vomit, made me want to cry — was how they used the dehumanization of black bodies to educate their children on morals and principles. It almost became some sort of vaudevillian torture homeschooling that they would impart in, which was really about the indoctrination of white supremacy. We talk so much about this indoctrination, [which] is something that, deeply right now, we as a society have to dismantle, but you don't think about the origin story of how those moves were taught, how those delusions were passed down. It was highly informative, but just really demoralizing to read those stories about how these women used their children to empower themselves against their own white fragility and recast the narrative so that they were superior, and saviors. It was really brutal.
Do you see your character as a bridge between past and present? What did you do to make sure you represented that?
Yeah, I mean, it’s almost like the bridge is built. The bridge is racism. It's not a bridge that I needed to build because you strip it of language and vernacular, it's the exact same story. Literally it's like the exact same story of white privilege and power and the great white supremacist illusion of superiority being passed down, with different phrasing, and different types of trauma, but it's the same thing, you know? That's what was so eye-opening for me, was when I was examining the current woman versus the more historically stuck in the past Elizabeth. They're doing the exact same thing. One is more invisible with their trauma and the other is more openly self-important and grandiose with it. So I think more visibility is really the difference. I think pre-this film, I would have thought that things were very different. I don't think that I would have been able to build that bridge, or see that bridge as clearly, with how systemic racism is so, so deeply tied into the system of our legislative government. That it affects everything, and not just even our government, but our cultural milestones, and the collective understanding of our history. It's a real wild thing to unpack.
One thing that sticks out, especially in terms of your role, is that the film does a great job of representing how microaggressions can also be violence in a way. How did you add texture to your performance, in order to represent that range of violence against Black people that people like her commit?
What's interesting is you mentioned the microaggressions. For me, Elizabeth was the champion of microaggressions in the film, like this cutting brutality where it's like death in a thousand cuts. Even that first scene with her and Veronica on the phone, it's just like blech, something is so off about this woman. She makes you feel so awful. It's just how deeply we hide behind the microaggressive, systemic racism, [the] oppression of, [and/or] othering black people, and just what Black women have had to deal with for so long. It's so intense. People don't realize the brutality of it, as it sits side-by-side with chattel slave torture. It's just as brutal in its own way, you know? I felt like I had to make that feel violent because those were more the feminine brutalities. That was more the female legacy of the plantation owner, was the microaggressions, the control, the dehumanization. It was not [really] through physical violence. I felt like the more layers I could put into that, the deeper someone would understand why that's such a f—ing horrible thing, you know?
Definitely. What was it like working with two directors in this instance? Did they seem to have separate responsibilities or sort of work as one?
They have separate gifts. Gerard is very much like an embodier, or poet. He has the language, [and] gets very excited about things. And Chris is like this silent meticulizer that is holding the whole ship down. I don't know, that's such a beautiful complimentary energy. I was like more couples should direct. There's already so much intimacy and trust, and they're sort of gifting us with this ability to enter their space. It's already so fleshed out, but it felt like it felt really, really beautiful. There was such a seamlessness of like personal history as it interwebs with allyship, as it interwebs with collective understanding that I just felt like they were really respectful of that with each other. I didn't notice any like "Well Gerard only talks about this, and Chris never says anything about this." It felt much more fluid and natural.
Getting into working with Janelle Monáe, what was your first impression of her, and what were the first scenes you guys were really working together?
I already respected her work as a singer-songwriter-poet-activist-artist. What I felt is that she's just such a thoroughbred. Basically, the environment on set for an actor is really dictated by who was number one on the call sheet, and she had a deep respect for process, for taking risks, for having conversations, not being scared to kind of stop everything and ask a bunch of questions, or invite anyone who has a need to communicate to talk about things. I felt like she just led with this environment of consent and self-respect, and really knowing how to protect her instruments, which felt really radical. I just feel like so many people downplay their needs on set, or they don't take up enough space—particularly a woman, particularly a Black woman — and I just love how she took up space. It made me feel like I had more permission and more consent to take risks, so I love working with her.
What was the most memorable day on set, working with her?
Our fight scene. That was the hardest. That was a real thing. We really went for it, like I was hurt after, she was hurt after, it was real, you know. We didn't want it to just be the sort of misunderstood female fight. We really wanted brutality, and the stakes; that heroic female strength that comes out of great need. So yeah, that was super fun. That was super wild.
How has this experience changed you at all?
I think it definitely opened up a space for me. It was almost like this film became the grandmother that I never had because I feel like I had always allowed some sort of omnipresent figure to say “Don't talk about politics or religion,” or some sort of PC, blah, blah, blah, [at] dining tables. I didn't know how to talk about race. I was extremely ignorant and asleep in a lot of ways, but I think this film gave me the strength of saying “It's okay to be wherever I'm at in this journey,” and that it's a journey we will all take together. It just gave me strength. It really empowered me to ask questions and to have hard conversations, and oddly prepared me for this beautiful reckoning that we're in right now, the largest social justice movement that I think this generation has ever seen. So I think it's been a gift to me in a lot of ways.