At The Head Of Her Class

Jena Malone is doing everything wrong. Teenage starlets--like, say, Hilary Duff or Lindsay Lohan or the two-headed Olsen monster--are expected to behave a certain way. They're supposed to dress skimpily, party recklessly, canoodle openly and feud viciously. At the very least, they should live in Los Angeles. Malone, who's 19, lives in Lake Tahoe, Nev. "I love it here," she says. "It's very important to me to have all four seasons." See, teenage starlets are supposed to think "the four seasons" is a hotel. Malone also doesn't have a personal publicist (huh?), which may explain her bizarre conduct during her NEWSWEEK interview. First, she called 15 minutes early. Then, when the call went to voice mail, she left her actual phone number. Somebody really needs to sit this girl down.

Craziest of all, though, are Malone's career choices. Instead of signing up for disposable teen flicks, she's delivered gutsy performances in a series of challenging indies, including 2002's "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys" and the cult classic "Donnie Darko." In her new movie "Saved!"--costarring Macaulay Culkin and Mandy Moore--Malone plays a sweetie-pie senior at a devout Christian high school who becomes pregnant while trying to "cure" her gay boyfriend. The movie is funny and unexpectedly smart. But a religious satire? Teasing Christians is risky business--even if the film is gentle about it and, in the end, faith-affirming. The way Malone's going, she'll never be as popular as the Olsen twins. She'll just have to settle for being the Jodie Foster of her generation.

On screen, Malone has a cherubic face, but she usually plays girls with weary souls. It must come naturally. At 14, she legally emancipated herself from her mother. She believed her mom was in over her head trying to manage Malone's earnings from acting, and decided to give it a shot herself. "Everyone's ready for things in their lives at different times," says Malone, who's been cast alongside Keira Knightley in a film version of "Pride and Prejudice." "I was a dorky 14-year-old. I wanted to pay my own bills. I wanted to go to the grocery store." Unlike her character in "Saved!" Malone isn't especially religious. But her research revealed a far more nuanced teen universe than she anticipated. "I went to these Christian youth rallies, and I got 'saved' three times," she says. "It's beautiful seeing 20,000 kids who are so passionate about what they believe. It's nice to see that passion for something other than Britney Spears." Amen to that.

At The Head Of Her Class | News