The most cathartic movie-going moment of 2015 washes over you in the credits roll aftermath of Room, the indie darling and Oscar hopeful about a young kidnap victim, her 5-year-old son, and the 10-foot-square prison they call home. After spending two hours with Ma (Brie Larson) and Jack (Jacob Tremblay)—first in the tiny shed Jack was born into, then in the expansive, overwhelming, disorienting universe beyond its walls—escaping the darkness of a theater into the brightness of the real world feels like taking your first breath again.
Plenty of sniffles and tears come as you watch Room, too. It’s one of the most common reactions director Lenny Abrahamson’s been hearing since the film debuted at Telluride and Toronto last month, and one he takes with a pinch of pride. “There’s good weeping and there’s bad weeping, but I think we’re on the good weeping side of things,” he said during a recent chat in Los Angeles. “People come out and say, ‘I cried 10 times,’ and I say, ‘Thank you?’ But I think it’s good weeping.”
Adapted by author Emma Donoghue from her own acclaimed best-seller, Room is the most emotionally raw tearjerker of the year. Right now, it’s also the leading underdog of the awards season. Irish filmmaker Abrahamson (Frank) directs with sensitivity and wonderment, capturing the alternately heartbreaking and life-affirming story of a mother and child enduring the unfathomable: living in and escaping from the tiny prison they’ve known for seven years.
“You watch this boy and your heart just goes out to him,” Abrahamson said of Room’s innocent young protagonist. You see his mother and you identify with her, whether you’re a woman or a man or if you have kids or you don’t. And so people’s reactions are strong because they don’t feel they’ve been manipulated. I think that’s great, because the conventional wisdom is that if you want to get through to an audience you’ve got to play the movie game and do it the way it’s always done. Here, you just find a way to tell a story that finds an honest way to present these people.”
For his five years on Earth, the precocious Jack has only known the tiny room he shares with his Ma. Everything in it, from the dresser to the stove to the skylight up above, constitutes the entirety of his known universe. He doesn’t know that his Ma, whose real name is Joy Newsome, was once a happy teenager with her own parents and her own blissful life before she was held captive and impregnated by the man they call “Old Nick,” the volatile kidnapper who sometimes visits them with supplies and toys.
Donoghue wrote her 2010 novel inspired by Austrian kidnap survivor Elisabeth Fritzl. While the world pondered the horrors Fritzl and her seven children endured during two decades of imprisonment, Donoghue wondered what effect that grim circumstance might have on a parent and child within and outside of Room.
Larson turns in a career-best performance as Ma/Joy, a young woman who has had to sublimate her own desperation and fears to survive, and whose fierce devotion to her son saves them both. The actress, who many thought deserved an Oscar nod for her turn in 2013’s Short Term 12, is making up for it this year by leading the Best Actress field. Tremblay has a good chance of joining her in the awards race in either the Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor category.
“It’s fabulous, because I think he deserves it,” praised Abrahamson, who cast Tremblay after an exhaustive search for a young performer who could either make or break the project. “There’s a genuine question to be asked at the beginning of that process: Is there a child who will look plausibly 5 and still be able to do this? It’s a really, really meaty role, it’s not just that he has to look cute and natural.”
“You can’t turn away from that performance,” he added. “It tickles me to see him on the same lists with these well-known actors. But you wouldn’t put Jake on a [awards season] panel, for example, because it wouldn’t be fair. It probably wouldn’t be fair to the other actors either. But if it’s talent you’re talking about, that’s there in a big way, and in a lovely little boy as well.”
In person Tremblay is as open and energetic as his character, focused but animated when we met in Beverly Hills amid a flurry of interviews he’s doing for Room. I asked how his trip is going while he’s been in town with his parents for the Los Angeles premiere.
“I’ve been doing work, like lots of these interviews,” he declared with straightforward clarity, his voice high and lilting, his posture well-mannered with his father and publicist sitting nearby out of earshot. “I’ve not done very much, but I’ve done interviews today. I think I have a premiere coming up and it’s for Room, and it’s going to be very exciting. I love it, because then we get to talk about it and bring up our memories together.”
At 8, the Vancouver native already has a dozen screen projects to his name. He remembers getting his start in commercials—his sisters are also child actors working in film and TV—and reminds me that he’d already done two films before being cast in Room.
“It was actually my third movie so I was actually pretty used to it,” he said. “I didn’t quite know what acting was when I was little. I thought everything was real. That’s why kids have lots of bad dreams when they are little, because they think they’re real. But my mom explained to me how monsters aren’t real and how it’s all acting. It’s fake.”
The Room role was an intensely demanding one; told from Jack’s point of view, it required Tremblay to be in nearly every scene, to veer from boisterous to contemplative, often captured in dreamy stillness. He and Larson formed a close bond on set, playing together and crafting the whimsical homemade decorations that give life to Ma and Jack’s room themselves. Between takes, Abrahamson notes, Larson was invaluable in reining Tremblay’s rambunctious energy in and preparing him for scenes with a quiet whisper before the cameras rolled.
“When I first met Brie I was very, very shy,” Tremblay remembered. “But my mom had this idea that she could come over and we could get to know each other a little bit more, so we got to know each other a little bit more. We played games together, and we became best friends.”
They bonded by playing LEGO, one of Tremblay’s favorite pastimes. He explained how he would prepare for scenes on set with help from Larson and Abrahamson. “I would sit down and think, ‘OK, this is what’s happening.’ Brie would help me and would say, ‘OK, Jack’—I mean Jake—well, she would say Jack because she was preparing me. ‘OK, Jack,’ and she’d tell me what’s happening in this scene to remember it, and the director did this too, and I’d do a good job!”
Tremblay described Jack’s arc as follows: “I wouldn’t say that Jack is going through that much, because he sort of doesn’t really doesn’t know what’s happening in the story right now,” he said, thoughtfully. “So I guess he’s really just confused and scared and doesn’t know what’s happening. He’s kind of exhausted, a little bit. He’s like, ‘What’s happening?’”
He searched for an example to illustrate Jack’s state upon leaving Room. “He’s not used to the brightness, like how bright it is here in California,” he said. “He’s not used to the outside world yet so he’s kind of really shy. You know, like when you first go into your first grade and you’re really shy and you’re hoping you get a good report card? You’re so shy to meet all the teachers and students but you become friends and you play at recess. I think that it’s like that.”
The only hitch Abrahamson recalls happened in the first few days of filming as he was having trouble nailing a pivotal scene in which young Jack becomes uncharacteristically furious at Ma for not having candles for the cake they bake on his fifth birthday. She explains that she had to choose between asking their captor for candles or much needed supplies, and we understand why both of their frustrations come to a head in the claustrophobic confines of Room.
“You know, kids do it—they get suddenly furious when something doesn’t go their way,” said Abrahamson. “That day was really hard. Everybody was standing there, the whole unit was working on it, but Jake just felt shy. It took us a while to realize he just didn’t want to shout at her because he thought shouting was rude and he liked her. I mean, how sweet is that?”
His solution? “We got the whole crew into a shouting competition. I said, ‘What do you mean—shouting like THIS?!’ And the DP who is great fun and has four kids starts shouting as well. We said, ‘I bet you can’t shout that loud!’ and Jacob started getting into it. We got back into the scene and I dared him to shout as loud as he could, and he hit it. By day five he was a totally different kid.”
Other than his age, Tremblay is pretty much your average Oscar hopeful: He loves his family, playing with his cousins, and Indiana Jones, and names The Goonies one of his all-time favorite films along with the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. “And Jurassic World,” he added, after a pause. “And all the Jurassic Parks.”
Most of all he loves all things Star Wars. “It’s so cool! Like, who came up with the idea of a laser sword?” he exclaimed, eyes lighting up as he clutched an imaginary lightsaber. “I haven’t seen the new one. All I’ve seen is the trailer because it’s not out yet and it would be illegal to go see it, right? I really like the old ones so far. Like, Attack of the Clones is one of my favorites, and Revenge of the Sith, Phantom Menace, A New Hope… and Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.”
“You realize he’s a normal kid,” laughed Abrahamson, speaking fondly of his young star. “He gets aspects of what we’re doing in the film—he gets the aspects that he needs to get, in the way that the child in the film needs to get them. But he’s not interested in any of the other stuff. He’d rather be talking about Star Wars or watching. He’s this normal boy.”
Now that it’s opened strategically to an impressive $30,000 per screen average in limited release and to critical acclaim, Room has jumped the first hurdle in its long road through awards season. Distributor A24 has high hopes for Oscar gold, and good chances of getting nominations for Donoghue and star Larson, the current Best Actress frontrunner. If 8-year-old Tremblay also scores an Academy Award nomination, he’ll become one of the youngest Oscar nominees in history.
People have already been preparing Tremblay for awards season—or as he called it when we discussed Room’s upcoming Oscar campaign, “reward season.”
“I’m excited for reward season, and I’m also excited for doing more promotion—that would be pretty fun too.” How much has he been told, and what does he expect as the Academy Awards creep closer?
“Not that much,” he replied. “They told me that it’s coming pretty soon. Is that true?”
It is indeed.