There’s a certain way to talk to a kid in a room full of adults in fancy clothes, and Brie Larson knows all about it. When Jacob Tremblay, who plays her 5-year-old son in Room, walks into the Crosby Street Hotel and a gaggle of publicists, Larson makes a beeline for him. “Jaaaaake!” she yells. Tremblay walks straight for her, making the sheepish smile that kids that age do, and exclaims, “You got tall!”
“It’s just my heels,” she says, sinking immediately to the ground, tucking her legs beneath her, and allowing her four-inch suede pumps to splay out behind her. The next five minutes are Brie and Jake in a conversation bubble: about the dog he recently fostered, the movie he’s shooting upstate, his two new teeth, and, most importantly, their birthdays, which are just days apart. Each sent the other a celebratory Instagram: In Jacob’s, he lip-synchs 50 Cent’s “Hey shorty, it’s your birthday” refrain; in Brie’s, she shoves a cupcake in her mouth and sings off-key. As Brie is led away, Jacob is ushered toward a table piled with food. But all he wants to know is, “Can Brie sit next to me?”
Larson has described Tremblay as her best friend, and even though it’s been a year since they shot Room, they’ve spent the last few months darting in and out of each other’s lives: Larson’s Instagram is filled with photos of her and Tremblay goofing around at the Telluride Film Festival, where the film first premiered, and the Toronto Film Festival, where it won the coveted Audience Award — considered the best indicator of a film’s chance of earning an Oscar nomination for Best Picture. Some may read these posts cynically, or as a bit of savvy publicity, but in person, it’s clear that Larson cherishes her co-star. “If you could bottle up what’s inside of Jacob,” she tells me later in the evening, “if you could sell it — you’d be a billionaire. That sort of excitement, and innocence, and ease.”
Talking with Tremblay is the most animated Larson will be all night. She’s there to introduce a screening of Room for what a publicist describes to me as “media influencers and Academy members.” It’s a totally normal moviegoing experience, if going to the movies involves wearing heels and selecting from two different bottles of expensive water. But Larson’s there to make the attendees feel like the screening — and, by extension, the film — are special.
Larson is blonde and beautiful, with a high-wattage smile built for stardom. After her dressed-down performances in both Room and Short Term 12, the comparisons to Jennifer Lawrence — who first made an impression with a similarly unglamorous role in Winter’s Bone — come naturally. And if Lawrence is a Cool Girl, then Larson’s her low-key alternative: She doesn’t talk about farts or pizza, and although she’s incredibly warm — she gave me three hugs — she lacks Lawrence’s potent combination of clumsiness, sheepishness, and ballsiness. If anything, she’s a serious nerd, with the endlessly tunneling knowledge of a homeschooler, which she was. She loves lurking in obscure subreddits, leaning fully into her weirdness on the Nerdist Podcast, and making top 10 lists of her favorite Criterion films. (On Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage: “This was the most invested in any relationship I had ever been — including my own.”)
When people first started calling Larson an “It girl” after her performance in Short Term 12, she balked. She’s not new to the acting world— after she introduced the film, she dutifully posed for photos the way young starlets have been trained to pose: legs crossed at the ankle, one hand on hip — but the celebrity game, and the prescribed paths that accompany it, is anathema to her. Like other female actors who survived the child celebrity complex (Natalie Portman, Jodie Foster, Kristen Stewart), she’s developed an attitude toward Hollywood that’s not cynical so much as deeply knowing. Larson’s staring over the precipice at stardom — and she has the distinctive demeanor of someone just getting out of a yoga class, even as she endures dozens of identical interviews that wonder, “Have you read the book?”
“I’m not a small-talker,” she says. “And there’s such a deeper question to this movie, and there’s so many interesting things you can talk about. So I’m always like, let’s get to what’s actually going on.”
Like Tremblay, Larson’s been in the business since she was a child, when she told her mother that acting was her "dharma.” At age 9, she started appearing in sketches on The Tonight Show; she dropped her French last name (Desaulniers) and adopted the one of her favorite American Girl doll (Larson). Then it was into the Disney trenches (the speed skating made-for-TV movie Right on Track) and a stint as Bob Saget’s daughter in a sitcom that no one can remember. She was a Six Chick in 13 Going on 30 and a mini-environmentalist in Hoot, and she released an album, Finally Out of P.E. Her singing career was shaped to fit the Miley/Selena/Britney actress/singer/sexybaby mold, but her album was delayed several times before the label dumped it, unceremoniously, in 2005. She sings with a disaffected, alt voice; the video for “She Said” has Larson in the tiniest of waitress uniforms, oiled-up legs, and dirty, chunky hair, doing her best knockoff Avril Lavigne.
Today, Larson thinks that girl is almost unrecognizable. We enter a private lounge decked out in candles and heavy curtains, and she selects a velvet couch and settles in. “I was so insecure and so hard on myself back then,” she explains. “But there was a moment when I started doing the math. It took me two hours to get ready every day — hair and makeup, so many clothes, trying to make sure everything matched really well — and I had this intense epiphany. I realized how much time I was spending getting ready for life — I wasn’t actually living it. It was the most terrified I’ve ever been in my life. So I went in the exact opposite way.”
She took a small role as a manic pixie dream ex-girlfriend in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. She’s still singing, and pouting, and wearing a short skirt, but it was enough to establish her as something of a nerd fetish object, as opposed to a piece of Disney bubblegum. It might not have been the “opposite” way, but it was another way — at least until her breakthrough, at age 20, as Toni Collette’s punkish daughter in the Showtime series United States of Tara. Collette won all the praise for her portrayal of a mother with dissociative identity disorder attempting to keep her “alters” at bay, but Larson — in a uniform of plaid pants, dog chains, and combat boots — gives a performance that places her alongside My So-Called Life's Angela in the pantheon of fully realized onscreen teenagers.
Tara helped earn her a slew of supporting roles in mainstream projects, playing younger than her early twenties self — as an angry high schooler in Rampart, a hot high schooler in 21 Jump Street, a hot and smart high schooler in The Spectacular Now, and a silent high schooler in Don Jon. In 2012, Larson made a short film with her two best friends called The Arm — a clever puzzle piece of a film, with the quick montages and overlapping dialogue of French New Wave and New American Cinema.
Those are the sort of films that shaped Larson’s tastes as a teen — not the tween-directed Disney fare she was starring in. She discovered the Criterion Collection on Netflix and became obsessive. “No one ever liked the movies that I liked,” she told me. “I’d want to hog the one TV in our house to watch [Jean-Luc Godard’s] Masculin Féminin, and one time my mom just snapped at me: ‘I don’t want to read subtitles all day. I’ve worked all day, and I want to watch Top Chef, and I don’t want you to judge me for it.’ It was such a brutally honest moment for me, realizing I’m different from the rest of my family. I also realized that you can’t impose your taste on somebody. No matter how much you know something is beautiful, they’ll only be ready for it when they’re ready for it. I could never force my family to understand.”
Up to that point, she also couldn’t force directors to cast her in adult roles. It took a micro-budget production called Short Term 12 to give Larson her first leading role — a caregiver at a short-term foster center, grappling with the ghosts of her own difficult childhood — that felt at once deeply lived-in and new. The crew was minuscule; the rollout was tiny. But Larson’s performance is a punch to the stomach.
Short Term 12 coupled Larson’s performance with descriptions like “emotionally naked,” “impeccable,” and “luminous” and put her name on various Hollywood casting lists — and she quickly found herself turning down roles. “A big producer offered me the part of the pretty girl that waits at home for the guy, and I couldn’t do it,” she told Vulture. “That’s not a story I ever want to tell.”
And it’s certainly not the story of Room. Larson plays the part of Ma, an abductee, going on her seventh year in a room the size of most of our bedrooms. It’s a role that would require complex layers of performance: one for her 5-year-old son, Jack, for whom she’s created a safe and expansive world; another for her captor, who controls her supply of food, clothes, and heat; yet another for her parents once she’s escaped (not a spoiler; it’s in the trailer); and still another for the media, who want to interrogate her decisions.
For Ma, Room’s director, Irish indie darling Lenny Abrahamson, and Emma Donoghue (the author of the book and screenplay) were looking for something very particular: “Whoever plays Ma is going to have to win over this little boy who plays her son," Abrahamson told me. "I did not want a removed, 'whisking off to the trailer with two assistants after every take' sort of actress, because that’s not going to make sense to a kid.”
To prepare, Larson kept a diary to write her way through the emotions of her character; she went on a super-restrictive diet and stayed almost entirely indoors to approximate the look of someone wholly removed from the outside world. She worked with the film’s costume designer to create a very precise (and sparse) wardrobe: “We had to get into the mind of [her abductor] Old Nick, which was really creepy,” Larson says. “We had to think of what I would want, but also what was the cheapest thing he could get — so Walmart, or a thrift store. And then there’s the things she would’ve gone through her pregnancy wearing — that’s why so many of the clothes are stretched out in weird ways, like the cords, which I stretched to pregnancy size and then resewed to make them smaller so they’d fit on my body.”
She thought of what Ma would’ve been wearing at the time of her kidnapping — and then what Old Nick would’ve pawned from that outfit, and what he would’ve let her keep, and what he would’ve added. “There’s a necklace that was broken, and that she fixed with a safety pin,” she explains. “And a ring. And a horrible plastic watch. Basically I had them buy things that she would’ve had, and then I took them away from myself.”
It’s that sort of attention to detail that makes Larson’s performance, and the film it shapes, so wrenching. Like full on ugly-cry, nine different times. And then there’s the way she is with Tremblay. Sometimes she plays with him with deep joy; at other times, she’s mired in her own deep and unspeakable sadness. It’s all the feelings of parenting — the claustrophobia, the glee, the frustration — condensed into a tiny, combustive package.
Larson’s performance should all but ensure a nomination, and for good measure, it includes a classic Oscar campaign trope: body transformation. Larson’s diet was the sort that many stars endure — not for a role, but just for, well, life as a celebrity — but Larson has no interest in that sort of self-denial. “When I hit 13% body fat, the nutritionist was like, 'This is unhealthy for your body. It’s fine to do for these two months that you make the movie, but I don’t want you to become addicted.’ To what, my meals being timed down to the minute, and no carbs, and protein shakes for dinner? I can’t wait to be done.’ It was all just a way to get closer to her. Here's the thing: The part of me that I’m the most interested in — it’s my brain. So there’s nothing that I’m interested in doing to myself that's going to make my brain work less than where it is now.”
At this point, a publicist enters the room, hands Larson a menu, and asks for her dinner order. She fawns over the menu, asks what “broccoflower" is, dismisses the daily special of steak. “My favorite thing in the world is vegetable sides,” she murmurs, before asking for three of them.
Tremblay walks in, shielded by his mom. It’s past his bedtime, so he only has time for a quick wave — “Hey bro!” Larson yells after him — before he’s led to a secluded corner to play Game Boy and fall asleep. Earlier, I’d asked him what the weirdest thing about Larson is, and he paused, then looked up in the air as a small smile crept over his face. “She likes Star Wars, and that’s a boy thing!”
I repeat this comment to Larson, and she laughs. “That’s how we became friends! He had the figurines and I was asking about them and able to talk about them, and he was like, ‘No way, you’re not into that.’ And then I knew Ninja Turtles as well, and he was so confused. Of course I know Ninja Turtles; I was born into the Ninja Turtles.”
It’s nearing 10 p.m. She sits cuddled into the corner of the couch, resting her head in the palm of her hand, one leg tucked under; there’s something malleable and fluid about her, like she’s excited to be changed by every interaction, every experience.
Take the extensive preparation for Room, which included weeks of silent retreat and the specific terror that arrives when you’re forced to be still with your own mind. I tell her it sounds like things my Buddhist ex-boyfriend would talk about — that desire to seek and survive that terror — and she starts nodding. “That’s what I was looking for,” she says. “I meditate twice a day, and I’m really interested in the critic in my head: Who are those people? What are they doing in there? It took me a while to realize that they’re there to help me — the voice that’s saying Don’t do that in your head, it’s actually trying to help you, to remind you of something. It’s your job to start a dialogue with it, and say, ‘I think I’m old enough now that I don’t need to be nervous in social situations. I really appreciate all the years you’ve spent keeping me on my toes, but I think I can go to some party, and I can feel comfortable, and I don’t need you to remind me of those fears.’”
It’s that mindfulness that propels her through the bizarre experience of being transformed into a star over the course of months. “By the end, I’ll have 100 hours of talking about the movie, and traveling, and being on little sleep and in different time zones, and each conversation is an opportunity to get to know myself in a way I haven’t before. I know what I’m like when I’m at home, in my PJs, playing Zelda. I know that person really well. So what about Brie wearing heels now, who never wore them before and just discovered, like, a year ago that I’ve been wearing the wrong size my entire life?”
What’s it like, in other words, to watch yourself transform, and lay the experience of it flat, read it like a map, and try to figure out the legend. “You finish a movie, it takes a year for it to come out. By the time it comes around again, I’m a completely different person. It’s a shock to watch something like Room — like watching a time capsule of yourself. That’s what I was thinking about? That’s what I looked like? I just feel like a complete rotation. It’s wild. But it’s the thing I like the most.”
It’s also an attitude that will serve her well as she moves on to larger projects — she just wrapped Wiener-Dog (directed by one of her idols, Todd Solondz) and is ramping up production on Skull Island, the latest reboot of the King Kong series. So far, the process isn’t alienating — she has just as much creative input as she has in the past. “I’m happy to say it’s not a big machine that's eating everything alive in its sight,” she says. At the same time, she’s also interested to observe how “blockbuster Brie,” as she jokingly puts it, reacts. She’s in talks for the starring role in a new Billie Jean King biopic, and it seems roles previously slotted for Jennifer Lawrence — like the lead in the adaptation of Jeannette Walls’ searing memoir The Glass Castle — are now being paired with Larson’s name in industry gossip.
But Larson’s not interested in comparing herself to other women, which might be why she has so little interest in talking about the Oscar race. “I feel like right now, like really right now, there’s a surge of complicated and empowered women, not just in movies, but everywhere. We were listening to [the radio] on the way over here, and every song is, like, Demi Lovato saying, ‘I’m confident,’ and Katy Perry saying, ‘Hear me roar.’”
When I ask about the limits of that sort of empowerment, she doesn’t back down. “I think we’ve had surges like this within each generation, but they can only take you to a certain point, and then you plateau, and then you go again.” I realize she’s essentially talking about the waves and backlashes of feminism, and I start nodding vigorously. “It’s always a reacting to something else; it’s not necessarily pure. It comes from ‘Well, I’m not like this,’” she says. “And that’s what we always need: We need that clash to create the new thing.”
I’m still focused on how her image will be assimilated into the female celebrity game — the one that, each Oscar season, revels in plopping each young starlet into a mold and pitting her against another, whether it’s J. Law vs. Hathaway, J. Law vs. Lupita, Last Year’s It Girl vs. This Year’s Contender. “We do it in a really sneaky way, that’s what’s interesting,” Larson explains. “Like ‘Who Wore It Better’ — we don’t know what we’re doing, but we’re comparing different women with different body types and wearing the same dress. It doesn’t have to be that: It can be both wore it better.”
With each day, Larson’s becoming more of a known face — which allows her more freedom, but also fixes her to certain expectations and an ever accumulating narrative about who she is and what her presence in a movie represents. Which is also why Larson has avoided making her private life public: “The thing I was always most protective of was my mystery,” she says, saying the word like it’s a secret password. “I worried that if I gave too much of myself, then I would limit the characters I could fall into.” With Room, she acknowledges, the mystery has started to slip away. "And if it’s going to slip away, I’d rather do it my way, and share what I would like to share, and make it a game of hide-and-go-seek. I can reveal something, but I can hide something else — and then it becomes fun.”
Which is why you can google something like “Brie Larson’s boyfriend” and find an answer (musician Alex Greenwald, formerly of Phantom Planet), but you won’t find paparazzi shots or evidence of him in her Instagram account. She’s fine with talking about the intimate inner workings of her mind, but like more and more young actresses whose formative years coincided with the height of the paparazzi and gossip frenzy, she’s drawn a stark line at the commodification of her personal life.
“Because we put ourselves in a movie or on TV, then it must mean we want to be completely open to the world. Sometimes people will run up to you as if this is Disneyland and I’m a character,” she says in a tone that resembles the narrator of a nature documentary. “I understand their point of view, but it’s difficult to explain how terrified it makes me. I’m so nervous. I’m, like, at the grocery store, and I didn’t know I was supposed to be ready to talk to a person right now!”
In part, it’s lingering social anxiety, which she’s experienced since childhood. “You could put me on a stage in front of 100 people and I could do a tap dance, but one-on-one was really difficult for me,” she told me earlier in the interview. “And it took me most of my life to learn how to work with that anxiety, to embrace and be comfortable with it.”
Which is why she’s entered into a new relationship with the word “no.” “In researching sexual abuse while I was preparing for the movie, the thing that I kept coming across, over and over again, were girls talking about, after the fact, how they saw it coming — but they didn’t feel like they could say no. And there’s this expectation for women, that, you know, when we’re in public spaces, that we will be amenable.”
“We don’t want to be bitches,” I add.
“Exactly. We’ve created such a stigma around ‘strong women are bitches,’ and who wants to be that? There are certain laws and codes that are ingrained in us, and we don’t even understand that there is this option of no. It’s a word that, over the years, I’ve grown more and more comfortable with — that I’ve really grown to love very much. And it’s an incredible feeling to be put into a situation where you feel like you can’t say no, and then you go, Oh wait, I have this word I can use: no. And you walk away, and you feel like you took care of yourself. If there’s anything I’d love for more women to know, it’s to spend some time just looking in the mirror, practicing your no.”
“It’s difficult, because you want to be everything to all people,” I say, feeling very much like she’s figuring out my entire life for me.
“And you just can’t," she says. "You just have to be everything to yourself.” ■