The time has come for Brie Larson to claim her rightful place in the spotlight. That she’s a versatile and keenly observant actor was never a secret for those who noted her bit parts in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World or Community, two works right in the A.V. Club’s wheelhouse. And many of those who caught the heartfelt Short Term 12 were floored by her vulnerability. It’s not that, at 26, Larson has a bright future ahead of her. She’s in the bright future, and the rest of Hollywood has finally caught up to her.
In 2015, Larson’s dealt the film industry a well-placed one-two punch. This summer, she played a serviceable straight woman against Amy Schumer’s typhoon of dysfunction in Trainwreck, but she’s been earning plaudits for her tour de force performance in Lenny Abrahamson’s Room. As the unbreakable Joy “Ma” Newsome, Larson and her son (Jacob Tremblay), trapped by her kidnapper (Sean Bridgers), engineer a daring escape after seven years of captivity in a locked garden shed. Ma’s grace under pressure and inner strength while re-assimilating into a world they barely recognize have audiences dampening hankies and awards pundits murmuring. It’s a brutal crucible of a role for Larson, tasked with carrying many scenes completely on her own. Like Ma, trapped within the four walls of the space semi-affectionately referred to as “Room,” Larson had nowhere to hide.
Hot off Room’s People’s Choice Award win at the Toronto International Film Festival, Larson sat down for a chat with A.V. Club about the challenges of an uncommonly intense shoot, the similarities between dramatic acting and scuba diving, and her 8-year-old co-star’s six-word review of their film.
The A.V. Club: First off, congratulations on Room’s success at TIFF. Were you at all surprised that a movie this intense and harrowing has turned out to be a crowd-pleaser so early on?
Brie Larson: I don’t understand the adjective “harrowing” with this movie. Unless “harrowing” means “lovely,” I don’t understand it! I feel like it gives this weird downer tone to the movie. It all comes down to glass-half-full or glass-half-empty type people. You can watch the movie and focus on the kidnapping and the crime story, or you can see it as a story of love and freedom and perseverance and what it feels like to grow up and become your own person. That’s more of what I see in it.
AVC: That’s how you approached the production when you were first going into it—as an inspiring story?
BL: Yeah. You have to see it that way, because otherwise, you’ll go into it and create drama for the sake of drama. The parts of it that are hard to watch, they’re there automatically—you don’t have to add much more to it. But in the process of making the movie, we shot pretty much in chronological order, and so I saw from Ma’s perspective that being in Room was gonna be the easiest that it ever was.
AVC: Really? That was the easy part?
BL: Much easier! At that point, she’s suppressing everything. There’s not a lot of intensity and being upset, because she doesn’t fully realize what it is. She’s numb to what’s going on. It’s not until she’s at home in a safe place that everything starts to come to the surface. She has to negotiate who she was with who she is now, come face-to-face with her mother and father. It becomes much more complicated. All the crew was excited to get out of Room because we were all stepping on each other and getting in each other’s way. So there was this anticipation, like, “Once we get through the escape sequence, this’ll all be so much better!” But in my head, I was thinking, “No, not for me, at least.” We were shooting in Toronto on-location in negative-whatever temperatures, doing night shoots, getting snowed in, not able to get home because of blizzards. And while all this was happening, Ma’s coming to terms emotionally with what’s happening to her.
AVC: The experiences that Ma goes through are so foreign—a very small number of people who see the film will have been held in captivity. What part of yourself do you access to get in touch with these rare emotional experiences?
BL: First, I broke her down into little pieces. I spoke with a trauma specialist about the sexual abuse and what would happen to a mind after you’ve been stuck in that space for seven years. Because it’s different than, say, a week in. You’d start to normalize some stuff. Then I spoke with a nutritionist about the lack of vitamin D, about not having a toothbrush, not being able to wash your hair or face, lack of nutrition, and what that might look like. From there, I was able to find the fact in it, and then I could find a way to relate to it. What I didn’t want with this story was for people to be watching it and getting a satisfying voyeuristic view into a crazy situation. As you watch it, it becomes much more universal. For me, it was all about taking these themes and making it so we can connect to them.
AVC: It’s empathetic rather than voyeuristic.
BL: Exactly, and you don’t feel like it’s a crazy situation that happened to one person. You feel like, metaphorically, you can relate it to an experience in your own life.
AVC: This was a pretty long shoot, yeah?
BL: Fifty-nine days.
AVC: With all the intensive research and shooting in a small space, it sounds pretty demanding. You’re safely past the production process now, but did you feel any residual weight going with you out of the set? Or maybe just at the end of the day while you were there?
BL: It is emotionally draining. To hold onto that level of intensity certainly requires more energy from your body than my typical day. But I had a lot of things to support myself set in place when we started shooting. I was really open with my friends and family about what it was that I was doing. I made sure they stayed close and mailed me care packages, sort of to remind me of who I still was. The main metaphor that I found for myself was about when I started scuba diving. The first time I did it, I was blown away, because it was kind of like diving into these darker characters. You can’t just strap on a tank and jump in the ocean. You have to have a plan, so you do the math and say, “Okay, I’ll go down 35 feet,” and you go down slowly. The deeper you go down, the longer you have to take to make the ascent up to the surface. You know the parameters of it, and then it’s not scary. You don’t fear death, going up to the surface. You just know that this is the process you have to take. You look at your watch, and everything goes the way that it goes. I was able to apply that to this movie. I was very clear with the crew, letting them know when I was going underwater and when I was coming back up, so that nobody takes it personally if anything happens. I just dive in. You sink to the bottom, do what you have to do, and then you allow yourself the forgiveness and the space and the gentle attitude you need to rise to the surface.
AVC: At this point, you’ve wrapped work on Free Fire with Ben Wheatley. That’s an action picture, so how was the experience with Room different than that?
BL: Well, it was a lot lighter. [Laughs.] It was not as emotionally traumatic as Room, that’s for sure.
AVC: Did that feel at all cathartic?
BL: Yeah, I think that’s the process with me. You shake it off by jumping into something else that uses a completely different muscle. You wear out certain muscles. With something like Room, I was like, “Next year or two of jobs, I can’t cry. I can’t cry anymore!” I’m looking for something to laugh over. After long enough, your body just needs to keep the hydration. You can’t keep crying it out.
AVC: If you’re consciously varying the tones and genres of your work, is there any connecting line between your projects?
BL: The constant is always mythologies and the very first stories that we have. All of the movies that last, that you return to, the movies that struck you as a kid and continue to open up to you 10 years later and 10 years after that—those are the movies I want to make. Those things are eternal. And you can change the face of it. The same myths are told in every culture, and they might swap out details, but it’s still the same story. It’s the same story, but with a different face.
AVC: Your co-star was 8 years old while you were shooting. What measures were taken during production to keep things from upsetting him? To what degree does he, the actor, understand what’s happening to Ma?
BL: He knew what [his character] Jack would know. He didn’t need to know any more. And there was nothing else that he was going to see. All of the stuff that’s upsetting for us to watch as adults, he’s either unaware of or wasn’t there for.
AVC: Has he seen the finished film?
BL: Yeah. His response was, “It’s good, but it’s no Avengers.” [Laughs.]