Brie Larson’s Hollywood Transformation

After starring in The United States of Tara and Short Term 12, the ex-teenybopper is ready for her close-up as the female lead in The Gambler, opposite Mark Wahlberg.

Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

Last August, I met Brie Larson at a gastropub in the Flatiron District of Manhattan, and over the course of an hour, we shot the shit about her breakout performance as a counselor for at-risk teens who’s running from her own dark past in Short Term 12, Reddit, Edward Snowden, and her play-dates with her neighbors—the gals from Haim—where they’d make crafts and obsess over The Secret Life of the American Teenager. She was, excuse the cliché, a breath of fresh air; a wholly unpretentious and unrehearsed young actress on the cusp of stardom.

What a difference a year-plus makes.

It’s always a bit of a chore interviewing an actor, actress, or filmmaker at a press junket. That cringe-worthy “Horse and Hound Magazine” scene in Notting Hill isn’t entirely inaccurate. The scene is always the same: a sanitized, characterless hotel suite in Midtown Manhattan (or The Crosby in SoHo, if it’s an edgier indie). There’s a check-in suite with coffee and snacks, and then a studio publicist (headset optional) grabs you and ushers you into a room where your subject awaits. Inside, you’re given anywhere between 15 and 30 minutes where you hastily navigate through a minefield of canned answers and flippant remarks, with the goal of striking up a conversation-in-miniature and extracting some “newsy” pearls.

I’m here at this innocuous high-rise hotel to interview Larson for her turn in The Gambler, Rupert Wyatt’s remake of the 1974 James Toback drama that features Mark Wahlberg as a self-destructive gambler who moonlights as a college literature professor. When he racks up debts with some seedy characters, including a bevy of scary Asians and a fantastically ribald (and bald) John Goodman, his student/lover (Larson) finds herself at risk of being collateral damage. Larson, as usual, instills gravitas and agency in an otherwise underwritten character.

About 45 minutes past our interview time, the studio flack summons me. When I enter the suite, I see her personal publicist (who was nowhere to be found last year) sitting on the floor fiddling with her iPhone and covered in wires. It’s always a major red flag—and a ridiculous imposition—when the publicist is in the room with you during the interview, both to monitor their client so they don’t slip up and say something bold and opinionated, and to cut you off if one of your questions rubs them the wrong way. In general, their presence is meant to throw you off your game by design.

Over the course of several weeks, I came to an agreement with the film's publicists that my interview with Larson would be 25 minutes in length. These negotiations are not uncommon on junketed studio films. I’d requested a half-hour, the maximum during these junkets, and Larson's personal PR countered with 10 (a wholly unmanageable number that's usually only requested by the publicists of mega-stars like George Clooney). Weeks of bazaar-like haggling and we’d finally landed on 25.

Things start off fine. We discuss Taylor Swift’s star-studded birthday party the previous evening that boasted the likes of Jay Z, Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake, and—yes—her pals, the sisters Haim. “I wasn’t invited!” says a chuckling Larson. “We don’t know each other, sadly.”

We move on to how her career’s changed since I last interviewed her for Short Term 12. Larson’s layered, dynamic performance in the film received unanimous praise, including an Independent Spirit Award nod for Best Actress, a Gotham Award win, and many critics championing her as an Oscar snub. The exposure and buzz from Short Term have raised her profile considerably. When I spoke to Mark Wahlberg late last year for Lone Survivor, he sang the praises of Short Term 12, calling her a “fantastic” actress. As a producer on The Gambler, he read a bunch of women for the female lead, and settled on Larson. She also has a main role as the sister opposite Amy Schumer’s lead in the Judd Apatow flick Trainwreck, hitting theaters July 17.

“That was my first lead,” Larson says of Short Term 12. “It’s changed in that now I’m doing projects that still fall into the same moral code that I have, while having more time and support. Short Term 12 was such a marathon. It’s like trying to convey the same emotional depth as The Gambler but with less time and a fingernail’s worth of the budget. So it’s nice to be working on projects now where I have the time to explore it and flesh it out completely, as opposed to playing the most rapid game of tennis.” Can you describe what your “moral code” is?

“I care about what the universal sense of the film is,” she says. “I love mythology and folklore, and I respect the time, money, and opportunity that a film gives to an audience. It’s a chance to empathize, reflect, and learn, so I really want to understand before I sign onto a project: What’s the potential of this thing? What are we seeing, and learning? What are we empathizing to?’”

In that pub, her thoughts were incisive, but on this day, she’s answering everything in very broad, prepared strokes.

The Cliff’s Notes? Larson doesn’t see any point to gambling, she views The Gambler—and Wahlberg’s character—as optimistic, and she spent nine months speaking to trauma experts for a film she’s shooting now, Room, where she plays an Ariel Castro-esque victim who’s trapped in a shed for years.

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Then Larson’s publicist chimes in and says I have two more minutes. My voice recorder says it’s only been a shade over 10. I say it’s supposed to be 25, but she’s firm and entirely unsympathetic. “It’s 15 minutes now,” she says sternly, and coldly. “We just don’t have enough time.”

We spent the remainder of our time discussing how roles have improved for young women in Hollywood; they’re no longer limited to the ingénue, but can now be kick-ass heroes and/or plumb the emotional depths of characters.

“I’ve been so impressed by the material that’s been sent to me, but I don’t think that’s because it’s me,” she says. “There are a lot of women right now who are stepping forward and doing roles that are complicated, dynamic, raw, vulnerable, and strong. So collectively, it creates a demand that’s being met. It’s come into a new age, it seems. And I’m very excited about it. I find it comforting to be in an industry where I’m not alone.”

The mediocrity of this exchange isn’t entirely Larson’s fault. Junkets are a total chore, those bland, white-walled surroundings suck the life out of every conversation, and a publicist lording over the interview never bodes well. And, hey, maybe she wasn't having the best day herself. But this is also what happens sometimes to actresses (and journalists) when someone hits it big.

Last week, I met Ethan Hawke for coffee in his neighborhood of Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, and we chatted for over an hour about every subject under the sun, from his thoughts on Jennifer Lawrence and achieving success too young to making a living in Hollywood. That was unfiltered, and fun.

This was not.