Short Term 12, written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, was hands down one of my favorite films I saw at SXSW. The film follows Grace (Brie Larson), a young staffer at a group home who alongside her boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) care for the group–ranging from children to young adults–at the home. While they aren’t meant to serve as therapists, merely staffers to make sure the residents don’t harm themselves, their connections through shared moments indicate much deeper bonds.
When Grace discovers she’s pregnant along with a bond with new resident, Jayden (Kaitlyn Devers) more of her own past spills forth and she must cope with it all over again. Short Term 12 deals with subject matter that could be sensationalized, but Cretton handles it with subtlety, never exploiting the characters for dramatic gain. Larson is tremendous as Grace, playing her with a balance of stillness and strength. And she’s supported by an amazing ensemble cast without which the realism of the film would not be felt.
Women and Hollywood spoke with Larson about Short Term 12, which won the Grand Jury Narrative Prize at SXSW. Larson has had a busy SXSW with roles also in The Spectacular Now and Don Jon. She also wrote and directed, Weighting, a surrealistic short about the end of a relationship.
Women and Hollywood: I really loved the film and you were so great in it. I was wondering what drew you to the project in the first place? How did you decide that this was something that you wanted to do?
Brie Larson: I was given the script while I was in Georgia, working on The Spectacular Now. I was sent the script because it was getting kind of close and there was a shuffle and the role was open. I read the script and wanted to do it so bad. It was one of the most beautifully written scripts and such a delicate and interesting character. I loved that it was not about talking, it was about learning how to talk, which is a hard thing to get across in a script. I just didn’t actually believe that Destin would want, me, of all people to do it. I’ve never done something like this. I’ve never been the lead of anything. So, I was a little tentative about it. I didn’t believe that I was going to get it. During that little bit of time, I ended up applying to a bunch of foster care places before talking with Destin.
By the time we spoke, I created this laundry list of all the stuff that I had done and all of the stuff that I was going to do to try and woo him. And it worked. There really wasn’t an audition process, but we talked a lot. Movies for me are like philosophies. Each film has certain philosophical questions that I want to explore. Destin had the same sort of questions. We wanted to go on this journey together and it was the best experience.
WaH: I love that viewpoint of movies as philosophy. Is that a way that you approach picking your films?
BL: Yeah, it’s finding for me a way that movies have a purpose. I don’t deal well with being told what to wear and sit on a mark. It just feels like my soul is being ripped out. In this movie I really became interested in secrets. Any movie I’ve done, my character has had a secret. Whether it’s in the movie or not, it is usually never is and it’s usually not something I tell anybody. It is for me. But, I think every person has something that they are trying to get at it in a scene or want to save for themselves. And, that’s what drives us to do things.
WaH: The diversity in the film is refreshing to see.
BL: It is so beautiful.
WaH: You don’t often see that in film frequently anymore and it’s so depressing.
BL: It’s so depressing! And this is done in such a way that it’s not like “Hey! Look! There are different kinds of people.” It’s just done like this is what life is. This is what you embrace. It was just really beautiful. It created such an interesting tone for all of us.
WaH: I’m really glad that you mentioned that. That was one of the things that really stood out for me about the film. It’s a subject matter that, I feel like in the wrong hands could very easily turn into a one note caricature of what is actually happening.
BL: Yeah, poverty porn or something.
BL: We have the option of going into a movie with a bunch of money and say we are going to do a movie about how hard it is to struggle. Everyone can smell that stuff a mile away. You never pull the wool over anyone’s eyes with that.
WaH: How did you prepare for the role?
BL: I worked and shadowed a foster care facility. I spent a lot of time talking with people who worked in foster care facilities. I followed a lot of threads on Reddit. I spent time getting the sea legs of having that strong voice that Grace can have when she’s dealing with the kids that I just don’t have. I had just gotten into the film, so I needed a little extra boost there. It felt really natural and fluid. I was just mostly listening, which I think was the best thing. My favorite part of my job is getting to do a scene where these kids talk and I just listen.
I planned out certain things. I kept a log. I don’t plan anything out before I shoot something. I just memorize it and see what happens. When I was done, I had my big script and I would kind of write in what had happened so that three weeks from now when I’m shooting the thing directly before it or directly after it, I would have an idea of where I am so that everything matches up.
WaH: The other thing I really liked was the relationship between your character and Jayden. Had you previously worked with Kaitlyn Dever?
BL: Yes. On The Spectacular Now.
WaH: You have some really intense scenes together. How did you come at those scenes together?
BL: We had met during The Spectacular Now. We didn’t have any scenes together, but we spent a lot of hanging out. In the same way that Grace meets Jayden, she sees herself in Jayden and that’s kind of the catalyst for her understanding herself better. There was a very similar thing going on on the set. There was so much about Kaitlyn that reminded me of me at that age and we just got each other. And, she is just a true actor. I just have to give her so much credit. She’s so ambitious, so hardworking. She’s just so vulnerable in those moments that she needs to be and willing to just let it all go. And so excited about getting into things too.
I think a lot of kids would be tentative or nervous about doing something where they are slamming a door and thrashing. But, she did that scene eight times and wanted to keep doing it. She would wipe her tears and then restart the hysteria every single time. I was like “Man, I should start taking my cues from her.” She is absolutely the real deal and I think that she really helped my performance be as good as it could possibly be. Most of my performance or my outlook on Grace was to get everything going in my head, but never saying anything. So, I would spend a lot of time working myself up and then throwing myself into a scene.
WaH: Why do you think it’s so important to tell Grace’s story? Why do you think it’s special?
BL: I think it’s a really important aspect of our lives to realize that life is constantly happening. Sometimes you get tossed a bad hand. I feel like when you can let things go you can actually appreciate something that’s happened to you. I think that this movie is all about that the cure to everything is love.
WaH: Do you want to talk about your experience directing the short Weighting?
BL: I love it. I just love it. I feel like it has been such a great learning experience and has made me a better actor in many ways. I feel much more comfortable choosing my freedoms. Short Term 12 was hard work, but it’s not my movie. It’s Destin’s movie and I’m just an instrument in his orchestra. I feel very comfortable in that and I don’t feel anything beyond that. I can do that because I know I’m writing something at the same time that I can create and have complete control over.
WaH: The entertainment industry isn’t an easy one for women. Do you have women you look up to or female mentors that have helped you in your career?
BL: I’ve been really fortunate that I’ve worked with a lot of strong women who are also mothers. I feel like it’s like a game changer for most people, especially actresses. They are stripped down of everything and they have something that matters more than being on camera.
Toni Collette has been a huge influence. She was my absolute number one idol, and then I got United States of Tara. I was pinching myself. I couldn’t believe the first day I was on set and I got pages of dialogue of real stuff to do with her. And, she actually liked what I was doing and she became my friend and has opened up her home to me. She is so, so awesome. And, she’s a true talent. She’s a chameleon and moves into other things and I’ve taken a lot from that.