Short Term 12, which tells the story of a foster care facility and those who live and work there, is less a movie than it is a living, breathing thing. And its beating heart is 23-year-old Brie Larson, who plays supervisor Grace. Larson's performance is a quiet, introspective tour de force. She is able to tell Grace's story — which includes a secret history of abuse and an unyeilding compassion for the kids she looks after, in particular, 15-year-old Jayden — with few words; her eyes and body language say it all. So it's no surprise that Larson has already found herself in the middle of some well-deserved Oscar buzz (which we may be guilty of propagating).
When Hollywood.com sat down to speak with Larson, it was instantly obvious that she and Grace are worlds apart. While Larson shares her character's passion, Larson is a loquatious, charming young woman immune to the effects of the industry and unaware of how much attention she is about to receive. Oscars? "That doesn't happen to actual people," she tells us. She is in for the best kind of rude awakening.
Hollywood.com: Are you aware how huge this movie is going to be?
Brie Larson: It's really a strange thing. I've asked since South by South West — that was the first time I noticed it really clicked with people — I asked everyone to not tell me anything because I just want to be ignorant and just enjoy the individual experience — to be open to it and to experience it and not feel like people are observing me or expecting me to do anything. So I haven't read anything; but there's been a few people who have slipped up to me and have said from blah blah blah article this was said. But I have no idea, I feel like none of this makes any sense to me. But it will make sense maybe a year from now, or maybe when I'm 60. I just don't know what happens after. The whole time, I keep going, "What does this even add up to or mean?"
It means you should maybe start looking for an Oscar dress…
That doesn't happen to actual people…
It happened to Jennifer Lawrence!
Yes, and she is on Team Human. Even her, I feel, she's a larger than life figure at this point. And I don't do that, I still shop at Forever 21. It's all really exciting. That's what I keep texting my mom. We've been doing this for a while and I don't understand it, but at least it makes my mom really proud and excited that I'm being recognized for something that I've worked hard at. I didn't go to college or even graduate high school properly, so this is my one.
I think what it comes down to is that this is a movie that really hits home for a lot of people. And it's not that people have necessarily experienced these things in their own lives, but it's a very human story. With that in mind, what part of this story particularly appealed to you? Or was it just the whole shebang?
I feel like the film means so many different things to me and the more I've watched it the more it opens up to me as to what it is. I think at first, when I'm first reading a script you can't help but focus and hone in on the character you're potentially going to play. Because it's all about, Do I know this person? Can I honestly play this person? How do I go about doing it? Do I feel comfortable in this situation with these people to play this role? You're analyzing the whole thing. So even while shooting it, I was seeing everything through Grace's perspective — because I had to. I was her. So I think for me at the time I was very interested in playing a woman who had a hard time communicating and being able to hone how much can be expressed through film without saying anything. And how hard it is. I think we do these reveals in movies all the time where someone opens up about something. But really? It's hard to talk. It's hard when things get emotional to tap into that and recognize what you're feeling and be able to correct it. So I thought that was an interesting aspect of filming, of myself to explore.
But then the more that I've been watching the film, and the longer it's gone on, I think the bigger thing for me and for Grace is accepting that you're of good things, that you're worthy of love and loving others through the process. And I think that's a really powerful human thing — and that's what you're saying. And I think that's exactly why the film hits people in this really really intense way because it's not like we're showing it to a bunch of people who've been abused or in foster care. We have had those people [see it], and they relate to it in one way. And then there are people who've just loved something and have had it taken away from them. That's the essence of the whole thing: the beauty and the flaw and the struggle of being a human being. The day-to-day stuff. The connections we make and the misconnections we make. The things we wish we would've said, and the things we wish we could take back from saying. And the power that we have as humans over each other to influence each other and to change the course of our life and our actual genetic structure.
You mention that before you signed on to do this project you really wanted to make sure that you felt comfortable with the people as well. What was it like working with the final cast and crew?
It was the best. Truly, the best. It was the most fun and the most loving group of people I've worked with, which says a lot. I just don't think that I could've done what I did if I hadn't felt totally loved and supported, first as Brie the human being and then second as an actor in a movie. And that we were all trying to make this art project really good. I realized how important it is when you feel like you're given the space and the credit to do something that allowed me to feel comfortable exploring not winking to the camera or giving these things that were clues to be people, "Hey I actually do know what's going on in Grace's head!" I was able to do something that was much more subtle and with very little concern for the camera. It was really freeing for me to not do hair and make-up and to wear my own clothes mixed with Destin [Cretton, the director]'s sister's clothes. And just have it lived through, and not have it feel any different from when I was cooking dinner and talking to my boyfriend when I got home.
And what was it like working with John Gallagher Jr. specifically? You two are so close in the film and it looked so natural.
It was great. You know, those things are so strange. A lot of people have been saying to me, ''You must've know Destin for a really long time and John before you started shooting." And to be honest, we just didn't. We didn't have that luxury. Luckily, we're all just really open people, and you know pretty quickly when you meet someone, "This is a person I can trust," or, "This person I don't really like." And I really loved every person on this film. I feel like I'm just, through this [press tour] process, getting to know who John is and who Destin is. And the person I've learned most about is Keith [Stanfield] because he, at the very beginning, before we started shooting, said, "I just want you know that Marcus doesn't trust [Grace] so I can't trust you. I don't want you to be offended but I'm not going to talk to you or hang out with you on or off screen." He never made eye contact with me. Even on the last day of shooting, there was only one seat left at lunch and it was at the same table as him. And I thought, "Whatever it's the last day." He instantly go up and moved and I was like, "Wow, really? Even the last day?"
It's not until this really amazing experience of us getting to fly and travel together and sit next to each other on long flights that we're actually learning who each other are. Because up until that point it was all within the context of this other world, and these other people and this story we were trying to tell. John and I had one dinner before we started shooting, and Destin did this really amazing thing, because he knew that John and I were getting dinner, and so he dropped off an envelope at John's place that John didn't know about until he walked out the door. It said, "To Brie and John. Don't open it until you get to the restaurant." So he shows up, it was our first time meeting, and he was like, "I got this thing." And I was like, "Is it a scavenger hunt?!" We opened it up and it had a cute little note from [Destin] and bunches of pieces of paper that were conversation starters. It was brilliant. And it was like, "What are your fears about being a parent?" to "What's your most vivid childhood memory?" to "What's a trauma you feel comfortable talking about?" "When was the last time you felt alon?" and "What do you think Grace and Mason's first date was like?" "How long have they been together for?" So without us even realizing it, we were learning how to communicate with each other, learning about each other, learning about the characters, learning how to bounce ideas off of one another. It was so easy and we didn't have to have that weird thing where you're forced to go, "Well we gotta like each other, so let's just do it." It was a very natural thing. It was really great.
This may sound strange, but I was surprised after I saw the movie how young you are in real life. Were you purposefully playing Grace to be older? Did you have an age for in your mind or in the script?
I think maybe Grace was supposed to be older on the page, but I'm 23 and I got cast. I don't know. I think it's something about — and I'm surprised because I don't have make-up on or my hair done — that there's something about her that seems ageless. I feel like there are some times when I watch it I look like a child and others I'm like, that's a woman.
She's lived a lot of life.
It's that and I also think it's the assuredness of her voice and the way she has to at times bark orders at people. And it sounds convincing, which is a really important thing for me, that it didn't sound like I was a child whining at people. I was really concerned with the tone of my voice when I was talking. I had to practice because I wasn't used to being forceful like that. I had never talked to anybody, let alone kids, in the way that I had to in this film.
Grace obviously has a lot of intense moments in the movie. Were there any scenes that were particularly difficult for you to film or that you were worried about filming?
I mean, I was kinda worried every day. But, I mean, that was the fun of it. I read the script obviously many, many times. And it was not until I was shooting that I realized there's no light thing. Theres no kinda like, oh that's a whatever scene so I can walk through that one. So you get through the day pretty much being an actual social worker. So I get home and they're like, "Oh you have a 7 AM call tomorrow." And I look at what we're filming and it's like, You know I can't do it, there's no way. But for the most part I was pretty good at getting into Grace and understanding what her mental space was like, and then understanding what my own mental space was like and making sure that there was a big differentiation between the two.
But there was one day where I went home really shaken. It was the day that we ended the day with Brie finding Marcus trying to hurt himself and I personally have an aversion to blood. My dog broke a nail once and I fainted. I just don't deal with looking at it well, it makes me queazy. And Keith is a very good actor, and it was very jarring to go through the motions of discovering this thing and trying to save his life then watching his eyes roll to the back of his head. It really freaked me out. And that was the only time I don't remember leaving set — I don't really know how I got home. I had a lot of people from set that called because they were concerned about me driving home. That was the only time when I got home I wanted to scrub myself and — I wear my hair parted on the side but Grace wears it in the middle. That was the only time that I went home and had to brush my hair to the side to do the physical change of, That's not real life and thank goodness. It's like when you have a dream that feels so real, and when you wake up it still screws with you. You just go, "I felt it, though, it seemed like that happened." Even though it didn't actually happen. But other than that, pretty much everything else was very clear to me.
And in order for me to go to those places, I enjoy having a rapport with the crew. I think it's an important part of it because we're doing this whole thing together. I didn't want to seem like a self-centered actor where every day was me getting all tweaky in the corner and me not paying attention to anybody else and "gotta capture this whole wild animal" sort of thing. So I just decided from early on to be clear with my boundaries and just say, "I'll let you guys know when I need my space." So there were certain scenes where I was like, "I'm going really far deep under water. You're not even going to recognize me because it's not me anymore and I'm probably not going to remember this afterwards, but I'm going to go there. And then I'll let you know when I come up for air." Destin was kind of like the guardian angel, the air tank at the top of the water. And I'd swim down and then he would say, "We got it! Come up for air!" and then I'd swim to the top and then we could look at the tapes. You know, and it's me again.
You have three big festival movies coming out this year — Short term 12, Spectacular Now, and Don Jon — and all of them feel very different. I know you've been trying to avoid the feedback, but doing the press for them, hearing the reception, how has it been for each distinct movie different for you?
It feels really surreal that the three movies that I did not only made it into festivals but have all been really well received. They're all very different and all of my characters are very different. That's really cool, and that's just the dream. I don't know, I mean, I feel like I'm just pinching myself a lot right now. It was quite tough this morning because I woke up in this very comfortable hotel bed and had coffee delivered to me in my hotel room. And I felt okay saying, "Yeah I'll pay $10 for my coffee because it got delivered to my room." I actually cried about it. I can't believe it. I'm just too cheap. I'm cheap. I bought this shirt at a thrift store! So it's a fun little vacation.
Short Term 12 opens in limited release Friday, Aug. 23, and nationwide Aug. 30.