Brie Larson The Room Oscar Race
Yu Tsai for Variety

Brie Larson got an early break co-starring in the Disney Channel movie “Right on Track.” But even at the age of 13, she knew that saying yes to subsequent offers from the kids’ network would mean her acting ambitions would veer off track.

“I just couldn’t do it. I always had this attraction to holding up a mirror to the world, and this didn’t feel like real life,” recalls the actress. “I wondered what would be the point.”

Now, at age 26, after a busy but largely unheralded career, Larson is suddenly breaking out as one of Hollywood’s latest discoveries for what is her most difficult — and personal — role yet. Her emotionally wrenching portrayal as a young mother (Ma) held prisoner in a shed with her 5-year-old son (Jacob Tremblay) in the upcoming film “Room” is already catapulting her to the forefront of the Oscar race. Debuting in Los Angeles and New York on Oct. 16, the film generated buzz at the recent Toronto Film Festival, where it won the Peoples’ Choice Award.


Larson’s performance comes at a time when there is, refreshingly, a crop of strong screen roles for women, which have been sorely lacking in Hollywood for decades. (According to the most recent studies the number is still shamefully low — with only 12% of last year’s highest-grossing films featuring women as lead protagonists.)

But this year the best actress and supporting races are already shaping up to be among the most competitive in years, with acclaimed turns by Cate Blanchett (in “Truth” and “Carol”), Emily Blunt (“Sicario”), Lily Tomlin (“Grandma”), Carey Mulligan (“Suffragette”), Saoirse Ronan (“Brooklyn”), Rooney Mara (“Carol”) and Alicia Vikander (“The Danish Girl”), among others.

Directed by Lenny Abrahamson and adapted from Emma Donoghue’s best-selling novel, “Room” is the latest offering from New York’s scrappy indie distributor A24 Films, whose executives readily concede that “Room” is no easy sell.

“It’s a marketing challenge,” acknowledges A24 publicity chief Nicolette Azenberg, who says the company’s strategy is leaning heavily on generating word of mouth. “We know this movie plays well. The best thing we can do is earn people’s endorsements, so we’ve been screening it like crazy,” which includes showing it to book clubs, mommy bloggers, film classes and book organizations.

Just as “Room” is no slam dunk at the box office, despite its awards pedigree, neither is Larson yet a household or marquee name. She’s been acting for most of her life, taking an odd career trajectory that found her eschewing those Disney projects and a singing career. Her profile has risen over the past three years thanks to roles in the blockbuster “21 Jump Street,” the Judd Apatow comedy “Trainwreck” and the acclaimed 2013 indie “Short Term 12,” which marked her first leading turn.

But it’s “Room” that has her positioned for stardom.

The role of Ma was coveted by every actress in Larson’s age range, and she’s the first to admit she never expected to land it. “I was told about the book, and I read it and loved it,” she says. “And I thought, ‘This is an amazing part, and I will never get to play it.’”

But Donoghue, who had already written the screenplay, was holding out for just the right combination of talent to bring “Room” to the big screen. “I was getting lots of nibbles, not just from directors, but producers and actors,” says the Irish-Canadian author. “But none of them seemed quite right” — until Irish filmmaker Abrahamson wrote her a passionate letter detailing why he was the director for the job.

“For (the film) to be brilliant, you’ve got to cast the right person. If the person isn’t right, it doesn’t matter how big they are, nobody’s going to see the film.”

Donoghue was moved by the letter, and impressed by Abrahamson’s take on the novel. “I wasn’t telling her I would change nothing; I was saying I wanted to work closely with her,” the director says. Notes Donoghue, “He truly understood the story; he saw past the criminal element.”

They discussed Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, a metaphor for the effects of education on the human spirit — in this case, between a mother and child held prisoner since he was born. And they compared their experiences with parenthood — both have two young children. She appreciated his straightforward take, saying, “He had such confidence with aspects of the project other directors found scary, like the first half being set in a locked room. Other directors suggested ways around it — flashbacks, animation, fantasy sequences. He would have none of that.”

Donoghue agreed to work with Abrahamson, with nobody getting paid upfront — in fact, she didn’t sell the film rights until the first day of shooting. Abrahamson would visit her in Canada to work on the script, and then they spent a year sending drafts back and forth. In the meantime, the director released “Frank,” starring Michael Fassbender, which upped his profile. In early 2014, Abrahamson was preparing to cast “Room” when someone in his office suggested he check out “Short Term 12.” Larson likes to joke, “I’m big with receptionists,” but the truth is that “Short Term 12” was a word-of-mouth hit that paid big dividends for the star long after its release. Abrahamson was so impressed with the actress that she immediately went on his short list. Ultimately, Abrahamson says he met with only three actresses for the role, all of whom auditioned.

The director says there was never pressure to cast a bigger star in the role. “Everyone involved knew that for this film to work, it’s got to be brilliant,” he says. “And for it to be brilliant, you’ve got to cast the right person. If the person isn’t right, it doesn’t matter how big they are, nobody’s going to see the film.”

Larson was born Brianne Sidonie Desaulniers in Sacramento to parents who shared a chiropractic practice. After announcing her intention, at age 6, to become an actor, her mother eventually enrolled her in classes, where the shy girl came to life on stage.

The next year, she traveled to Los Angeles with her mother and younger sister, Milaine, for pilot season; the trip was was supposed to last three weeks. Her mother finagled a studio flat at Oakwood Apartments, and Larson now realizes, in her words, “It was ‘Room.’ It was all one room; the bed came out of the wall. I had two pairs of jeans, a couple shirts, a couple headbands and a pair of orange Converse (sneakers).”

And much like the film, she says, “My mom created this amazing world, and I never remembered it as being a time where things were tight, and we were just eating Top Ramen and 99¢ Jack in the Box tacos, and I didn’t have any toys. It didn’t feel that way to me at all; it didn’t feel sparse.”

One night, Larson awoke to the sound of her mother sobbing. “She was holding her hand over her mouth, trying not to wake us up with these guttural sobs,” she recalls. “And I thought, ‘That reminds me of when my toys are taken away.’ It wasn’t until much later I realized, ‘Gosh, we never went back to Sacramento. I never saw my dad.’ Years later, I realized that right before we had left for what was supposed to be a three-week thing, my dad said he wanted a divorce.”

Larson says when she recalled this memory, it was the final piece in the puzzle for her portrayal of Ma. “I always wondered why I knew this story so well. It wasn’t until then that I realized there was another piece of me coming out from this story, and I got to live the experience of being my mother in that situation,” she says. “I was constantly going through these waves of forgiveness for myself, waves of forgiveness for her. I would call her, crying and apologizing for everything I didn’t understand and didn’t know.”


The story behind “Room” is told from the perspective of 5-year-old Jack, who has lived his entire life in a small room with his mother, held captive for seven years by a deranged, sexual deviant (played by Sean Bridgers). The movie focuses on their plans to escape and adjust to life in the outside world. But above all, it’s a story of love, and the indescribable bond between mother and child.

 The role took a toll on Larson; she calls it an “emotional marathon,” so demanding it often left her feeling literally drained. “It hit a point near the end of shooting that there was so much intensity with every scene — tears you want to come out, you don’t have the hydration for them,” she says. She spent six months in pre-production, studying the effects of sexual abuse, as well as reading about people in solitary confinement and captivity. She spoke with nutritionists about vitamin deficiencies, and stayed out of the sun for months, which “makes you look really strange in L.A.” She worked with a trainer to lose weight, but also build up her muscle; she ultimately achieved just 12% body fat.

Larson, who resides in Los Angeles when she’s not working, says she warned family and friends upfront that she might be extra sensitive during this time. “I know enough about the brain to know I was rewiring it,” she explains. “As much as we like to say, ‘I’ll be able to shut it on and off,’ there are certain things that when you’re playing this person 12 hours a day, your waking life is this character.”

On top of all this, her scene partner for most of the film was an 8-year-old actor. Tremblay, who recently turned 9, is also garnering kudos for his remarkable performance, and the two became fast friends on the production. Though Larson is not a parent, she delights in children, and believes her experience as a child actor helped. “I remember how some people would talk down to me, and I never liked it,” she says. “So I always treated Jacob as an equal.”

The two actors were cast without having ever read together, so they had a meeting at a pizza parlor before shooting began. “I was really, really shy,” Tremblay admits. “But now we’re best friends.” Adds Larson, “Once he understood I could talk ‘Star Wars’ and that I knew all the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, we were good.”

On set, the pair would keep the mood light by dancing to “Uptown Funk” together and playing between takes. Says Donoghue: “The rapport Brie established with Jacob is why the film works. She had to do a lot of looking after him, in that (much) of the time they were just in that tiny space together. She did a huge amount of gentle acting coaching and keeping his spirits up.”

Tremblay says it wasn’t a hard shoot, because his character is a happy child who isn’t aware he and his mom are being held prisoner. The toughest scene to perform was shot early on, when he had to yell at Larson. “I didn’t know her that well yet, and I didn’t want to be rude,” he explains. “But then Brie said, ‘How about everyone scream for Jacob?’ So everyone on set started screaming, even my mom. Then I was able to do it, and I did a good job.”

While Larson may have aided Tremblay throughout the shoot, she says he’s the one who was invaluable in helping her keep perspective. “To go through all this with him is amazing, because I can never fly too high,” she says. “All the buzz, all the talk, and he just wants to know when he can go see a cougar, because they’re his favorite animal.”

She says Tremblay was also instrumental in keeping her grounded on set. “One scene was really emotionally intense for me in a way that I did not expect,” she recalls. “I was holding onto him, sobbing into him. The second they yelled cut, he pushed away from me and looked at me and was like, ‘Why are you still crying? We’re just making a movie!’ ”

When she was 15, Larson also had a brush with an accidental music career. After losing out on a role in P.J. Hogan’s 2003 film “Peter Pan,” she wrote and recorded a song called “Invisible Girl” that got into the hands of someone at L.A. radio station KISS-FM, which put it into rotation. “I had no aspirations for that, but within seconds, I had a record deal. Tommy Mottola signed me, and I was being flown all over the U.S. to write songs for my album.” The LP, “Finally Out of P.E.,” was released in 2005, but by that time Larson had become disenchanted with the business, having been asked to record songs she didn’t write. The work no longer felt like it was her creation.

“I was constantly going through these waves of forgiveness for myself, waves of forgiveness for (my mother). I would call her, crying and apologizing for everything I didn’t understand and didn’t know.”

“I was born with a clear idea of what I wanted to do,” Larson says. “It has not always been easy for me because of it.”

Those who know the actress aren’t surprised by her strong sense of self. “Short Term 12” writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton offers: “She has strong opinions, and she directs her strength in a way that is honest and true. She keeps her eyes open to what is bullshit and what is real. She has a wonderful mother —maybe that’s why.”

Along the way, she has picked up many admirers. Amy Schumer professed to being a “long-time fan” when she cast Larson to play her sister in “Trainwreck.” While Schumer was impressed with Larson’s improv skills, she was also grateful for her support during the comedy’s more difficult, emotional scenes. “Working with Brie is amazing,” she says. “You feel so held in the scene. She was so truthful, and we really supported each other.”

Larson now finds herself being thrust into Hollywood’s competitive awards race, which she admits is an odd place to be for someone who never sought fame or fortune. “The hardest pill for me to swallow has been receiving recognition, getting dressed up, going to events,” she notes. “That’s the part that has always terrified me. You can see dozens of photos where I have zero hair and makeup and I’m wearing my own jeans and T-shirt, because I was not that interested in that side of it.”

Fortunately, she’s been too busy to take it all in; she’s about to shoot “Kong: Skull Island,” likely to be followed by playing tennis legend Billie Jean King in “Battle of the Sexes.” Then she may reunite with Cretton to play the lead in Jeannette Walls’ bestselling memoir “The Glass Castle.”

She’s continuing to write her own projects with an eye on directing (her short film “The Arm,” co-written and co-directed with Jessie Ennis and Sarah Ramos, won a Special Jury Prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival). And she’s been deep in promoting “Room” since its premiere at the Telluride Film Festival. “I haven’t had enough time to have that moment of, ‘Oh my God’,” she says. “And it’s actually been fun. I mean, I wore a heeled boot to a shoot today — look at me! I never would have done that before.”

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