'You're coming in at a very strange time for me," says Brie Larson. She has just arrived in London on the redeye from New York and is sitting on a steroidally plumped sofa in a Soho hotel suite. Her hair and makeup are freshly glammed and the late-afternoon light from the window catches the right side of her face with a cinematic radiance. She looks, in short, exactly as a 24-year-old Hollywood starlet should. We are here to talk about her new project, Short Term 12, a film about which US critics have been ravingly effusive. Some have compared Larson's performance to Jennifer Lawrence's breakthrough in Winter's Bone. Many have suggested that she and the film are strong contenders as the indie outsider at next year's Oscars.
- Short Term 12
- Production year: 2013
- Country: USA
- Runtime: 96 mins
- Directors: Destin Cretton
- Cast: Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Rami Malek
Larson shakes her head. "Suddenly there's this weird spotlight on you and it's a vomit of gold coins," she says. "It's wonderful, but it doesn't feel real."
The actress is quick to undercut any impression of glamour. She's not staying at the hotel – just doing the interview here – and the makeup hides the jetlag. The novelty of flying business-class was so overwhelming she stayed up watching movies and eating ice-cream when she should have been sleeping.
Larson's been acting professionally since she was seven, and it's likely that you'll recognise the face – she was Michael Cera's terrifying ex-girlfriend Envy Adams in Scott Pilgrim vs the World and Jonah Hill's romantic interest in 21 Jump Street – but it's never been less than a struggle.
"I have no problem talking about how hard it's been, how broke I've been and how broke I was not even that long ago," Larson says. "I was freaking out around this time last year because I thought, 'This is it. I've really screwed myself because I did three independent films. I didn't do anything for money and now I don't have anything.' I was eBaying stuff for Christmas presents."
What about the Oscar buzz for Short Term 12? "The first time I heard that I laughed and said, 'That doesn't happen to real people!'" she snorts. "This is so grand: if we were talking about a multi-million-dollar movie, if I was in Les Mis, I'd know what I was signing up for. But I'm a frickin' child just knocking around, tripping as I get out of bed. So it's strange. It's," long pause, "generous."
Short Term 12 is certainly not Les Misérables. Larson plays Grace, one of the supervisors in a foster home for volatile, at-risk children in California. The writer-director, Destin Daniel Cretton, worked in a similar institution for a couple of years in the early 2000s, and Short Term 12 is shot in a real facility, which was in use for 17 years before the authorities ran out of funds. These details lend the action a documentary feel: as the kids act up, and Grace attempts to exercise some control, it often makes uncomfortably real viewing, though Cretton throws in enough humour and hope for the film not to be overwhelmingly bleak.
"It was the best script I ever read," says Larson. "Most people think at least half of it is improvised or documentary. They don't realise that every word is exactly as it's written."
Larson is the emotional heart of the film, and her Grace is both tough and independent but also damaged and vulnerable – if there is a lesson in the film, it's that carers are often as fragile as the children they look after. In a stand-out scene, Grace takes out her frustrations on the windscreen of a car with a baseball bat. It is a cathartic moment to watch and it turns out to have been an empowering one to perform – albeit with the additional stress that, because of the film's micro-budget, Larson only had one opportunity to get it right.
"I had this weird, instinctual, animalistic thing come over me," she recalls. "I've never smashed anything in my life but that first crack of the windshield, it was like something turned in me: I was only supposed to hit it three times, but I must have hit it 20 or 30 times and it just felt better and better the more I kept going into it. It summed it all up for everybody: we were this small crew of people and we weren't there for our paycheck because there wasn't one. When they yelled 'Cut!' it was like, 'Yeah!' It was the Superbowl, it was so exciting."
Larson, who shadowed a care worker in Los Angeles before starting the film, admits that decompressing was problematic during the 20-day shoot. Her coping mechanism was an unexpected one: she would design typefaces. It's been a hobby since she was in her teens; her all-time favourite is a type she created where every letter resembles a 3D mouse hole.
"I made three or four different fonts during Short Term 12 – it was how I'd calm my mind between scenes," she says. "I have graph paper and gel pens and I would do the alphabet: just do 'a' over and over again until I got it perfect and then go to 'b' and then 'c'. I definitely look like a weirdo with scraps of paper everywhere and the alphabet over and over again. But I can't read a book and then jump into this character, so it ends up being the perfect thing for me: it's creative, it keeps my mind active and you get something at the end."
A love of typography, it turns out, is one of the less unusual things about Larson. Born Brianne Sidonie Desaulniers in 1989 to a couple of chiropractors in Sacramento, California, she was shy as a child, but aged six she walked up to her mother as she was washing up and said, "Mom, I know what my dharma is: I'm supposed to be an actor." Larson remembers her mother replying: "'Whoa! Where did you learn the word dharma? Where did you learn the word acting?' She thought I was just repeating something off the TV."
Her parents separated not long afterwards, and Larson – whose main credit at that time was playing a Native American turkey-hunter in her school's Thanksgiving play – moved to Los Angeles with her mother and younger sister. "We had a crappy one-room apartment where the bed came out of the wall and we each had three articles of clothing," says Larson. Her film tastes were precocious for an eight-year-old – Gone With the Wind and Fried Green Tomatoes were favourites – and she struggled to fit in at school.
"I didn't really have friends," she says. "I loved weird movies and I wore bowling shoes and I wanted to think outside of cultural norms even at that age. I went through a phase of eating dinner in the shower, because I thought, 'Why don't we do that?' Then I realised, 'Because it doesn't make any sense.' It doesn't save any time and you can't really get into a steak and baked potato when there's water pouring on you. But my parents were very open because I wasn't interested in doing anything bad, I just wanted to do weird stuff."
Larson was home-schooled for much of her childhood and graduated from high school aged 15 – a year before she released her debut pop album, Finally Out of PE. She is a keen autodidact even now, spending much of her spare time watching online lectures on Coursera and iTunes U. At present, she is taking classes in poetry and Greek mythology and making a "half-assed attempt" at brushing up on French.
Meanwhile, a pattern was emerging with Larson's acting career: "I'd hit the point where I'd go, 'OK, that's it. That's the last dollar. I've got to quit or go to college or whatever.' But that day or the next day, something would happen that would make it strangely apparent I'm supposed to keep doing this a bit longer. It's never failed that the second I hit the last dollar, something turns around."
In recent times, Larson has been saved by the United States of Tara, an acclaimed Showtime TV drama starring Toni Collette, and Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim, which she describes as "a big life-changer for me". Still, Larson concedes that her own stubbornness may be part of the problem.
"I won't do things for money. I can't," she says. "So I'll hold out and say, in my mind, 'There's a really cool diner down the street from my house, they make really good pancakes, I'd be happy doing that. I'd certainly be happier doing that than I would be on a set trying to be, you know, a sexy football coach.' That means some really frugal years, but I don't have kids and I'm fine eating cereal if that's what it takes."
Such an uncompromising stance must make Larson's current success even more gratifying. Short Term 12 won the grand jury narrative feature award and the narrative audience award at the South by Southwest festival, and surpassed expectations at the US box office. She can also be seen in Joseph Gordon-Levitt's impressive directorial debut, Don Jon, which opens in the UK next month. Alongside this, Larson writes and directs her own short films: her first, The Arm, won the jury prize at Sundance, and she is almost finished with a feature draft. If there's time, she wants to release a new EP of music and play some live gigs this year, too.
ILarson is not getting carried away. "This is nice for a moment," she accepts. "Maybe it goes away, but this is the way I've chosen to live: I want to go down or rise up as an artist. I don't want to get swept up in lipstick or whatever the hell."
Short Term 12 is released on 1 November