This is not going to be one of those interviews where I describe what the actress is wearing. This is not going to be one of those interviews where I talk about what the actress was eating. This is not the kind of interview that The Film Experience does which is just fine with Brie Larson. As it turns out we're completely sympatico on the subject of actresses and fame. She loves the work and prefers retaining her mystery to indulging in her celebrity. Or as she puts it.
I enjoy being confusing."
But here's the catch. When you do consistently great work as an actor as Brie Larson has done in roles large (United States of Tara) medium (21 Jump Street, The Spectacular Now) and small (Scott Pilgrim, Rampart), and then you hit a new peak with a revelatory personal best (Short Term 12) celebrity will often follow.
Brie frames this rising stardom predicament more memorably than I could while munching on a very green salad in a very blue dress (oops) in a day full of interviews. Morning Joe and Sirius XM were also on the docket that day:
I think with my age and gender -- it gets very easy for the conversation to go in the direction of 'What is your summer salad?’ It doesn’t matter. It’s not important. If we’re going to talk about stuff, let’s talk about stuff."
Which is exactly what we did from her Short Term 12 triumph to the chameleon wonders of United States of Tara to her feelings about Best Actress Oscar buzz. We'll skip ahead past my incoherent gushing about how Short Term 12 is the besty-best to the rest of the interview after the jump.
NATHANIEL: You started as a child actor. Short Term 12's Grace is your first role as an adult where you're surrounded by younger actors. Did you feel a special kind of camaraderie?
BRIE LARSON: Yeah, I felt that... to be young and not necessarily even know why you want to do it but just know that it feels like a calling. I knew that feeling. I was also aware of how influential the people that were older with me were that I was working with – the good and the bad. So I was aware of my role as a leader while we were shooting.
NATHANIEL: I imagine that informed your take on the character.
BRIE: Exactly. That was something Destin and I spoke a lot about. It was very much encouraged for me to take the leader role on and off camera.
The younger actors didn't have much experience?
No. Well, Kaitlyn is kind of a veteran in her own right. She [Kaitlyn Dever] is something else. She’s amazing and has done great work for a while. But most of the other kids they had never -- it was their first job.
Did you find that difficult to work with, that lack of experience?
They’re so professional. There wasn’t a learning curve they had to get on. I learned so much from them, too. They had this incredible ability to get into character and get out of it, versus a more method approach where you linger in it. These kids are so bubbly and smart and have wonderful parents. It was shocking to watch them work. How did they know how to do this? How did they understand what these characters were going through when they’ve never experienced it? It leads back to my opinion about the universality of the feeling that each kid has and my character Grace. These themes and feelings are not within just this facility, they’re universal.
When you’re experiencing depression it can feel very monotone but it would be deadly to play it that way in a movie. There's a great moment where your boyfriend asks you to let him inside your head. Grace is so withdrawn. So were you nervous about how you were going to let us inside your head?
It just took some trust. I had to trust that Destin could see what I was feeling. But I am a very internal person so that’s not a difficult thing. Getting to explore the subtext of a really good script was an exciting opportunity that I don’t really get that often -- not for a whole film! Sometimes on a movie you have a few scenes, where you say one thing but mean another. But when a whole film is kind of fueled by the character's past and their fears, it requires a different kind of preparation.
Just more free associating or a lot of backstory work?
Some of it is understanding what the past is. But for me it was more about getting the feeling of distraction of negative thoughts -- the looping that can go on in our heads that feels inescapable. We don’t want to feel the way we feel but we don’t know how to get out of it. Emotions are these sticky intangible things that are difficult to explain. You feel so alone and you don’t know how to relate to anyone anymore.
The actual process when we were shooting: I would wear headphones and I would listen to Norwegian Black Metal. I would get really into that. That music is really aggressive and has a lot of darkness that surrounds it. I’d listen to that until they yelled ‘action’ and then I’d throw myself into the situation and try to navigate my way through.
Like trying to emerge from the cacophony of negative thoughts?
Exactly! The idea was to feel that so deeply inside that I could actively try and suppress the feeling. That’s what felt right. It was about truly feeling something and not wanting anybody to see it and trusting that Destin was getting enough and could pick up on the struggle.
Would you call this your toughest role?
[Considering...] It was the most for me to work with. It felt like I had only been working with three colors before and then somebody showed me there was a whole other palette to work with. But it wasn’t difficult because I am thinking all the time. I get lost in thought and don’t hear what people are saying a lot so I related to it. I enjoyed that it wasn’t about me crying or do something that was dramatic. It was about holding everything back. The strength and the mask of it was what was exciting to me.
"Princess Valhalla Hawkwind" cheekiness from The United States of Tara
Imma let you have a few bites of your salad and share my theory. I don't know if it's intentional or not but when I was preparing for this interview I realized there is a running theme in your filmography, a through-line of "performed identity". Kate in Tara had her altar ego "Princess Valhalla Hawkwind" and then there's Natalie/Envy in Scott Pilgrim and then in this movie... it's more subtle but everyone is trying to form themselves and the idea is that you're there to facilitate that. And I even think this is true of Cassidy in The Spectacular Now. She's sidelined but she is really worried about the main character coming into his own and being his best self. Maybe I'm stretching? Is this something you're drawn to or think about?
It is something I’ve thought about and it is something I’m drawn to. I’ve never realized it’s such a recurring theme. I think it’s also because I’ve been playing adolescent roles. A huge difference between being an adolescent and being an adult is when you think you’re being an adult -- and only what you recognize from others -- it's playing the role instead of being. The ego is really an interesting creature. It’s a huge part of understanding these characters, too. There’s a difference between how a character sees themselves and how the audience perceives them. I’m personally fascinated by it. I’m even fascinated by it in the Joseph Campbell sense of it. The slaying of the ego and the wearing of the mask are really important metaphors. That’s part of the human experience.
I imagine even moreso for actors. You’re wearing masks all the time
Yeah, I think that it is. It was a very inspiring experience to not have to wear a mask while playing Grace. No makeup. Brush my hair once in the morning and that was it. Wearing my own clothes. It allowed, I think, a different type of performance to emerge. Because there weren’t any sort of airs that had to be put on.
You mentioned before how child actors look up to adult actors. Was there a particular actor wh...
[Jumping right in before the question] TONI COLLETTE! She was my hero even before working with her. Because I was – I felt very alone as a teenager (as I’m sure everyone does) but I did a good job of making sure I indulged in it a little too much. I decided to home school. I just didn’t relate to anybody and felt like a weirdo and kind of liked that I was a weirdo. I’d be home all day doing schoolwork and so I’d just watch movie after movie after movie after movie. It was such an exciting moment when I realized that the same person that I had watched in The Hours was the same person that was in The Sixth Sense was the same person that was in Muriel’s Wedding and they were so different and all so good. I really identified with the chameleon. It’s beyond me. I’m just the vessel to channel this other person. It has nothing to do with me having some sort of gimmick that I continue to play into but really servicing the material and servicing the character.
That was really inspiring before I worked with her. And then in working with her... not only is she absolutely brilliant to watch in take after take and look into those eyes and connect with, but she has a very distinct idea of what’s reality and what’s fiction and when the cameras aren’t rolling she is herself. During Tara people used to ask me if she would stay in character. The best part about her is that she doesn’t. It’s on and it’s off and she has this beautiful family she goes home to. She’s a very grounded person and that was a great thing for me to see at 18.
Great actressing on that set. You also got the Viola Davis experience!
Mm-hmm. She’s amazing.
I think in the past few years you've already established yourself as one of the most important actors of your generation...
...and this age range is when the lead roles, the bulk of them at least, really start. What kind of roles are you hoping to play?
I don’t know because I enjoy being confusing. I find that I choose things in reaction to what I just did. After Short Term I wanted to do something so different so I went and did a musical in India. Which couldn’t be further from it.
A Bollywood musical?
Yeah, yeah. I like seeing how far I can go and also like understanding my limitations as well as the limitlessness of what a mind can do. I enjoy learning so much. I played a scientist in the movie in India. Because I enjoy the preparation, I got to spend time in the UCLA lab and got to be in Biohazard lab and learn how to split DNA. I don’t know. I just like to keep challenging myself and try to find material that isn’t manipulative.
Short Term 12 is a breakthrough. You're getting great reviews. I'm assuming that you feel more ownership of this one. Being that it's such a small movie and you're front and center?
Yeah. It feels handmade and more intimate. The bigger the movie is the more people there are. For Short Term I personally know every single person involved in it and I was inspired by every person. It felt really good to make and it was an important experience for me and the kids and Destin. It elevated all of us before the movie even came out. It’s so exciting to know that a film can transcend beyond just our personal experience with it. And that that feeling can be contained in his DCPI file or whatever it is, and can live on and continue to make people think and feel things? It’s beyond all of us now. That’s cool.
A lot of your characters other than Grace - she's so different from what you’ve played -- I'm not sure if you're interested in having a specific persona as an actor but a lot of these characters I'd say the thing that unites them is confidence.
Even if they’re all over the place like Kate in Tara.
False confidence. Bravado.
Brie Larson as Envy Adams for "Scott Pilgrim vs. The Universe"
Right but it’s still in that family. And Scott Pilgrim of course. And your character in Rampart is quite forceful about herself. She's testing her boundaries and her role as an artist.
Would you say those roles are closer to yourself than Grace?
No. I’m not afraid of people or talking to people but I don’t want attention put on me. And I don’t enjoy being observed. I think that’s why I’ve chosen more of these roles. I think it’s interesting for someone who doesn’t necessarily enjoy doing it to do it. Someone like Kate -- you have to play something like that with the awareness of how silly it looks to act like you’re Miss Know It All when you don’t know anything. I don’t think it’s as interesting if there’s no contradiction to it.
I find that so weird to hear from an actor. "I don't enjoy being observed."
But that’s the reason why these characters don’t look like me and why they don’t talk like me and why they don’t have the same interests as me! If I loved myself that much I’d just go do a reality show on E
[Laughter] I’m glad you’re not
ME TOO. The mystery is so important. Not just me but to be an actor and especially a woman. Not seeing it but wondering what it could be. If people know -- 'oh, that’s not something Brie would do' -- I just don’t think the two should be connected in any way. I don’t look at The Last Supper and wonder how DaVinci relates to the work. That’s a separate thing.
So let's talk reviews and awards buzz for Short Term 12. I’m curious how you feel about that. People are saying “nomination worthy”. And I'm sure you've heard that before. There were a lot of complaints that you weren’t up for an Emmy for playing Kate on Tara.
Right. Yeah, well, I don’t really know how I feel about it. Mostly because I haven’t -- I know that people enjoy the film but I have not read any reviews.
[Thinking...] The few times I have played blackjack at a casino, like with my own money, the times that I’ve won are the times I’m in a good conversation and I’m not paying attention to the fact that I’m playing. There are no stakes.
[Laughs] I’m sorry. I think better in metaphor than in actuality.
No, I get it
Once I recognize “oh I have a lot of chips on this table!” I get competitive and I lose it all. Because I don’t think clearly. So I think that I am going to take that same mental state with this experience. Every step of the way -- it’s been going on since South by Southwest really – has been so much more than I could have dreamed, so I can’t think beyond that. This day was amazing and if I keep believing that things are going to continue in a certain way than… I just don’t think it works well that way. I want to be grateful for what’s happening now.
It’s nice if that’s the cherry on top, I suppose, but I just want to be able to make more movies.