Just two years ago, Brie Larson attended the Toronto International Film Festival for the first time with her movie, “Room.” That film went on to win the festival’s audience award and scored an Oscar for the actress. So it’s only fitting that Larson would return to TIFF when her directorial debut, “Unicorn Store,” which was announced on Tuesday by the festival.
A joyous, raucous comedy, Larson also stars in the film about a young artist who is kicked out of art school and takes a job at a temp agency. “Once there, she starts receiving these very odd and intricate magical invitations that lead her to a place called the Store,” reveals Larson. “She learns she can get a unicorn, which has always been her dream since she was a kid. And it doesn’t cost anything, she just has to prove she’s worthy of it.”
Larson, who is now on screens in “The Glass Castle,” is coming off a busy year that included post on “Unicorn” and appearing in the indie “Free Fire” and the blockbuster “Kong: Skull Island.” She is next set to film the highly anticipated “Captain Marvel” and, hopefully, slip in a vacation.
Are you feeling excited, nervous, or both to be premiering your directorial debut at TIFF?
I’m excited to be sharing it with the world. I’m totally terrified, but I’m also really excited. This film is such a weird, abstract portrait of myself. In a way, I feel like this is the most vulnerable I’ve been with this quirky, fun, lighthearted comedy that has a metaphor underneath it — because you know I love a good metaphor — is about being yourself. And sometimes that’s too much for people.
Would you say you’re more nervous than when you attended with “Room”?
Of course, because I don’t think I had any expectations for “Room.” I had never been through that before and didn’t know what it could be. I was definitely nervous about it, but it’s different. Here I am as a director, saying here’s my voice, here’s my first film. It’s so emotional and meaningful to be back at TIFF again sharing this film, it just feels like another piece of my heart is up for viewing at TIFF.
How did the script for “Unicorn Store” find its way to you?
I actually auditioned for it like five years ago and didn’t get the part. The film didn’t get made and it’s kind of my way that if it doesn’t work out the traditional way, I’ll go about it the most non-traditional way. So around when “Room” was coming out, I got the call asking if I was interested in coming on as a director. It really excited me because the script resonated with me. A lot of working on the script and developing it was while shooting “Kong”; I’d be sitting in the jungle on a log with a pen in my hand, mapping things out. Preproduction started during “The Glass Castle,” which was helpful because a lot of my department heads were also on that film.
Is it a relief to be doing something so fun and comedic after such serious films?
Filmmaking has always been a form of activism for me and that will never change. But as I get older I realize there’s another part of myself that needs self-care and there’s an inner child that needs to be tended to. I was getting burnt out, so the idea of doing a film that deals with inspiration and positivity really spoke to me and made for an incredible process along the way. I needed to restore myself and I hope that this film has that capability for others. It’s not an easy time in the world right now so I hope that, in the old tradition of films being a form of escapism and a way to dream, this film can do that.
The unicorn you mention in the film — is it an actual unicorn, or a metaphorical unicorn?
It’s an actual unicorn in the film but every film that I make, you want something very visually exciting on the surface and something deeper underneath it. For me, the idea of going after this unicorn was dreaming the impossible dream. The fact that I wanted to be an actor for so long and was told no so many times kind of made me feel a little crazy and look like a person going after a unicorn. There were all these people scratching their heads and going, “Why are you doing this? This is obviously never going to work out.” So this is in some ways an homage to my life and my journey and hopefully a way to inspire others to keep going on their path, whatever their unicorn is.
For many people, their unicorn is the Academy Award. So was it strange to be working on this while going through that process?
You know, I didn’t even think about that, genuinely. The Academy Award is this thing that happened that was magical and a creative time, but I don’t feel like it’s over, I feel like it’s just beginning. And that moment was a nod to continue on as an artist and dig into what I can do. And keep transforming for the rest of my life.
What would you say your unicorn is now?
Well, it was directing a film, that was my unicorn. What else could I do after that? I’m always trying to push myself and see how far I can go. Whenever I have a voice in my head saying I can’t do something, I just want to go after it even harder. Whatever that voice says next, I’m just going to push through. I guess Captain Marvel could be my next unicorn. A very good unicorn.
You have a great cast for the film, including Joan Cusack and Bradley Whitford.
Everyone is wonderful. And I want to give a shout out to the up-and-comer in this film, Mamoudou Athie. I assembled an amazing cast for this but Mamoudou is really special and when I was casting him, I remembered all the directors who took a chance on me, who gave me a shot, and it was really important to me to make sure we brought new faces into this. More than anything, I’m excited for the world to see him because he’s a movie star.
What was it like directing your “Kong” co-star Samuel L. Jackson?
Sam was incredible! He found out I was directing and on the “Kong” set started begging for the job. Which is a very surreal experience and I have it on film to prove I’m not making this up. There’s a reason he’s one of the greatest and most successful actors of our time; he’s incredibly hardworking and creative and collaborative. He designed this character, everything down to the tinsel in his hair.
I think he went to a Beyoncé concert and she had tinsel in her hair and he came back and said, “I need that.” It’s incredible.