The star of the award-winning indie talks creativity, ego, and the long fight to be who you are
In the moving new feature Short Term 12, Brie Larson plays a staff member at a foster home for at-risk teenagers, struggling to keep her own life from falling apart. Larsen’s familiar for recent roles in The United States of Tara, Scott Pilgrim, and 21 Jump St, but her performance as Grace in Short Term 12 has made her one of the most talked about (and Oscar-buzzed) actors of 2013.
Brie, congratulations on the film – and for the outpouring of praise it’s earning you.
Yeah, it’s so nice!
There was a great quote from you in The Guardian a few months ago: “Suddenly there’s this weird spotlight and there’s this vomit of gold coins. It’s wonderful, but it doesn’t feel real.” Does it feel more real now?
No! No, I don’t think so. The thing is... my reality’s still the same. I live in the same place, I still have the same parents. There’s the occasional weird event, but for the most part it’s just the perception that’s changed.
Are you surprised an indie film has exploded like this?
It’s interesting, because I’ve done a few independent films that fought for survival. That’s the thing about independent film – it’s made not knowing if it’ll ever be seen. Sometimes movies that are great get lost. But Short Term 12 is surviving because people love the movie, not because the studio paid a bunch of money for it and they want to get it back. It’s around because people care about it, and I love that.
You expect the kind of facilities seen in Short Term 12 to have doctors and counsellors, but maybe not young line staff like Grace who are just there, every day, doing their best. It seems like the toughest job in the world.
Yeah. It’s a really hard job. I shadowed someone at a facility before we started, and I was just so exhausted by the end of the day – and I barely even did anything. I just followed her around saying, “How have you done this for twenty years?”
The movie isn’t too open with Grace’s backstory. Did you fill in her history for yourself?
I have to fill in the gaps. I’m one of those people who just wants to know all the answers, all the time. When you’re playing someone like Grace who has such an alive internal world, it’s exciting to try to understand how her brain works. I spent a lot of time thinking, writing, figuring out who this person is for me. I never talked about it with Destin [Daniel Cretton, the director]. I’m sure he has his own mythology. He didn’t know what Grace was thinking. We talked about certain things, but for the most part he didn’t know. It wasn’t really his business to know.
So how do you get that internal world to the screen without your performance becoming too big or self-conscious?
It’s about eliminating ego and vanity. It’s a difficult thing to do when your job is to be a face in front of a camera, but for anyone who’s an actor – or is even thinking about it – I can’t stress it enough. I had to go through that process with Short Term. I’d never been in a movie so much. I’d never had a camera so close to my face. It was terrifying. But coming to terms with it was the most freeing experience. I’d brush my hair once in the morning, they’d cover up a few zits, and that was it for the whole day. It felt right.
Now, of course, you should do a movie with seven hours of makeup to turn you into an alien ape or something.
That would be awesome! I’d love that.
How old were you when you started acting?
I was seven when I started, and I’m 24 now.
When you were working with Short Term 12’s young actors, did you see your old self in them?
Absolutely. I remember, when I was a kid, and I wanted something, I wanted it so bad it overcame my entire body. Anything. It would keep me up at night, like Christmas was tomorrow, every day. I wanted to be an actor. I didn’t want to be a kid. And I remember the moments when I was talked to like an adult and treated with respect, and remember the times I was treated like a child. Nobody, no matter how old you are, wants to be treated like a child.
That was the same approach I took with the kids. They’re here, they’re professional. Treat them like they are creative beings – and they are! I think it worked out great. They made my job so easy. They were so smart and so committed to those characters. They didn’t push it to be anything more than it needed to be. No melodrama.
You have such a great road-less-travelled story: you were a teenager pop singer. An album, a tour, and everything. Are there lessons from that time you still use today?
Oh, yeah! All of them! It was a time when I was defined as one thing, which wasn’t myself. It was the beginning of the long fight to discover who I was, and to fight for that. I also learned that just because people are sitting behind desks at the top of a building does not mean they’re the smartest people, or know any more than you do. The most important thing is to deal with people who are willing to have a conversation, to be creative. To admit when they’re wrong and stand up when they think they’re right. It took me a long time to find those people.
Is there a parallel universe where you’re Taylor Swifting your way across America right now?
The stuff I was doing was so similar – young singer/songwriter with a guitar – it’s kind of scary. But she does it so much better than I could have. I wouldn’t have lasted. I’m not good with that much attention.
Short Term 12 opens 26 Dec at Cinema Nova.