Brie Larson On ‘Short Term 12,’ One of the Year’s Best Films

Look out, Cate Blanchett: Brie Larson delivers one of the best performances of the year in the riveting indie drama ‘Short Term 12.’ She tells Marlow Stern about her journey to leading lady.

08.25.13 8:45 AM ET

While it is only late August, much of the Best Actress Oscar chatter among awards pundits has been firmly focused on Cate Blanchett for her manic portrayal of the wife of a fallen financial scion in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. But in this film writer’s opinion, the best female performance so far this year comes courtesy of 23-year-old rising star Brie Larson, whose quietly devastating turn as a supervisor at a foster-care facility for at-risk teens in the indie drama Short Term 12 is nothing short of masterful.

The film is written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton and centers on Grace (Larson), who helps care for the kids in her charge with her longtime boyfriend, Mason, played by The Newsroom’s John Gallagher Jr., and newcomer Nate (Rami Malek). The trio struggle to manage Marcus (Keith Stanfield), an 18 year old from an abusive family who’s about to be discharged, and Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a troubled teenage girl who forms a close bond with Grace, and forces her to come to terms with her own dark past.

Larson got her start as a kid performing in sketches on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and has since gone on to star in the Showtime series The United States of Tara, as well as a plethora of films, including Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, 21 Jump Street, and The Spectacular Now, which is also in theaters. Despite her impressive resume, Larson is devoid of any sort of movie star posturing. She just seems like any normal, if slightly nerdy—in a good way—young woman. We were supposed to meet at a coffee shop off The Ace Hotel in Manhattan but, sensing an unrelaxed vibe, opt for a table at The Breslin, a gastropub adjacent to the hotel.

What sort of research did you do for the role of Grace? I’m going to start out with the most boring question first.

I shadowed at a facility and also spent time doing online research. Reddit was a very good source. They have a slew of in-depth AMAs with people who have the same job as Grace. I’m a bit of a lurker on Reddit. It’s been two or three years. I like weird subreddits. I love Fresco Jesus and Toaster Rights. I like it because it lives and dies by the community and they’re like-minded individuals. Plus, for news, it’s a combination of science, ancient cultures, space, a lot of Edward Snowden, which I’m really interested in right now, and niche-y stuff. Plus… kittens and puppies.

Snowden, eh?

Yeah. The NSA thing is a great example of how effective Reddit is. The information first came out, and then there was a slow release of more, and there was so much that it was tough to understand, so the forum Explain Like I’m Five was a great help, because it just lays it all out for you in a clear, concise manner.

What’s the weirdest thing we’d find on your computer if it was hacked?

Oh, man! I’m not telling. We’ll have to wait till the government releases it.

You seem pretty tech-savvy, but you’re not on Twitter. Why?

A few reasons. I don’t like being able to be reached. I enjoy my solitude. Even people having my phone number seems like too much. And in my job, I think it’s important to keep an air of mystery and not be so accessible. I get uncomfortable and kind of scared sometimes of certain public situations because, since I’ve been on TV or I’ve appeared in some films, people think this boundary between us has been removed, and I owe them something.

What’s the weirdest thing that’s happened?

I’ve had tons of weird incidents. There used to be a guy I ran into on 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica who was dressed all in gold and carried a spray-painted gold backpack. He kept going on and on to me about how he wanted to get in contact with Jay-Z to talk about building mud huts. He was very into gold and believed everything was better gold. I had a P.O. box and he had the address for it, and he started sending me things like disassembled bicycles that were reassembled, tied with hoses, and spray-painted gold, as well as other weird art pieces, and he’d rewrite Jay-Z raps to me as love letters on stacks of construction paper, and every letter of every word was a different color, so he took a lot of time doing it. He said his dream was to build me a castle of gold, and he wouldn’t let me leave or see the light of day. I would just return everything to sender, and closed out the P.O. box. 
Your role in Short Term 12 is a very difficult one—and difficult subject matter. What drew you to the part?

I fell in love with the script but I had never been the lead of anything, and in the past, I wasn’t a big enough name to get a movie financed. I’d never played anything like it before, which is what I’m interested in. But people take comfort in putting people in boxes, because it makes everybody’s jobs easier. I think things should be a little riskier.

There are so many heavy moments in the film. What was the toughest scene to shoot?

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The scene that was hardest to shake off was the scene where Marcus hurts himself. I think that blood is really cool, scientifically, but I want it to stay in our bodies. With nosebleeds, too, I almost faint. Just stay inside. I have a very good idea of what is reality and what is fiction, and it’s taken me a long time to understand that my job is an alternate reality, but in that scene, my brain could not distinguish it was fake blood. We shot it two or three times, and I got really shaken up. It was a really close set, and everyone was very bubbly and would hug each other every day, but that was the only time where it was our last scene of the day, and I just left. I don’t really remember driving home, I had to take a shower, and Grace has a middle-part in her hair while mine is to the side, so I instantly brushed my hair over. One of the producers even called to make sure I got home okay. I just got spooked.

Your character has a nervous tic where she grinds her fingers together, which mirrors the tic of Jayden, one of the more troubled youths whom your character develops a strong relationship with. Do you have any nervous tics?

[Laughs] As you can see, I’m itching my head!

I have this tic where I sometimes curl a lock of my hair above my left ear when I’m bored.

Oh, you curl? I also would keep Zen Magnets with me some of the time and would just play with them under the table while I was talking to people. I need other things to focus on!

This is your first lead role. Had you been jonesing to play the lead for a while?

No. I was actively avoiding it. I guess, now that I think about it more, I wasn’t ready to do it. I didn’t recognize myself as someone who was worthy of being observed for that long.

Has your opinion changed?

Well… I have to listen to myself all day, so it’s not that interesting to me!

Everyone hates the sound of their own voice.

Everyone does. It’s like if you have to listen to one CD for the rest of your life, you’ll hate it very quickly.

Speaking of CDs, you’re a musician and you released one teen-pop album, Finally Out of P.E., in 2005... Why are you grimacing?

Because it’s bad! I’d rather it didn’t exist. It’s not necessarily embarrassing, I just don’t relate to it. It was another period of time, and most of the stuff you can find on the Internet was not my idea, or something that I wanted to do.

There was a lot of label intervention?

Yeah. It’s a big production of a thing, a lot of money, and you have no power whatsoever. The reason why I pursued music is because I thought it would be a creative outlet for me to explore my own mind and take things from inside of me and bring them out, and instead, it turned into someone telling me what I was going to dress like, what the album was going to sound like, what the album artwork was going to look like, and I just felt disgusted because I thought, Well, it’s okay to be different people when I’m playing a character and it’s not my name, but when you’re saying it’s Brie Larson when it’s not, that’s lying, and that’s not right.

Some of the songs off that album, like “Life After You,” seem to be about teenage heartbreak.

I didn’t write that one! The funny thing is, most of those songs, like “Invisible Girl” and others, aren’t even about people but jobs that I didn’t get.

What was one job you really wanted but didn’t get?

The biggest heartbreak was when they remade Peter Pan. I wanted to be Wendy so bad and auditioned for months and months and months and didn’t get it. I was so heartbroken at the time. It was a British version with Jeremy Sumpter. I wanted to fly, you know?

Are we going to see you release some new music soon? And what sorta stuff are you listening to. 

Probably. But the stuff I listen to isn’t necessarily the stuff I’m going to be making. I love Grimes. And I think that pop music is really powerful because of its infectiousness, but I also believe in positive mantras, so the idea of singing along to “We’re gonna die young,” [by Ke$ha] just seems wrong.

That song was released right after the Newtown shooting in Connecticut so she pulled it from the airwaves.

I did not even know that. That is awful. So, I like the idea of exploring pop sounds but with lyrics that are more fulfilling than that.

I’m digging this band Haim right now.

Oh yeah! I’ve known those girls for years. They’re my neighbors.

Get the fuck out of here.

They’d come over to my house and we’d watch, what was it… this terrible TV show that I loved… The Secret Life of the American Teenager! They’d come over to my house and we’d all watch it together, and make crafts.

Wait… and Shailene, the star of that, is your costar in The Spectacular Now. Did you tell her how big of a fan you were?

Yeah, I did. I thought it was fascinating. That show is so bizarre. But it’s no reflection on Shai, I don’t think, because she’s obviously incredibly talented and just the best person.

Short Term 12, of course, is about at-risk teens. What were you like as a teenager?

I was rebellious, but in ways that were bizarre. I was home-schooled and wanted to be an artist, but I didn’t know necessarily what kind, and I lived in a town outside of Los Angeles where there wasn’t a lot of art or culture available to me. So, I wanted to break out of cultural norms. I would eat my meals in the shower, which I discovered doesn’t save any time and isn’t worth trying. I tried to eat a steak and baked potato in the shower, and that’s when I knew it didn’t work.

With a plate and knife and everything?

Yup. You’re holding the plate, and you can’t cut anything, and you can’t shampoo your hair. It just doesn’t work. But the most I ever disobeyed my parents was when my parents went to the movies, and I had this great idea to repaint the living room, so I painted from floor-to-ceiling in big black letters, “I LIKE YOU,” across two walls of the living room. I just thought it was a great idea, and a powerful message. So then my parents just allowed me to express myself creatively—but only in the confines of my bedroom. My bedroom was crazy. All the walls were collaged and painted and covered in quotes.

Do you remember your first AIM screenname?

Oh, it was “THE1CHEESE.” 

That’s good! Some people’s are pretty embarrassing. Now, The United States of Tara, in many people’s opinion, ended too soon. As far as series cancellations go, I had a conversation with Drake where he said that the cast of Degrassi just showed up to work one day and their names were changed on their lockers, and he was shocked.

Degrassi! So incredible. It’s so crazy that he’s a rapper. And he got shot and paralyzed at their quiz show thing! That was crazy. It was crazy that he didn’t die, and just had to spend the next couple of seasons in a wheelchair. But with Tara, I was shooting 21 Jump Street at the time, and I just got a simple email that said, “It’s canceled.” It was such a comfort zone for me, and then you have to go out into the world again and do auditions.

Right. And you’re not in 22 Jump Street…. So what’s next?

I just shot a musical [Basmati Blues] in India that’s about GMOs.

Wait… what?

I play an American scientist who has created this genetically-modified rice, and the head of this Monsanto-esque company is played by Donald Sutherland, so he goes, oh, cool, we’ll send the blond, white girl to India. So I get sent over there, and it’s about the effect that GMOs have on the planet, and also the deep traditions and rich cultural history of India, and a woman who needs to just let go of her logical existence.

With Short Term 12, I don’t want to jinx you, but…

Are you knockin’ on brass?

I’m knockin’ on brass. There’s some serious buzz about your performance in this.

Don’t talk about it, man! It’s not real, that’s the Matrix!