United States of Brie Larson

 
illustration by Brianna Ashby

illustration by Brianna Ashby

 

by Bruno Alves

It may seem strange to say it, but Brie Larson is not Brie Larson.

At the age of 6, still living in her native Sacramento, Brianne Sidonie Desaulniers told her mother that she wanted to be an actor. It was her “dharma,” she said, but her mother was not so sure. “She thought that was the most confusing thing,” she recalls, “like I was just repeating something I heard on the TV or a kid said at school.” She kept pushing, though, until her mother relented and promised her that if she took acting lessons for a year and didn’t change her mind in the meantime, she would get her an agent. One year later, the family was moving to Los Angeles, so she could go to auditions and pursue her career. Her French sounding name became a problem, or so she felt from having to constantly correct people’s mispronunciation of it. So Desaulnier turned into Larson, the name of both her doll and the family of her great-grandmother. As for “Brianne,” that was a name she went by only when she was in trouble. Hence, “Brie.”

Brie Larson has since become a star, the kind whose name is now permanently prefixed with “Academy Award winner.” We know her—in the mediated, figurative way we “know” all celebrities—from magazine profiles; E! News; YouTube clips; or interviews, in which she doesn’t speak in press-releasish, the mother tongue of those born and raised in Hollywood. Instead, she betrays her Californian roots by punctuating her sentences with “like” and “you know”, as if performing an unconscious, cool, sun-kissed version of postmodern language subversion—what Joyce would have used instead of “fuck” had he been born not in the gray, rainy streets of Dublin but in a warm, sunny Golden State city instead.

In the years that followed, her career began to take shape: a steady gig on a sitcom, chances to star in Disney movies, supporting roles in Hollywood productions and independent movies, a series of short yet memorable roles in films like Greenberg, The Spectacular Now, 21 Jump Street, and her personal favorite, Scott Pilgrim vs The World.

But it was Short Term 12 that changed her life. “I was emailed the script,” Larson recalls, “and instantly felt it was the greatest thing,” almost “a transcript of something that actually happened.” Short Term 12 tells the story of Grace and her boyfriend Mason, two social workers in a temporary group home for teenagers, and the kids they have under their responsibility. Feeling “unqualified to do it,” Larson applied for three volunteer jobs in similar facilities in Georgia where she was still shooting The Spectacular Now, hoping those jobs would help her get the part. Those applications were rejected, but she got the part anyway—and carried that commitment to authenticity into the role. The movie, she says, is about “the fear of being unlovable,” and yet it’s “a very hopeful film.” That hope springs mainly from her presence in it. The smile on her face as she watches her boyfriend air-drum to some song he’s listening to, or when he hugs a crying kid to comfort him, or when he thanks his foster parents for showing him what it’s like to be loved; or the moment she tells one of the kids that her own father is in jail, or reveals the scars from cutting herself; how she reluctantly brings down the wall separating her from those she means to protect; and especially the look on her face when she and her boyfriend see their yet-to-be-born baby in the ultrasound, the joy palpable in the tears streaming down from her eyes and the hug she gives him, coloring the film with that sense of hopefulness—the sense that joy can be a part of the lives of even the most troubled among us.

Larson loved being a part of it. “I watch the film and I see everything that happened in between every cut,” she says, noting “how bizarre the whole process is.” By which she means, of course, filmmaking itself. “Destin [Daniel Cretton, Short Term 12 director/screenwriter] wrote this thing a couple of years ago, and then on this day at this time with these thoughts and this past experience and these things I hope for, it creates this thing that we all agree on.”

But it also made her famous. “It’s more scary than anything else,” Larson has said. (She likes that her phone hardly has any reception at her wildlife-surrounded house, hidden somewhere in the hills of LA.) The film did open many doors for Larson though: “Until Short Term 12,” she explains, “80, 90 percent of my life was auditioning. It’s exhausting and it’s hard and you’re constantly trying to prove yourself and act like you’re not trying to prove yourself.” Once the movie was released and widely praised, people finally knew who Larson was—and what she could do. Larson was now able to really work; instead of trying to appeal to casting directors, she was able to select her roles, really study them, and give them shape.

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In interviews, Larson demonstrates a constant concern with doing things that “feel real,” with being “true” to herself and the “essence” of who she is, with not wanting to be a “commodity of a person.” “I would rather just flip pancakes at Du-par’s,” she promises, “than be somebody I’m not, than be in a movie where I have to play something that I think is a poor representation of what it is to be a human being.” It was for that very reason that Larson abandoned the music career she began as a teenager. She liked writing songs, playing guitar and singing, but she felt her producers and managers were turning her into “a weird character, cartoon” of herself. Watching videos of her performances back then, they look like exactly that—performances; roles she’s playing. “I was so insecure and so hard on myself back then,” Larson remembers. “It was the most terrified I’ve ever been in my life. So I went in the exact opposite way.” (Her role in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World seems almost like her own caricature of the person she saw herself becoming).

It was a fitting coincidence that Larson was cast in United States of Tara, where she would play a young woman looking for her identity—and the daughter of a woman struggling with dissociative identity disorder. “Kate Gregson was me,” she would later say. In the course of the show’s three seasons, her character evolved from a rebellious teenager into a webcam performer known as “Princess Valhalla Hawkwind,” into a flight attendant trying to escape her home, into the actual pillar of her family structure. And like her character, Larson too seemed to find what she was supposed to do, the kind of work that allowed her to become the kind of actor she wanted to be.

Yet there is a kind of irony in someone so concerned with authenticity choosing a career in acting. Why would someone who’s adamant about not trying to “be everything to all people,” someone who’s so “interested in the emotional honesty of things,” choose to live a life for which she must necessarily change her identity constantly? How can you be yourself pretending to be other people?

Larson appears to be aware of the paradox. Like many before her, she sees acting as “a lie to tell the truth.” “I’m a big researcher, and I’m a big memorizer,” she says. “I spend a lot of time researching where this person came from, what even their voice is, how they talk, how they interact with other people, or what their emotions are,” to then get “washed over” by these acquired characteristics, and then combines them with what she draws from her own experiences—“the love you’ve experienced, the love that’s been lost, the travelling, the seeing different points of view” —to use the fictional characters she plays to say something real about both herself and the rest of us.

Consider her Oscar-winning role in Room. She plays “Ma,” a woman kidnapped as a teenager and kept in a shed by her captor, rapist, and father of the boy she gave birth to in that four-walled hell. Preparing for the film took eight months. She researched trauma and stories of real life captive women, stayed out of the sun to change her skin and hair tones, maintained a rigid diet to reproduce the effects of poor nutrition, exercised excessively to make herself exhausted, and cut herself off from the internet, friends and loved ones for a month. “I basically eliminated everything that was pleasurable from my life,” she half-jokes.

The process of shooting the film mirrored the arc of the narrative. In the beginning, it meant shooting in a cramped space with too many people. Larson’s preparation brought up memories of the time she, her mother, and her sister moved to a tiny apartment in Los Angeles, with scant variety in toys, clothing, or food, and only one bed to sleep in. Larson, like her character’s son in the movie, was happy during that time, while her mother—like Ma in Room—was facing the pain and financial difficulties of her divorce while trying to protect her children from them. “My mom created this amazing world, and I never remembered it as being a time when things were tight.” When she remembered and understood the reality of those days, Larson also understood why she felt she knew the story of Room so well.

While shooting the first half of the movie, she felt she couldn’t wait to get out of those constrictive confines, but getting out didn’t make it better. Toronto was winter cold, and Larson had to play it as if it was Akron, Ohio in the summer. “It was so much harder,” she admits. “While in Room”—Larson always refers to the space Ma and her son are trapped in in the same weirdly musical way that the character does—“that was the least emotional” her character was going to be. “It’s not until afterwards, until she’s in a safe space—that’s when the panic attacks, that’s when the anger, that’s when the real depression and the real weight and heaviness and the recognition of what happened happens.”

Larson had prepared herself to get “to the point of, like, madness, insanity, depression—whatever you wanna call these things—and then suppressing it,” so that “the only thing that shows is this little glimmer.” “The thing I always struggled with was that no matter how hard I tried it would always be my face. I would prefer to have Andy Serkis’s career more than anything."

But, as with all truly great actors, Larson’s face is a vital part of her acting ability. Right from the opening scene, Larson shows the frustration on her face as her son throws a tantrum, the desperation of their situation, the pain from her toothache, and yet she displays also—maybe even more prominently—the affection for her child, her love for him, and even the joy of watching him explore their tiny world. Later, there’s a close-up on Larson’s face, as she and her son drive home from the hospital after escaping from their captivity. It’s only a second or two long, but Larson tells us all we need to know. While her son stares in wonder at the outside world he’s seeing for the first time, she’s still in pain, not only from what she went through, but also from the worry about what awaits them: the media circus, the legal hell, her father’s rejection of her son, and herself coming to terms with her tragic past, all these coalescing into a whole new form of captivity she’ll have to endure. All in that one look, that fleeting thousand-yard stare into an unforgiving world.

How can anyone play a person who’s gone through something like what Larson’s character in Room has gone through? How can anyone penetrate the experience of a person who has gone through such a radical horror?

“It doesn’t matter how far I go,” she recognizes. “I’m not even close to touching these girls’ experiences.”

Acting is an empathetic process, and it is also a symbiotic process: The character and the person playing it merge into one another, creating this third semi-real, semi-fictional person that both changes the character from what its author had conceived into a version of the person giving it life, and the actor from what she was before taking the role into the person she grows to be after playing it. After Short Term 12, Larson kept scratching her thumb like Grace did. “If you’re in somebody’s head for 12 hours a day for four weeks, it’s like your brain actually wires itself to start thinking that way,” she explains. But although Larson’s roles inhabit her, she also lends them something of her own.

Shooting Room was, she says, “all about making sure Jacob [Tremblay, her then-8-year-old co-star] was OK.” “We had pizza, talked about Star Wars.” That endearing concern might have been a product of her own experience as a child actor, and Larson says as much: “The main thing I thought about was I remembered the times I was talked down to, and I remembered the times I was respected. Even at 7-years-old, I really, really loved acting and took it very seriously and I wanted people to take me seriously.” (This was something she had already mentioned in interviews about shooting with the younger kids in the cast of Short Term 12). But her focus on how important it was for her that Jacob “always felt he could speak up” might have had to do with something else.

Larson was “incredibly shy” as a kid, “too scared to talk to anybody.” Her parents used to call her “the WB frog,” because “When I was onstage I would do this whole song and dance, but if my parents had a family friend over, I would just go hide in the bedroom.” Even today, she still she’s “not a small talker.” She decided to play Legos as a way to connect with Tremblay because she thought it would be easier: “We wouldn’t have to make eye contact right away.”

If you saw Larson and Tremblay on the Room promotional tour or at award ceremonies that year, then you have likely seen her kneel down to his level to engage with him, hug him, play with him, stop talking to other people because he’s calling for her. “There’s something very old about a child, in the way they don’t dip in all the craziness,” she says. It’s hard not to think that she might find it easier to overcome her own introversion with a kid like Tremblay than she would with other adults. Perhaps there is something about children and interacting with them that frees you, and that brings out that part of you that is eager to connect, to be looked up to because you didn’t look down to, to give love and be loved, to understand and feel understood. When you watch the scenes between Larson and Tremblay in Room, you are seeing the same thing you see when they are talking with each other in a normal situation: two people who feel they are “the same person.” You see truth.

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Larson confesses she has “a hard time comprehending that life goes on,” which once again calls to mind the question of acting as a career choice. While shooting a film, actors are thrown into a relatively tight-knit group for a brief period; growing attached, creating ties, forming relationships, and are then forced to abruptly part, knowing those relationships will never be quite the same. But on life goes, indifferent to how we feel about its march, and Larson’s certainly hasn’t stood still. She recently interviewed Jane Fonda for The Edit. Last month, she starred in Kong: Skull Island, her first bona fide blockbuster, and she's set to appear in an upcoming Avengers chapter, as well as in her own starring vehicle as Captain Marvel. Each of these films seems likely to propel her to a whole new level of stardom.

It can be puzzling when truly great actors choose to do movies like Kong or take part in the Marvel universe. Most are quick to say they do it for the money, but there is another, more generous reading of these choices: perhaps they do it for the fun of it. The stunts, the running around, pretending to be the kind of person capable of shrugging off explosions or saving the planet; it all must feel like going back to the playground. Larson, however, offers another explanation: “Bigger movies,” she says, “are in some ways even more important, because they reach a wider audience, they’re highly influential.” She argues, “Why can’t we take the same level of intelligence and craft”—of a Short Term 12, she means—“and bring the same level of artistry and heart to something that’s bigger, that’s gonna be seen by more people?”

The money, of course, does matter, because the bigger paychecks that come with big tent franchises give an actor more freedom to participate in smaller, more artistically fulfilling films. Last month, Larson was in the indie joke-and-blood-fest Free Fire, which, if the trailer is any indication, looks like director Ben Wheatley’s attempt to convince Quentin Tarantino to make Larson his new Uma Thurman. She's also set to star in Short Term 12’s Destin Daniel Cretton’s next film, The Glass Castle, and in the shot-in-India musical Basmati Blues, a project she’s been proudly and glowingly talking about ever since she was promoting Short Term 12.

And perhaps more importantly, she will direct her own movie, Unicorn Store—a project for which she’s been preparing herself for quite a while. In 2012, she and two of her friends shot The Arm, a 9-minute surreal story about teenagers texting too much and falling in love, its editing recalling a French New Wave movie or perhaps an early Scorsese film like Who’s That Knocking At My Door? Larson and her friends took the short to the Sundance Film Festival, and walked away the Short Film Special Jury Prize. The following year, Larson co-directed—this time with Dustin Bowser—Weighting, another short, Godard-like piece of weirdness that leaves you thinking about how a part of your ex can stay with you after a breakup. Unicorn Store will be her first full-length (and on-her-own) directorial effort, but the way it has been described—a “quirky independent comedy” about a woman who moves back in with her parents and encounters “a store that will test her idea of what it really means to grow up”—indicates it will likely stay true to Larson’s distinctive sensibility.

Sometimes, that distinctiveness has made things more difficult for her. Larson went to public schools until junior high, but once it was time to go to high school, she didn’t like the teachers, was picked on, and felt awkward around her peers, so she decided to be home-schooled (“I was the best student, and the worst,” Larson jokes). She didn’t want to be an “Abercrombie & Fitch teenager” back then, in the same way she doesn’t want to be an “Adam Sandler’s girlfriend” actor now. 

At some point during those years, when she was either 16 or 17—she can’t pin it down exactly—Larson remembers watching a DVD of Godard’s Masculin féminin at home, right in the middle of the living room, when her mother came in. “I was trying to explain to her the importance of this film, and how incredible it was that Godard did this thing where, you know, he had this scene planned out, and then Brigitte Bardot walks in, but he didn’t tell the other actors, and there’s a camera on Bardot and Bardot knew what was happening and then you get to see this pure reaction of these people, and she”—her mother, that is—“was like ‘I don’t care.’” Larson’s voice drops to demonstrate the prolonged, drawn-out pronunciation of the o’s and a’s of her mother’s response. “‘I just worked all day. I wanna watch Top Chef, I don’t wanna read subtitles, I don’t care about what’s happening in France and the revolution in the 60’s, and the blah, blah, blah and whatever it is you’re talking about. And it’s black and white, I don’t want to work for my entertainment.’ And it was like, I remember being so hurt, and so sad, and I felt so different from my family… but then at the same time it was like a great lesson, that I realized I couldn’t just go around telling people what was a good movie, what they needed to watch. Like, I learned very quickly that I just liked what I liked and I didn’t need to force my opinions on anybody else, and you know, just go in my room and take off my angst on my guitar and try and tune out the sounds of Top Chef.”

This story brings to mind something Larson said in one of the interviews she gave while promoting Room. After the film was released, she had people coming up to tell her—to confess, really—things about their childhood the movie brought up within them. “Watching Ma, who they see as me being the vessel of, being so vulnerable and open, they immediately feel comfortable opening up.” Many told her the film “reminded them of being a kid making their first friend, the first time they felt comfortable, you know, asking a friend to come over, and that really, like, broke my heart, because I remember that. You know, the nervousness of being a kid, and not being sure if, you know, they wanna come over and play? And also, people who had troubled parents, maybe a mom who had mental issues or depression, and I never saw the movie from that side of it, but that was also a really interesting thing to hear about.”

Maybe this, beneath all the people she pretends to be for a living, including the public version of herself we get to see and thus think we somehow know, is who Brie Larson really is: someone a little bit different, who has always felt different from other people, but who still feels it's vitally important to understand them—those other, different people—and even more so, to connect with them in some way. And through the movies—watching them, reading about them, talking about them, making them—Larson has found a way of doing exactly that.


Bruno Alves lives in Caxias, Portugal, but sometimes wishes he didn’t. He writes for the Portuguese website O Insurgente, a column for Lisbon's Jornal Económico, and for a few other places now and then. Bruno welcomes both writing job offers and insults at alves.bm@netcabo.pt, and you can also find him on Twitter.