When the novel Room came out in 2010, it was praised for showing the incomprehensible horror of abduction and imprisonment through the redemptive eyes of a 5-year-old boy, Jack, being kept prisoner alongside his mother, who was kidnapped when she was 19 years old. But when its author, Emma Donoghue, adapted the book into a film, Jack’s mother, Ma — who on the page is only seen through the eyes of her son — became a far more fleshed-out, complicated character. And much of the success of Room the movie is owed to Brie Larson, the 26-year-old actress who turns Ma into a sort of Ur-mother, grappling with all that’s beautiful and brutal about raising a child in a flawed world. We caught up with Larson to discuss the challenges of acting in close quarters, the grueling toll of her work, and trying to win the affection of her young co-star over Legos.
You have two very unique challenges in this movie: The first is that you spend the whole first hour acting in a very small space — a garden shed. What was that like for you as an actor, having to use that space so carefully?
Everything in the room felt like it had to have a story. Every little centimeter of that space was thought about. Jacob [Tremblay, who plays Jack] and I did a lot of drawings to put on the walls, and we built all the toys that you see in there. By the time it came to shooting, we had really created this space that represented us. The tricky part was that the concept is it’s a small space for two people, and that doesn’t include a crew of six filming these two people. It’s just the two. So it was really tight, and you always felt like you were in the way. You were constantly getting a door slammed in your face, or someone stepping on your foot, or being elbowed. And because we were shooting in chronological order, there was this real, palpable anticipation for the escape sequence because everybody wanted to be done. Everyone was like, "We’ve got to get out of this, it’s just too small a space." And I remember thinking, I don’t know if that’s the answer. Sure enough, after the escape sequence we’re in the world, and there’s tons of space, but that space is a snowstorm in Toronto in the dead of winter, and we’re shooting outside, and there’s night shoots, and you’re doing all the things that are hard on a movie set. Within a week everyone’s saying, "I really wish we were back in [the] room, I really wish we were back on that soundstage where we were shooting for eight hours a day."
The other thing, of course, is working with Jacob Tremblay, who plays Jack, so extensively. Did you guys have time to rehearse? How did you get to know each other?
We met in Toronto three weeks before we started shooting, at a pizza parlor for lunch. He had these little Star Wars Lego figurines, and so I started asking him about Star Wars. It’s a tricky thing, those first initial meetings, because they really are important. There’s a lot of anticipation about, is this going to work, are these two going to get along, but you can’t throw yourself at this kid, you can’t tell him how important it is that we get along, because that’s too much pressure, it would just stress them out. You have to let it happen. After I talked to him a little bit about Star Wars, he invited me over to play Lego. I went over that night and played with him for maybe an hour. He was mostly quiet, but every so often he would ask me, “What’s your favorite animal?” “I like red pandas.” “Hm.” He’d really take in all of my answers. Like, that my favorite color was blue, you could see him cataloguing it and assessing what kind of person I was. What Ninja Turtle was my favorite — these were make-or-break questions.
A lot of pressure.
A lot of pressure. After that first night he was like, “Will you come back tomorrow?” “Sure.” I remember walking down the hallway thrilled, just elated. I had never wanted to be accepted so badly by anybody as I wanted to be accepted by him. And then I was, laughing to myself thinking, He’s not thinking about this. I’m just so over the moon that he thinks I’m cool, and there’s no way he’s sitting there while he’s playing with his Legos, going, Gosh, I hope Brie liked me, I felt pretty silly about when I told her that story about chasing my sister with the seaweed, I hope she didn’t think that I was a fool. He’s not losing sleep over me, but meanwhile, I was quite stressed.
And you compare that to how the kids in Short Term 12 probably felt about you, where they were at the age where I’m sure they were thinking about those things.
Totally. They were preteens and teenagers, that’s all they’re doing. But with Short Term 12 we didn’t have any rehearsal time, so there was no time to get that deep into it. It was just day one, rolling right into it.
When Room moves out of the room and you are now in the world, and your character’s suffering under the pressures of that and her new reality — the audience thinks you’re supposed to be happy, but you’re sad. Was that harder than being in the room?
Yeah. In talking with trauma specialists, there was one guy in particular I spent a lot of time talking with, and he was like, "In that space, she’s in survival mode, she’s not going to really understand what’s going on." You shut off certain things in your brain, you shut off certain things in your body, you become rather numb to the experience. It’s not until you’re out, you’re in this safe quote-unquote space, that then the brain’s going to go, great, you know where your food’s going to come from, you know that you have a safe bed to sleep in where you’re not going to be harmed, you know your child is safe — but how do you feel about this stuff that happened three weeks ago? And it’s going to start to come up. I knew that that was going to be the real marathon for me, after we got out of [the] room, dealing with the emotional intensity and being able to keep up with it. I remember by the end of Short Term 12, I was just emotionally exhausted by how much I had to put out in a day.
So I had to go into Room knowing that I would have to find another way to sustain that. It took a lot of trying to stay rested, trying to stay hydrated. I used to write lists of “Me” and of “Ma” so I could really clearly see for myself the difference between the two of us, because when you start to play a character for more hours than you’re yourself, your brain just starts rewiring. It’s like, Oh, okay, we’re doing this now. Oh, okay, so we’re just, like, afraid of men, okay, let’s do that. You have to really take the time afterwards to go like, No, those are not going to connect together, I am not that person. I am Brie, this is Ma — I am telling her story, but that’s not mine. You really have to create these clear distinctions in order to not get carried away with it.
You’ve already accumulated some intense movies.
There is a lot of intensity in my body. [Laughs.]
That’s good! That’s a useful skill to have. So, this is a movie about a young mother and motherhood, but it’s also about the societal expectations of motherhood. What do you think the movie has to say about what American society and society in general expects of mothers? Because the movie kind of seems to be saying that people want you to be this invincible hero.
Or perhaps the term hero is a little out of date in its definition, and there’s a different way of going about it. I found that one of the things I was most interested in in this movie was the opportunity to be my mother, and see what worked and what didn’t. There were many times over the course of the movie where I felt humbled to the point of being on my knees, crying, calling my mother, saying, "I am so sorry, I am so sorry I didn’t understand, I am so sorry I talked back to you as a teenager because you said no to me, I am so sorry for not knowing." I felt like there are some real magical, mysterious ways of being a mother that even I cannot express — I was able to touch upon it in this movie, but since I’m not a mother, I cannot expect it to be a perfect representation. We don’t have to live in a world where everyone reacts perfectly the first time around, and if you don’t, everything falls apart and no one speaks to you ever again.
That’s a lot of what I think this movie is: to see the different ways we can be human beings in relation to one another, and the unbelievable amount of work and expectation that’s required of a mother to explain what the world is, and to do it the right way at the right time, and to know what’s right for your child at every second of the day — it’s impossible. But I am blown away that my mom even tried, and she did a pretty damn good job. It’s unbelievable. After doing the movie I’m like, I’ve got to give props to her every day of her life. Just to say, like, yeah, I’m going to have a kid and try — that’s a lot. [Laughs.]
Did the movie change your feelings toward your own possible motherhood?
I feel like it did, but in a positive way. I spent so much time with Jacob that a lot of the things that are the unknowns about motherhood that seem so terrifying, like, what if I say the wrong thing, or what if my bad habits go on to my kid — you realize that kids are really resilient, and they have an incredible ability to see the world in a much lighter way than we do. Give them some space, they’re going to figure it out. I found it to be a really rewarding experience hanging out with Jacob every day and getting the opportunity to see the world again. Even the opportunity to do all this crazy press stuff — I get to do it with him. I could be dripping in diamonds talking about Porsches, but at the end of the day, all he cares about is when we’re going to see a cougar. He brings everything back down to this place that is where we want to live. He’s a great reminder.