‘A role should change you by the time it’s done’: rising star Brie Larson on her award-winning turn in Room

Larson has made Room one of this year’s must-see movies – and she has become one of the hottest actresses in the world with her ‘luminous’ and ‘real’ performances

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 February, 2016, 7:45am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 February, 2016, 7:45am

A film about two people held in captivity, directed by a little-known Irish director and scripted by first-timer doesn’t sound like a recipe for success. But Lenny Abrahamson’s Room has been wowing audiences ever since it premiered last autumn, winning the Toronto Film Festival’s People’s Choice Award. Since then, the stars have aligned: it’s won a Golden Globe, a Bafta and been nominated for four Oscars, a remarkable triumph for such a celluloid minnow.

Heading that list is Brie Larson – the film’s 26-year-old Californian star has already claimed that Globe and Bafta plus a Screen Actors Guild Award. Even such powerhouse performers as Cate Blanchett and Jennifer Lawrence seem powerless to stop her in the race for this year’s Best Actress Oscar. Not that Larson took Room for the accolades. “I’m interested in learning more about myself and about humanity,” she explains. “[A role] should change you by the time it’s done.”

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In the case of Room, it wasn’t just a jog or even a sprint; she calls it an “emotional marathon” – which is no doubt why viewers have been so drawn in. Adapted from her own novel by Emma Donoghue, Room sees Larson play Ma, a young woman who, for the past seven years, has been imprisoned by a barely glimpsed kidnapper in a small, soundproofed shed. The only thing keeping her sane is her five-year-old son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay) – the product of a sexual assault by her captor.

Donoghue was inspired, very loosely, by the case of Austrian Josef Fritzl, who kept his daughter Elisabeth captive in a basement for 24 years, producing seven children through repeated rape. “All I wanted was the gist of a childhood in a locked room,” says Donoghue. “I made it as different as possible. I set it in America, in a shed above ground. One child only, instead of seven. He’s a stranger instead of being her father.”

If there’s a miracle in watching Room, it’s that the film is not gratuitous or exploitative. Rather, it’s a story about the bond between a mother and a child, says Larson. “And the importance of growing up and those difficult moments where you have to grow up before you feel like you’re ready. The times that life hands you something and you think, ‘I’m not prepared. I’m too young for this.’ But the world says, ‘The time is now.’ And how we must come to terms with that.”

In a way, Larson is facing the same issue. This past 12 months alone, she’s appeared in The Gambler with Mark Wahlberg and Trainwreck with Amy Schumer. Before that, she’s taken small roles in Hollywood movies like 13 Going on 30 and 21 Jump Street, as well as making her mark as a singer, releasing an album Finally Out of P.E. back in 2005. But it was playing a trouble counsellor in Short Term 12 in 2013 that left the biggest impression – not least on Abrahamson.

He was given a copy of the DVD by someone working in his production office and, he says, “I put it on and she blew me away. She has this radically naturalistic quality on screen. She disappears into the character. She’s luminous and holds the screen but at the same time, she feels like a real person, and that was really important to us. This had to feel like a real girl, who you could’ve imagined walking home from high school one day and picked, on the corner of a street, just because they’re unlucky.”

Today, in a pale blue dress and mascara, she’s been styled to impress. But for the role, Larson consulted with a nutritionist and shot without make-up to cultivate a pallid, Vitamin D-deficient look. Going on a strict diet, she worked with a trainer, dropping 13lbs of fat from her already slim-frame but gaining 15lbs of muscle. She also wrote diaries in character – one at aged 10, one at 14, one at 17 – and consulted with a trauma expert to learn how a victim might cope with long-term incarceration.

When it came to working with Tremblay, such a crucial interaction in the film, Larson spent time with her young co-star. Every day, they would come in before the shoot and make crafts and toys together using crayons, paper, foil and string – the limited materials that would be available to Ma and Jack. They drew portraits of each other too and brought them to the film. “We would do all of these things to put in Room to layer it, so it wasn’t just a set. It had a life to it. It had a life that Jacob and I had created together.”

But did it ever get too much? “It’s always exhausting to make a movie because it’s really long hours,” nods Larson. “It can be emotionally draining. And it’s all consuming. There’s no real life outside of making that movie. So it does always hit a point where in some ways you’re ready to move on to the next chapter. But Room was tough because it was such a discovery every day that letting go of the process of it was the hardest part of it.”

If anything, the film stirred past memories. When she was seven, Larson’s mother took her and her younger sister Milaine to Los Angeles to try out for pilot season. They moved into a small studio apartment, complete with bed that came out of the wall. Like Ma and Jack, they just had the bare essentials but it became this “amazing world”, says Larson. As it turns out, they didn’t return home – Larson’s father had asked her mother for a divorce shortly before the trip.

Even if she didn’t understand why at the time, Larson still recalls her mother sobbing in the room at night. No wonder Room was so emotional for Larson, who would call her mother in tears “asking for forgiveness for all that I didn’t know as a kid”, as she puts it. “It wasn’t the depression of Ma’s story; it was how little I knew of the struggle of being a mother. Suddenly I was able to in some ways relive my childhood from my mom’s perspective and see all of the ways that she loved me and protected me and see all of the ways I never noticed it.”

Now Larson is the toast of Hollywood – with roles in Todd Solondz’s picaresque comedy Wiener-Dog, Ben Wheatley’s crime yarn Free Fire and her first blockbuster, Kong: Skull Island. Will she cope? She’ll certainly have to get over one phobia. “I have this weird thing not liking to see my face bigger than it is,” she admits. “I think [a cinema screen] is too big. I find it terrifying.” No wonder she’s done her best work in a room the size of a cell.

Room opens on Mar 3