Joan Allen Looked To The Jacyee Dugard Case For Her Role In Room

Photo: Andrew H Walker/REX USA.
Brie Larson and her young co-star Jacob Tremblay are deservedly receiving praise for their work in Room as Ma and Jack, a kidnapped mother and her young son. But, Joan Allen’s performance as the mother of Larson’s character is also affecting.

Allen appears in the movie’s latter half, following — spoiler alert, though it is in the trailer — Ma and Jack’s escape from Room, the shed where their captor, Old Nick, has kept them hidden from the outside world. The Oscar-nominated Allen walks the tricky line of playing a woman who must welcome her daughter and grandson back from an unfathomably horrific experience while suppressing her own pain.

Allen told Refinery29 in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival that when she was researching her role, she tried to reach out to someone who had gone through something similar: Terry Probyn, the mother of rescued kidnapping victim Jaycee Dugard. Though Allen couldn’t actually speak to Probyn, she used interviews she found online to prepare. “What was really helpful was I saw somebody asked her, you know, what does it take to be reunified?” she said. “And she said it takes a long time and it's a lot of healing and you need a lot of help.”

But while Room tells a story about a very specific horror that most parents do not experience, Allen drew from her own experiences as a mother as well.

“I know [Room author and screenwriter] Emma Donoghue really feels like it's very universal about the mother-child bond,” she said. “I've had a few times when my daughter was little and I was in a mall and then, where is she? She's gone. And you have those five minutes of abject terror. I've never been so scared in my life as that. And so that stuff all helped to inform.”

Just like her character, Allen wasn’t privy to what went on in Room. Larson and Tremblay filmed that material for five weeks before Allen arrived to shoot her scenes. She even said that director Lenny Abrahamson didn’t want her to spend much time with Tremblay. But when she did see the movie, it made her wonder how she would react in Ma’s situation.

“You know, when I first saw the film, I was deeply curious about the first half,” she said. “I thought, I wonder if I would kill myself or go completely insane? How she was able to function and create a structure for a day...I thought that takes strength that I doubt I would have, were I in that. I would look at her and I'd go, if I was in this moment I would be insane or I would try to hang myself. I think I couldn’t take it.”

Ma, we discussed, isn’t “strong” in the kick-ass way we often see applied to women in film, but she does display a “strength.” And Larson, Allen said, “has a purity that is sometimes like magic.” She said: “I think it's great to see a woman that’s not strong and not glamorized, and high-functioning in a really difficult circumstance.”

Allen has played her share of women in difficult circumstances — though “difficult” in a different way from Ma’s — like Elizabeth Proctor in The Crucible.

What’s not on her upcoming slate? More Bourne. “Paul Greengrass, the director, is so lovely,” she said. “He called me, like, five or six months ago because he was working on the script and he said, I'm trying so hard to find a place for Pamela Landy and maybe I can get her in one scene or maybe not. And I said, Paul, don’t worry about it.”

Allen, meanwhile, plays a much different kind of matriarch on the upcoming ABC series, The Family. Room comes out October 16.

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