Jena Malone believes in Sucker Punch. I mean really believes in Sucker Punch. I learned as much back in November of 2009, when I encountered the then-25-year-old actress on the set of Zack Snyder’s sprawling action-sci-fi-burlesque fantasy flick. All five of the film’s female stars (Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Vanessa Hudgens, Jamie Chung, and Malone) gave interviews, and all five uniformly raved about how awesome it was to be part of such an amazing project and how strongly its message resonated with them and how the around-the-clock training they were required to undergo for several months prior to filming was intensely grueling but also incredibly empowering, and that they were all better friends because of it. But Malone stood apart: She seemed particularly enthusiastic, speaking with a kind of breathless conviction about Sucker Punch that made me wonder if my initial appraisal of the project as a relatively lightweight girls-with-guns CGI binge was perhaps inaccurate. Perhaps it was something much, much more profound.
Last weekend, on the eve of the Sucker Punch’s release, I met with Malone in a conference room at the Beverly Hilton to determine if her passion for the Sucker Punch Ethos still burned as brightly, now that she was over a year removed from principal photography. It was an unusual atmosphere. Feeling “pacey,” she requested to stand throughout the entirety of the interview. Not wishing to address her at waist-level for 10-15 minutes, I went for the lesser of two awkwards and chose to stand as well. Also standing, off in the corner of the room, was a scruffy but well-dressed rustic-hipster type I assumed to be her boyfriend, smoking an American Spirit and observing us with a kind of detached amusement (or maybe disdain). He looked legit -- I would not have been at all surprised if he were later revealed to be a Decemberist or a Monster of Folk or dare I say a King of Leon. Also smoking was Malone. Another man, dressed in a more minimalist mesh-hat-and-t-shirt ensemble, sat impassively behind a laptop at an adjacent table, possibly scanning Google results for “journalist + intimidate.”
Whatever vague fears I harbored of a potential ambush were quelled by Malone, who proved friendly and effusive and altogether lovely, even if she did come off a bit pacey:
Now that you’ve been away from this project for a while, what do you think is your primary take-away from it?
That I have discovered an inner strength that I didn’t even know was possible. Basically, I feel that I could do anything – and I’m not putting that lightly. I really did things that I never thought in my life I would ever be able to achieve or do or pull off or actually be good at, although one thing I wasn’t able to get that good at was pole-dancing. It’s extremely difficult.
That’s why those women who do it professionally are paid so well.
Yeah! It should be an Olympic sport, because, by the way, you need a lot of discipline and muscle and technique. It’s kind of incredible. And to do anything in seven-inch heels should be a sport. [Laughs]
When I saw the film last night, I was surprised to see how big a role your character, Rocket, plays in the ensemble. Is that how the role was originally written? I talked to Carla Gugino earlier and she mentioned that her role changed and evolved a lot through the process.
As written. I feel like the film is actually very true to the script. Which is funny, and it shows you how detail-oriented Zack is. A lot of the action pieces had been written almost exactly the way that they’re shown. There was a lot of detail, and all of the character development was kind of already there. And then it was just allowing the little nuances between the characters, allowing the group dynamic to really show. I think that was sort of the improvisational element that really kind of changed things a bit on set, how closely we had all bonded. Which I don’t think Zack had really expected. He wanted [us to bond] of course, but didn’t expect how far we had gone and how much we loved each other. So I feel like that really added to what was already on the page. It brought it up to a new height.
Zack is obviously a gifted artist and an exceedingly intelligent guy, but I notice that sometimes he struggles a little to articulate himself in interviews, as if he’s distracted or something. Is he like that on-set?
Well, the thing is that he has 7,000 ideas coming in his head at all times, you know? And he’s super excited about all of them, so it’s really hard sometimes for him to be able to express exactly what the thing is. But what’s incredible is that if you do ask him a direct question about a specific thing, he has answers for everything. You just sort of have to know how to phrase it so he doesn’t get too excited and tell you too much, because there’s so much in there, all of these amazing details that you would never have been able to catch just on the page.
One thing I wanted to ask you about the message of the film is … actually, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure what the message of the film is. Could you perhaps spell it out for me?
For me it’s this: No matter how crazy the circumstances are, how much oppression, how much dilemma, how much negative energy is surrounding you, you are able to, through your own willpower and the power of your imagination, escape into a better place and transcend that negative environment and turn it into something positive – even if you can’t physically transcend it. On the flipside of that is: What are you willing to sacrifice to get to that point? Do you sacrifice your physical safety? Do you sacrifice your friends? Do you make sacrifices that [bring about] things that you would be completely terrified of beforehand? That’s what I think is really the theme of the film.
Wow. That’s impressive.
Well, we’ve been talking about it for three months. [Laughs]
But I get a sense that that actually means something to you.
It really does! Absolutely. Particularly because there were a lot of parallels between what I was learning as just Jena, not even “Actress Jena.” Just my own personal things. Like I was really getting good at deadlifts. I got super into them.
I remember you mentioning that.
Yeah. And the funny thing is that I learned that I have such mental blockers about what I think my strength is. They [the trainers] would be like, “All right, this is 200 lbs., you gotta pull it,” I couldn’t pull it. Because in my mind, 200 sounded so much bigger than it actually was. And so we got to this point where they kind of figured out this thing where they were like, “Okay, we’re not gonna tell you anymore. We’re not gonna tell you what you’re pulling. You just step up to the thing and you f*cking pull it.” And once that happened and once I sort of cleared my head and didn’t have that battling me, I was able to do 235. I did a 300 rack deadlift. That’s an ungodly amount of weight for a woman who was like 115 lbs.
Do you think maybe they were just lying to you?
No way. I counted it after. Because I was like, really? Are you kidding me?
I wanna see that featurette on the DVD. The Deadlift Featurette.
Yeah. It’s gonna be fun.
I can’t imagine any of your upcoming projects requiring as much deadlifting.
You never know. I think it’s really interesting that now I was sort of given this physical training and a physical entry point into a character, that the film that I did after [Sucker Punch], this film called The Wait, written and directed by M. Blash – Chloe Sevigny is in it as well – I kind of realized that getting into some form of physical preparation for a character helped sort of release certain things. And she was a character that held a lot of pressure, so I remember that in the mornings I would wake up and just sort of hold my body and just tighten everything and not release it until I couldn’t anymore, and then let it go. And I was using all of these physical acting things that I had never used before, things that Sucker Punch had sort of enlivened in me. Being able to use extremities of pushing yourself physically, to have more of the emotion come out and not always just using the heart as an entry point, but to also use the pain of the body.
It sounds as if Sucker Punch helped you become a better actress.
Oh yeah, absolutely. It gave me tools and techniques that I didn’t even know existed before.
When you said “tools and techniques” like that, I couldn’t help but think of, well, not Scientology, but, well, a kind of philosophy or set of principles--
Well, it shows how much care went into it. We had incredible trainers that really taught us a lot about our bodies and our limitations and how to take care of it – basically treating it as a temple, and what you would do to be able to become the best version of yourself. These are things we all need to know about: techniques for breathing, techniques for releasing stress, being careful about what you eat so you’re not spiking insulin levels, so you’ll be able to carry energy throughout the day. And to know when you’re slacking that you need to be good to yourself, and rest is just as important, you know?
These “sexy” archetypes that you guys play around with – the sexy nurse, the sexy schoolgirl, etc. – why do you think they appeal so much to men?
Who knows? That’s like a dissertation, in the sense of going back to the beginnings, the origins of archetypes. Why do we have caveman instincts still in our bodies? Why do I sometimes feel like I wanna beat my chest and scream out loud? There’s things that are a part of our collective consciousness that we’ll never fully understand. But it’s really beautiful that we get to carry on ancient things that have been passed down to us from ancestors, relatives, people who lived in a completely different era, but somehow we still have it inside of our bodies, these myths that we carry, you know? It’s a beautiful thing.
Sucker Punch opens nationwide Friday, March 25, 2011.
Life’s never exactly been a walk in the park for Rooster (Antwan Patton) and Percival (Andre Benjamin) even when they were childhood best friends but things are about to get real messy. Now grown up and living in the 1930s South--Idlewild Georgia to be exact--they remain close and even work together. Rooster the more flamboyant of the two is the emcee and Percy the piano player at a place called Church which is “anything but.” Church is a speakeasy beloved by locals but after a gangster (Terrence Howard) forcibly removes the club’s former owner (Faizon Love) the new regime is considerably tighter especially for Rooster who has to answer to the new guy in charge. Rooster is all about business and is concerned about keeping Church in operation. Percy meanwhile is torn between love for a woman (Paula Patton) and allegiance for his widower dad (Ben Vereen). But nothing will get resolved before the gunpowder settles. As Outkast Benjamin (a.k.a. Andre 3000) and Patton (a.k.a. Big Boi) have set pop music on fire while maintaining hip-hop cred. In Idlewild they try to continue that along with taking over a new medium; the results are mixed. Patton the one with seemingly no aspirations of movie stardom actually gives the stronger performance of the two. This is just his second film yet he coolly slides right into this role one that should’ve entailed more dialogue and less rapping. For Benjamin he has certainly displayed acting chops before but his wounded puppy dog Percy does not suit the actor at all. A role with more external drama would seem optimal for him. Benjamin does seem deeply committed to acting though so there’s reason to have faith. But it’s Howard yet again who absolutely pilfers the show making everyone look like mere rappers trying to cross over. His Hustle and Flow hype now calmed Howard proves that he is anything but a one-hit wonder. Bryan Barber is Outkast’s go-to music-video director who’s making his feature debut with Idlewild; both of those facts speak volumes about his writing/directing effort here. As such the film is loaded with bright spots usually consisting of the dance sequences and the overall style and major cinematic blemishes as can be expected for a first-timer. In other words the core elements--i.e. the script and direction--are a mess but the peripheral elements--i.e. the look and sound--are dazzling. Part of the problem is the timing of the release: This film is supposed to do too many things from launching Benjamin into movie stardom to coinciding with the actual Outkast album/soundtrack release and that ambition is a microcosm of the flaws. But most of all there is simply too much going on here. Anachronisms run rampant where they shouldn’t and the same can be said for some of the songs--the vulgar rap played against the film’s Southern themes doesn’t always quite work as the intended contrast is sometimes overbearing.