She’s the toast of 2016’s award season; yet few know her name. Meet Brie Larson, Hollywood’s newest and most hesitant star
Words: Martha Hayes
Photography: Maarten de Boer
It’s a cold and wet Saturday morning when I emerge – a bleary-eyed, emotional wreck – from an early screening of Room, the indie film adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s sublime and critically acclaimed 2010 novel. As anyone who has read the book, which was inspired by the Fritzl kidnapping case of 2008, will attest, it’s not exactly 9am subject matter. Told from the perspective of a five-year-old boy (Jack), born and raised in a room by his mother (Ma) who’s been held captive by a stranger for seven years, the story is claustrophobic, disturbing and deeply, unbearably moving. Played out on the big screen, multiply that by a thousand; it will shake you to the core – and make you want to hug your mum. I’m certainly in need of a hug when I head over to interview Brie Larson, who is utterly compelling as Ma, in her suite at London’s Corinthia Hotel an hour later.
“I am still feeling traumatised,” I blurt out. “Didn’t it just completely mess with your head?”
“Noooo,” she demurs. “It’s just a movie. I love the fact that it makes people feel so much, but it doesn’t seep through. Especially when you have a seven-year-old [Jacob Tremblay who plays Jack] around. For him, it’s all fun and getting to cry on camera is a cool thing to do.”
That Larson, 26, has no idea how her performance will move people is undoubtedly genuine but it’s also surprising as Ma is a career defining role. Since my interview she has won a Golden Globe for it and been nominated for two Baftas – for both Rising Star and Best Actress – and one Oscar. Perhaps this composure is possible because while she might appear every inch the Hollywood star about to make her red carpet debut, in reality she’s a seasoned actress who has kicked off her heels and curled up on the sofa with the nonchalance you only get from having been around the block. In short, she’s about as far from an ingenue as you can get.
Born in Sacramento, California, Larson relocated to LA (with her mother and sister, Milaine Desaulniers – Larson is Brie’s stage name) following her parents’ divorce when she was eight, and started acting professionally a year later. Her first gig was a sketch for The Tonight Show With Jay Leno and by the time she was a teenager she had embarked on a singing career. She penned songs about high school – her first and only album was the abstractly titled, Finally Out Of PE – and contributed to movie soundtracks before quitting to focus on acting in 2010.
It’s almost certain that you will have seen at least one of Larson’s films even if you don’t think you recognise her. You might remember her from Scott Pilgrim Vs The World that year – that’s her, on stage, performing with the Canadian indie pop band Metric. Maybe you saw her in 2013 indie hit Short Term 12, or more recently, Trainwreck, in which she almost stole the show as Amy Schumer’s hilariously deadpan older sister.
As an actor, she is wonderfully transformative, and that makes her on a par with her peers, Jennifer Lawrence, 25 and Shailene Woodley, 24. But while their star-making roles (Winter’s Bone for Lawrence and The Descendants for Woodley) both arrived in good time to establish them as formidable talents, five years on Larson’s career, shall we say, got stuck in traffic. Until now. So how does that sit with her?
“Fame,” she shrugs with a roll of her eyes, “is something I will think about when it happens. I’ve been doing this for a while and it hasn’t happened yet, so it’s not something I need to worry about now.” That might sound dismissive but I don’t think it’s intentional. And why would she see it any other way? She’s carved out a career so far playing interesting roles and still maintaining a low profile. Some – many – might say that’s the dream.
Her conversation might be less eager than some young stars, but I’d much rather witness her genuine personality – in all its seriousness. Keen for her work to speak for itself, regardless of the trappings, Larson concludes, “Acting is always an act of service for me. It’s not about my name, or my face, it never could be.”
Larson’s ‘unknown face’ was in fact an integral part of her being cast in Room, according to its Irish-Canadian author Emma Donoghue. “Famous names and faces can be quite distracting; we want everyone to believe in the story and in Ma,” she says. “In Toronto [where Room was filmed] Brie could go out to sing karaoke and get into conversations with people who had no idea who she was.”
It seems unlikely that this anonymity will last for much longer. But I can’t help hoping (in the best possible way), for Larson’s sake it will…
How do you begin to approach a role like Ma?
You have to break it down into little pieces. I spoke with a trauma specialist about sexual abuse and how the brain would organise being in a room for seven years. For instance, I learnt that because she’s in survival mode, she wouldn’t be dealing with the trauma there and then; it’s not until she’s home safe that the brain would be able to deal with it.
But how do you get inside the head of someone who has suffered abuse like that?
We weren’t interested in making a movie that was melodramatic. Sexual abuse happens not just to girls who are trapped in a room – it’s prevalent, so when you’re seeing that all the time it becomes a sense of duty to do right by the story and to get something across that allows people to connect with it. It’s a universal story of love, of growing up, of complications of the human existence and the support that we need. Instead of being so focused on something that’s so far away from our own reality, it becomes a mirror image of this universal aspect of life.
There must have been a lot to prepare for physically as well.
I spoke to doctors and nutritionists about what would happen to the skin, hair, nails and teeth given that she doesn’t have a toothbrush, hairbrush or soap. There’s very poor nutrition and no vitamin D so I worked with a nutritionist to go on a sparse diet and worked out with a trainer every day. I also had to stay out of the sun for three or four months before we started shooting. It’s very hard to avoid the sun in LA! So it was long sleeves and a sun hat every day.
What was it like filming in the ‘Room’ and working in such a confined space for three weeks?
In the book, the room is 11ft by 11ft, so we made it 11ft by 15ft to accommodate the crew members but it was still very, very tight quarters. There’d be six to nine of us in that room at once.
Is the Oscar buzz around the film a help or a hindrance?
I don’t know [laughs], we’ll see if people go and see the movie. It’s like talking about a fantasy wedding when you don’t have a boyfriend.
Do you feel more sceptical because there was the same buzz around you in 2013 for Short Term12?
Regardless of whether it turns into something or not, it’s still a conversation about the highest accolade that you can achieve in my profession so that’s nice. It doesn’t have to turn into anything. I’m happy if people like the movie. That’s all I need.
Your name probably isn’t that well known in the UK and…
It’s the same in the US! Don’t worry about it.
It feels like women in film aren’t defined by a genre like they might once have been. Jennifer Lawrence and Shailene Woodley are great examples.
I think we’re getting more comfortable with seeing the many different sides of being a human. I love the fact that even in the same movie, we’re comfortable with genre bending. Trainwreck, for example, is incredibly funny but it can also make you cry; it doesn’t all have to be one thing, because being a human being isn’t all one thing.
Is that how you managed to sign up for Trainwreck – without realising it was a comedy?
Every time I’ve done a comedy, I’ve never known it was a comedy. I always go in and play it straight and the humour comes from the honesty of that. I’m not a big fan of people who try really hard to be funny, I find that embarrassing and hard to watch.
Playing Amy Schumer’s sister must have been interesting!
She’s just the best. We felt like we hadn’t ever seen a movie that depicted sisterhood in the way that we knew it. I’m almost the complete opposite in every way to my sister but the thing that allows us to diffuse our differences is humour. The fact that we communicate by making fun of each other – Amy and I talked a lot about that.
Between starting out, your teenage pop career and your films, it feels like you’ve had three careers. Do you feel like you missed out on anything growing up?
I had a typical school life up until high school when I just had tutors. I wanted to go to a public school, but I had to leave school quite a bit for work and so I was like a fish out of water. I didn’t feel like I connected with anyone. I felt like if I could focus on being a better artist, that’s what I wanted to do. I really love learning so my parents never had to worry about it being a way for me to skip it. I still take courses all the time.
What are you studying at the moment?
Right now, I’m really interested in the neuroplasticity of the brain because I spend so much time playing other characters. It’s helped me to learn how the brain organises things so I understand what I’m doing when I’m filling my brain with information to play a certain character and then I understand how to work with it when the movie’s over, to come back to myself.
Do you feel fortunate that you knew what you wanted to do with your life early on?
I lucked out in that way because I don’t think you get to pick when you know. There was nothing that triggered me. There was nobody in my life who acted, there still isn’t anyone in the entertainment business. I don’t know where it came from but I’m very grateful I had the thought at age six.
You started singing in your teens. Was that a good way to channel teen angst?
It was a way for me to express it. And it became a great tool. At that age you feel a lot, but you don’t have the words to explain it. It gave me a great way to get in touch with it, and my mom was always so encouraging of it, that it became a very therapeutic experience.
How do you feel now when you hear those songs?
It’s just another part of me that’s out in the world. You have to get comfortable with where you came from. I wouldn’t be here now, if it weren’t for that.
Room is in cinemas now, watch the trailer below