Although actor Brie Larson has been working since she was about 10 or 11, she first floated onto my radar as daughter Kate on the short-lived Showtime series "United States of Tara." Kate was a character who started up a web-cam business where customers asked her to dress up like different glammed-up fantasy characters and pose for them…fully clothed. Some kinks make no sense, I know. And before long Larson was showing up in film like GREENBERG, SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD, RAMPART, and most memorably as Jonah Hill's possible love interest, Molly, in 21 JUMP STREET. But as many of said before me, 2013 would appear to be the year that Larson might actually become a far more recognizable face and name in the mainstream.
She's had two well-received films (THE SPECTACULAR NOW and SHORT TERM 12) out so far, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt's DON JON out in just a couple of weeks (she plays Jon's almost-wordless, but highly observant sister). But its second-time filmmaker Destin Cretton's SHORT TERM 12 that offers Larson one of her rare leading roles, and I think it's a title she's going to have a lot more often moving forward. In it, she plays Grace, a foster home counsellor with many issues of her own that both brought her to this establishment and keep her struggling to stay there.
The film deals with many complex emotions and issues in a deceptively simple way, and Larson is the key to it all. It's the best work of her career, and I hope the first of many times we get to see her shine this brightly. I saw the film in March at its premiere at the SXSW Film Festival and had a chance to chat with Larson a couple of weeks ago via phone during what was the tail end of doing press for the film for around 5-6 months. We cover a lot of ground, including the subject of what it takes to be an actress no interested in dolling herself up for every role or occasion in a business that almost demands it. Enjoy my talk with Brie Larson…
Brie Larson: Hello!
Capone: Hi, Brie, How are you?
BL: I’m good. How are you doing?
Capone: Great! Wow, you must be sick of these by now. You've been doing this for like six months.
BL: Oh man, you don’t want to get me started on that.
Capone: I talked to Destin last week, and he kind of went into a little detail about the inner that he sent you and John [Gallagher Jr., her co-star] out on with a list of questions and topics to discuss. Can you talk to me about what came out of that experience?
BL: Sure. What happened was, Destin found out that we were going to dinner, so he left an envelope on John’s porch that was addressed to both of us that was a bunch of little conversation starters. The questions, some of them were things that I think Destin had actually started questioning about in his own life when he had this job out of college, and then some of them were just ways to get us to communicate and be open with one another to create an environment that felt safe and that we were all just a bunch of friends, that we were all on the same page. We created a mythology about Grace and Mason. Those stories don’t necessarily end up on screen, but the reality of them does end up on screen. You can tell that there’s a history with the two of them.
Capone: Are those sort of the secrets that you hold on to while you’re shooting that you kind of have in the back of your head?
BL: Yeah, with this movie in particular, Grace has such a past and she has such an internal world, and those were things that I have never talked about with Destin, and Destin still doesn’t know.
Capone: I think one of the most fascinating things about the film. A lot of films have been made about kids going through this situation and being in places like this, but this film is almost more about the counselors and what brought them there. These are things that we find out over the course of the film. It seems that the two of you both have very specific reasons why you want to be there.
BL: I think that’s an interesting observation. I think that’s true. A very interesting aspect of the film is that it revolves around the fact thatnd I think this is something that Destin thought about too when he was there. He’s sitting there reprimanding certain kids for doing things that he was doing on weekends, and there’s a lot to be gained and a lot for adults to learn from children. The teacher-student role is not as cut and dry as we might think.
Capone: The scene near the beginning where your character finds out she’s pregnant--I don’t think we're supposed to be keeping that a secret--it really does color the whole movie. If you took that one scene out, it’s a totally different film, because she’s looking at everybody through the eyes of someone who may or may not be having a baby.
Capone: She’s looking at her boyfriend as a potential father, and she’s looking at these kids as “Where my kid might end up one day” and it completely changes the voice of the movie. Was that something you liked about the way that it was written?
BL:Yeah, well the fact that that’s the structure, and it’s kind of a sneaky structure, because you don’t necessarily recognize that that’s the simple structure of this whole thing, until you start picking at it further. But that becomes the drive for the entire film, and it’s a very simple one, but it’s a really relatable one I think at the same time. It becomes more interesting for the audience as well, because they know something that everybody else doesn’t, so you have a little piece inside of her, but it’s still all a mystery.
Capone: I also told Destin, this movie has more chase scenes than a lot of action movies I’ve seen lately,
BL: [laughs] You think?
Capone: And I told him he was being sneaky, because I think he was afraid that there was too much talking all the way through, so he through in chases every 15-20 minutes just to make it feel like there was some action.
BL: That’s really funny.
Capone: Did you realize that was going to be a huge part of it?
BL: No, I don’t think I realized it while on the page, but then it becomes very clear when every day you’re smashing something or running to something or from something, either mentally or physically.
Capone: Talk a little bit about working with Kaitlyn [Dever], because you two obviously have to have such a bond in this film. I’ve seen the film twice, and when I think back to that octopus story, I honestly can’t remember which of you is reading it. She really is a gift in this film. Talk about working with her and forming that antagonistic bond with her.
BL: Well she is absolutely incredible in every way, as an artist and as a young woman. I felt so lucky to know her and to work with her. She surprised me every day and much like the film, I learned more from her than she learned from me. [Laughs] She’s such a pro and so able to delve into the world and then get out of it really quickly, like scenes where she has to have her emotional breakdowns, there wasn’t a lot of shenanigans happening before that.
Sometimes when an actor is preparing a scene like that, you watch them work themselves into a tizzy before exploding on camera, and she didn’t seem to do any of that, it just seemed like she was able to tap into something right away and then the second you yelled cut she was smiling and asking if she could do it again. I was just in awe of her every day.
She’s also a really talented guitar player and song writer and singer, which is something that I really related to with her, and we were able to share. We were able to talk about music. She’s just really smart, and we were both able to constantly hang out and have a dialog. We became a team. She was a really important part of the team, and I think that that shows in the film.
Capone: I’m sure the thing that you hate hearing more this year than any other year is, “What a great year you have been having in terms of films you have been in.”
BL: [Laughs] I’m never going to hate that!
Capone: I saw some interviews with you from the last few months, and you seem to have a tough time wrapping your head around what made this year different. Maybe now you understand it. You had two films at Sundance and then SHORT TERM 12 at SXSW; that’s a lot of anxious premieres in one year.
BL: I think it didn’t feel like pressure, because I didn’t even realize what was happening at all. I still don’t understand what’s happening. So often I get asked these strange questions about “How do I feel?” The reality is I don’t really relate to any of it right now, because it doesn’t make any sense to me. [laughs] Perhaps later if my life is different in any way or feels different, then I’ll be able to understand, but right now it feels nice that people are recognizing that I did a good job, but I don’t know what any of that means really.
Capone: In terms of selecting roles, does fear factor into your decision-making process? Like maybe if a role scares you a little bit, you might be more drawn to it?
BL: Sure. Within that I’m interested in seeing what my abilities are. I don’t ever want to say that I can’t do something before I try it. I like pushing myself to see how far I can go, because I’ve lived a very specific life, but I like the idea of being able to really learn other perspectives and live those as well and live those honestly. I think that’s a great part of my job, but I like being afraid from time to time. I think that’s a healthy feeling. I don’t want things to be comfortable in that unknown aspect of my job, this feeling that I’m only as good as my work. It’s a great way to keep making good work.
Capone: Fear either motivates people or it keeps them from doing things, so I figure with you it motivates you a little bit.
BL: Oh absolutely!
Capone: I actually discovered you watching "United States of Tara." I was a huge, huge fan of that show, but I don’t think you’ve ever done anything quite as “glamorous--if that’s the right word--as that character. Is that something you kind of push against, not let yourself be a cliché in that respect?
BL: Sure. I personally don’t feel very comfortable when I spend a lot of time getting my hair and makeup done. I think that I do better work when I just feel comfortable and I feel like myself in some ways, that I don’t feel I have to put on something. If a certain role requires a lot of time getting my hair tugged at and my eye lashes curled, then that becomes part of the process of becoming a character, and I enjoy that, but when it’s not necessary… I’ve had times when I’ve been on jobs where I’ve felt the character wouldn’t have done any more than brush their hair, and I get out of the hair and makeup room and my hair is curled like Farrah Fawcett, I’m like, “Why does it look like this?” They say, “Remember, we’re making a movie.” That’s just not the way it works for me. It’s deliberate in the sense that I just like being honest, in whatever way that means.
Capone: In a couple of days, Jospeh Gordon-Levitt is going to be here in Chicago, and we're going to do a Q&A screening of DON JON. I’ve got to ask, it had to be bizarre for you coming into work everyday on that movie not having anything to say most days.
Capone: Was that the easiest thing you’ve ever done or the most difficult thing you’ve ever done?
BL: It was strange. I did enjoy it in a lot of ways, because my favorite part of my job, which I also got to do quite a bit in SHORT TERM as well, is just listen. I got to listen to people tell stories all the time, which is great, but certainly every morning on my way to work I had this feeling of nervousness every time I was on my way to work, because I thought I had forgotten to do my homework or something. But the reality was there’s nothing for me to learn, it was just the best thing for me to do for that role was to really pay as little attention to what was on the page as possible, to understand who the character was, understand what my relationships were, but then to just observe, just watch the ridiculousness of what was happening and not have anything planned before hand became exciting.
Capone: And you end up being one of the funniest things in the movie as a result of saying nothing.
BL: [Laughs] I didn’t realize it at the time, but it’s great. I’m happy to hear that.
Capone: What was Joe's approach as a direction? Was he like every other director? Does he have something slightly different going on, because he’s an actor too?
BL: He had a great way of switching hats. There was a clear distinction between when he was acting and when he was directing, which I think everyone really appreciated. When he was in a scene, whether it was on him or not, he was giving it everything. He was acting with you and then would step away to watch things at the monitor. It was like he had a twin or something. He’s put in a lot of hours on movie sets, so he has a great idea and understands all the working parts of it and is a great communicator.
Capone: Of course, the curse of having so many great movies come out in this indie platform is that Hollywood is going to come to you and ask you do the exact opposite of what you've been doing so well up to this point. Are you ready for that wave of newfound interest, or are you going to ignore it and keep doing what you’ve been doing?
BL: Well, bigger movies are great in some ways, that they give you an opportunity to express some big themes to a wider audience, but I’m only interested in being in a bigger film if they are excited about exploring some of the themes that I’m excited to explore. I’m not an actor because I want my face to be plastered everywhere; I’m an actor because I like connecting with other humans. I think that’s incredible and remarkable and a tangible, magical thing that we can do. So if there is a bigger movie that can do that, then that’s cool, but all of them are the same to me when it comes to scale. It doesn’t really matter. It depends on what the content is.
Capone: I understand not too long ago you shot a musical in India [BASMATI BLUES]? That must have been pretty incredible. What can you tell me about that?
BL: I did. It was great. It was amazing. It was a film that we shot for almost three months. Part of it was in Mumbai and part of it was in Kerala, and I play a scientist who creates a genetically modified rice with her father, played by Scott Bakula, and our boss is played by Donald Sutherland, and he sends me to India to sell this rice. It’s about a young woman who lives in New York City and who lives in this very contained and sterile environment and is thrown into a world that is just beautiful chaos and has to learn to follow her intuition.
Capone: And it’s a new filmmaker?
BL: He’s a first time filmmaker, yes. He’s a screenwriter named Dan Baron.
Capone: Because it’s set in India, one might assume it has tinges of Bollywood? Or is it more of a traditional American musical?
BL: Well, it kind of went hand in hand. Things like the choreography, there was one western choreographer and an Indian choreographer, and they worked very closely together. So it’s a combination of both.
Capone: You’ve made a couple of high-profile, award-winning shorts, one that won at Sundance, one that I know played at SXSW. How soon before you seriously start to pursue your first feature as a director?
BL: I’ve already started.
Capone: Have you got a script ready to go?
BL: I have things. [Laughs]
Capone: You're being cagey, Ms. Larson.
BL: [laughs] Things are happening.
Capone: That’s good to hear. Back real quick to SHORT TERM 12, it’s one thing to be good with kids, and it’s another to have them respect you as authority figure. Did you have to work on your authority voice? Or is that something you already had in your arsenal?
BL: That was definitely something that I had to work on. It was the thing that I had the most apprehension about doing in the film. I’m the oldest of all the kids in my family. I’m the oldest sister and the oldest of the grandkids, so I’ve spent a lot of time babysitting, but I’m usually the fun one. I've never had to be the parenting one. So I did have to spend some time working on that, because I was concerned that I was going to sound like a child barking orders instead of a strong woman.
Capone: You scared me a little bit.
BL: That’s good.
Capone: A lot of people have been discussing with you how young you were when you started acting, and have asked you what first made you want to become an actor. I’m more curious about the point at which you went from being a kid who want to just do it because it was cool to someone who saw acting as an artistic pursuit? Or was that always a component?
BL: It was always an artistic pursuit, strangely. I remember very vividly my first audition; I was eight years old. It was for a commercial, but at that point I had all of these monologues that I had memorized and was ready to perform. And when the audition became about them asking me questions about what my hobbies were, and I said very seriously “Acting.” [Laughs] They said, “Well what else do you like to do?” “I like to act.” Then they kind of went “Okay, what a weird child. Thank you.” I left the audition sobbing because they didn’t ask me more about it. They didn’t let me do my monologue. I was so upset. It’s always weirdly been that way for me. I don’t know why, but it’s always been that.
Capone: At why point did you realize that leading a life outside of acting might actually help your acting?
BL: I figured that out fairly quickly. As I started getting older and things change all the time when you’re growing up in that industry, there become new phases of it, and certain actors or actresses that you’re auditioning with suddenly are not doing it anymore, or they're not as good as they used to be. I started realizing that not being in touch with the reality makes for a terrible artist, especially when the things you’re interested in are not about shoes or how beautiful you are, but if they're about the real human experience. You have to be living a human experience in order to relate to the script in real ways that are relatable, otherwise you’re just self centered, I think.
Capone: Most the characters in SHORT TERM 12, adults and children, they all seem to have this running thought through my head, “Am I worthy of being loved?” Is that a tough thing to tap into as an actor?
BL: No! I mean you know this, acting is filled with rejection and it’s filled with being asked to be things that you’re not or being put in uncomfortable situations and facing things that you’re not ready to face and questioning who you are when you’re job is to play other people. It’s filled with insecurity as well. I think that’s an easy thing to really do and one that is pretty universally felt and understood. The great moments are when you are able to accept yourself and love yourself and therefore allow others to love you and then to do it in a way that’s not egotistical.
Capone: That’s a tough balancing act.
BL: Yeah, there’s many different levels of it, but I certainly understand what that feels like.
Capone: Beyond the musical, do you have anything else lined up or coming out?
BL: No, I don’t. [laughs]
Capone: Alright, that was easy. Brie, thank you so much for spending the time to talk.
BL: No problem.
Capone: And let me be the 10,000th person to tell you how great this film is and how strong you are in it.