Why Brie Larson Took on ‘Just Mercy’: ‘It Just Gave Me This Fire Inside’

In Bryan Stevenson’s 2014 memoir, “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption,” the activist lawyer and viral TED Talker recounts his move to Alabama, his co-founding of the advocacy organization Equal Justice Initiative and his representation of Walter McMillian — a wrongfully convicted death-row inmate Stevenson worked to exonerate.

This December, the story will be brought to the screen by director Destin Daniel Cretton, with Michael B. Jordan as Stevenson, Jamie Foxx as McMillian, and Brie Larson as Eva Ansley, EJI’s other founder. As a film, “Just Mercy” is a courtroom drama, a character study and an indictment of the United States’ racist legal system.

Larson first learned of Stevenson and EJI from her friend and frequent collaborator Cretton. Over dinner in Montreal as they prepared to shoot “The Glass Castle” — their second film together after 2013’s “Short Term 12” — Larson and Cretton were “doing our usual,” she says. Their usual, according to Larson, is “talking about humanity, and what’s important to us.”

Peggy Sirota for Variety

Larson says Cretton told her, “Dude, you’ve gotta read this book ‘Just Mercy’ — it’s heartbreaking and hopeful at the same time, and I think that you’ll just really relate to what Bryan’s saying.”

Popular on Variety

She read it right away. “And it just gave me this fire inside,” she says.

When Cretton wanted Larson to play Eva, Jordan and Foxx were already cast. She asked Cretton whether they wanted her — a white woman — as their co-star in the movie. Yes, they wanted Larson, a best actress Oscar winner for “Room,” to join them.

“OK, then I’m good,” she says. “Because this is a form of ally-ship, and because both of them are the ones really doing the heavy lifting. These are extremely vulnerable performances.”

Larson talked extensively with Ansley. “This is not somebody who is a lawyer,” she says. “This is a mom who noticed something that was happening in her community, and nothing was going to stop her from rectifying the situation in whatever way she could.”

When the film was in production in Alabama, Ansley and Stevenson would visit the set, and Larson was impressed by the intimacy of their approach to activism. Ansley focuses on the “micro,” Larson says. “How can you be decent to every single person you encounter? It starts with you, and then it’s just in a one-foot radius around you.”

As for Stevenson, Larson says, “His belief is that the only way you can really figure out how to solve an issue is by getting really close to it.”

Stevenson and EJI will certainly receive more attention after “Just Mercy” comes out, which Larson hopes will result in more donations and help for incarcerated people. But she also wants the film to inspire audience introspection: “We as individual people need to look at ourselves and our biases, and where our hearts lie.”

Larson doesn’t know what the tangible effects of “Just Mercy” will be, but she’s taking a cue from Stevenson’s outlook. “I feel it’s only right that I do feel this sense of hope and optimism,” she says. “Which is just truly from spending so much time with Bryan.”

More Film

  • Fernando Szew and Tomas Yankelevich

    Particular Crowd, MarVista Set 10-Plus Movies a Year Partnership (EXCLUSIVE)

    MIAMI — Particular Crowd, the big new film banner of Warner Media’s Turner Latin America, and MarVista Entertainment, one of the world’s biggest and ambitious of independent entertainment studios, have announced a multi-year production slate deal. As part of the deal, Particular Crowd and MarVista will target production of 10-plus films per year, focusing on elevated [...]

  • Andy Serkis

    BAFTA to Honor Andy Serkis

    The British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) is presenting Andy Serkis with its Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema Award at the 73rd EE British Academy Film Awards ceremony on Feb. 2 in London. The organization said Thursday that it was honoring the British actor, producer and director for his pioneering work on performance [...]

  • The Olympic Rings adorn an event

    Tokyo Olympics Brings Upheaval to Japan's Summer Events Schedule

    The Tokyo Olympics, to be held from July 24 to Aug. 9, and Paralympics, scheduled for Aug. 25 to Sept. 9, are affecting Japan’s big summer events. Everything from fireworks displays to music festivals have chosen to shift dates or even cancel altogether. The only film festival so far to announce a change in dates [...]

  • The Rescue

    Overseas Releases of Chinese Films to be Cancelled Following Virus Outbreak

    The overseas release of Chinese films in the next weeks is certain to be affected by the cancellation of theatrical outings in mainland China as a response to the rampant spread of the coronavirus. On Thursday, movie companies in China announced they would not go ahead with the release of seven major films at Chinese [...]

  • Boris JohnsonConservative Party rally on eve

    U.K. Parliament Passes Brexit Law, Leaving Film, TV Incentives Unaffected

    The U.K. Parliament on Wednesday evening passed legislation paving the way for the country to leave the European Union on Jan. 31, 2020. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the U.K. had “crossed the Brexit finish line” following passage of the Withdrawal Agreement, which will officially become law when it receives royal assent from Queen [...]

  • A security guard wears a mask

    Chinese New Year Film Releases Cancelled in Response to Coronavirus

    The deadly coronavirus outbreak has dealt a fatal blow to China’s biggest movie-going weekend of the year, as all new releases were cancelled to prevent further spread of the disease. Seven major films were expected to have been released over the coming weekend, with the likelihood that together they would have earned more than $1 [...]

  • The Turning

    Film Review: ‘The Turning’

    Director Floria Sigismondi’s “The Turning” is like the alt-rock cousin of author Henry James’ novella “The Turn of the Screw.” From its grunge-infused soundtrack and period setting to its fiery feminist overtones, this is an ambitious contemporary take on the iconic, claustrophobic thriller. Concerning two young orphans who psychologically torment their caretaker in a spooky, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content