SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — The Santa Barbara International Film Festival displayed the proper foresight in late November last year when selecting “Room” star Brie Larson and “Brooklyn’s” Saoirse Ronan as first-time tandem recipients of the Outstanding Performer of the Year Award: Both have remained out in front of the best actress Oscar race in a year marked by a number of female-centric narratives, and they continue to lock horns heading into the Feb. 28 Academy Awards ceremony.
Of course, nothing approaching competitive awareness was on display Monday night as the two ingenues — who have been previously recognized by SBIFF in the Virtuosos sidebar — enjoyed their dual tributes. In fact, they’ve become quite close on the circuit.
Alas, circumstances kept them apart this time — the production of “Kong: Skull Island,” to be specific. The blockbuster sequel has filled Larson’s schedule all season as she has bounced from locations in Vietnam, Hawaii and Australia to the States and back, accepting honor after honor for her “Room” performance along the way, among other commitments. Having been abruptly called back to set this week, she was able to get the afternoon off for the annual Oscar nominees luncheon, as well as pop in for an appearance on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” But she couldn’t make the trip to Santa Barbara and return to LAX in time to catch her flight. She didn’t want to blow it off, so a Skype call was in order for the first half of the evening’s festivities.
At 26 years old, Larson might seem new to the game but she’s been at it for two decades. At 6 she became, and remains, the youngest actor to attend the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. (“I thought there would be some freak 3-year-old by now,” she quipped.) She did a number of fake commercial bits for “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” around that time, too, her first such gig starring as Malibu Mudslide Barbie.
But it was when she glommed onto actress Toni Collette’s chameleonic work that she began to realize her destiny. “I thought, ‘Oh, this is what I want to do,'” Larson recalled. “‘I want to play characters. I want to be a character actor.”
She got the chance early to star opposite her idol when she landed Showtime’s “United States of Tara,” in which she played daughter to Collette’s suburban housewife suffering from dissociative identity disorder.
While working on the series, she landed Oren Moverman’s “Rampart” opposite Woody Harrelson and found herself sometimes transitioning from the set of one during the day to another at night. Everything on the “Rampart” production was geared toward improvising, and particularly given that Moverman lights the entire set, there was freedom to move around and go off-script, which she enjoyed. She’s eager to potentially work with Harrelson — whom she called a “mentor” — again on Destin Cretton’s “The Glass Castle.”
Speaking of Cretton, the young director’s “Short Term 12” is what really lit the fuse for Larson. She took research for the part quite seriously, applying for foster care jobs while filming “The Spectacular Now” on location in Georgia to prove her commitment to Cretton. The sincerity spoke again to how beholden she is to character work.
“These are real people to me who live real lives, and they represent people we see in this world,” she said.
“Short Term 12” opened up a “whole new world” to Larson, which of course led to “Room,” at least 25 critical laurels among others (including a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award). She said the whole journey didn’t fully hit her until she was standing there in the annual Oscar nominees class photo at the luncheon Monday afternoon.
“I’m sad to see this era of my life come to a close,” she said. “So moments like this are so meaningful to me.”
Before signing off to catch her flight and head off back to Australia for more “Kong,” she assured everyone was in for a treat with Ronan. “To all of you who get to be there with her, you’re the luckiest,” she said.
Ronan hit the stage with a box of popcorn in hand, as unmoved by the madness of Oscar season as ever. She charmed the audience with tales of catching the acting bug and her parents coming to America from Ireland, an interesting tie to the film she was there to represent, “Brooklyn.”
“People needed to leave [Ireland] in order to work,” she said, detailing how her father took on jobs as a bartender, a construction worker and an actor. “There weren’t many aspirations beyond making a living.”
Her unique first name was of course a topic of discussion — it’s pronounced “SER-shuh,” an Irish word meaning “freedom” — though she said she wasn’t ever pushed to change it for work reasons. “I’ve never been one to be steered when it comes to how I look or let myself be portrayed,” she said, chalking up her forthright nature to “a brilliant mom who wasn’t phased by any of it.”
She was only 13 years old when she landed her first Oscar nomination, for Joe Wright’s “Atonement.” Along the way she’s also worked with Peter Jackson (“The Lovely Bones”), Neil Jordan (“Byzantium”), Andrew Niccol (“The Host”) and Peter Weir (“The Way Back”), among others. And her latest, in fact, marks her second best picture nominee in a row; she also had a role in Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel” last year.
“Even though the aesthetic is so important [to Anderson] and such a trademark, when he has actors on a set, he gets excited to see them breathe life into the characters,” she said of her time on the film.
But “Brooklyn” really does feel like a culmination for this early stage in her career, a full-circle ode to her parents that has given her at least as much as she’s put into it.
“It means even more as I grow up,” she said. “When I signed on at first, I hadn’t left home. I’m so, so proud of where I come from and being the product of two people who were brave enough to go to New York and make a life. When you’re the type of person who has strong roots, but needs a place that’s bigger, it’s hard. You start to grieve.”
A clip of the film’s final scene was screened, depicting her character, Eilis, dispensing wisdom to a new, fresh-faced Irish emigrant. “You’ll feel so homesick that you’ll want to die, and there’s nothing you can do about it apart from endure it,” Eilis says in the film. “But you will, and it won’t kill you. And one day, the sun will come out, and you’ll realize that this is where your life is.”
It’s advice Ronan, finally settled into her own life in New York, carries with her every day, she said.