FOSTER CHILD THOUGH SHE JUST TURNED 13 NOV. 21, Jena Malone has already worked with some of Hollywood's top actresses: Anjelica Huston (who directed her in Showtime's Bastard Out of Carolina in 1996), Goldie Hawn (who did likewise on TNT's Hope in October) and Julia Roberts
and Susan Sarandon (her costars in an as-yet-untitled feature film now shooting in Manhattan).
But Malone, who has the title role in Ellen Foster, a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie (airing Dec. 14 at 9 p.m. ET on CBS), says the career she'd most like to emulate is that of another Foster—actress Jodie. In this summer's Contact, Malone portrayed Foster's character, a radio astronomer, as a child. "One reason I did the movie was to work with Jodie," she says.
Jena's kinship with the Oscar winner derives, in part, from the sensitive roles both have tackled at tender ages. Foster was barely a teen when she played a prostitute in 1976's Taxi Driver. Malone, at 11, was cast as Bastard's sexually molested daughter, and now, in Ellen Foster, she's an abused orphan.
Malone herself hasn't had it quite so rough, although "we've been pretty poor much of Jena's life," says her mother, Debbie. "I'm a single mom and always have been," adds Malone, 35, a former stage actress, who also has another daughter, 4-month-old Madison. The girls have different fathers, but Debbie is raising them both alone. The family was living at Lake Tahoe, Nev, in 1994 when Jena began attending acting seminars. Within a year, she won her debut role in Bastard. "I see her as a peer," says Sarandon, who has become a close friend. "And she's a genuinely sweet and good person."