In the upcoming legal drama “Just Mercy,” Brie Larson — who won the best actress Oscar for 2015’s “Room” — plays Alabama civil rights activist Eva Ansley. Based on Bryan Stevenson’s 2014 memoir of the same name, “Just Mercy” tells the story of Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) and Ansley’s founding of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that gives legal support to prisoners. In the film, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, the organization finds its footing as Stevenson works to free the wrongfully convicted death row inmate Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx).
“Just Mercy” was the first Warner Bros. film to be made under WarnerMedia’s ambitious diversity and inclusion policy, an element that Larson loved about the filmmaking experience — that for “the first time, I was a minority on a film,” she tells Variety. “In every part of my day, I was having an authentic conversation about what it was that we were making.”
Larson was brought to “Just Mercy” by Cretton, and it’s their third collaboration after “Short Term 12” (2013) and “The Glass Castle” (2017). It was also Cretton who first told Larson to read “Just Mercy” prior to filming “The Glass Castle.” “I became very passionate about that book, and about Bryan in particular for a couple years after that,” Larson says.
For this week’s Power of Women issue, in which Larson is honored for her philanthropy with the Equal Justice Initiative, she spoke to Variety about “Just Mercy,” her time as a Marvel superhero and why she doesn’t Google herself.
“Just Mercy” covers so many topics: mass incarceration, racial injustice, police malfeasance and the death penalty. It’s set in the past, but it’s just so topical. What was that like to live every day?
There are certain days, the courtroom days in particular, that are such high-stress scenes that involve so much tension. And we had an entire day of hearing Walter’s final verdict. I sat in that room and waited to hear the verdict 100 times. And there was not one time that I didn’t feel, in every cell of my body, the anticipation and the fear. And that part of me that was just holding my breath. I think we all felt it; we felt that tension, and felt the heaviness of that. And experiencing that 100 times in a day does something really remarkable to your brain that makes things feel so clear and so vital. And made my privilege feel so clear.
So it was just a really humbling experience. And I’m somebody who is very curious and wants to do the most that I can. And I still was just getting schooled every day. And I will forever be a student of Bryan Stevenson for that reason. And I felt very open to learning what ally-ship is right now.
In the actors’ holding area, Jamie would hold these conversations, and I would sit there and listen to people talk. What it was like for Jamie to grow up in Texas, for example. And those are things that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
This is your third movie with Destin Cretton. What’s your relationship like?
He’s my family; he’s my brother. His family is my family; his wife and kid are my family. It’s a level of depth that’s kind of beyond words, because we’ve just shared so much together. When there’s so much true, honest vulnerability between people, it just solidifies relationships in a way that nothing else does. I will work with him as long as he asks me to show up. He is my favorite person to go into the dark with. And my goal would be to collaborate with him forever.
Destin just loves people, you know, and it comes through — it comes through in his films. That level of caring, humanity and empathy.
Your 2019 has been “Captain Marvel,” “Avengers: Endgame” and “Just Mercy.” Does that feel like a great year?
Yeah, why not? I mean, I don’t know what’s a great year, but I feel like I’ve always been really committed to paying attention to what it is that I’m making. What world am I creating for an individual? Because these films exist in way more places than I do.
“Captain Marvel” seems good for the world. Does it feel important in that way to you?
Yeah, within reason. I’ve started paying attention, even in just the last couple of days, because I’ve been trying to really interrogate and understand my experience better. I mean, I’m always doing that, but in particular there’s this flow state that I get into when I’m at work, and I’ve been trying to understand why that happens. I’m reading a book right now about that flow state, and it’s with people in extreme sports — like people climbing mountains or riding giant waves. And the way they describe the experience is exactly how I feel when I’m on set. And I was, like, “How does that make any sense! Because I’m not risking my life, you know? I’m not riding a 70-foot wave — I am on set doing a scene with Michael B. Jordan! Sitting on a park bench! And how is it that my mind goes to that place?”
I realized it’s because I’ve gone out of my way to choose films that have very real stakes. Or when I am sitting on that park bench with Michael B. Jordan, I am thinking about the people that are in prison at that moment who shouldn’t be there. And that snaps me into that zone where it truly feels like life and death — it feels like there are stakes. I am in complete connection with the reality. It’s not that I’m living in a movie that’s a fantasy world; it feels like the clearest form of reality that I experience. And some part of me must know that.
So I felt the importance of creating a symbol when I was making “Captain Marvel.” But once I’m done on set filming, and then especially when the movie’s out, I am here to allow people to know that there’s an experience they can have access to if they want, but it’s not mine anymore. You know, and “Captain Marvel’s” definitely not mine anymore. And it makes me so thrilled that it’s beyond me. It wasn’t until I actually had the action figure in my hand that I was, like, “Whoa! Kids can now be on the floor, and Captain Marvel can have unlimited experiences.”
There are horrible comics fans who were rooting against it, because it had a woman lead character, and because of your politics. People made YouTube videos about wanting the movie to bomb.
They did? Oh. I didn’t even know.
It’s a hideous world, the comics wars.
I don’t have time for it, you know? The things that I have extra time to really look at are, like: Am I eating healthy food? Am I drinking water? Am I meditating? Have I called my mom today?
More recently, I guess maybe it’s because of “Captain Marvel,” I’ve had a lot of journalists be, like, “How often do Google yourself?” I’m, like, “I’ve never Googled myself.”
I have genuinely never needed to look at the internet to explain to me who I am. I’m extremely committed to that in my day-to-day life! There is really nothing more pleasurable to me than observing my mind. And interrogating myself. It is a thing I’ve done since I was a child. And I will do for as long as I can. And I’ve also been super committed to having people in my life that I believe if I start veering too far in a direction, and I need to change something or work on something, that they’ll take me to dinner and be, like, “Hey! I’m noticing this, I feel like you should look at that.” So I trust that, and I trust my experience.
When you have a mission and things that you want to do — and my time and my energy is so limited — it just becomes so clear as to what I want to spend it on. And that’s just not what’s of interest to me.
That sounds very healthy. How do you look back on the experience of “Room” four years later?
I can’t believe it’s been four years, I’ll say that. I feel like my life has been in hyperspeed the last four years.
It has been!
It really has. Thank goodness for coffee. The making of the movie felt like the most extreme focus — I was so focused on what it was I was doing, to the point where it was sort of maybe too deep. I think I have better tools now to be more grounded. But you know, it’s what I needed to do. It’s still kind of my origin story of learning how to do my job — I still didn’t fully trust my ability, so I just stayed in these head spaces for too long.
The process afterwards just felt so surreal. And it was so unknown, because I had never been through it before.
But other than that, I’m still not sure if I’m good at my job. I still want to try really hard. I still question myself. I still go home sometimes from work and think, “Man, I didn’t do my best.” You know? It doesn’t solve everything. But it certainly gives opportunity. It changed my life. I mean, before “Short Term 12,” I was, like, “Oh, I’ll never be a leading actor — I’m not pretty enough. No one will ever hire me.” “Room” was sort of the real test of that.
In the post-Harvey Weinstein reckoning, you became one of the more prominent voices from Time’s Up. What was that like?
It was so much. It was a time when I gained a lot of sisters. That’s what I think of it as — like, my family grew really quickly. And I’m just so amazed at the women that are in my industry that I had never had the opportunity to meet before. And the power, and the way that I was able to grow and learn from those women, and still continue to — it’s just the level of progress in my embodiment of myself and my womanhood and my voice that was just exponential growth.
It was obviously incredibly emotional. But all of us are so used to taking things that feel uncomfortable and emotional and going, “How do I turn this into something?” And when you have a whole group of people with that mindset doing that, you just feel this immense amount of power. And that is where change happens.
Are you still very involved in Time’s Up?
The way that our activism is working is so different from before, because before it was 16-hour days, because we were still trying to figure out what Time’s Up was, and what we were building. My interest right now feels so much more focused on the local. It’s, like, what are my sets like; what are the people like that we’re hiring? What can I do at work to be an advocate for safety wherever I am? So it feels much more localized at this point.
Switching topics! I enjoyed “The Unicorn Store.” What was it like to direct your first feature?
Oh, it was the best! I loved it so much; it was so much fun. It was one of the most pleasurable sets I’ve ever been on. It just was pure joy every day, and everyone was encouraged to bring that inner child. Bring your childhood memories. And that’s just an infectious place to live in, with that type of dreamlike quality and optimism. I had an amazing crew and cast, and it felt really good to do something lighter.
Do you plan to direct again anytime soon?
Totally! Yes, I’m writing stuff. Writing things on my own, and I’ve hired writers to do some other things. And I want to do some unscripted things too. I plan to keep doing it.
Kind of! You’ll see!
I was Googling you — sorry! — and you seem to try to have fun as a famous person — “Between Two Ferns,” Funny or Die with Haim, “Carpool Karaoke.” Is that an important thing for your sanity as you navigate being in intense movies, and your activism?
Oh, because this is, like, my life, you know? This is my actual time on the planet — and I’m going to die. That’s the reality of my existence. And the truth is, I feel that it’s important for me to tell these heavier stories sometimes. But I’m not a very serious person. Something like “Room” isn’t necessarily, like, a true depiction of what it’s like to hang with me in a day. If you hang with me in a day, it’s probably going to be more silly — it’s probably closer to “Unicorn Store” than it is to “Short Term 12.”
What’s next for you?
I mean, literally, what’s next is that I’m going to put another pod in the Nespresso machine and drink another coffee and hope that it helps my jet lag. That’s my goal. That’s my next move.
Do you know when you’re doing the next “Captain Marvel”?
No. I don’t really know what job I’m going to do next, which is very exciting. I don’t even know what my life’s gonna be! And most of this year, you know, I had to do the press tour. But then the last half of the year, I’ve just been focusing way more on just doing what I want to do that’s completely outside of my job. I just feel like it’s been this incubation time. Whether it’s incubation because I’m developing projects, and also incubation myself, being, like: OK, I’m going to be turning 30. I’ve been working a lot. I need to just like change it up and see what’s there for me — see who I am now. And which ways that I want to grow.
That sounds like a great position to be in.
I know! I’m very lucky. And it’s a position I never thought I was going to be in in my life. This is the first time in my life that I am not working and it doesn’t mean that I’m about to be broke, and I need to go on auditions.
It was really hard for my brain to let it go, to be, like, no, I can legitimately take this time off! And it’s not like my world is gonna collapse. I’m not gonna have to move back in with my parents. It’s going to be OK!