Fifteen minutes into the Friday night Q&A segment following the opening night screening of the movie “Porcupine” at the Sarasota Film Festival, Jena Malone sprints down the center aisle and onto the stage. It takes a moment for the audience to connect her to the character they’ve just been watching for an hour and a half, the one whose grounded and subtle performance made them laugh, maybe even shed a tear or two. Jena apologizes for being late – between the red carpet and the post-movie Q&A, she returned to her hotel to tuck in her five-year-old son. She dives into the conversation, stopping briefly to look for water in her purse, finding only her son’s blue cup and drinking from it anyway.
“Porcupine” director Mr. Cahill describes the film’s journey from its first concept, tentatively titled “Hatched,” to the finished film, titled after the spiny animal after realizing the character’s shared manner of both of Malone, Audrey, and her adoptive father Otto, played by Robert Hunger-Bühler, take on the challenges of becoming close to someone who also has sharp edges. Jena laughs, having never heard this story before, as the movie’s title change suddenly makes sense.
The film’s many slow, quiet moments with protagonist Audrey illustrate her loneliness to the world and build our relationship with her. She’s a woman who’s just been dumped, estranged (emotionally and physically) from her family, a lover of silly animal videos, a nomad who struggles to put down roots anywhere. When she answers an online ad for a family looking to adopt an adult child and meets Sunny (played by Emily Kuroda) and Otto, the same slow pace serves to underscore the awkwardness of their situation and make room for the past. , to the quirks of the characters. , and relationships to shine.
Responding to a question about preparing for the role, Jena reflects, “fear is where you want to create from.” She says she went for minimalism and naturalism in her “Porcupine” performance, something that seemed a bit daunting. In many of her previous roles, she prepared well in advance, seeking to understand, define and construct the character she is playing long before the cameras started rolling. But for Audrey, Jena chose to go blind, discovering these things on set, in the moment. Many of her choices as an actor thus reflected who she was as a person. Although, she says, she and Audrey are still very different people.
Saturday afternoon, I attend the career retrospective discussion with Malone at Sage SRQ, where she will be honored with the Sarasota Film Festival Lifetime Achievement Award. Throughout the event, Jena smiles and greets Ode, her son, who sits patiently in the audience. He patiently listens to his mother recount the highlights of his twenty-seven-year career that spans films of nearly every genre, from blockbusters to micro-budget independents.
Jena first recounts being inspired to continue acting at the age of ten after seeing her mother take the stage as Rosie during a dress rehearsal for a community theater production of “Bye Bye Birdie”. . She describes the moment as the first time she saw someone transform like this, disappear and reappear as a character before her eyes. She then made a list of creative activities she wanted to pursue: acting, singing, writing, dancing, teaching. “I started out acting,” says Jena, “because that was the first thing on the list.”
Her acting career took off instantly: Malone starred in more than a dozen films as a preteen and teenager. She expresses her gratitude for the opportunity to work with so many female directors early on, who demonstrated the power of autonomy and decision-making in a male-dominated industry. Most importantly, she’s grateful for how many directors, including Anjelica Huston, chose not to treat her like a child, but rather as a person with choices, who deserved to have a voice. She laughs as she recounts how, “When I was eleven, I told my agents I didn’t want to do commercials anymore, can you imagine?”
But his creative work doesn’t end with acting. She says, “I realized that the most important job I will do is the job I don’t get paid for.” Jena is an artist of mediums, including music, photography and dance, which allow her to practice her storytelling skills in new and exciting ways. This work, in addition to his screen work, “seems to plant seeds”, often reappearing in unexpected ways – like 2001’s “Donnie Darko”, an early flop that has since become a cult classic. “It’s exciting to see, for example, the purple tomato doing very well in an area that we didn’t expect,” she says.
After the discussion, I join Jena and Mr. Cahill at the Ritz-Carlton for a quick chat. Jena wears a button down shirt over a bathing suit; she spent the hour in between in the hotel pool with Ode.
Jena, you starred as Audrey in “Porcupine” several years before production began in 2019, and it would be another two years before the movie was released. How was the evolution of the project from an actor’s point of view?
The indie film life and death cycle is very long and arduous – you need to have a lot of flexibility and a bit of “one foot and one foot out”. You can’t have all your eggs in a basket somehow because you read a script and you like it, and then they try to get the money, and sometimes they’ll never get the money. Sometimes it takes two months, sometimes it takes seven years. Or you get the money, and you lose it, and you get it again.
It’s a very strange process of seduction. Being involved for a long time was a rarity. But for me, something that I had never really been a part of was I kind of signed a script, I thought nothing was happening because I hadn’t really heard much. And also I became a mom and moderately checked. Bringing a script back was very fresh and new, almost like a completely different movie in a way. Knowing that this film was financed and ready to shoot and that it was still something that [Mike] wanted me to be a part of was the most unique part of it.
What were some of the discoveries you made while looking for such a natural and minimal performance in this film?
It’s interesting to do – to try to do something that’s multi-layered and not contrived either. I don’t play myself – obviously I’m not Audrey. I think my most interesting guiding journey was knowing where to allow the lack of artifice to steer and the compass to steer. I didn’t really know what it was going to be until we did. So, it was like understanding, like, now I’m in a space needing to guide this or build that. It’s just a little more gelatinous and allowed, you know? So you had to feel it. Day to day, I felt like there wasn’t a lot of planning. Not easy, but not disastrous either.
I felt like I had a plan, you know, of what I would kind of like to do, but discovery is almost too small a word for what we do as actors and artists, you know? Because it’s just a big allocation space. And below that is trust and work, then it’s allocation, and then it’s craftsmanship, shaping. It’s just allowing, it’s being present. It’s being present, but understanding in a predetermined way where you need to be present and not present, you know, and then just softening the mind, then allowing whatever happens in that space.
How important are characters like Audrey: independent women not defined by a romantic relationship?
It is a question that does not need an answer. The thing I was so happy about [“Porcupine’s] script is that he didn’t try to push any sort of romantic undertone with them. I miss the relationship between the old man and the young woman so much. My brain is shutting down, you know, I can’t receive that information anymore. So I thought it was very smart to [Mike] not to even make it a problem. Not like its own mission, but just that there’s a world where those things don’t exist, that you don’t even have to mention.
“Porcupine” is available to stream online through the Sarasota Film Festival from April 1-11: https://www.sarasotafilmfestival.com/event/porcupine/. For tickets to other online screenings or live events, visit https://www.sarasotafilmfestival.com/.
Photos from the film: “Porcupine” 2021, dir. Mr Cahill
PHOTO CREDIT: Peter Le Photography