At just 23, Brie Larson, the star of Short Term 12 (in theaters now) already has a reel that would make most actors jealous. She's demonstrated depth and soul in Sundance Indies (The Spectacular Now and Don Jon) as well as crowd-pleasing comedic timing in more commercial projects (21 Jump Street and United States of Tara). She's smart as hell, dives deep into her roles, and really, really just wants to act.
We sat down with the California native to talk about how she gets into character, why memorizing lines gives her panic attacks, and her occasional need to take a break from all the "hype" and "make-believe" (her words).
DETAILS: In Short Term 12 you play Grace, a supervisor at a foster-care facility for at-risk teenagers, with some serious issues of her own. How did you take on the weight of that character?
BRIE LARSON: I shadowed at a facility and spent time talking with the staff. I learned what the rules are—what I'm allowed to do and not allowed to do—as well as "the restraint" [the opening scene involves Larson and her co-star John Gallagher Jr. chasing after a kid and physically restraining him]. Then I spent time with each kid [actor] and talked with them about the backstory they'd created, so we had some dynamics that weren't necessarily spoken about, but I think the film is about that. It's about the things that aren't said.
Brie Larson in Short Term 12
DETAILS: You and John Gallagher Jr., who plays Mason, Grace's boyfriend and co-worker, had such an easy chemistry on screen. How did you two develop that?
BRIE LARSON: The two of us went out to dinner and Destin [Cretton, the film's writer/director] found out about it and put an envelope in front of John's apartment that said, "Do not open until you get to the restaurant." So we get to the restaurant and opened it and there was a note from Destin saying, "I don't know if this will help but I hope it does," and then there was another envelope in it with little conversation starters. Some of them were questions that arose when Destin was working in a facility, like things that run through your head in various situations, questions about yourself and the world, and hopes and fears that you have about being a parent. Those were really great conversations that John and I had. Then some of the questions were more about Grace and Mason, like what their first date was and it was things like that, that allowed us to be very open and candid.
DETAILS: You have another movie coming out this fall, Don Jon, with Tony Danza and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Your character Monica's primary form of communication is rolling her eyes and texting. Was it difficult being so terse when Danza and Gordon-Levitt would go off on each other?
BRIE LARSON: I loved it. One of the most interesting aspects of my job, and I got to experience this with Grace as well, are the times when you just get to listen to somebody and you don't have to say anything to them. It's a really exciting time because I enjoy the performances of others more than I enjoy performing myself. It was a strange experience playing a character that doesn't speak, though, because I'm such an over-preparer. Every day I'd have at least one panic attack on my drive over, thinking that I didn't learn my lines—and then I'd realize I didn't have any. It was fantastic.
DETAILS: You started acting at age six. Did you ever consider doing anything else?
BRIE LARSON: It's a very strange industry and it's impossible to quantify the progress you're making. I'm a very logical and mathematical kind of person and I like to understand the terms of things. There are times when you get told "no" so much that you don't have the strength or the ability to see beyond it. There have definitely been times when I've tried to understand why I wasn't something simpler, like an athlete where it's very easy to see your progress. But I'm not afraid to take time away when I need to because I see being an actor as an artistic expression—if you're not connected to it and inspired by it, you shouldn't do it. You should let someone else do it. For me this is not about anything besides wanting to do something because I love to do it. The hype stuff is make-believe.
Trailer for Short Term 12:
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