This story first appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap Oscar magazine.
She’s been in the thick of awards season since “Room” debuted at the Telluride Film Festival in September, and Brie Larson has been taking notes. In between stints on the Hawaii set of the “King Kong” reboot “Skull Island,” the 26-year-old actress has hit the film-festival circuit, done interviews and Q&As and gone to a string of awards shows.
Often as not she’s come home with a trophy for her performance as a young kidnap victim raising her 5-year-old son in the garden shed in which she’s been kept prisoner for seven years.
“I’ve been trying to describe this experience of awards season,” she said, sitting down in a West Hollywood hotel. “I really like exploring and cataloging the things that I’m feeling, because then I feel like they’re locations that you can go back to.
“So I was like, ‘OK, I feel really tired, but super happy and very inspired, I have no time to eat and I’m exhausted, but it’s a good exhaustion.’ And my friends who have had babies were like, ‘Oh, it’s exactly like when you have a newborn.'”
She laughed. “Thinking about it in that way, it feels like such a gentler experience — and so much easier to describe it to my family, too.”
With an Oscar nomination for Best Actress and Golden Globe, SAG Awards and BAFTA wins for “Room” already under her belt, Larson will no doubt have lots more cataloging and explaining to do before the experience winds down at the Oscars. So far, she’s coping with the circus with cheer, calm and some caution.
An intriguing combination of guarded and self-reflective, she doesn’t want other people to look at her too closely, but she herself is driven to examine her own life in detail, and occasionally to share her findings.
“The hardest part for me about my job is that it’s always my face,” she said with a rueful grin. “I can’t get away from it. And I really don’t enjoy the attention being put on me — that’s why I’ve tried my best to disappear into characters.”
The attitude, she added, led her to stick to supporting roles in films like “13 Going on 30” and “21 Jump Street,” and the sitcoms “Raising Dad” and “United States of Tara.”
“Being the lead in a movie seemed like a contradiction to what I was really after,” she said. “There’s also some mystery that gets taken away when you start to reveal more and more. I just wasn’t sure if that was for me.”
And then she got the script to “Short Term 12,” the 2013 indie gem in which Larson starred as Grace, a young social worker trying to help troubled teens while coming to terms with her own emotional problems.
“The script resonated so deeply that I just knew that I had to do it,” she said. “It was the perfect role for me to grapple with my fears of being a leader, because Grace is grappling with her own fears of being a leader.
“And her way of dealing with it is by putting it all into these kids, so that’s just exactly what I did. It was the first time that I was able to clock that even when you’re on set every day, there’s a way of making it not about you — that it can still feel like a dedicated act of service.”
The role won her a Gotham Independent Film Award and a Spirit Award nomination, and also brought her to the attention of Lenny Abrahamson, the Irish director who was preparing to make a film from Emma Donoghue‘s best-seller “Room.” He needed a specific kind of actress to play the fiercely protective mother known only as Ma.
“I was looking for the kind of actor who disappears into the role,” said Abrahamson, “because it could be confusing to the child actor if the actress playing his mother does a big emotional scene and then immediately turns into somebody else when I say ‘cut.’ And Brie kept that character alive for Jake.
“She also has this kind of girl-next-door quality, which was important. Ma has to feel like any young woman who’s in the wrong place at the wrong time, so that any courage and ingenuity she displays is universal. As Emma said, we didn’t want to cast somebody who looked like she was born to fight.”
The character of Ma was a ghostly figure in the book, seen entirely though the eyes of her son. To flesh her out, Larson spent days with trauma specialists discussing how the brain organizes itself under extreme stress.
She stayed out of the sun to develop a pallor. She worked with a trainer “to wear my body down and build some muscle.” She went on a restrictive diet. She read everything she could about sexual abuse and its victims. And she didn’t leave her home for a month, “just to see what that silence and entrapment felt like.”
Slowly, she said, “the process informs you. You start to notice little things: ‘Oh, I’m more irritable when I’m not eating carbs.’ ‘I feel sluggish because my body hurts and I don’t have any vitamin D.’ All those things start to inform you, and you start to piece together all the things that are her.”
But during the year of prepping and shooting, Larson also knew she had to hang onto herself. “It was a year of filling my brain with not-nice things, so I really made a conscious effort not to lose myself to it,” she said.
“I would be in the car and I’d practice shutting her on and off. I practiced that every day, so it became an easy access point in my brain. And I was really open with my friends and family about it: ‘Hey, I’m about to do something that’s really intense, so if I’m a little sensitive or if I start acting differently, let’s have a conversation about it.’
“And I brought a lot of things from home and brought them to my apartment [on the Canadian set]. Like, I always burn Palo Santo [incense] at my house, and so I brought some with me and would constantly burn it in the apartment, so the second I walked through that door it was like I was home.”
The result was an intricate, layered performance: Ma spends most of her life acting for her son, creating a fictional world that makes their confinement bearable, while adopting an entirely different persona during their captor’s late-night visits to her bed.
“She’s performing within her performance,” said Abrahamson. “She performs for her son, and she adopts a very different character for Old Nick. It’s a very mature performance, I think, and it takes a tremendous amount of subtlety and courage and skill.”
On the set, though, the focus was largely on young Jacob Tremblay. “When your co-star is an 8-year-old,” Larson admitted, “you really have to take on a leadership role in a strong way.” Abrahamson would funnel all instructions to Tremblay through Larson, who’d not only perform alongside the young actor, but give him cues and fix errant hairs and make sure he hit his marks.
“The No. 1 priority was always to get his stuff,” she said. “But I knew that going in, and I prefer that. I don’t want it to be, ‘Everyone be quiet, Brie’s about to do something!’ I don’t enjoy that.”
She shrugged. “I couldn’t be precious about my performance at all. There was no room, no pun intended.”