Steaming bowls of pasta, a taco bar, jars overflowing with M&Ms and jelly beans — that’s what Jena Malone remembers about being on a movie set as a kid. The food.
“I grew up like without any sort of fancy food. So I literally stuffed myself silly,” the actress said, recalling her experience on 1997’s “Contact” as an 11-year-old. “It was like, ‘Huh. I guess they live in a different way than I live. Hollywood is definitely a different world.’”
Nearly two decades later, Malone, now 29, is accustomed to such industry luxuries. One has to imagine, after all, that the spreads on “The Hunger Games” movies she’s acted in over the last few years were plentiful. But at the Los Angeles’ Times Young Hollywood round table at AFI Fest last week, Malone — joined by Logan Lerman, 22; Jenny Slate, 32; and Joey King, 15 — said working as a child actor helped her develop self-confidence.
“A lot of people focus on this downside of Hollywood — growing up as a young actor and of the pitfalls,” said Malone, who will be seen in the “Hunger Games” entry “Mockingjay — Part 1" and Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” this fall. “But for me it’s so funny — there’s like this really glaringly obvious thing that no one talks about, which is the ability to have a voice at a young age.”
In fact, all of this year’s panelists seemed self-possessed, freely sharing their views on higher education, social media and role models. They also discussed their turns in some of the year’s most talked-about films: Slate in the abortion comedy “Obvious Child,” Lerman in the World War II drama “Fury” and King in Zach Braff’s Kickstarter-funded “Wish I Was Here.”
A junior in high school, King is developing her voice. Her parents accompany her on sets, and her mother was even seated in the front row at The Times event this month. But after having worked opposite some of Hollywood’s biggest names — Channing Tatum, James Franco, Ryan Gosling — she is comfortable with adults and quickly struck up a rapport with the wisecracking and warm Slate.
A veteran of “Saturday Night Live,” Slate comes alive in front of a crowd. But clad in a peppy lemon-colored dress, she was just as quick to toss off one-liners as she was to delve into her acting ambitions. Lerman, meanwhile, was reserved with a dry sense of humor.
Here are excerpts from a conversation with the four rising talents:
Jena Malone: Can we all go through and say what age we started? I was 10.
Logan Lerman: I was 7.
Joey King: I was 4.
Jenny Slate: I started as a stand-up comedian, and I started at 22. My parents wouldn’t let me perform. I wanted to be an actress as a child. I’m from Massachusetts; there wasn’t really like an opportunity to do that. I wanted to be an actress, but not like Shirley Temple or like Kimmy Gibbler from “Full House.” I wanted to be like Amy Irving, and I wanted to be a woman and have a woman’s body and portray female experiences. And my parents were like, “Yeah, well, you know, you can when you’re a woman, but you can’t now. And you have to go to school.”
Jenny, you’re the only one in this group who went to college. Did the rest of you consider it?
Malone: I think that when you start young, you’re basically given this really beautiful opportunity to have a voice, which not a lot of adolescents have. You don’t really get — as a normal 10-year-old or 4-year-old — people saying, ‘What is your opinion about this? Would you like to make a decision about this?’ Usually things are decided for you. You’re being put in very magical, adult situations where you get to sharpen your own inner voice.
King: At first when my mom brought up the idea, “When you’re out of high school, do you want to go to college?” I was like, “No. Why would I do that? I already have a career. I have a foundation, and I want to do this for the rest of my life. Why would I want to go study something else?” And then I really thought about it, and I was like, “Wait. I really want to go to college.” It’s cool to have a knowledge of something beyond what you do. And if you study film, you have more knowledge of what you do, which is awesome as well.
Slate: I went to Columbia, and I studied English and comparative literature. And I just, like, read stories and learned how to chill out. And for me I needed that, because I am both gregarious and I think a bit vulnerable, and I needed to get a group of weirdos together to show me that I belong somewhere.... I don’t read “The Iliad” on my spare time; I don’t read, like, Marx. I don’t use the education in the typical way that one might, but am I glad that I took the history of Japan? Yeah. I don’t know what I’d use it for, but my brain feels like it has texture.
Jena, this year you’re starring in the massive “The Hunger Games” franchise and a much smaller art-house film, Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice.” Can you talk about working on a low-budget film versus a behemoth film series?
Malone: Craft service. I mean, for real.... I guess if I had to be nitpicky, maybe the main difference is on an independent film there’s less time. You have less time to play. You have less time to prepare. You have less time to reset. But that also creates beautiful things. Knowing that you only have an hour before sunset and you’re not going to be able to get back to this location ever again and here you are, two actors facing the sun, that’s it.
There’s a rumor out there that you’re going to be in another pretty big movie, playing Robin in the new “Batman vs. Superman” film.
Malone: Oh, we’re going to go there?
Yep. Are you all interested in being a part of superhero films?
Lerman: Yeah, it’s interesting how they’re slated till like 2020 now. It’s really what’s keeping the industry afloat. They also help the other films get made because there’s money coming in because [superhero] movies make a lot of money. If there’s a good filmmaker making an interesting fresh take on a superhero story, I’m excited about it, yeah.
Jena’s remaining silent on this one.
Malone: Oh, yeah, sorry. No, I mean, honestly — let’s think of it more as a metaphor. Each actor is an independent contractor, right? And so as much as we are artists and look for truth and meaning 90% of the time, 10% of the time we’re businesswomen; we’re businessmen. As I’ve gotten older, there is an element of that. Of course I want to be involved with things that are above and beyond anything that I thought I could’ve created within my own work.
Lerman: Are you Robin? That’s what I want to know. You don’t need to answer this now. We’ll talk outside.
Malone: Everyone is, right? We’re all Robin.
King: I love the idea of someone being supernatural and having abilities to do things that humans can’t. When you get thrown like a superhero part on your lap, you’re like, “Whoa, I don’t know how to be a telekinetic genius thing who can turn green. This will be fun.”
Malone: Usually within those films you’re asked to do things that nowhere in the world would you be asked to do otherwise. In “Sucker Punch,” I had to do pole dancing and then also heavy artillery and work with Navy SEALs and get trained in martial art. And it was so empowering as a woman, 25 years old at that time, that they saw in this little scrawny whatever that I could do this — that I could be my own superhero.
How do you move past anxiety in intimidating situations? Logan, were you nervous to do “Fury” with a veteran like Brad Pitt? How do you get over that?
Lerman: Punch him in the face. No, I mean — it’s a weird barrier, looking at someone who’s so iconic and you want to feel comfortable with them and collaborate with them and feel free to explore scenes with them. With him, it was extremely easy because he’s just a really good guy — really invested, hardworking actor.
You’re all on Twitter. How do you use it? To make jokes, address rumors about yourselves, connect with fans?
Slate: The Internet can either be a beautiful meadow for creative sprites to dance around in or a garbage dump for people with bad manners to spew their angst. And we’re all our own portal — you can see whatever you choose. I choose to see it as a place that’s nice and fun.... I do tweet often on behalf of Planned Parenthood and feminist organizations that I care about and do activism that means something to me. But for the most part I like to —
Talk about bodily functions.
Slate: Yeah — talk about my body and about what my experience is as an adult human woman and — in a way — to instruct people on how to consume me as a public person. I can be a woman with a sexuality and a sense of humor and a working or nonworking gastrointestinal system. I find it to be very cathartic, but sometimes there are times when my husband’s like, “Put down your phone. And if you have something to say, say it to me because I don’t want to read anymore that you have PMS. I can tell.”
King: I love you.
Slate: I love you too. I like your vibe.
What other actors do you love? Are there performers you look at and hope to model your careers after?
King: I’m a big Jessica Chastain fan.
Malone: The whole thing of modeling a career after someone — I don’t know. I think actors at any stage can inspire — whether they’re a seasoned actor or someone making a film for the first time. I think that I’m more inspired by performances and career choices than necessarily like, “Ah, that mold! I want to fit into it.”
Slate: I love women like Gilda Radner, Ruth Gordon, Madeline Kahn, Rosalind Russell, Amy Sedaris. I like women that cannot be replaced by anyone else. What they did was so specific to them, but they also had a really interesting and personal sense of style, a real grip and pride in their sexuality and put their sensitivity out there. I always felt like, “Well, I don’t know that I’m going to be an American bikini lady.”
King: You know who I think is underrated who I love very much? Queen Latifah. Just putting that out there.
Slate: I think she rated. I think she’s rated high. I think she’s the queen.
King: Oh, no, she is Queen Latifah. But nobody like talks about her anymore. Like, why?
Lerman: She was actually my inspiration.
What’s something you wish someone had told you early on in your career?
Malone: Don’t follow anyone else’s advice.
King: Approach it like a boss. Just own it, whatever you’re doing. If you think you look weird, step out and look weird. I’ve had to like wear things on a set where I’m like, “What am I wearing?” And I’m just like, “You know what? It’s cool.” It’s a process to develop confidence in this industry, because I’m pretty young and people are always judging. There’s so much, “Ooh, will she turn out like a train wreck when she grows up?” But I just think when you have confidence and you own yourself and you be a boss, you don’t worry about it.