"Who is she?" asked a German colleague after we had just seen Brie Larson in Room. "I don't know anything about her, except that she's great." When I relate this exchange to Larson later that day, she beams as if nobody else had noticed. "I love that!" she says happily. Why haven't we heard of her? I ask accusingly. "I don't know," she shrugs, still beaming. "I guess it takes as long as it takes."
Three months later, Brie Larson has won the Golden Globe as best actress and is on track to win the Oscar for her performance as Ma, a young woman held captive by a pervert in a soundproofed suburban garage. Ma is just 17 when Old Nick – a pathetic rather than monstrous figure, whom we barely see in the film – kidnaps her on the street. When we meet her, she has a five-year-old son by her rapist. Her life is devoted to making her boy Jack feel loved and safe.
Brie Larson on filming Room
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Brie Larson on filming Room
Oscar nominee Brie Larson opens up about her process when researching her latest film Room.
Emma Donoghue, who adapted her own best-selling novel for the screen in collaboration with Irish director Lenny Abrahamson, was originally inspired by the widely reported story of Elizabeth Fritzl, who was imprisoned by her own father for 24 years and bore him seven children. The news reports focused on the horrific facts of the case, while speculation centred on the criminal: what kind of person could do that? Donoghue was fascinated, however, by the woman and her children. They were shut into a basement, but they were still a family. How did they live?
The resulting novel, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, was told from Jack's point of view. Jack has only seen the things inside Room – Bed, Wardrobe, Sink, Toilet – but his mother has contrived to turn them into a play area, contriving games as exercise and telling him stories about World, a place beyond Room that might as well be a fairytale. Larson and eight-year-old Jacob Tremblay are extraordinary together, the confined space seeming to expand to accommodate their love and playfulness. When they are finally freed and must adjust to life out in World – where there are Ma's own parents and reporters and doctors and they can no longer be everything to each other – every moment rings with the clarity of truth. And now, of course, everyone wants to know who Brie Larson is.
It comes as a surprise to hear that Larson has been acting since she was six years old. "I told my mom that I knew what my dharma was and I wanted to be an actor ..." She actually said "dharma"? Larson did start life in Sacramento, but that seems too Californian to be true. "I know, that's weird, right? Because my parents are not like that." Blame television, she says. Initially reluctant, her mother eventually let her go to acting lessons in the hope it would help her be less shy. It did, but only in a limited way. "I felt too embarrassed to make friends at school," she laughs, "but I could perform each night in front of a hundred people in the Christmas play and be perfectly fine."
A year or two later – she is vague on detail – her parents divorced, leaving her mother with no job and no assets apart from Larson and her younger sister. "My mom packed up her car and we drove to Los Angeles and see if I could make it. It was never easy. It always seemed like whenever we hit our last dollar and my mom would say 'right, the dream is over, it's time to go back to reality', I would get a job that would allow us to stay a little bit longer." The three of them lived in a single-room studio apartment; the children had just one or two toys each. When she first read Room – long before there was a whiff of a film version – Larson was reminded of the years when, as she says, they couldn't afford to go to McDonald's. "Yet there was something really simple and a little magical about that time," she says. "We still talk about it as one of the best times in our lives."
Right from the start, she was determined to take acting seriously. "I didn't want to do a fish stick commercial. I wanted to do monologues and I wanted to cry and I really wanted to express emotion." As an adult, much of her work has been in television: she was notable as Toni Collette's rebellious daughter in United States of Tara – or in support roles in indie movies, where her easy naturalism as the straight girlfriend or sister helps the star to shine. (See Amy Schumer in Trainwreck, Shailene Woodley in The Spectacular Now, Ben Stiller in Greenberg or Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Don Jon: all are made better by her being there.)
The first film in which she moved front and centre was Short Term 12, where she played a youth worker in a centre for troubled children. Both she and the film were brilliant, raw and real, but only a handful of people saw it – probably, ironically, because there were no stars in the cast. Now, however, she is playing the lead damsel in Kong: Skull Island. Is this Brie Larson doing glamour? "You'll have to see if it's glamour or not. Don't be too sure!" she laughs.
When we spoke, the current Oscar buzz was just a faraway rumble. Her line on fame is that she will deal with it as and when it happens. In exactly the same way as she approached each scene in Room, in fact, where her own reactions as Ma would often surprise her.
"Exactly! Good point!" she says. "You know, I am really a big lover of just presence. Because I feel this movie is so full of expectation. A lot of this film is about this idea of a beautiful future Ma's created, how that expectation that is not met by reality and the devastation that comes from that. So with what I've learned from this film, it feels like it would be silly to create expectations for myself." Does that mean that, come the Oscars, she won't have written an acceptance speech? All going well, we'll find out on the night.