Guest of Honor

Brie Larson Takes the Lead

The "Room" actress speaks on seeking out roles worth fighting for, the resilience of the human spirit and what it's like to be on a plane when the in-flight movie happens to star you.

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Photo Credit: Larry Busacca/Getty Images

Brie Larson is known for standout character roles in films like “Scott Pilgrim Versus the World,” the Mark Wahlberg drama “The Gambler,” and she played Amy Schumer’s sister in the hit “Trainwreck.” But her latest project is a star turn, in the film “Room.”

In the film she plays a woman, abducted as a teen, who’s kept locked in a shed with the 5-year-old she had with her captor. It won the audience award at the Toronto Film Festival and there is much talk of an Oscar nomination [update: she won Best Actressfor Brie. When Rico spoke with her, he noted the last film she starred in — the indie “Short Term 12” — was also about a woman who protects an endangered kid.

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Brie Larson: I don’t know… I do think part of it’s just a coincidence, but the other part is that… I find it very difficult to wrap my brain around being the lead of a film. It just seems, like, too much of my face out there in the world.

And so there has to be another reason behind it. Like, what’s the reason for being a starring vehicle of something? What’s the purpose of the story? And so in the case of “Short Term 12” and in “Room” and things, I think it’s exploring these themes that are bigger than me and that are worth fighting for.  So it makes that fear I have of exposing myself too much, or falling down a path of vanity, disappear.

Rico Gagliano: That’s interesting though, because you’ve been an actress for most of your life. I think you started at age six or something?

Brie Larson: Yeah, something like that.

Rico Gagliano: It surprises me that it’s difficult for you to put yourself out there. You’ve been doing it most of your life.

Brie Larson: Well, it’s different when you’re a kid. You don’t feel self-conscious in any way. And for… I mean for years of auditioning when I was a kid, I thought that auditioning was the job. I thought that I got the job already. It wasn’t until I was maybe like 11, where suddenly I was like, “Wait a second here. There’s more to this?!?”

Rico Gagliano: “Wait, I’ve now got to actually go and my face gets seen by other people?”

Brie Larson: Well, yes — and then even then, when you’re a kid, it’s like, you’re on a show that’s on past your bedtime. And so you have no sense of you being out there in the world. There was no social media, there was none of this stuff, so you didn’t get this reflection at all. We’ve really turned the volume up on exposure for actors.

Rico Gagliano: Do you remember the first time that you encountered yourself or your work out in the world?

Brie Larson: I’m trying to remember the first time…

Rico Gagliano: It does sound really freaky as I’m talking about it.

Brie Larson: It’s very weird. I mean, I’ll say most recently, I was on a plane. It was a long flight, and “The Gambler” was on the in-flight movie. And I was the sixth person in this row of a family of five. And the dad had seen “The Gambler” twice already, and he just wouldn’t stop talking about how great the movie was.

And he convinced his entire family to watch the movie, and then they spent the remainder of the film making commentary on it. Never realizing that I was sitting next to them. And I just kept my head down and I was journaling.

I realized that like, my hair was the same color, the same length — I had it pulled back and sort of halfway — I had glasses on. And I was tripping out ’cause I was like, “This is the most I’ve ever looked like any of my characters ever, and this person, this whole family, has zero idea!”

And then I got this sort of like, sick thrill out of it.  Of like, “How far can I go with this?” And so I started walking with them to customs as they continued talking about the movie, and they never —

Rico Gagliano: You’re creeping me out now, Brie.

Brie Larson:  — Well, I’m just always afraid of not being anonymous anymore. It’s the big thing that you have to give up, and it’s the hardest one for me personally, because I love the world. And I love to people watch. And I love to be able to notice small encounters. So the idea is so scary to lose that.

Rico Gagliano: And here was an example where it wasn’t happening?

Brie Larson: Oh, it was like… it was such a relief! It was like, “Ah! What a gift.”

Rico Gagliano: Let’s return to this story a little bit. Which is a little bit of a pivot because there are aspects of this film that are so dark.  But they are fascinating. Did you actually research stories of abductions like the one portrayed in the film?

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Photo by George Kraychyk courtesy of A24

Brie Larson: Yeah, I did. I mean, I was able to find out about as much as anybody if you’re sort of deep Googling on subject matter like this. And as the stories become older, they become more open with some of the information, and we even have photos of some of the living situations, which were helpful in some ways.

But truthfully, we’re not telling a true crime story.

Rico Gagliano: Certainly, and the second half of the movie — here’s a spoiler alert by the way — the second half of the movie does not take place in this room, and is about life in the real world.

Brie Larson: Well, that’s in the trailer, so don’t worry. You’re not the one to ruin it for people [laughs].

Rico Gagliano: Good! But I will say… for you, as a person acting this role and researching it… I mean, this is a sort of story that honestly, I’ve avoided learning much about. When I see a little hint about these kind of abductions on TV, I purposefully don’t follow what’s going on because it’s such a nightmarish scenario…

Brie Larson: Yeah.

Rico Gagliano: … So how did steeping yourself in that world affect you?

Brie Larson: Well, I had to just do little tiny bits of research at a time. I mean, I had eight months to really get everything together.  And it was much easier when I was talking with a trauma specialist, because they help people move through this. Not just these particular situations, but you learn about all the different types of trauma that a person can experience.  And then you get to learn about the flip side: That with time, and with the help of the right people, we overcome them.

And so the story, to me, became more exciting when it was about surviving and liberation and this concept that life doesn’t end. It just keeps going. And even when you feel like you’re handed something that is just so painful and so awful and you think, “Well, this is it. How could life possibly go on?” It does.

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Photo by George Kraychyk courtesy of A24

Rico Gagliano: I know that your time is short so I wanna move on to our final questions, which we ask everyone on the show. One of them is: if we were to meet you at a dinner party, what question should we not ask you?

Brie Larson: What would I not want someone to ask me?

Rico Gagliano: Yeah.

Brie Larson: At this point, if I’ve read the book, “Room.”

Rico Gagliano: Oh!  I would think that that would be a given.

Brie Larson: [Laughs.] Thank you for understanding!!! It’s a weird thing when people are like, “What an amazing performance! So, did you read the book?” And you’re like, “What?!? “How could the…”

Rico Gagliano: The author wrote the screenplay!

Brie Larson: “…How is that? How could you?”

Rico Gagliano: I apologize on behalf of journalism.

Brie Larson: [Laughs.] It’s all right.

Rico Gagliano: Our second question is: Tell us something we don’t know.

Brie Larson: Something that you don’t know is… that I do the crossword puzzle every day.

Rico Gagliano: All right.

Brie Larson: New York Times crossword puzzle.

Rico Gagliano: Are you good at it though?

Brie Larson: I can totally get through Monday and Tuesday. Thursday from time to time. Like, last Thursday’s, for example, I wanted to light on fire, I was so upset about it. But my whole thing is you have to finish it. So even if you have to look up a couple of things, then you learn.

Rico Gagliano: [skeptically] All right.

Brie Larson: For me, it’s about learning.

Rico Gagliano: That’s a very positive spin on it. But I’m gonna put it out to our listenership whether that counts.

Brie Larson: I’m not saying that I’m like, the most honest crossword puzzler. Just saying that I enjoy doing them.