Brie Larson looks like an oil painting. In a crisp, black sleeveless top and white slacks, she takes a brief moment to herself, lounging in a cream-colored Louis XVI-style chair at New York’s Waldorf Astoria hotel. She is eating a shiny green apple. With her honey-colored waves and golden-brown eyes, she fits right in with the other sumptuous art hanging on the wall above her. When it’s interview time, she springs into action, leaning forward, warm and welcoming. “Have we met before?” she asks.
We have not. But it’s an oddly generous move to acknowledge this interviewer as distinct when Larson has been facing an assembly line of inquisitors as she promotes what is shaping up to be the defining film role of her career. In Room, which has been gathering Oscar buzz since its September premiere at the Telluride Film Festival, the 26-year-old plays a character known mainly as “Ma,” a young woman who has been held captive in a garden shed since she was 17 and gave birth to a child conceived during her imprisonment. Seven years into her capture and five years into the life of her son, Jack, she plots their escape. The movie is based on the 2010 novel by Emma Donoghue, and it’s one of those independent films that scratches its way to public consciousness on the strength of the performances. Larson and her young co-star, Jacob Tremblay, are astonishingly good, even though the entire first half of the film is just the two of them in a drab, unchanging, claustrophobic shed.
Larson is present and thoughtful as she speaks about Room, even though she’s been making the New York rounds — The Daily Show, the Today show — for the past 24 hours. “It’s exciting that a movie like this has found an audience,” she says. “There have been fears that perhaps there isn’t a space for independent film anymore, or that people aren’t going to the movies anymore unless it’s for superhero movies. So, to be part of something that’s getting people to go to the theater and talk about it and feel something…That’s my dream.” Though Larson is young, she’s paid her dues to get here. And to be clear, "here" is in the frontrunner position to win the Best Actress Oscar. She’s been acting and singing since she was 9, appearing in sketches on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and small roles in films like 13 Going on 30. Her teen career was a mishmash: a Disney Channel movie one day (Right on Track with Seventh Heaven star Beverley Mitchell), a pop album the next (2005’s Finally Out of P.E.). “I was not a child star,” she says. “I was more like a young auditioner.” Things started to pick up in 2009, with major roles in Showtime’s United States of Tara, followed by the 21 Jump Street movie, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and a leading role in 2013’s revered indie Short Term 12. Because of her long résumé, she’s learned never to think about how a project will be received. She can just do her job and enjoy it. “There doesn’t need to be any showiness on my part,” she says. “It’s a nice point to be in your life where you don’t have to prove yourself to yourself.” Given her eclectic performing background, it's fitting her breakout year encompasses work from opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. There's Room, of course, but over the summer, she also co-starred as Amy Schumer’s sister in the hit sex comedy Trainwreck. It's not a bad outlet, to be able to dabble in the devastating and the deliriously funny. "I always feel like I’m so lucky in my job that I get a place to have controlled release. I’m allowed to get angry or cry or laugh, which not all of us get to do.”
Which brings us back to Room. The role required Larson to scream, cry, and yell — not just at her captor, but also at young Jack and the family with whom she is reunited. (That's not a spoiler! It’s in the trailer to assure you that the movie isn't a total downer.) To embody Ma’s wiry strength, Larson trained and dieted intensely for the entire 49-day shoot, a transformative experience that went beyond the physical. “It was the first time in my life that I had muscle, so I had this completely different relationship to how I felt in my body,” she says. “I felt so much more confident and comfortable. To get to the end of that shoot knowing that I could handle the emotional weight and I could hold 75 or 100 pounds over my head, something that I never thought I could do… You really don’t know what you can handle until you start to push yourself.” Her colleagues sure have taken notice. "I had seen her in Short Term 12 and was completely blown away," says Joan Allen, who plays Larson's mother in Room. "There's just no BS, no flash, no putting on. And I think it's great to see a woman who's not glamorized but is high-functioning in a really difficult circumstance." To recover from the experience of living as Ma, after filming wrapped, Larson headed directly to Hawaii for some R & R. “I hadn’t been in the sun for so long,” she says. “Getting some vitamin D and eating rice — I hadn’t had a carb in so long — I could feel myself coming back.” Then it was time to return to her real home in Los Angeles, a readjustment that she related to differently after acting out Ma’s more wrenching homecoming. She's philosophical about how she approaches this part of her job. “When you spend so much time living life as another person, you get back home and you get this opportunity to sort through it,” she says. “Some of it is kind of dark and not something I need to hold on to. But some of it is interesting, and I can revise an old draft of myself to incorporate those things.”
One part of Room she won’t be leaving behind: her co-star Tremblay, whom she calls her “best friend.” They bonded for three weeks prior to filming to foster their onscreen connection: doing improv, drawing, playing Legos. But their relationship deepened because of her genuine respect for him. “I understood where he was coming from,” she says. “He really wants to be an actor. He’s not just some kid who doesn’t know what’s going on.” Larson has a younger sister and growing up she was the oldest among her cousins, so she often became what she calls a “designated babysitter." Hence her ease with children. “Kids just sort of flock to me,” she says. “It’s my weird superpower. At Telluride, we went to this pizza parlor because we thought it would be a good place for Jacob and his siblings to play air hockey while the adults had Moscow Mules. Basically within 10 seconds, I was somehow a ringleader of these six kids and had created an epic battle-of- the-sexes air hockey game.” Speaking of which, Larson is in talks to play tennis legend Billie Jean King, opposite Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs, in the upcoming Battle of the Sexes. She’ll also co-star with Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, and John Goodman in the big-budget Kong: Skull Island, which she's about to start shooting in Hawaii. She has no plans to focus her career any more than she has so far — comedy, drama, and anything else that piques her interest is fair game. “I don’t see anything as a target,” she says. “I see it as a horizon. There are tons of interesting stories to be told, and I hope to tell them.”