Interview: Brie Larson of “Room”

Posted on October 14, 2015 at 3:01 pm

Copyright A24 2015
Copyright A24 2015

Brie Larson is one of the most talented and dedicated young actors in Hollywood and also one of my favorite people to interview. We first spoke when she was still a teenager about her appearance in Hoot. And I was honored to get a chance to interview her again, this time in front of an audience, when her film Short Term 12 was shown at Ebertfest. “Room,” based on the Emma Donoghue novel, is the story of a brave and resilient young woman we only know as “Ma,” who has been held prisoner for seven years in a locked garden shed by an abusive rapist. She became pregnant, and when we first see her it is the fifth birthday of her son, Jack, played by Jacob Tremblay. Ma has been careful and loving in explaining the world to him in a way that he can understand and a way that will keep him hopeful and confident. She tells him that “room” is real and everything he sees about the outside world on their barely functional television is pretend. But he is getting older, which means he is beginning to question some of what she has told him, to understand what he is seeing, and, maybe, to be able to help her escape.

One of the most painful scenes in the film comes after they escape, when Ma agrees to be interviewed by a television newscaster, played with just the right hint of oily charm by Wendy Crewson. Ma agrees to the interview to get some money so she and Jack can begin to become independent.

There was so much in that scene and it was one of the scenes that I was most excited about shooting because it has so much about our culture wrapped up in it. There are so many levels to it that fascinate me. It’s a moment where Ma is trying to take an easy way out and the easy way out is selling herself out and telling her story out and wanting to just get it over with. And it’s a chance for us to look at the media and the way that we sensationalize something that is extremely personal. You spend so much time with Ma and Jack and you get so close to who they are and the privacy of and almost sacredness of that space in room and you respect them both in a way that when it comes time to do that interview scene you feel that this interview is taking something that’s not hers to take. And I don’t think that’s a side that we see, we don’t see the personal side of these stories a lot of the time, we just see the interview. And we just want the baseline to be, ‘Oh good, they are okay’ and ‘Look at them back in normal society with the curled hair and the lipstick on, wearing a nice dress and pearls and she’s going to be okay.’

What we don’t see is the façade that we’ve created for us as human beings in a society and the codes that we have created as to what is socially acceptable, what’s good TV, what’s ours for us to know and take and even down to the makeup and the hair in particular. I was obsessed with it being the scariest and worst you’d ever seen Ma, that after watching her with this raw face for so long that you get so used to that as being her beauty. And when it comes to her joining society and doing what we’ve all agreed is beautiful it looks garish. It’s like a kabuki mask that you just want her to take off so badly. And then the question itself being whether or not she should have been given Jack up I think is one of the ultimate questions for any mother being, ‘Did I do well enough given the circumstances?’ I think every mom struggles with these moments when they feel that they let their kid down and they weren’t able to be the perfect mom. Ma did an extraordinary job given the circumstance but when that question arises after she’s lived five years with him feeling like the most selfless person that she could be at that age, given those circumstances to be asked that question I think is digging into the most tender wound that she has and the biggest fear that she has and the biggest regret and wish that she could have given him more.

One of the many challenges of the role was that the story is told not by Larson’s character but by Jack, from his perspective and in his voice. Larson, who began acting professionally as a child herself, understood the kind of support Tremblay needed while filming. “When I agreed to this movie, I agreed to explore motherhood. And so I knew that that job was not something that I was just going to play on screen it’s going to be something I was going to explore every way possible and Jacob, although he is such a brilliant actor and so much more than I could’ve ever imagined our Jack to be, there are still certain things that an adult can do, multitasking that the kid can’t. He doesn’t understand continuity; he doesn’t understand he can’t touch her hair in the middle of the scene and screw it up and then keep going. So I had to be constantly on watch to make sure that he was focused. If I noticed he was mumbling a line I’d just ask him to repeat it and kind of stay with him and stay on it and I found that for myself the fact that everyday shooting this movie the number one priority was him and I was second was my favorite part of it. Just like Ma herself, I never had the ability to be too precious with what I was doing. It was all about him and getting him to where he needed to be, and if I got something good then that was great. But it was all about him and I found that to be an incredible way to work. In my mind, if I’m uncomfortable with it, it’s an act of service. And so if I can be of service to him, then that was only going to help the overall finished product of the movie.”

To make him feel comfortable with her, “we just hung out. There is no trick, we just really like each other. We spent time in the room everyday for about three weeks and built the toys that you see in the room and made two portraits of one another. We laughed a lot and learned about each other’s favorite animals and favorite food and favorite color and just created the rapport that was really real, that we really felt comfortable being physically that close. We spent every second together. So we were pretty close by the time we started shooting by the end of the film we were absolutely inseparable.” When Larson and I spoke, she had just called to wish him a happy birthday.

The film is not about kidnapping and rape. It is a heightened version of the experience all parents have in balancing the desire to protect children by controlling everything around them with the inevitable loss of control as they grow up. Larson said, “It’s the Plato’s cave allegory, it’s mythology. You get to basically see the intensity and complication that comes with a parent-child relationship and all the ways that the beauty of the closeness and also the complication of that closeness and the ways that we have to learn how to grow up and the times that it feels like it’s just too soon and we are just too young but it’s what’s served to us and we have to try and find a way to make the best of it.”

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