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.”

This story first appeared in the January 30, 2006 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Malone, for her part, has relished the slight adjustments and nuances of acclimating to the theater world and her new part.

“The more and more I’ve done it, my voice is dropping deeper and it’s just feeling more right,” she says of her first time on stage since the age of seven. ” As in, I don’t have to play the innocence. The audience is already there. I am the picture of innocence when I step out on that stage.”

In real life, the picture is very different. Born in Sparks, Nev., Malone moved around about 30 times throughout her childhood, raised by her mother, a theater actress, and her lesbian partner. At 14, she went to court to gain control of her finances and has been living on her own ever since.

Since her teens, she has worked steadily (her upcoming films include “Lying” with Chloë Sevigny and “The Go-Getter” with Lou Taylor Pucci), attended high school for just one year and moved to Lake Tahoe, where she bought a house at age 18. She is now close to both her mom and eight-year-old sister.

Malone’s disarming maturity, sweetly set off by the “rads,” “awesomes” and “likes” that dot her speech, naturally extends to her self-assured take on Hollywood. She doesn’t employ a publicist, adamantly eschews makeup and fancy clothes in press appearances and wouldn’t be caught dead in her underwear on a magazine cover.

“It’s not that I don’t like to embrace my femininity, because I’m learning that more and more, actually,” she explains, having bought 13 dresses in the past year after a lifetime as a self-avowed tomboy. “It’s an exciting thing to sort of dress up and wear makeup and stuff, which I had never really ever endorsed before. But if I am going to show many different faces to the public, then I have to keep something for myself. And I’d much rather put the most honest depiction of my face forward than a heightened form of reality.”

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