Brie Larson’s character Grace in “Short Term 12” certainly fits her name, but it’s far from glamorous. She spends most of the movie in frumpy clothes and flat hair, dealing with bodily fluids, emotional violence and the repetitious difficulties of supervising at-risk youths at a foster care facility. As Grace deals with her own demons, she’s works daily with the demons of the kids who land in her care, arriving from the hands of deadbeat dads, abusive mothers, mental health institutions and other unfortunate homes of circumstance.
But to present Grace’s character in any other fashion than frustrating, redemptive and harshly unsexy would cause the movie to fail, and fail it does not. Larson’s portrayal of her emotional role helped subtly open up topics of psychological care and child services in America, for instance, without bashing away the film’s beautiful character portraits.
“Short Term 12” is just one of the many varied roles the 23-year-old actress has picked up; her stints lately have been in Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “Don Jon,” her stop on NBC’s “Community,” 2012’s “21 Jump Street” and the forthcoming musical film “Basmati Blues.”
Larson and I spoke by phone last week, on the eve of the release of “Short Term 12,” out in theaters this past Friday. Below is our abridged interview, on shadowing at a foster care facility, to tapping in (and out) emotionally as an actress, letting go with cheesy pasta and women’s roles.
HitFix: After I watched this movie I felt like, hey, I’m gonna go sit in my car and cry for about 20 minutes, or that I wanted to talk to my friends for just as long about it. On your viewing of the final version of the film, what kind of emotions did you feel about it? Can you talk about knowing when to implement your emotions when you shoot? Let’s just talk about feelings.
Brie Larson: I know! And unfortunately none of those are questions that I can really answer. I don’t think those are things I am supposed to answer. I think an artist does not reveal his secrets, especially when it comes to the emotional dance of the film. Like, you would enjoy a magic show and then afterwards wait for a Q&A, and it doesn’t work that way. That stuff is all part of some sort of weird process. Even if I tried to talk to you about it, I don’t know if I would know how to. It’s just a weird thing.
The movie, it’s been incredible. It was such a wonderful process to make and felt extremely open and loving and empowering and exciting every day. And I felt totally respected and capable and just loved and it was a great team that we were working with. And I felt like by the time we were done shooting we could have done five more of them.
It’s strange and miraculous and also incredibly inspiring what this movie has brought out for so many different types of people. The most exciting part is the fact that it’s not just for people that are familiar with this world or this facility, but it gets into a much bigger picture of human emotion and human connection and love. That’s been really exciting. It has a transient feel to it that can hit you. It’s so ecstatic, it can hit you from every angle if done right. It’s the perfect recipe. It is just the best cake ever.
I’m sure people can’t resist themselves to talk to you after a screening, especially with just kind of their understanding of such a realistic character as Grace is in this film. What have been some of the funny or odd things or touching things that people have said to you after seeing this film?
I think there have been two reactions that I find really interesting. There are some people who it’s very – it becomes very important part of their experience to see me and the kids afterwards to know that we’re okay. It’s like they have such an intense connection with all of us by the end of the movie that they need that confirmation. There is another reaction that people have, which is that they think that it is either a documentary or that part of it is a documentary.
Especially when we’ve shown it internationally, there’s some certain aspects of the film that are not obvious — people that don’t speak English don’t [necessarily] fully understand or gonna know who I am, an actress. They’re not gonna know any of us or our background. So it’s interesting, the first time it played in Switzerland was the first international screening I went to. There were a lot of women who — though they couldn’t speak English very well — we’re trying to say to me, “That’s you, that’s you.” I thought they were trying to confirm that I was the person [playing Grace] in the movie, but in reality what they’re trying to ask me is if I really am that person, if my name is Grace, if I worked at this facility. And I think that’s…
Yeah. I think it’s really awesome because I’m not Grace. I’m nothing like Grace. I don’t have the experience that Grace has had, so I did my job.
In the movie, were there particular scenes or stories that resonated with you as a person in real life? Did your performance have any impression on it due to any feelings or personal experiences with some of the things that were happening in this movie?
I can’t really answer that, but I will say that it’s a lot for a human being to be the emotional vessel for somebody like Grace — who is struggling but is also doing really exhausting act of trying to cover it up so that nobody knows what’s going on. So in the film, you watch it for an hour, but in reality I was doing that for 12 hours a day for two weeks. So it takes such an emotional toll and I know for the greater good of the story I can’t indulge in those emotions on camera but you want to just break out and go nuts, when you feel like you were about to crazy and then someone said, “Here’s a baseball bat, go smash this car.” That was a testament I think to really great scheduling.
I definitely had the opportunity to let off that steam because I think it’s really important for an actor to really understand the difference between what I’m emotionally going through — which is still my body and my mind — but to not take those on and to not bring my own past. Because otherwise people [would] need to watch my therapy sessions. I feel like that’s a little selfish. That’s not servicing the story, not necessarily servicing Grace. That’d be servicing myself and that’s not what I want to do.
There’s a lot of different character pieces and stories going on in this, and it all has to be kind of achieved within the two weeks that we see of Grace’s life. Do you feel like there is a woman’s story here that you wish more people could see, for more people to be able to experience specifically because of it’s woman’s perspective?
Of course. Well, I could talk about and focus all day long about the female aspect of movie-making and how terribly underwritten most roles are. But I also think that you can ask a 23 old male about the roles that are acting right now and they would say that they’re terribly underwritten.
But, yes, I think females are underwritten. I think that the business side of the industry believes that, in order to make money, we have to do things that are beautiful and that have colors that are catchy on a poster and are sexual, these things that tap into the needy side inside of our brain instead of mining these opportunities in order to exercise our brains a little bit.
Give us the problems that are leaving us in our car for 20 minutes after the movie to think about because we don’t even know what it is we’re feeling but we’re feeling something. I think that this film, yes, is definitely a very complicated journey for a female. But I also think that if you squint your eyes a little bit it could be a male very easily.
I think the beautiful aspect of it is that these characters are actually not gender-specific to me when I look at the kids. I think that we’re talking about… the human struggle of the planet. Those things are so incredibly important because how else are we going to learn and learn how to talk about things if we don’t get the chance to observe it and get this weird almost voyeuristic view into it?
But I also feel like motherhood and raising children also played a part in how emotional this film is, and how it affected your role. Did you feel the same way?
Yeah, yeah, definitely. I shadowed at a facility and you spend time with kids that are actually in this facility and you just – my mind couldn’t even really process upon first listening of these kids”s stories because they’re so much, much crazier. So much crazier and more intense than anything that we’ve even seen in a movie. You couldn’t, you just can’t, you wouldn’t believe the things that these kids have been through and can’t believe that human beings — at this point in 2013 — that we’re still capable of just negativity and ignorance. So that was certainly something that played into it.
I mean, I have fear that if I don’t smile at the person in back of Trader Joe’s that I’m gonna, like, ruin their day. But once you start to get into that more, and you realize just how interconnected we all are really are.
I like that the movie opens and ends with storytelling. [The audience] doesn’t even have to say anything, you just have to listen, which I think is a really beautiful telling of a very real reality about childcare, federal and psychological treatment of children who are troubled. I was wondering if there is any specific instances or ideas in the ways that this film was shot that you, as a filmmaker yourself, feel like you’re gonna take it to your future projects?
The thing that has still stuck with me and has become a huge part of my daily practice — and this is something that I didn’t understand so clearly until I was shadowing at the facility — was in watching this incredibly brave and strong woman who was working the same job as Grace, and had been doing it for 20 years or something. And she just instinctually knew exactly when to push forward, when to let off the gas with these kids and was just dealing with so much emotion. I couldn’t even believe it. And after a couple hours my jaw being open of how do you do this I asked her, “How do you do this?” And she said, “You let go.”
When you’re there and you’re on it and you’re working, you focus on that and you put everything into it and you fight and you do the best you can. But then when your time is up, you go home and you don’t keep fighting anymore. You decompress, you let go, you forgive yourself for the mistakes that had happened during that day. And for me it was having cheesy pasta and playing video games or watching “SNL” or whatever.
You got to close the laptop lid.
Exactly. You can’t keep all the tabs open and all of your applications running, you have to pare it down. So that became a huge part of the practice and I think really saved myself in the end from personally spiraling due to the material that I was dealing with everyday.
You’ve done some wonderful movies and television projects lately that you seem to have some flexibility to move between TV, indies, theater, bigger movies. Do you give special considerations to the mediums in which you’re working? Do you think of TV as acting in one way and indie a different way, or if it really does all depend on the script?
Well, the script is incredibly important. However, it’s also a lot of different factors. Much like if you really get into how any plant grows it’s a miracle that anything happens because it takes so many miniscule and many different things in order for a blossom to happen. But it’s the script and it’s also the team and how the project is going to be executed is a huge part of it. If somebody said, “We want to paint a 60-foot canvas painting in a 4 foot room,” you’d know right away that that’s gonna be a struggle. It’s almost mathematical on that end of it. And it just takes conversation and asking for the things that you need.
So the more time you spend doing it the more you know what your personal terms and conditions are and what you need in order to do a good job. And if you’re working with people that want to do a good job then none of that stuff is difficult then.
I’d say there’s more of a difference between a play and movie to TV than there is between TV and movies. But there’s something involved in the repetition of things that require something different from me in order to sign onto a script. Like a play would need to be something that I could consistently find new discoveries in that I wanted to do because I’m not just going to sign on to do the same performance every night for six months. And a film has to be something that there’s a reason why we’re capturing it on film and the way that that’s going to be shot and the way that the days are going to be structured and the space that I’ve given in order to do it I need to do exist.
Tell me about your next projects, then?
The next project that I just completed takes place in India and I play a scientist who creates a genetically modified rice with her father, played by Scott Bakula, and Donald Sutherland is our boss and he sends me to India to sell this genetically modified rice to the rural farmer’s in India. And I think I’m doing a service but in the end I realize that what works great in a test tube does not do so great when it comes to lives and the planet. And there’s a little love story and there’s some action and the music.
So that”s “Basmati Blues.” You”re going to be using your musical talents in that one, right?
Yeah. Because it’s a musical, so I sing and dance and play guitar and do all the things.
And have you improved as a musician over that process?
I just practice. I’ve been playing guitar since I was 12 so I mean I was a little rusty but you just practice. I didn’t have a lot of background in dancing, but I didn’t decide to do a musical because I wanted the world to see what a great singer and dancer I was. I did it because there is an important message about human existence that involves being able to step away from all of the heady stuff and learning to sing and dance along the way. And I want to give the feelings of spontaneity and freedom. It’s not about doing specific pop and lock routines; it’s more of the incredible ability that these bodies have that we should use ’em while we got ’em.