By Samantha Miller
December 10, 2001 12:00 PM

Living solo at 17 might be a teenager’s fantasy, but Jena Malone knows the reality. “When I first moved out on my own, it was weird,” she says, toasting a Pop-Tart for breakfast in her one-bedroom Hollywood apartment. “If I wanted to eat, I had to cook. I could stay up as late as I wanted, but after a few nights of staying up until dawn, you realize you need sleep. You eventually grow up.”

Malone didn’t have much choice. At the age of 15, the child star of films such as 1997’s Contact and 1998’s Stepmom persuaded a Los Angeles court to grant her legal emancipation from her mother, who she claimed had mismanaged her earnings. Now Malone is taking on more mature roles onscreen too, appearing as a teen who tempts both a terminally ill man (Kevin Kline) and his son (Hayden Christensen) in the drama Life as a House. “She seems much older than her years,” says Mary Steenburgen, her House mother, “unless you get into a golf cart with her. She’s still new to driving.”

And fending for herself. Because of age limits, “I can’t get long-distance [telephone] service,” says Malone, who lived with roommates until she found her own place a few months ago. “I couldn’t lease a car—I had to buy it.” But getting a car or credit card is easy compared with another task Malone is tackling: mending her break with her mother. A single mom, Deborah Malone brought up Jena in Lake Tahoe, Calif., and Las Vegas, relying on low-wage jobs and public assistance to make ends meet. That changed after Jena, at 9, attended an acting seminar that eventually led to her highly praised performance as an abused child in a 1996 Showtime movie, Bastard Out of Carolina. But after several years as breadwinner, the actress says, “it came to a certain point that money and family didn’t mix.”

Jena’s June 1999 request to be declared an adult led to a legal squabble in which she charged that her mother squandered hundreds of thousands of dollars of her earnings on personal expenses and loans to relatives that were never repaid. Jena says she also wanted the freedom to choose her own roles and work longer hours—to be “fully in control of my career and my finances and my life.” Deborah, who maintained that the loans were investments, eventually agreed to the emancipation. Today she expresses regret for the way she handled her daughter’s career. “I listened to too much advice from people who didn’t always have our best interest at heart,” says Deborah, 40, who now lives in Reno, where she attends college and works part-time. “I need to make my own way,” she adds. “It is a degrading situation to be in, to have a daughter who makes a quarter of a million dollars when you’ve never made over $10,000.”

Malone became an emancipated minor a few weeks after her 15th birthday. With the help of her longtime acting coach Lesley Brander, 47, she had moved into an apartment with two roommates. Malone says she and her mother, who is raising Jena’s half-sister Madison, 4, are now in touch and “repairing anything that was broken.” Says Deborah: “We talk on the phone, and she visits when she can. These are going to be little steps. I just keep hoping that we will get to that place where everything is forgiven.”

If any teen can handle Hollywood on her own, friends say, it’s Malone, a voracious reader who would rather go bowling or shop at thrift stores than hit the red carpet. “She has always been smart and independent,” says friend Perry Greene, 18, a Harvard freshman who met Malone in 1997 when Malone briefly attended Manhattan’s Professional Children’s School. “I wouldn’t say she missed out on her childhood. She had one. She just zipped through the stages.”

A steamy shower scene with House costar Christensen, though, left Malone squirming. “There are all these burly stage guys around watching you kiss a boy while you’re wearing underwear,” she says. Without much experience to draw upon—”I’m new to the whole dating thing,” she admits—Malone got over the awkwardness by joking between takes.

With three movies due to be released over the next year, she’s ready for her next projects: taking the SATs (she has earned her GED) and applying to college to study writing, photography and cinematography. “I wanted to wait until I was actually college-aged before I went,” Malone says. “I don’t want to stick out.”

Samantha Miller

Carrie Bell in Los Angeles screen