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Brie Larson Discusses the Daunting Challenge of Leading 'Short Term 12' and Only Doing Projects She Believes In

Photo of Nigel M Smith By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire August 22, 2013 at 9:16AM

Twenty-three-year-old California bred Brie Larson has mined an impressive career as a stellar supporting player with memorable performances in "Rampart," "21 Jump Street" and Diablo Cody's HBO show "The United States of Tara" as Toni Collette's rebellious daughter. In the SXSW sensation (it won both the jury and audience top prizes) "Short Term 12," the second feature from "I Am Not a Hipster" director Destin Daniel Cretton, the actress moves up to leading lady status to anchor the indie drama as Grace, a 20-something supervisor at a foster-care facility, pregnant with the child of her co-worker boyfriend (John Gallagher Jr.), and weighed down by one dark secret she's harboring.
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SXSW "Short Term 12," the only U.S. film in Locarno's competition.

Twenty-three-year-old California bred Brie Larson has mined an impressive career as a stellar supporting player with memorable performances in "Rampart," "21 Jump Street" and Diablo Cody's HBO show "The United States of Tara" as Toni Collette's rebellious daughter. In the SXSW sensation (it won both the jury and audience top prizes) "Short Term 12," the second feature from "I Am Not a Hipster" director Destin Daniel Cretton, the actress moves up to leading lady status to anchor the indie drama as Grace, a  20-something supervisor at a foster-care facility, pregnant with the child of her co-worker boyfriend (John Gallagher Jr.), and weighed down by one dark secret she's harboring.

[Editor's Note: This interview was originally published during the 2013 SXSW Film Festival.]

Many critics at SXSW singled out Larson's performance as the highlight of the Cretton's feature (Indiewire's Eric Kohn praised her turn as "tremendously involving"). Larson sat down with Indiewire to discuss the pressure of carrying the drama, her fresh outlook on her career, and why she's more comfortable expressing herself in front of a camera than in her personal life. "Short Term 12" opens this Friday in select theaters.

Do you feel like you've reached a new stage in your career with this film?

Yeah, I feel like I’ve been doing this for as long as I can remember and every since as long as I can remember I’ve always had, maybe it’s just from my mother or whatever, but I’ve realized very quickly that it feels terrible to be on set of something that you don’t believe in. So I’ve started following the rule that if there’s a script that had lines that I didn’t believe that I could say honestly, that I wouldn’t do it. You try to talk with the director to see if something’s workable then you try and deal with it that way. But generally I stick to that rule. It was harder and there were times that I felt like my pace was at a slower one than some of my contemporaries, but I feel like right now and this last year, it’s really exciting to me and it feels really good to be able to stand behind all of the projects that I’ve done.

I enjoy this industry so much and I think that it’s such a privilege to be able to be an artist -- and to be able to be financially okay as an artist is really difficult and with that opportunity I think, if there’s people that are going to pay attention to what I’m doing, I want to have a good standing with those people and have them continue to believe that I’m not ripping any body off or trying to cheat anybody out of 10 dollars. It just doesn’t feel right to me. So that’s kind of where I’m at right now.

Well you’re doing a pretty good job navigating both the indie and studio worlds. “21 Jump Street” was the rare studio comedy that was actually funny and surprising in all the right ways.

Right and that just is a testament to these directors and the people involved in it. The reason why I felt so strongly about going for that one was because it was the rare opportunity where the female lead is not this sexed up object. She has a voice. I was also excited and impressed by that. And I think that’s another thing that I’m interested in exploring, getting out of these kind of cliches that we have in film right now and learning to embrace the oddities of ourselves, and seeing human beings be human beings, which is really beautiful and also not beautiful sometimes.

It’s kind of perfect in a way that both "21 Jump Street" and "Short Term 12" made their world premieres at SXSW. Kind of sums up where you're at in your career right now -- straddling the two worlds rather successfully.

Yeah I didn’t even think about that because I didn’t go to that [the "21 Jump Street" premiere]. This is my first SXSW.

It's actually an interesting period of time for me... I got back from Sundance which was also like a new experience. I went the year prior, but I went as a filmmaker, and it’s so interesting going into that world straight out the gate as a filmmaker not as an actor because  it’s a different kind of good. I mean I think that that festival is great and I always leave feeling really excited about being in this industry. But I feel like the filmmaker side, it’s much more about meeting other filmmakers and watching movies. When you’re an actor, you become this strange sort of political figure, especially at Sundance. I found that the best way for me to do it was, my mom gave me a bunch of sweaters for Christmas and I have one pair of jeans and I didn’t brush my hair and I just kind of went just as myself. And that was the only way I could feel I could honestly talk about it, you know in a way to sell this thing. Just being a person, I don’t want it to seem like I’m doing a Diet Coke ad.

You've never been asked to carry a film like you do in "Short Term 12." Was the challenge daunting?

When you do [carry something], you really have to understand it very well, especially when it’s a whole very intimate intense journey with one person. But I thought the script was so incredible that at first I thought there was no way I’d get this because it’s so good. And then when it came my way I just went, okay this is the universe and many people that I respect and find very intelligent believing that I can do this, I have to believe it too. I took my ego out of it and my fears out of it and just kind of fell into it in a way that felt really comfortable. And I found that I really thrived in having that much work on my plate.

This interview is continued on page 2.


SXSW Jason Gallagher Jr. and Brie Larson in "Short Term 12."

Your character harbors a secret that’s only revealed during the film’s climax. What was it like to play someone who holds so much back, but still serves as the audience's eyes and ears into this world?

That’s a great question. There’s a few things I have to say about that. One is I think that every character I’ve ever played has a secret and that’s the driving force of every character. Even if it’s not written, you just create one. That’s my favorite part. I'm not big on mapping out a script and going like, this is where this moment is, and this is where this moment is. Moreover it’s just understanding who the person is and just kind of living it and seeing what happens. But with Grace, she has this secret that is driving her kind of internal struggle that we’re starting to see, but it’s not the point of the movie. The point of the movie isn’t to find out that this terrible thing happened to her, but it is what dictates how she reacts to everything that is happening in the film. And so I would just kind of go off on my own, listen to a lot of Norwegian death metal and a lot of black metal, a lot of emotionally angry, violent music. And I’d listen to that and get myself filled with it and then go into a room and do everything I could to not let anybody know, and then you have the contradiction. There was something really powerful for me about not pushing that any more than it needed to be and I was really happy with how it turned out because it was tough.

I believe that an audience is intuitive and can pick up on things, but can’t really tell sometimes how small a movement can be in order to make an impact. I realized with this film that it just takes a small little thing for you to get a lot across.

About the small little things -- you strike me as a performer who has this innate ability to be so natural on camera. I don’t see the work.

I think I feel like it just has taken a lot of time of being broken down and breaking myself down. I realize, actually strangely though this movie, that I’ve felt more comfortable expressing my emotions with a camera there than in my personal life. And I didn’t understand why that was and I had a hard time letting go. I’m much better at getting into the character than getting out of the character. I’m just really fascinated by human beings and by life. Pretty much every character that I’ve ever played has been based off of either somebody that I’ve seen in passing or a combination of people that I know, but I always base it off of a reality, something I can actually grasp and turn to and look at. And you just got to be comfortable in your own skin I guess.

I feel like it’s just the listening and giving -- it seems to work. And once I was able to kind of unlock that for myself I became leaps and bounds a better actor, when it became more about the things when I wasn’t saying. I feel lucky that I’ve worked with other good actors. When you’re an actor who likes to listen and you’re working with another actor who’s very present, it becomes a very symbiotic, beautiful relationship. But you have to work really hard before the film starts and it has to mean everything, and you also have to be completely willing to question yourself, and the desire to want others to kind of question and think as well has to come into it.

"I realize, actually strangely though this movie, that I’ve felt more comfortable expressing my emotions with a camera there than in my personal life."

Whenever it becomes about capturing a moment of time when you’re young and beautiful, I think that then it’s lost and it has no lasting power any more. It’s just egotistical and not about the point at all. I’m just the vessel for a story you know. It will be a different conversation we’re having when I’ve written and directed a feature film, then I feel like I can talk more about that. But for right now I feel very, very lucky to be a part of Destin’s journey and his film. This is his story and I’m happy to pick up in telling the more non-verbal and verbal parts that he doesn’t know how to express.

Was Grace a tough character to rub off?

This was actually not and this was actually the first time it wasn’t for me and it was a very conscious decision because I knew what this kind of work load, and with the amount of kind of struggle and conflict, internal struggle that Grace has to deal with, I was very afraid and my mother in particular was very afraid of me getting kind of swallowed up. We all thought it’d make a great performance, but if it costs $8,000 of therapy afterwards it’s just not worth it anymore. I can’t keep going.

You know at some point you have to be an adult. I didn’t know how to do that actually until I worked. I shadowed at this foster care facility before starting filming and you walk into this place and you see a completely other slice of life. You see how so many decisions that are not these childrens’ choice have led them to this, and you want to love them and fix them and hug them and give them everything that they want. And they resist you and push you and they slam doors in your face and they spit in your face. They have all these defense mechanisms and it hurts your feelings. I asked her, "How have you done this for 17 years, how can you put up with wanting to fix these children and them missing it?" She said, "Because they’ve never experienced it. You can’t explain a color to somebody if they’ve never seen it before." And she said, "If you aren’t able to separate yourself from this work, you do the best you can and then you go home and you have your things that are you and you have to go back to those every night. And if you can’t go back to that then you won’t last two weeks, then you’re not helping these kids at all, and then you’ve bailed on them just like everybody else has. So you have to understand the fine line between giving as much as you can and then also saying okay, and then there’s something left for me, there’s a place that I can go back to."

Cooking is very therapeutic for me. So I would take a lot of the craft services and stuff we had left over and take it home because I didn’t have time to grocery shop. I’d go home and my boyfriend and I would basically do like an Iron Chef with the stuff from lunch that day. You have a really nice meal, you watch “South Park,” you laugh, you watch the latest “SNL,” you talk about your day, I hear about what he’s doing. And I found that I was still able to get a very deep performance and it didn’t kill me, it didn’t sacrifice myself in the process. I hope that that’s something I can continue to do.

This article is related to: Brie Larson, SXSW, Interviews, Short Term 12, Drama, SXSW Film Festival