With “Room” largely revolving around the relationship between a mother and her son, getting the casting right was one of the biggest challenges facing director Lenny Abrahamson.
But Abrahamson and producer Ed Guiney, who previously collaborated on 2014’s “Frank,” went into it with a plan: cast the mother first, then, at the last minute before the start of filming, cast the son. The thinking was that because children change so quickly, if the production were to be pushed back, they would have to recast.
So they set out to find their star with a very short of actresses in mind, Abrahamson said during a Q&A at TheWrap’s Screening Series on Thursday. But after someone suggested he watch “Short Term 12” starring Brie Larson, he knew she was the right choice.
“She seemed to have this incredibly natural believability on screen,” he said. “She’s clearly an actress of great depth, but there’s also a beautiful subtlety and truthfulness with everything she does.”
Beyond just her acting ability, Abrahamson said that Larson’s personality made her a good fit for the role. “She’s just this very warm, funny, goofy person,” he said, explaining that her disposition and generosity on set would come in handy when working with a child actor. “I knew that that would give us our best chance at a relationship that felt real on screen.”
Once they had Larson for the character Ma, the next, more difficult step was to find the boy who would play her son, Jack. In total they saw hundreds of kids for the part.
While Jacob Tremblay, the actor who eventually landed the role, went on to receive rave reviews for his performance in the film, Abrahamson said that he was skeptical at first.
“In a funny way, I worried initially that he was almost too polished, because he was very able to handle the lines,” the director said, explaining that his initial auditions had the “bright and breezy” feeling that would work for a 30-second commercial, but not for a naturalistic film like “Room.”
But once he met the now 9-year-old boy, Abrahamson said, it became clear that Tremblay had a knack for acting: “He was able to drop that performed quality very quickly and was able to be himself in front of the camera.” Even better, he went on to develop a “great relationship” with Larson.
That relationship helped him grow as an actor over the course of the film’s 49-day shoot. The director shared an anecdote about the young actor learning to cry on cue for the first time when Larson is carried away on a stretcher. “At the end of that [scene], we called cut and he just went, ‘Yes! I did it!'”
“It was always clear that that machine is in there and he was beginning to work out how to pull the levers and how to operate this incredible actor-ly engine that he happens to have,” he said.