It was only two short years ago, when actor Brie Larson was being talked about as being the latest rising talent having the year of her career, and at that point, that was true. After being a series regular on Showtime’s “United States of Tara” and having solid supporting roles in SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD, RAMPART, and 21 JUMP STREET, Larson carved out a nice place for herself in 2013 with the starring role as a counsellor in a home for troubled teens in SHORT TERM 12, followed by appearances in THE SPECTACULAR NOW and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s DON JON, as he silent (but still very funny) sister.
Aside from recurring appearances on television’s “Community” and “Kroll Show,” her only film appearance in 2014 was the end-of-year drama THE GAMBLER, opposite Mark Wahlberg. But 2015 is shaping up to be another banner year for Larson, one in which she might garner a great deal of awards talk by year’s end for her role as Ma in this week’s release ROOM, based on the harrowing novel by Emma Donoghue, in which she plays a young woman trapped in a small room with her young son Jack, for whom she has had to create a world that seems normal and safe to him, and in no way reflects the fact that they are victims of a cruel man who has held her captive for seven years. It’s nothing short of an earth-shattering performance from Larson, one that comes after a critical part in director Joe Swanberg’s DIGGING FOR FIRE and an especially important role as Amy Schumer’s sister in TRAINWRECK.
And Larson has an impressive year or so lined up for 2016 and beyond, with roles in Todd Solondz’s WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE follow-up WIENER-DOG; writer-director Ben Wheatley’s FREE FIRE; the India-set indie musical BASMATI BLUES; and announced roles as a young Billie Jean King in BATTLE OF THE SEXES (directed by LITTLE MISS SUNSINE’s Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris) and the King Kong original story KONG: SKULL ISLAND for director Jordan Vogt-Roberts.
I spent a few minutes in Chicago earlier this week chatting with Larson about ROOM and the process of internalizing so many painful emotions for the sake of protecting a child. This was my second time interviewing Larson, with whom I shared the stage last year at Roger Ebert’s Film Festival for a panel about the stigma of mental illness as portrayed in movies. She’s about as intelligent a person as I’ve ever encountered, and she has a great handle on both her craft and being a thoughtful person. Please enjoy my talk with Brie Larson…
Capone: Hi. How are you?
Brie Larson: Good to meet you.
Capone: I wouldn’t expect you to remember this, but we were on a panel last year at Roger Ebert’s Film Festival, about the stigma in the arts.
BL: Oh yeah. Was it the one about mental illness?
BL: I remember that. That panel was pretty cool.
Capone: It was. One doesn’t get to be a part of those kinds of panels very often.
BL: Yeah, and the one I did after was about like film preservation. It was so intense and fascinating.
Capone: Honestly, I can’t think of a film that I have seen recently that I was so desperate to get into the heads of these two characters, to see the world the skewed way they were seeing it in this story. I feel like it’s critical to understand the movie at all. Was that something that was crucial to you, performing in a way that made it clear to the audience what life had been like in Room for all the year’s leading up to when we meet Ma and Jack?
BL: Well, my interpretation of it was that Ma has to create a story so that Jack stops asking questions and accepts the reality. She has two years in that space before he’s born, and I imagine that was an interesting period of time, because she’s 17, 18, 19 years old when she's there alone. That is a time that represents, for the average teenager, wanting to run away from your problems, wanting to move out, can’t wait to get out of your town, “Mom, don’t tell me what to do.” So it’s all about trying to get away, but in fact Ma has two years where she has nothing but time to sit with herself, that became a really fascinating thing to me of what that would do.
So because she had to sit there with herself, I imagine that she felt regret about certain things or perhaps glorified certain aspects of her life. Your memory is a very interesting thing, because it tricks you all the time. It’s just telling you what it wants to believe, and then the more you start saying that story to yourself, you believe it more and more. So whatever those pains were for her that existed in the outside world, the longing, the way to deal with it once Jack came along is she had a choice when he’s asking these questions. “Do I bring him into this pain and longing, or do I save him from that?” And I think we do that very typically with our kids, not in ways as extreme as this one, but that’s what we do. We find ways to explain and reduce a story to a way that’s very simple, very easy. There’s good and there’s bad. It’s very clear.
I think the other side of it is, because she creates this world for Jack, he becomes the projector and is able to project that reality into the space in Room, and so it becomes a livable place for her. She has this bouncing, joyous, optimism. He doesn’t feel lacking in any way. He doesn’t understand that there’s anything more. Although she can’t fully get away from the fact that she knows that there’s something else outside, being around that becomes a way of survival for her.
Capone: To her, it seems like a constant battle to keep her emotions in check for many reasons. One, to keep Jack calm, and then also not to antagonize this man that’s keeping them captive. It’s almost impossible to wrap one’s brain around that.
BL: Yeah, imagine trying to create her [laugh]. It was really, really difficult. What we had to do was is, Lenny [Abrahamson, director] and I had to create her before she was kidnaped and really have a very rich story as to who she was before. We imagined that she was a good student, doing the charity work and the internships and all the things that it would take to get her into a good college, and had parents that were together, and that was a point of pride for her. She was the only child, so she was the light of their life. She was a track star, that all-American suburban girl who’s going to go off and do something really great, and then this thing happens, and it shatters all of that. So what we did was create that whole person and then take everything away from her. And then what’s left?
And then you can add the confines of the space and the sexual abuse and the lack of vitamin D and the lack of a toothbrush and shampoo and food that’s nutritious, and then you can see who that is. And I would do things like, I wanted to know what she was wearing when she was kidnapped, and whether that would be something he would let her keep or whether her clothes were things that he just got at the thrift store. I felt like she would have a certain necklace, maybe she had a ring, maybe she had a watch, or a Tiffany bracelet that her parents had given her maybe for graduation. And then I took them away from myself and imagined that they were pawned off, that there were very few fragments of her. She has this tiny ring and a necklace that is broken, so she fixes it with a safety pin. These are the tiny little fragments that she was able to keep and have Old Nick thinking, “Aren’t I a nice guy letting you have these things?”
And the clothes we thought would be, what would Old Nick think were things that a girl would wear, but the cheapest stuff possible. Perhaps from a thrift store. And then those would have to be the same clothes that she went through her pregnancy with. So I had them stretch out all the pants to the point of what would be appropriate for a pregnancy, and then I asked for floss and a needle and fixed them myself so that they would fit. So every piece of it became a process of getting to know her and understanding all the facets of her. There’s a lot of story, but we don’t actually get into it, but you feel it. That’s the idea. We don’t have to explain all the exposition. It’s all there.
Capone: It’s in the details, exactly. I know a lot of people have said that this film begins where a lot of other films end. I think Ma’s dilemmas in Room are pretty clear. But there’s a whole other set of dilemmas when she gets out that I don’t think anyone really anticipates. What do you think are some of the pains that she has to go through on the outside with her family?
BL: In talking with a trauma specialist, we realized that the trauma that’s happening in Room couldn’t be felt in Room. It wouldn’t be until she’s outside and in a safe place that then she would be able to come to terms with it and remember it. So we knew that that second half was actually going to be where we really saw what was going on. It’s a much more emotional half of the film. In general, things just becomes more complicated, even just for shooting purposes.
We were in one location, one small room where you have a couple of toys, a couple of pieces of clothing, two actors, a small space that doesn’t change. Then once we got to the escape sequence—we’re shooting in order—suddenly we’re out in the world, and you’ve got weather and different locations every day and new actors and just lots more people in general, and that sense of the dynamic, of us all adjusting our eyes and going “ Woah, we were in this dark room for five weeks doing this very small thing, and now it’s bigger. How do we come to terms with this? How do we work with this?”
Capone: So you did shoot it more or less chronologically then. That seems essential.
BL: Yeah, and we got to experience it first hand and feel this sense that there’s a robustness to life. It’s not so clear, as in Room, we know very clearly what’s good and what’s bad. That’s very child-like. But once this escape happens, which is in a way a birth into the world suddenly, the good and the bad isn’t clear, and everybody’s a little bit of both, and nothing is as cut and dry as, “We do it this way. It’s not like that.” It’s everything at once and it’s a lot to try and understand, and it becomes a great opportunity for us to see the world as it is, which is extremely complicated. We’ve become so used to it, because it’s our reality, but to people that are brand new to it, what does that feel like? How fast we’re moving. How quickly we move through things. How odd fashion is. How weird it is that we put makeup on and that’s what is acceptable. There’s all of these little bits that can go into it that then become this way of seeing the world for the first time in all of its eccentricities.
Capone: When I interviewed you two years ago for SHORT TERM 12, you had just shot a musical in India, and every so often, I wonder what’s going on with that.
BL: [laughs] I don’t know. It’s an independent, so it’ll make its way out when it does. Yeah, I know.
Capone: I thought maybe you’d have some inside knowledge.
BL: No, I wish I did. I never know with those things. It’s on its own path.
Capone: I’m dying to see it. It sounds like so much fun.
BL: It was, yeah.
Capone: It’s great to meet you. Thank you so much.