Interview: 'Short Term 12' star Brie Larson on the performance many see as award-worthy

Brie Larson (left) in 'Short Term 12'

Brie Larson (left) in 'Short Term 12' (September 3, 2013)

Some six months before the Oscars, nomination forecasters have already asked “Short Term 12” star Brie Larson if she’s picked out her dress.

“I’ve already picked out my wedding dress,” the actress deadpans about the absurdity of these questions. “I’m not currently with anyone, but I definitely have my wedding dress picked out.”

The exuberant line of questioning isn’t surprising, though. Larson’s so good in the SXSW top prize-winning “Short Term 12,” opening Friday, that anyone who sees it will probably think, “This movie is small, but acting this phenomenal can’t be overlooked, can it?” In the year’s best performance so far, Larson (“The Spectacular Now,” “21 Jump Street”) plays Grace, a supervisor at a foster care facility. On top of the challenges of overseeing kids looking for their place in the world, Grace faces both an unexpected pregnancy (with her boyfriend/colleague Mason, played by John Gallagher Jr. of “The Newsroom”) and Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a new resident at Short Term 12 who sparks memories of events Grace has tried to forget.

Having already won Best Actress at Switzerland’s Locarno Film Festival, Larson’s been doing so much press for the film that when I promise some fresh questions, she responds, “Oh my gosh. You are a god. Thank you. Thank you.” She’s been asked constantly about two narratives that won’t go away: how she grew up in the spotlight (she began acting at 6 and as a kid starred in films including “Sleepover” and “Hoot”) and the impending awards attention.

“Both are pretty exhausted at this point,” the 23-year-old actress says by phone from New York with a laugh. “The awards thing, it’s very nice. I have no idea what to say about it though. I know how to talk about what it was like to be me as a child. I don’t know what it’s like to talk about this magical, intangible thing … all of [the awards questions] are pretty outrageous just because I never in my wildest dreams assumed that that would be a question or a statement for that matter.”

In fact, she says it’s easier to hear that she’s terrible than that she’s great. Somehow, it’s what she expects.

“I’m very hard on myself and I enjoy getting notes. I enjoy refining things and working on things and working toward something,” she says. “So as nice as it is to hear compliments, I wait for the constructive criticism.”

She’s thoughtful in a way feels intelligent, not self-important. She recommends a documentary (“Resurrect the Dead”) about the mysterious, encrypted Toynbee tiles spotted around the country and in South America. She wishes an affecting lead role for a woman that doesn’t hinge on a roughed-up appearance (a la Charlize Theron in “Monster”) were the norm, not the exception. She’s fascinated by the brain’s ability to filter, “much like when you start searching stuff on Amazon and suddenly it pulls up the things that they think you’ll like based on the things you liked before.”

Speaking of past experience: She made a conscious effort not to be consumed by the emotional depths of “Short Term 12.” It was a lesson learned from observing a real-life foster care line staff (about whom she feels uncomfortable telling specific stories) and from a particularly difficult experience during an intense, early-morning scene while working with Woody Harrelson in “Rampart.”

“By the time my scene was done I was back in my car at about noon, and I remember my car being really hot from it being outside all day and sitting there still crying and still upset over this scene that I had done,” she recalls. “I didn’t know what else to do with the rest of my day. I bought myself an ice cream cone. I think even then I was trying to figure out this process that I’ve refined more now. It would take a while to get out of it. You start to stir up all these things in order to get you in this place where your character’s really struggling or fighting, and then it’s hard in those moments for your brain to distinguish between reality and fiction.”

“So instead of it being something that I did when things got too hairy, it just became part of an everyday process … Because there’s just no way you can get through working at a facility like that every day for years unless you know how to separate yourself from it.”

For research, she applied for related volunteer opportunities but was rejected because she wouldn’t be in Georgia long enough. It was Larson’s “first clue” about the importance of routine for kids in foster care. On set, however, Larson was impressed that some of her co-stars could so easily go in and out of intense scenes without needing time and space. “Right out of the gate, it was so moving,” she says, “And it becomes really emotional for the Brie in me, not the Grace, to get so moved and caught up in it because you’re just not expecting it to happen so quickly and so easy.”

The California native values surprise, so much that Larson (who played a rock goddess in “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”) won’t give any hints about her upcoming album, a resurrection of a career that generated 2005’s “Finally Out of P.E.” (“You’ll just have to listen and find out, won’t you?,” she says.) I ask if she feels proud of the shock someone who has only seen her as the au pair on “The League” will feel when Larson blows their mind in “Short Term 12.” She laughs.

“I think surprises are a really wonderful part of life and really fun. If I can be a surprise then that’s great too. There is thought put into the care and the idea that each role I play I have a connection to, but as far as the bigger journey of it, I don’t have much control over that.”

This isn’t the first starring role that’s been offered her. Larson brushes it off. She doesn’t have a drive to be the center of attention. “Short Term 12” was just a story she wanted to tell, and she doesn’t care if she headlines another movie ever again. “I like the chameleon-ness that I am able to take on by being an actor,” she says.

Her aversion to revealing too much about herself, and to the more celebrity-focused aspects of the entertainment industry, recall statements from her recent co-stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt (“Don Jon”), Shailene Woodley (“The Spectacular Now”) and Jonah Hill (“21 Jump Street”). Is that something stars talk about together, or only when journalists bug them? Larson’s answer is spot-on:

“Uh … I don’t know … is that mysterious enough?”

Plus:
Larson’s “Don Jon” co-star/director Joseph Gordon-Levitt on what makes Larson great: “I loved Brie. She’s so good in this movie. Talk about being unique--she’s someone who clearly does not give a [bleep] about what she’s supposed to be as a young woman or as an actress or as an any kind of artist. She’s really doing her own thing. Whether it’s her music or the short films she’s making or really interesting choices she’s making as an actress, you just talk to her for a little while and you really get a sense of this unique person ... She and I were talking about Buster Keaton in reference to her role in ‘Don Jon.’ To communicate so much with just a quick look, she does that really well in this movie.”

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

 

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