Short Term 12, one of the most beloved films coming out of this year’s SXSW, finally hits theaters this week after touring the Festival circuit. Directed by Destin Cretton, the film explores the life of the staff at a short-term foster care facility where kids wait to be dispersed throughout the system. In her first starring role, Brie Larson plays Grace, one of the employees in charge, who is forced by life-changing news to come to terms with her own personal demons as she struggles to keep her head above water.
Larson gives a stunning, completely naturalistic performance, devoid of stereotypes or vanity. We got the chance to speak with the actress/filmmaker about the importance of collaboration, her own artistic process, and getting past all the superficiality on screen to arrive at something that’s honest.
Tribeca: What first drew you to the role of Grace in Short Term 12?
Brie Larson: The script was so well written and felt really easy. Everything was shown and revealed in such a simple and effortless way. It felt like there was no attempt to try and make you feel things; the audience feels for these characters without manipulation. Plus, Grace is extremely complex, and it’s not very often that you see such a well-written individual on the page.
It shouldn’t be some strange anomaly that people watch a movie and relate to the characters.
Tribeca: Do you remember your first interaction with writer/director Destin Cretton?
BL: We did a Skype call because I was in Georgia at the time, and I was really nervous because I wanted the role so badly. I was concerned that he was going to find me under-qualified for the material. So I applied for a bunch of volunteer jobs in Georgia to try and take the initiative and work on a floor with kids before I spoke with him.
I told him on our first Skype call that I had applied for these jobs, which was impressive to him, but I didn’t tell him I got rejected from all of them. [laughs] I was kind of freaking out until he popped up on the screen. He was Skyping from his bedroom, and I could see that his bed was unmade, which I really appreciated. It became very clear to me that with him there was no pretension involved.
Tribeca: As you said, Grace is a complex and messy character. You can’t help but love her and be frustrated by her at the same time. Can you talk about working with Destin to craft the character?
BL: There was a lot on the page, but the subtext you just can’t write. Developing a character is also really hard to talk about and explain. It’s just something you have to just do and hope that you’re doing it correctly. So we met up in LA once to go through the script and go through every single scene.
Instead of talking, we just sat there outside together in silence. We read our scripts and I drew a little. There was immediately a sense of companionability between the two of us. Neither of us had anything to prove to the other. I think that was a huge part of what allowed the performance to be what it is. I didn’t have to “perform;” I could just be.
Tribeca: Is a character like Grace difficult to shake? Was there a scene you felt that was particularly hard to tackle?
BL: There wasn’t really anything that was hard to tackle, strangely. The hardest part about it was just keeping from going too deep into the darkness for my own sanity. The danger is getting into the dark cave and “living there,” but the kids that we were working with were so good at going in and doing the scene and then going back to themselves. None of them are anything like the kids depicted in the film.
It was wonderful to watch Kaitlyn [Dever] doing the temper tantrum scene where her dad doesn’t pick her up. She would go crazy, just insane with the tears and the thrashing. The second we yelled cut, she’d wipe her eyes and say “that was fun let’s do it again.” That was incredibly inspiring to me. I learned the importance of understanding the difference between reality and fiction and making sure that I saved a little bit of myself at the end of every day. When the movie was over, I wanted to be sure that I was still intact.
Tribeca: All the characters in Short Term 12 use art as an outlet to express themselves and to vent their frustrations. Do you use art in the same way?
BL: Oh absolutely. That is how I’ve been able to, since as far as I can remember, visualize and work through and explain things when I don’t have the words. You start to realize that there’s a huge flaw with written language and the thing that transcends it all are these colors and symbolism and emotions that are not tangible. I think art is such a powerful outlet. I truly believe that every person is an artist and a storyteller; just some are more interested in accepting that about themselves than others.
Whether you are male or female, or in a movie or not in a movie, you have to move beyond superficiality to truly be part of the human experience.
Tribeca: In addition to acting, you’re also a filmmaker and have been part of the creative teams behind the shorts, The Arm and Weighting, which played at festivals like Sundance and SXSW. Is filmmaking something you wish to pursue in the future? Does your acting experience make the transition easier?
BL: Yeah, it’s an important balance to me. I just go where I’m inspired and there are stories I need to tell. It’s just a different role in the storytelling process. Different things are required and asked of my brain and I enjoy using the other aspects and working other muscles.
Filmmaking also allows me to enjoy the acting process a lot more because when I am acting I am released from all other concerns. When I am the writer or director, I have much more responsibility because I am orchestrating the whole thing. When I am acting, I get to follow the guidance of another, which I enjoy. It’s just the student and teacher role; going back and forth between the two.
I don’t really know why I’ve had this pull towards this medium and this industry in particular. I do know that the hours that I have put in on set become incredibly informative. They have allowed me to refine my own process for developing a character and have given me the opportunity to experience the inner-workings of being part of a creative team. Everybody has to have a mutual respect for the others and an understanding that every person’s creative process is different.
While the actor’s work is what you’ll see on the screen, what’s happening on set is what really informs the performance. I don’t enjoy the attention I get as an actor. I just like to perform the role and get out of it. I do love the feeling of being on a team and incorporating our larger conversation into a scene. It’s better when you don’t feel like you’re working.
Tribeca: You’ve been steadily working in the industry since you were 9 years old, and you are featured prominently in three of the year’s most anticipated indies: Short Term 12, The Spectacular Now and Don Jon. How does it make you feel when people term this your “breakout” year? How do you deal with the expectations?
BL: It is odd. It’s something that I don’t really understand right now so it’s hard for me to talk about because I feel confused. A lot of it feels very separate from myself. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s hard to accept what is happening to me inside this human suit.
I enjoy making movies. I love telling stories. It’s what I’ve wanted to do since I was a little kid, so it’s a very moving experience when people are moved by this film. I look at it and go, “Wow, I’m becoming a woman and I’m a healthy individual through all of the insanity of all of this and I have a very clear idea of what I want to do and I now have the opportunity to do what I want to do.” That’s such a gift.
The rest of it just doesn’t make much sense to me because I don’t know what it means really. If I get to, with or without the term “break out,” continue to be creatively satisfied and people give me the opportunity to explore, then it doesn’t matter. People can use any word they want. [laughs]
Tribeca: Is it strange to watch yourself mature, both physically and professionally, on screen?
BL: The whole process of watching yourself is really bizarre and very jarring I think. The parts of Short Term 12 that initially were so interesting to me when I watched the final cut were not anything to do with the acting. I was like, “Oh that’s what the back of my head looks like when I’m walking.” It’s a luxury in some ways. It’s interesting because it feels so natural. I feel that a lot of my life has been captured in roles that don’t necessarily reflect me or where I was personally in my life at the time.
Tribeca: Movie credits like Rampart, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World and 21 Jump St. show that you’re not afraid to switch back and forth between studio films and indie projects. Do you think big budget movies have a detrimental effect on actors’ development?
BL: They can, but they also may not have an impact. It just depends on the situation and it depends on the material. I think that the bigger the budget, you expect the film to reach more people. Big budget movies can get into places that small films just can’t. The fight to be seen just isn’t as hard. The problem is that big films are cautious because people don’t like losing their money. People like making money.
Hopefully, the day will come when more films can be blockbusters but still invoke conversation. I’ve been hearing a lot about Elysium which looks like a really fun sci-fi film but also has, I’m being told, a deeper message to it. The Matrix is a prime example of that. There is a way to do well-financed productions that keeps them fun and entertaining but allows the filmmaker to offer heart and meaning and hope.
I truly believe that every person is an artist and a storyteller; just some are more interested in accepting that about themselves than others.
Tribeca: You went from the indie scene in America to a starring role in a new, big-budget Bollywood musical. How important is it for you to take risks as an actress? Can you talk about that experience?
BL: I just enjoy change in any regard. It’s exciting to me that fewer and fewer films are shot in Los Angeles. LA to me just becomes a really large LAX. [laughs] It’s where I meet with people and it takes me all over the place. It’s so important to be able to see other sides of the world whether that’s the other side of your country or across the ocean. Working in India required a completely different approach and a whole new level of focus. It’s very noisy there, so they don’t generally record sound. In the US, people on the street recognize there is a film crew shooting and will usually be quiet, but I’d be in a scene sometimes over there and someone would just answer a phone.
It’s just completely different in every way. Lucky for me, part of the film is about a girl who comes from here, from this much regimented world, and then has to go to this place where you have to use your heart and your intuition and not your logical mind. It was incredible life changing experience to really get into the flow of everything. It was nice to kind of throw away my cell phone and get back to the basics.
Tribeca: You and actresses like Shailene Woodley and Jennifer Lawrence seem to be ushering in a new era for film actresses. Your focus is on your craft and not on your outside appearance or star image. It makes me sad that I have to bring something like that up. Is it difficult to see that most of your male peers do not have to be caught up in superficiality?
BL: I think it is superficial for them as well. I think that the superficiality is more exaggerated in the industry but it’s a bigger social issue as well. Film, for whatever reason, is highly influential. People go into a theater with a screen that’s much bigger than they are and sounds much louder than they normally experience. The film just washes over them whether they came alone or with twenty people. Each member of the audience is alone in that experience of watching and relating to this film.
I feel that there’s a responsibility that goes with that power, and I’m excited that we’re starting to recognize it. Our culture often gives us unrealistic expectations of what being a human actually means and it has nothing to do with the exterior. That is why for me the films I related to the most when I was growing up were foreign films. They have a much different outlook. They don’t do what we do here. They don’t create these droids like we do here.
It shouldn’t be some strange anomaly that people watch a movie and relate to the characters. Whether you are male or female, or in a movie or not in a movie, you have to move beyond superficiality to truly be part of the human experience. We all can look back on the things that we did as a kid that involved us trying to be somebody, trying to be an adult in some ways. At some point, you realize that being an adult is this other thing that’s just so powerful and more important.
Short Term 12 opens this Friday in NY & LA. Check here for showtimes and expansion dates.