Sister Act

Glancing at actress Jena Malone's jam-packed resume, one could be forgiven for thinking the girl has a religious bent.

Jena Malone

Jena Malone

Photo By Stephen Sullivan

NEW YORK — Glancing at actress Jena Malone's jam-packed résumé, one could be forgiven for thinking the girl has a religious bent. She was a pregnant teenager grappling with her faith at a Christian high school in the 2004 "Saved," a troubled Catholic schoolgirl in "The Mysterious Lives of Altar Boys" and, since her Broadway debut two weeks ago, a conflicted nun in John Patrick Shanley's Tony award-winning play "Doubt" at the Walter Kerr Theatre.

But such thematic coincidences are simply a testament to Malone's inquisitive nature. The 21-year-old, precocious and preternaturally wise in person, attended Sunday school only a few times as a child. And it was her desire to break into theater, not the religious subject matter, that drew Malone to "Doubt," in which she plays Sister James, a teacher torn over whether to believe the school's priest has sexually abused one of her students.

"I loved the power plays and how she's sort of the low man on the totem," she explains over an early sushi dinner near the theater. Dressed in an old cardigan (bedecked with a strip of duct tape) and ripped jeans, Malone is recovering from a flu that caused her to miss her first show. "She's constantly fighting to keep her job, to keep her mind, to keep her soul intact," she says of her character. "And I found that her journey paralleled the audience in a lot of ways in the sense of her questions were the same questions that the audience has."

Certainly, Sister James' naïveté and purity seem a far cry from the darker, rawer material Malone has chosen since her first movie, "Bastard Out of Carolina," when she was 11. It was probably this very energy, though, that helped her stand out when director Doug Hughes began auditioning last fall (Malone takes over the role from Heather Goldenhersh).

"I had a hard time recasting this part. We saw a number of actresses and all of them are very, very good, but there was a particular value, a fierce innocence that has to come naturally to the actress playing her," Hughes explains. "I found that Jena has that fierce innocence that she brings to the role and has very much made it her own."
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