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