Brie Larson’s 20-Year Climb to Overnight Stardom: I’m “Totally Out of My Comfort Zone”
The Oscar nominee is Hollywood’s fastest-rising actress since Jennifer Lawrence. Now, the intensely private star of ‘Room’ — whose breakout role drew interest from Emma Watson and Rooney Mara — is leaping from a $5 million budget movie to a $125 million one (‘Kong: Skull Island’).
The morning after picking up the Breakthrough Performance Award at the 27th annual Palm Springs International Film Festival, Brie Larson rolls up to a Studio City eatery in a shiny black chauffeur-driven SUV. Nobody on the sidewalk outside the bustling diner appears particularly starstruck by the 26-year-old actress in ripped Levis and gray sweater — or even seems to recognize her. But Larson is in a playful mood. As she approaches her breakfast companion, she hikes her nubbly pink coat over her head and jokes — with faux drama-queen theatrics — “Please, no photos!” Actually, being swarmed by paparazzi outside a restaurant isn’t so far-fetched a scenario for the brand-new Oscar nominee, who these days is undergoing that sometimes-awkward transformation from struggling young actress (playing supporting roles in films like 21 Jump Street and Trainwreck) to Hollywood’s favorite new thing. Ever since her much buzzed-about performance in Room, the Lenny Abrahamson drama about a young mother and son held captive in a shed for seven years, the star has been caught up in an awards-season lovefest, spending the past eight weeks shuttling from junket interviews to film festivals to awards shows — like the Golden Globes, where she won best actress in a drama — to her real job, which, at the moment, is a grueling jungle shoot for Kong: Skull Island, her first lead in a tentpole (Universal and Legendary are spending north of $125 million on it). Although Room, a tiny $12 million indie distributed by newcomer A24 Films, hasn’t caught fire at the box office (it has grossed $5 million since its Oct. 16 release, about what Kong is spending on banana bills), Larson’s raw, stripped-down performance has struck a chord, making her Hollywood’s newest “It” girl.
“More and more, my life is going in a direction that is not universal; there’s only a very small group of people who understand,” says Larson, photographed Dec. 20 at Siren Orange Studio in Los Angeles.
Larson couldn’t seem more ambivalent about It. Her name is on everybody’s lips, her face is all over magazine covers, designers are clamoring to dress her (she was wearing a Giambattista Valli couture minidress at the National Board of Review gala on Jan. 5, where she took home another award, and a beaded Calvin Klein halter at the Golden Globes), and scripts are starting to pile up on her doorstep. And yet, there are moments during her Hollywood Reporter interview when the intensely private actress looks like she’d prefer to be locked alone inside a shed for seven years than answer personal questions. “I can’t help but trip out about how similar my life is to Room,” she admits as she fidgets with the menu. “It’s me wanting to stay in my own little bubble and remain anonymous and invisible and at the same time needing to step up to this hand that I’ve been given.”
Of course, stardom is always a trade-off. For most, the benefits far outweigh the costs, although Larson has allowed herself only one splurge in recent months — new underwear: “To me, that’s a luxury item,” she says. “I took photos of the bag.” Still, that difficult stage between ingenue and A-lister can be confusing. And right now, Larson is figuring out how to navigate it. “Every single step of this last year has been a completely new experience and one that is totally outside of my comfort zone,” she says (including, a few weeks after this breakfast, getting nominated for an Oscar: “Holy shit” were the first words out of her mouth after learning the news on the Kong set in Australia). “I keep asking myself: How will my life be different? I have no idea. In this industry, where things change so quickly, I’ve found that having no expectations is the happiest way to go.”
Here’s a list of subjects Brie Larson prefers not to discuss: her boyfriend (Phantom Planet lead singer Alex Greenwald, the guy she smooched after winning her Golden Globe). What she eats (she’d rather THR not note that she ordered a breakfast salad of egg whites scrambled with rice, currants and vegetables). Parts she turned down or didn’t get (she and Emilia Clarke both were said to be vying for the young Sarah Connor role in Terminator Genisys). The neighborhood she now lives in (“The canyons,” is all she will reveal). Why she’s so private about her boyfriend (“I’m not hiding him away in a tower — I’m just trying my best not to …” she says before cutting herself off). When the conversation strays into forbidden territory, she smiles tightly and offers a clearly memorized sound bite explaining her reticence to open up with the press. “Each step of the way I’m learning,” she says. “When I leave an interview I learn whether I feel, oh, that was nice, or that made me feel like a little piece of me was taken. It’s a line that is always on the edge of being crossed, and once you cross it, what’s next?”
“I think it’s a matter of time before the general audience and world know her as a giant, bankable star,” says Vogt-Roberts, her director on ‘Kong: Skull Island.’
For someone so new to fame, Larson can be as cagey with journalists as an actress who has been working in Hollywood for 20 years. Which, in fact, she has been. Her career began at age 6, when she became the youngest person ever to attend San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater’s training program. Her parents — homeopathic doctors in Sacramento who homeschooled their daughter (then known as Brianne Sidonie Desaulniers) and her younger sister, Milaine — encouraged Larson’s theatrical ambitions (although she also dreamed of becoming a magician or an Egyptologist), and by age 7, she had landed her first television gig, doing a gag commercial for “Malibu Mudslide Barbie” on a 1996 episode of The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.
Around that same time, her childhood took a rough turn when her parents divorced. Larson’s mother moved her and Milaine to Los Angeles, where her mother took Larson to auditions. Although painfully shy, the young actress quickly was cast in small parts on such shows as Popular and Touched By an Angel and eventually landed a recurring role on The WB’s brief-running sitcom Raising Dad and a part as a teen drag racer in the Disney Channel movie Right on Track. In 2005, at 16, she attempted a music career, releasing an album titled Finally Out of P.E. It didn’t take off, but it recently has been the subject of some fan reappraisal. “I haven’t done music in 10 years, but if you Google my name, my music video is one of the first things that pops up,” says Larson, ruefully. “It’s this weird story that keeps coming back.”
She kept plugging away into her 20s, playing Toni Collette’s defiant daughter on Showtime’s The United States of Tara and other parts of varying sizes (like an ex-girlfriend in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World). But Larson defied type. During THR’s actress roundtable in November, she admitted that she “wasn’t a perfect package of one thing. I wasn’t pretty enough to play the popular girl, I wasn’t mousy enough to be the mousy girl, so I never fit in.” For a while, she thought male actors had it easier, but then changed her mind. “I had this anger about having to show up to auditions in heels and a miniskirt, and then I heard guys saying, ‘Well, we have to take our shirts off,’ ” she says. “Touche. I didn’t have to do that. I had no idea.” Still, she watched with frustration as peers who fit certain stereotypes worked steadily. “The script would call for ‘the punk girl,’ or whatever these ridiculous cliches were, but I had never met anybody like these two-dimensional characters,” she says, recalling what her agent and manager told her: “It hurts now, but down the line, it’s going to be so great when you can play all of these characters.”
Says Schumer of her ‘Trainwreck’ co-star, “Brie is as advertised — the most genuine, kind person one could hope to meet, and watching her perform is mind-blowing to me.”
She frequently thought about giving up. Over and over again, she would borrow her mom’s car and drive to casting offices, where she found herself sitting in a waiting room with 20 people muttering their lines. She knew they wanted the part as badly as she did — perhaps even more so. Then after she auditioned, she would wait for the call telling her that she was too happy, too acerbic or too spunky. “The smallest fraction of a thing gets you cut, and if you have any sort of sense, you realize how impossible the situation is,” she says. “Sometimes after getting knocked down a million times you think, ‘Oh my God, I’m done.’ ”
It was Larson’s role in a 2013 drama called Short Term 12, as a supervisor in a home for troubled teens, that started to get her noticed in those casting offices. The film won three Spirit Award nominations and picked up prizes at South by Southwest. It also brought Larson to the attention of Abrahamson. “She doesn’t do that showy intensity thing that we overpraise in film actors,” says the Room director. “There’s just this truthfulness about her and a delicacy to what she does.” Emma Donoghue, the writer of the best-selling book and the screenplay for Room, says that when the novel came out, every young actress in Hollywood wanted to play the part of Ma, the young kidnapping victim locked in a shed with her young son (including Rooney Mara, Mia Wasikowska, Emma Watson and Larson’s close friend Shailene Woodley). But Donoghue recalls viewing the audition tape that Larson (who read the book in 2013, after her manager sent her a copy) had made in early 2014 and being blown away by the actress’ sparkling conversation with an imaginary offscreen boy. “She conjured up that child,” recalls Donoghue. “I really felt the child was there.” She also cites Larson’s commitment, how she lost 15 pounds to give herself the hollow, sinewy look of a longtime hostage. Donoghue remembers attending a lavish dinner with Larson and watching in astonishment as the actress ate the tomatoes off a piece of bruschetta, then put down the bread. “I know she was trying to stay very lean for the part, and I thought that showed an iron will,” says Donoghue. “Who can put down the bread when they’re eating the topping off a bruschetta?”
Room didn’t start shooting until November 2014. So, before diving into the arduous preparation for the part — not merely shedding weight but also avoiding sunlight for months to give her skin an authentically unhealthy pallor — the actress found just enough time to squeeze something lighter into her schedule. “I thought, ‘Before I go away and be a monk, I’ll do this fun thing, laugh my ass off and eat whatever I want,’ ” she says of Trainwreck, in which director Judd Apatow hired her to play Schumer’s younger sister (Apatow first noticed Larson on an episode of United States of Tara and considered her for Bridesmaids — “Once you’re in the family, they always bring you back,” she says).
“I don’t think, ultimately, that is going to make me a good artist,” says Larson of her instinct for privacy. “So I have to continue to find ways to be vulnerable, open and curious and coexist in this world that is changing in front of me.”
Larson had done comedy before — she even voiced a penguin in the animated spoof Farce of the Penguins — but starring opposite Schumer bumped her up to a new level. “Amy allows us to laugh about things that have been [taboo] for so long,” says Larson. “[Society’s] feeling is: ‘Do not discuss. Don’t you dare.’ And Amy says, ‘Why? Being a human is super funny.’ ” For her part, Schumer calls her co-star “a complete badass.”
Schumer gave Larson a laundry list of favorite sketches to watch and introduced her to the doorman at the Comedy Cellar in New York, telling him, “This is Brie; let her come in whenever she wants.” Larson sat in the back of the club, drinking water and watching one brilliant stand-up after another. “The first time I went, I actually started crying, which I don’t think is what you are supposed to do at a comedy club. But I was so inspired,” says Larson. “I would watch someone talking about his problems with his crazy sociopath girlfriend, and the way he worked out and unlocked the story was the same thing I was doing in Short Term 12.” She remembers running up to Schumer and Apatow after one show and shouting, “Comedy is the superior medium!”
It was Larson’s ability to play both genres that drew the attention of Jordan Vogt-Roberts, director of Kong: Skull Island (which is set to be released in March 2017). “She weaves and slaloms between comedy and drama in a seamless way,” he says of the actress he has cast in Fay Wray’s former role (also played by onetime It girls Jessica Lange and Naomi Watts). But as to what exactly the movie will be like, or how her character might have evolved since Wray’s day, Larson won’t say a word. Turns out Kong also is on the forbidden topic list. “She’s a woman,” is all Larson will reveal about her role.
Still, starring alongside the likes of Samuel L. Jackson and John C. Reilly in her first tentpole — being shot in Hawaii and Vietnam along with Australia — has to be heady stuff. But if Larson is intimidated, she keeps it well concealed; she seems to collect her parts with the cool head of a botanist examining a new species of geranium. “Early on, I realized that my agent [Chris Fioto at WME] and manager [Anne Woodward at Authentic] were like explorers out searching the planet for rare specimens to bring to me,” says Larson. “But if I didn’t explain what kind of specimens I was looking for, they might bring flowers when I was looking for succulents. So I gave them a lot of books that had the roots of storytelling I’m interested in: Grimm’s fairy tales, mythology — all the things I love, the things I ultimately want to do.”
Fioto remembers talking to Larson about a project six years ago, when she was 20. “I suggested she check out the director’s work,” he says. “She already had downloaded his short and had an opinion about it. That’s the level of commitment she brings to a project.”
Nowadays, she is spreading that commitment around. “My life is scheduled to the minute,” says the actress, who, before fame and success, used to sleep in late and spend her mornings sipping tea and lazily doing The New York Times crossword puzzle with her dog Bowie by her side. “I used to be notoriously hard to get ahold of,” she notes. “But now, it would be irresponsible for me to say, ‘I’m not checking my phone.’ ” Along with Kong: Skull Island, she will be co-starring with Woody Harrelson in Lionsgate’s screen version of Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle, a memoir about a journalist’s impoverished dysfunctional upbringing. Woodward handed the book to Larson with the caveat, “Don’t fall in love; don’t ask us to get it.” Jennifer Lawrence already was attached. But Lawrence backed out, and Larson ended up with the role after all. (“I met Jen seven years ago at a photo shoot,” says Larson of her companion on this year’s awards circuit. “We bonded over the craft service table; we were the only ones eating the doughnuts.”) After that, she will be appearing alongside Armie Hammer in Free Fire, an indie film about 1970s gangs that she shot in the summer. And then there’s Basmati Blues, a musical she shot in India about genetically modified rice (no joke), arriving in theaters later this year. “I want to tell universal tales,” she says of her choices. “I’ve struggled watching films where people dressed well and seemed to have it together, where the worst thing that happened was they fell in front of the guy they liked at their office. I don’t relate to that.”
Larson, though, is clever enough to see what’s coming down the pike, especially if she makes the shift from It girl to bona fide star (and not all It girls do — for every Jennifer Lawrence, there’s a slew of Gretchen Mols, although an Oscar nomination certainly can help grease the gears). Two months ago, she finally dove into social media, initially to combat the dozens of impostors posting in her name (for the record, her real Instagram handle is brielarson). “Every time I was on a job, people I worked with would say, ‘What you posted yesterday was really funny.’ And I thought, ‘Uhh …’ ” But even as Larson joins the online fray, she’s proving to be more of a nose-tweaker than a tweeter. She delights in deflating public expectations for Hollywood actresses by posting engagingly unglamorous pics — Brie without makeup! Brie standing in a mud puddle in Crocs! Brie with dropped jaw, exclaiming, “CATE BLANCHETT JUST CAME INTO MY DRESSING ROOM IN A JUMPSUIT!” Not surprisingly, she already is up to 51,000 Instagram followers. Also not surprisingly, she learned very quickly the value of a good web filter (“I could get a hundred ‘show me your tits’ a day and would never see them,” she notes cheerfully). Should she win the Oscar — and many believe right now she is the one to beat — the attention will increase exponentially, and that clearly makes Larson both excited and uneasy.
“I don’t know if I’m ready for it, but I don’t want to turn away from it either,” she admits as she stirs what’s left of her eggs with a fork. “When you go out and people start taking photos of you on their iPhones, it feels really scary and awkward, so it’s easy to say, ‘I’m going to stay in, watch movies on Netflix and get my food delivered.’ But I’ve spent a lot of my life doing that, and it’s not better.”