Actress explains how acting is like racquetball, and other secrets she learned making the award-winning, low-budget indie
Destin Daniel Cretton’s “Short Term 12” is a open-hearted, quietly emotional look at the staff and residents of a foster-care facility for at-risk kids, based on the time Cretton himself spent as a counselor in a similar institution. The Cinedigm release, which began life as a short film, won the top jury and audience awards at this year’s SXSW and the audience award at the L.A. Film Festival, and has picked up rave reviews in advance of its Friday release.
The film is also a lovely showcase for Brie Larson, who won the Best Actress award at the Locarno Film Festival for her touching performance as Grace, a counselor whose dark past has made her afraid to open up. The 23-year-old actress best-known for playing the daughter in a number of television series (“United States of Tara,” “Raising Dad”) spoke to TheWrap about some of the lessons she learned on the film.
1. Multitasking is OK.
“I received the script while I was shooting ‘The Spectacular Now’ in Georgia, and they sent me the short and a Vimeo link for [Cretton’s previous movie] ‘I Am Not a Hipster.’ I watched it on my day off, but I needed to get laundry done as well, so I watched it at the laundromat.”
2. It’s the thought that counts.
“I wanted to do it terribly, and I was scared that Destin would find me under-qualified for the role. I had never been the lead of something before, and never played a role that was remotely like this. So I applied to do a bunch of volunteer work at abused-kids homes in Georgia, and told Destin that. I didn’t tell him that I got rejected from all the places because I wasn’t going to be in Georgia long enough, but the fact that I took the initiative and showed some sensitivity to the subject might have helped.”
3. You don’t need to force it.
“We did a Skype call, and at the end of the call he told me he wanted to do it with me. I was stunned. I was willing to really fight for this, and strangely I didn’t have to. It was confusing to me, but now I feel very comfortable with the idea that like-minded people work together, and it’s very clear when it’s going to work. And a conversation does suffice in some cases.”
4. Don’t explain … and … 5. Don’t entertain.
“Destin and I attempted to have a conversation a couple of weeks before we started shooting. We planned to go through the script and talk about what each scene meant and what we were going to do. We met at a coffee shop and talked for a second, and then we both stopped talking and we read the script in silence next to each other. Maybe every so often somebody said, ‘Oh, this means this,’ or ‘I was thinking this,’ and that was it.
“For most of my life, I’ve felt that my role as an actor is to entertain the director. And this was the first time I actually worked with somebody who wasn’t interested in that.”
6. Gender doesn’t matter.
“It has been really exciting to me to have both males and females of every shape, size and color be able to relate to Grace. Many of them have come up to me after screenings to say, ‘I’m Grace.’ That feels really good, that I’m playing a character that doesn’t feel gender-specific. Her struggle, her fear of being loved – those things are so much bigger than gender.”
7. Acting is like racquetball.
“When you create the foundation of the character, you build these walls. And when the day comes to shoot, you get handed the racquet and the ball and you see where the ball bounces. But there’s no wrong way for the ball to bounce, because it’s just going off the angles of the room. You create the rules of the game, and then you get to play within it.”
8. The devil’s in the details.
“I spent time in a facility in L.A., and I also spent some one-on-one time picking the brains of a few different people that have Grace’s job. I had to understand the handbook: what the restraints are, when it comes to physical contact, what you can and can’t do, what you will and won’t know about kids. Understanding the system did a lot of the work for me.”
9. There is no easy fix for some problems.
“As you dig into it, you realize that these kids are so damaged and so hurt, but none of them are damaged in the same way. They all require a very specific care and understanding. There’s no blanket approach to it – there are times when the system works beautifully, and other times when it fails miserably.”
10. Sometimes, a new hairstyle is all it takes.
“To be able to dive into Grace and be a good actor, I had to have a really clear understanding of who I am, so I knew the difference between me and my shit and Grace and her shit. But the scene where [troubled teen] Marcus hurts himself was the one time that I had a really hard time differentiating reality from fiction, and I felt really shaken and upset by it. I left that day in a weird enough state that the producer called me to make sure that I got home. That was the only time that the feeling bled into me, but when I got home I took a shower and then brushed my hair. My part is always on the side, and Grace’s is in the middle, and I felt like I should hurriedly brush my hair over to my side part. Then I was OK.”
11. Kids do the darndest things.
“I loved those kids, and I was so sad on their last day. I felt like there was a lot of energy and life missing once they were all gone. For most of them, it was their first job, and they really were passionate about it. Even the characters you don’t see that much of in the film – if you talk to them, they created entire backstories.”
12. No money? No problem.
“It was such a different feeling on the set. I guess because it was such a low budget, it wasn’t like anyone was doing it for the money. There wasn’t any. You did it because you loved the script and you loved Destin and you loved the story and you loved your character.”