TELLURIDE, Colo. — After debuting at the Telluride Film Festival two weeks ago and scooping the Toronto Film Festival’s coveted People’s Choice Award Sunday morning, Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room” has set itself up very nicely as an awards season player. It could become distributor A24’s first best picture nominee, but whether it reaches those heights or not, it’s sure to stir a lot of discussion for lead star Brie Larson.
The 25-year-old actress has amassed an interesting portfolio, from comedy work in TV’s “United States of Tara” to stirring dramatic performances in Oren Moverman’s “Rampart” opposite Woody Harrelson and Destin Daniel Cretton’s “Short Term 12,” which brought her a number of honors in the 2013 season.
Back in Telluride, I sat down with Larson to talk about the moving task of translating “Room” to the screen, working with a talented 8-year-old co-star and just what she’s looking to put out into the world as an artist.
Did you read the book at all before making the movie or did you want to just let the script be your guide?
I didn’t read it when it first came out but I read it somewhere between when the book came out, but before the movie. There was talk of the movie. Somewhere between there.
Was there something about the character as she was written in the book that you really wanted to capture with your performance?
In the book, Ma is just sort of an essence. So there wasn’t as much that was clear to me when I was reading the book. I loved the story. I loved the allegory. I loved the Plato’s Cave allegory. That was a huge part of that story along with — there’s some Greek mythology in there. There’s a lot of deep roots in it. And I loved that the story was told through the boy’s perspective [giving] simplicity to a very complicated situation. It wasn’t until like I read the script with Lenny that I realized that because Ma was an essence, there was so much room for me to develop it and figure out all the different complexities of her and that situation. Because in the book, Jack just sees her as his Ma and she’s perfect just the way she is.
I imagine any research you put into understanding someone who has been in that situation would have been heavy. What sort of groundwork along those lines did you lay?
I had to go in a couple of different directions, learning about the effects of that type of sexual abuse, being trapped in one space for seven years, lack of sunlight, not having a toothbrush or a hairbrush, on a very restricted diet — what all of those things would not just do to your physicality but to your mental health.
An interesting episode in the film — AND SPOILER ALERT, though it’s set up in the trailer — is when the character lashes out at her own mother after the escape and everything. It struck me as unexpectedly petulant but it’s interesting because she’s been in there seven years. She is, really, still this teenager whose life was put on pause.
Exactly. In doing more research about the psychology of being held in a space like that for seven years, any type of situation where you’re in danger, you are just surviving and your brain shuts off certain awarenesses so that you can survive. Because if you were to really dig into the situation, you wouldn’t be able to get through it. The brain has these great mechanisms that shut it off in order for you to cope. So it’s not until she’s at home when she’s in a safe environment that the brain’s like, “All right, let’s bring some of this stuff up and see if you can deal with it. Let’s try and work through it.” And that’s when all the stuff is coming up. Meanwhile, there’s this odd situation of her being almost frozen in time. So she’s coming back home to a bedroom that was hers when she was 17, looking at these walls, trying to remember who she is again, trying to bridge this gap between who she was and who she is now. And she’s a mother now, and it’s a very sensitive thing that she’s trying to prove to her mom that she’s a good mom, too, and trying to prove that she and Jack are just amazing and fantastic despite the situation. I really wanted to throw in some moments of her reverting back to the relationship she had with her mom before she was captured. Kind of the second her mom comes in it becomes this 17-year-old and that scene in particular was one that I really wanted to capture, when she starts talking and you’re like, “That’s a teenager. Who is this person? That’s not Ma. That’s somebody that’s a fragment of somebody that died a long time ago.”
What was it like working in a confined space? Did the proximity of crew help or hinder your ability to get to these complex places?
It was a small space with two people and it’s really small with a camera crew of eight in there as well. So you’re constantly getting your foot stepped on or a door slammed in your face or someone is making a shadow or it was just very — it was really hard to fit us all together. It’s like trying to fit a bunch of people into a clown car. And we’re all getting sort of agitated with one another. The crew just kept saying, “I just can’t wait until we get to this escape. Once we get to this escape it’s going to be so much better.” And just like the movie, we go through the escape scene but once we were done with that we’re shooting in the dead of winter in Toronto and it’s snowing and it’s freezing cold and we’re shoveling snow to make it not look like it’s snowing. And I’m running around outside with no shoes on because I’ve just escaped this place where I had no shoes or a bra. And it just became so much more complicated. Within a week everyone’s like, “I really wish that we were back in that soundstage.”
How did that work practically? They’d remove a wall or were you really crammed into an enclosed space?
Yeah, the whole room actually was kind of like a puzzle piece. So the roof could come off. There was even a trap door on the bottom of the floor so that we could shoot from underneath. There was a couple of spots on the walls that we could pull out so that we could kind of have more room in there.
And let’s talk about Jacob Tremblay. Working with such a young actor who is so new to the process. What was that like for you?
I’ve never worked so closely with anybody as I worked with him. I mean he’s family to me. He was my best friend. And the way that Jack saves Ma with his light and energy, it was what he did to all of us on set. He’s just is such a cool, smart, interesting kid. And he made every day just an absolute joy. I mean there were certain things that we had to sort of help him along with because he’s 7 years old when we made the movie. And I had to take on a lot myself as to little things that adults know, like continuity. Like, “You can’t pull on your hair — if a different hair piece falls in the middle of a scene you’ve got to fix it.” So there were certain things like that where I would have to sort of step in and make sure that I was helping him. But it only helped me to do that. It felt like making this movie I went into it knowing that Ma was everything, that it was a selfless act and so my work on the movie beyond just my performance was to be of service to him.
Were you involved with his audition at all?
So was there a warming up period? Did it take a wall to settle into the same rhythm with him?
No, it clicked pretty immediately. I mean we have a lot of the same interests so we got on really well. And we hung out. After the first day he invited me to come over and play Lego, which was like a big win. And we played Lego every night for like 35-45 minutes before he would go to bed. That’s kind of where the inspiration came for the scene at the end of the movie when I say I’m not a good enough mom. It was from our nights of playing Lego together. It was so easy for us to kind of get in a really nice, intimate conversation, because our focus was on something else. You could get real honest answers from him in those moments. But I remember that first night playing Lego with him and walking down the hallway and thinking, “I hope he likes me,” and then laughing because I realized there was no way he was thinking about that at all. There was no way when I was walking away he was like, “God, I can’t believe I said what I said about those sharks back there,” you know? “It’s so embarrassing. I hope she doesn’t think I’m a fool.” He wasn’t thinking about that at all. He’s like, “Oh, she played with me. Maybe she’ll come back again tomorrow.” No, it was a really nice energy.
I want to say for whatever it might be worth that I’ve been very impressed with your choices so far in your career and the maturity you bring to every role at such a young age. What kind of material are you interested in chasing right now?
Oh, gosh. You know, everything for me comes back to the old stories of mythology and folklore. So basically, since I’ve been in control of what I get to choose, kind of the backbone of my choices are these really old stories. I think that’s where we get a deep, visceral connection. And I’m fascinated as to all the new ways that we can retell these stories. I mean that, to me, is our legacy. These are the things that we’ve grown up on that are so deeply within us that it reminds us where we came from. It reminds us of our universal nature.
I think a lot about my little sister. She’s going to college. She is pretty in touch with what’s going on with current events. But she is a white American girl and she watches white American movies. I would love to create more space for her complication, for stepping outside of clichés and showing women and other races and other sexualities — all the complexities instead of just focusing so much on the surface issues. Because I think movies are a fantastic way for us to see the world. My sister’s looking at movies and going, “Wow, this is what the world’s like.” And I wonder what that image is that we’re showing them and if there isn’t a better way that we can show them.