"Monkey Jesus! Don't even get me started on Monkey Jesus, it's my favorite thing ever," Brie Larson says, springing to life, from polite and thoughtful interview mode to animated geek. It's like that hilariously botched restoration of a Jesus painting in Spain — and the Reddit community that sprung up to make it a major meme — is a secret password.
"That is the one taboo conversation between me and my boyfriend, because he's really upset about it. We both have a very big love for art history and particularly for the Renaissance, so to him, it's like a huge travesty that this thing happened. He's like, 'That's somebody's art, how would you like it if someone taped over one of your movies?' And I said, 'If it looked like Monkey Jesus, I might be OK with it.'"
The initial idea behind interviewing Larson is that, looking at her body of work and upcoming list of credits — from roles in The United States of Tara, Scott Pilgrim, and the 21 Jump Street reboot to The Spectacular Now and a gutsy leading turn as a counselor for foster kids the upcoming Short Term 12 — you can credibly call her a Next Big Thing, a talented and smart young actress who is on the cusp of major stardom. And then, you're in the middle of the conversation and you realize that you've mostly discussed things like Reddit, genetically modified crops, and Greek mythology, so it'd be entirely appropriate to go with the classic "she's not what you'd expect, but instead so down to earth and smart!" narrative.
But that seems unfair too; why should any of that be surprising? Really, it's a lot like talking with any intellectually curious friend. So let's just settle on that: Brie Larson is a smart, normal person who also happens to be an exceptional actress.
You do have to give her credit for being just that, though, because Larson, now 23, has had plenty of chances to become a tabloid staple, to be fucked up by a Hollywood system that elevates, celebrates, chews up, and then spits out young starlets. She's been in the business since she was 8, starting with sketches on The Tonight Show and moving on to a few short-lived sitcoms; then came the break with a Disney Channel movie and some small roles in teen flicks and rom-coms, all of which built up to getting cast as Toni Collette's daughter on Showtime's Tara. Her biggest role, as the centerpiece of Destin Daniel Cretton's phenomenal Short Term 12, has already won her scores of accolades — the movie swept the Grand Jury and Audience awards at SXSW — and put her on the brink of stardom, even if she isn't all that concerned with its trappings.
"I don't really feel like I've been part of the industry, I don't feel like I've been part of some weird machine," Larson explains. "I've actually made a conscious effort to not be a part of it. I don't live in Los Angeles, I work in Los Angeles, and even that — I audition in Los Angeles, I very rarely film in Los Angeles. I don't hang out with producers on my off-hours, so I don't even know what that world is like. I've never been to be a party where it was like, 'Whoa, there's cocaine on the table!' and everyone is giving me their business card and trying to get me to do their porn."
If blowing lines with skeevy moneymen at the Chateau Marmont and walking innumerable red carpets is out of the picture, what's a young actress to do?
At the moment, she's still re-acclimating herself to simple frills like air conditioning and Starbucks in America, following three months battling extreme heat, monsoon season — including her hotel flooding — and a comedy of other obstacles while filming Basmati Blues, a political musical film, in India.
A movie funded and produced by Jeffrey Soros — son of billionaire George Soros — it features Larson as a brilliant young scientist who, with her father (Scott Bakula), develops a more protein-heavy rice seed and is sent by Donald Sutherland, the head of a Monsanto-like corporation, to sell it to the farmers in India. The downside of the development is that these rural farmers have to buy new batches of seed each year; as anyone familiar with GMOs would tell you, this sets up quite a moral and economic conflict.
Instead of spewing out economic facts or running through gut-wrenching images of rural poverty, the movie opts to present the conflict with musical numbers, bursting into Bollywood-style song to explain the plight of the farmer, something Larson admits is bizarre — but in a good way.
"I don't like things that are fear-based. I don't like fear tactics, I don't like scary movies. Even the news to me or newspapers, I have a hard time getting into it, because it all sucks you into this negative, bad, there-is-no-hope side of it," she says. "And so with something like GMOs and these farmers, we could all rally together and make a documentary about it and scare the living shit out of people, or we can do it in this way that has a song tied to it that you're singing to yourself that ends up being some weird, positive mantra and is the opposite, flip side of it."
Who knows how the film will turn out — it could be bizarrely brilliant, or just a 10-ton bomb — but it's certainly an ambitious effort, something to stretch the brain a little bit, a challenge when life could be easier. That was part of the appeal, though, and that allure similarly inspired her to sign up for a load of online college courses, as if she didn't have enough work going on.
Larson can talk about about the classes with boundless irony-free enthusiasm. After a young adulthood focused on a rising career, she's now backtracking to get an education, loading up on several courses at a time, even while she continues to make strides on screen. The Short Term 12 shoot was a rigorous one, keeping her on set for 12 hours a day and requiring her presence in just about every scene, lurching her strong and stoic character, Grace, toward a reckoning with a terrible secret she had worked to repress. An absolutely devastating thing to watch, it was an emotionally taxing performance that, in theory, would have made reading about Mathematical Thinking and Greek Mythology nice distractions. Except that she couldn't help but go all in on those things too.
"I'm like frantically downloading all of my lectures for my Mathematical Thinking class and learning these algebraic equations, and I have a whole school notebook and binder and things, and then I could feel myself getting nervous and trying to race home in time to get my term paper because I thought it was due at midnight," she remembers, laughing at her hysteria during after-production hours last fall. "So I was rushing home and I come home and I say, 'I can't talk, I love you, boyfriend, but I have to do this thing,' and then I find out that it's due at noon, not at midnight, and then I'd get so upset and feel like a failure."
Between a lack of internet and exhaustion from the emotionally draining production schedule, it took an intervention from her boyfriend to sort of keep her from going down a slippery slope of education-induced breakdown — which, all things considered, is the best kind of breakdown you can have, but still.
Even as she does press for Short Term 12, again taking center stage with supporting help from co-stars like John Gallagher Jr. (he played her loving and perplexed boyfriend/co-worker in the movie) and Cretton, Larson is trying to wind down with evenings of homework. The night before we talk, Larson was watching videos about cosmology, which both her hurt head with its conceptual insanity — the size of the universe, man! — and helped reinforce the idea that all of this show-business stuff is pretty minuscule and ultimately fleeting, even in the best of cases.
The classes mean a lot to her, it seems, because she skipped college completely, opting instead to go to work on United States of Tara right when kids her age began pursuing undergraduate degrees. The decision was a smart one, as the show served as a real career catalyst; it also marked the first time she was away from home for any extended period of time. Hell, having been homeschooled through most of her teens, she actually compares the whole experience on the show to being in both high school and college, since it forced her to socialize and forge her own identity, all the while coping with living away from home for the first time.
Larson talks about the Tara era with a wistfulness that many people apply to the carefree days on campus, with all the stories of close bonds and post-graduation email chains with people she so desperately misses; since the show was left dangling for a while and then sort of unceremoniously canceled by Showtime after three seasons, she never got to properly say good-bye. To this day, Larson thinks of the bedroom that her character, Toni Collette's teenage daughter Kate, "lived" in for all that time; she was promiscuous, troubled, and constantly in search of a new identity, a larger sentiment with which the actress could certainly identify.
"The one thing that I didn't do that still haunts me is on our very last day, I wrapped and ... I just left. [I thought], these people are my family, I'm going to see them again, I don't need to make a big deal about it," Larson says, sighing with a tinge of regret. "And then at the one moment I was pressing on the door to leave the soundstage and I thought, Should I take one more walk around the block, check out the set again, go into my room and stuff? And I thought, that's jinxing it, and I left. And when they called, the first thing I thought of was, Ahh, I didn't say my final good-byes to those walls."
The fact that Showtime inexplicably placed her character's personal belongings up for auction serves as an extra finger in the still-open wound left by the show's cancellation.
"I wanted to take something from Kate's room. There were so many weird knickknacks and things that I had such an intimate relationship with because those were the walls I felt like I grew up in," she says, wistfully. "It's weird, like an embarrassing garage sale or something. I think I was mostly upset about it because I had emailed them asking to keep some of them because Kirston Mann, who was the costume designer, and I were very close and we spent a lot of time on that. It was the first time I had a lot of say, and we really did a lot together."
"We designed things, we had things made, we really stretched those dollars and tried to do the most ridiculous costuming possible, just extreme 'social identity girl who doesn't know who she is so she's trying to get attention all the time with her clothes,'" Larson continues, almost transported back to this seminal time in her life. "And there were certain things, like there was a pair of creepers and a few things like that that were just quintessential to me of that period of time and I wanted to keep them. So I emailed asking about them and they told me no, and then they put them up on eBay and I was so upset about it."
This is about as perturbed as she'll allow herself to get, and really, Brie doesn't even love to discuss her career all that much. Going through her IMDb with reporters and discussing her acting methods seems a bit silly and makes her feel a little self-centered. Still, a desire to discuss anything other than her movies made Larson's Ask Me Anything chat on Reddit back in March one of the more enlightening sessions, and maybe a harbinger of things to come.
"I am a real Redditor; I'm mostly a lurker, not so much a poster," Larson admits, laughing; if you need proof that she's made for that community, consider that her username, TonTonClub, is based on a minor weapon from Star Wars, something that another Redditor pointed out to great fanfare during her AMA.
"That community is so tough, but Reddit is the only [place] where I enjoy the comments people leave. I have my reservations, but I've been thinking more and more about the whole Reddit thing and I do think that I want to start contributing more, I want to start a weird Subreddit or something like that," Larson continues, citing the site's minor forums like Toaster Rights as potential inspirations for her own little community. "I would like to get over my fear. I think it's because I was homeschooled, too, so I'm not so gifted at the whole connecting and making friends and being funny."
That last bit is debatable, but the humility is noble.
She's going to be pretty ubiquitous these next few months, from Spectacular Now and Short Term 12 to roles in Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Don Jon's Addiction, Basmati Blues, and the Jason Sudeikis–Olivia Wilde comedy Relanxious, whenever that ends up coming out. It's sort of curious, then, that Larson makes rumbles about slowing down her acting schedule, right as her career is really taking off, but she does have a litany of other interests that should take up at least a good chunk of her time.
There's painting and songwriting — she released a bubblegum pop album as a teenager and has a tentative goal of performing new songs at live shows by the end of the year — and even directing. Her short Weighting, which she co-wrote and co-directed, was in competition SXSW along with Short Term 12, and she won special recognition for another, The Arm in 2012.
"I'm extremely interested in art, every form of art, but I'm interested in it when it's good and interested in it when it's interesting," Larson says. "I just don't understand why more actors aren't artists. It just seems like, 'Oh, this is my career, this is what I do, I have to work, I have to do four movies a year, this was the best out of the movies I could get,' and I don't really understand that concept ... I often wonder if people really know what it is they're saying or what it is that they're doing or what the movie spreads out further than themselves. A good piece of art goes places."
Ultimately, she says that she can accept being called an "It girl" in this story, so long as it also notes her objection to the crown. The idea of being the Next Big Thing bothers her, not because it isn't flattering, but because it's so short-lived; the term itself is transient, always seeking out a new host. If you're the Next Big Thing, she wonders, what comes after that?