Jena Malone on Channeling PTSD for The Hunger Games

Jena Malone Channels PTSD for Hunger Games

 Channels PTSD for Hunger Games


What was it like to embody Johanna Mason, with all her anger?
One of the best things that [director] Francis Lawrence brought to the series was not only his love of the books — he knew them inside-out, and he would reference them constantly — but he had everyone go and meet with a posttraumatic-stress-disorder specialist before we started filmingCatching Fire. I got to talk to him for a couple of hours, and he recommended some books. Learning what really happens to people when they go through a traumatic life-or-death situation just kind of blew my mind. How it changes the body. How it changes your personality. How it changes your reaction time to things. That’s where I started. I read a few books about these soldiers in war and combat coming home, and the anger and dissociation between real life and what is their life. And it just clicked! As soon as I started understanding what that horror is, what that anger is, I realized that she had developed all these ways to be able to survive. She’s using her humor, her combativeness, and her unpredictability to keep people at arm’s length, but also to protect herself. Like, her getting naked in the elevator is an intimidation technique, but it’s also a nod to where she will be going. And the fact that a woman can use her nakedness as a weapon, and then someone later could use that same nakedness as a weapon against her, as a form of torture? It’s a wild thing! A wild, wild thing.

But once I figured out her core, all the hardness was easy to play with — albeit hard to hold on to! Anger doesn’t make you feel warm and fuzzy at night. But it was amazing to channel! It’s definitely super powerful, tapping into that kind of energy, but also really exhausting. I remember on Catching Fire, I’d come home sometimes and people would be like, “Let’s go out and drink!” And I’d be like, “You know what? I am so beat, I’m actually just going to go crawl into a hole and die.”

Did you work out with the counselor which stages of PTSD Johanna would have after her various traumas? In her life, she goes through two brutal Hunger Games and a round of torture in the Capitol. Are there layers to how all that changes her?
It doesn’t really work like that, necessarily, where it’s like you get it triple time. Once something traumatic happens in your life, everything is triggered from that point. Everything is kind of a reminder of that first point of entry, although it could deepen and sharpen. Like helicopters might make you feel weird. Or this smell might make you feel bad. There can be different trigger points. But mostly, it’s all from one point of trauma. And her humor is her protection mechanism. It’s how she survives in the world.

So I talked to the counselor about the humor, and the idea of enlarging your personality to make it the biggest personality in the room, so that you don’t have to talk about how you really feel, which is sort of the biggest hole in the room. It’s an overcompensation mechanism, really, for young children — when they don’t feel valid, when they don’t feel safe, they pretend to be much stronger, braver, or smarter than they really are. It was fascinating to learn about that stuff, because it’s something we all do, even without dealing with this kind of extreme trauma. These triggers are the kinds of things we all work with and deal with in normal day-to-day life…

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