Brie Larson has already collected more than major ten awards this season for her universally acclaimed performance in Room. Almost every Oscar expert has Larson down to win the Oscar for Best Actress. Director Lenny Abrahamson says, “She’s lovely. She’s funny, warm, beautiful and a little boy is going to love her.” That’s just what you take away when you see Larson in Room, how much she loves co-star and on-screen son, Jacob Tremblay.
I caught up with Larson the day before the AFI Awards to talk about how she brought Ma to life, and how she physically trained for the role.
Awards Daily: Is it too late to wish you a Happy New Year?
Brie Larson: No, I’m still super into it, so go ahead.
AD: I just wanted to put this out there that the film, in spite of its dark subject is really lovely, that bond with your on-screen son that we see, and the story of love and freedom does leave you feeling warm.
BL: Thank you.
AD: Ma isn’t really fleshed out in the book, did you have fun bringing her to life?
BL: Yes! That’s kind of the best part of my job and the dream in some ways is to create a character from the ground up, but it can also be really terrifying because there’s just so much space to work with to create her and she can go in so many different directions. But, you have to trust your instincts and really dig in and find who she is. A lot of her came from anything that I could base fact on. How her mind and body would be with the logistics of being in that space, to begin the initial foundation.
Once I understood what lack of vitamin D does, or how sexual abuse does in reorganizing the brain, and what having small meals does to the brain and to the skin and to the hair, I was able to get inside of her, and work with her from there. I was able to see how she was coping in that situation and how that would be a contradiction to how she would be keeping that from her son.
AD: What did you have to do to get in touch with her that way, because those are foreign experiences?
BL: At first, I thought they were really foreign and then over time it’s not very different from our lives actually.
I first spoke with doctors and nutritionists about the health part of it about how her skin and hair and teeth would look, having not had a toothbrush or hairbrush in seven years. Not being in the sun, only really having bread, a bit of peanut butter, and maybe cheese from time to time. Just very cheap, simple ingredients and what the body would look like.
I took that information and worked with a nutritionist and a trainer to try to get my body to replicate how it would look in that space. Just that body transformation alone, eating these small six meals a day, working out every day to the point of exhaustion into tearing my body down and to put on muscle, those things started changing my perspective.
Then I started working with a trauma specialist who was able to explain to me how this trauma would be organized, how it would show up, what you would see from her, what you would see from her in “room,” what you would see when she’s back at home, what her relationship turns out to be. Then once I had all those things, I had a really good idea as to who she was.
Once I could reduce it to something that was quite simple, I realized that this is really a story about love, about growing up.
Saying goodbye to a smaller life and saying hello to a life that’s more complicated and more fulfilling and at times more devastating. I decided at that point to realize how universal the story was.
AD: You mentioned your body, which is really different, and you really see that.
BL: Yeah, I completely changed that for this movie.
AD: What did you talk through with Lenny [Abrahamson – the Director] about the character?
BL : We had endless conversations about it. We never really stopped talking about it. First, we had to know where she came from as well. You have to know what kind of town she grew up in. What was her relationship like with her friends? Was she a good student? How close was she with her parents? We created this backstory for her as to what she had created as her identity and how that would have been taken away, and what it was that she was trying to get back when she’s finally back home with her parents again.
That was a large majority of it. Then we discussed parenting a lot because I’m not a parent and he is. He was able to give me a lot of great insight into the trials and tribulations of being a parent.
AD: On that subject, your bond with Jacob Tremblay is so obvious, you’re so maternal and so sisterly at the same time. How did you form that with him?
BL: We hung out a lot. We had four or five weeks before shooting. We met in Toronto and first we started off on a lunch date, we went for pizza. Or he ate pizza and I was eating like protein shakes. From there we were able to talk about things that we liked and our interests. We didn’t realize we both loved the same movies, the Teenage Mutant Turtles, Indiana Jones, and all these things that were great to connect on.
I went over that night and played Lego with him and he asked a bunch of questions about me, like what my favorite animal was and what my favorite color was.
We’d see each other every day, we were staying in the same apartment building, so we’d get picked up in the morning and we’d have an hour drive without traffic and during that time we’d chat.
When we got there we would build toys and do drawings. Our brilliant production designer, Ethan Tobman had collected and cleaned all the tools and trash we would have had in “room,” and had it all on the craft table for us. We’d sit there and make things together and that was another way we were able to connect because it didn’t require a lot of talking.
Lenny would come take us downstairs to the sound stage where “room” was built. We would tack the drawings up on the wall and bring the toys in and play with them. We’d spend time together in “room,” not doing any formal scene work just improvising, and we did that every day for the weeks leading up to shooting.
AD: Do you feel protective at all towards him when he has to do all this press for the film?
BL: I’d give him advise if he needed it, but he’s handling it so well. He’s got this incredible ease and perspective and sense of humor about all of it. At first, I was very protective of him, but I realized that he’s very strong, very aware and very resilient, and very curious about the experience in a healthy way. He’s very engaged with what’s happening, so I let him do his thing and be himself and I’m there, his parents are there. He’s doing an incredible job.
AD: How did you stay sane during the making of the movie?
BL: I started off by creating really clear boundaries in the months leading up to shooting when I was creating her. I started practicing turning her on and off, like she was a location in my brain that I could go to and then leave. By the time we started shooting, I really knew the difference between me and her, and I could be her, and then in between takes I could be myself. When I went home at the end of the day I could be myself. I did a couple of other things to help me, like Polysantol it’s this wood [sandalwood scented]. I brought that with me and I would burn it in my apartment, and brought a couple of things that would remind me of home, so when I walked into my apartment, it immediately reminded me of myself.
Towards the end, and we were out of “room” and it was a 49-day shoot so it was a long emotional marathon, I needed to find new ways to laugh and break it up, so at night I found where all the open mic and karaoke nights were happening, all the different bars in Toronto, every night me and the production designer, Ethan, would just go out and sing a song and go home. It made you so free and connected to the world. We’d only be there for an hour so we’d still get our proper sleep.
AD: That sounds fun. What were the challenges of working in a small space?
BL: It was a love/hate relationship with the small space. There was a bit that I was appreciative of, it was like a portal, and the door into “room” became like this gateway and we felt transported into another place and it was a very intimate place because you could only have in “room” the people that absolutely had to be in there.
You couldn’t have a ton of people standing around observing. It was very small, very intimate you couldn’t bring a cellphone in. You’re standing right next to people so it would be rude for a cameraman to be on his cellphone.
Then at times, it was real hard because at times there would be too many people in front of the door, someone was always hitting you on the head, or you felt like you were in the way. There were certain moments when it felt terribly small, and other times it felt a lot bigger.
Those experiences worked really well for us, we played into the making of the movie.
AD: What did you do to relax once you finished?
BL: I did a bunch of stuff. I took many months off because I felt really depleted afterwards. It shattered a lot of illusions that I had. The thing that I love about being an actor is it brings in contact many different ways of living and different perspective. When a movie’s done, there’s a space for you to sort through everything, because you’re not the same person when you come home as when you left. There are certain aspects that are really worth holding on to and there are other things that were helpful in the moment and aren’t helpful in your actual life, so you take the time to sort through it, and get back to yourself again and see this new version of yourself.
AD: You’re doing Kong. How’s that going?
BL: It’s fantastic. It’s really fun and a much bigger scope of course in many ways. We’re shooting in vast jungles, and it’s outside with natural light. It’s much more physical than any other thing I’ve done which is a really new experience and I love that.
I felt it with Trainwreck too, it’s really important to balance out these heavier roles with ones that are just pure fun, or you have days that you feel like a kid.
AD: Thank you. It’s been a lot of fun talking to you.