Love, Self-Acceptance, & Letting Go: A Conversation With ‘Short Term 12”s Brie Larson

“I cried this morning, I was just so excited,” says actress Brie Larson. “I woke up early and was lying in bed and they delivered coffee and the The New York Times to my room, and I was like, how could I ever be upset, life is so grand right now.” And for the 23-year-old actress, she’s right. Although Larson may not be a household name yet, she’s certainly on the tip of everyone’s tongue, proving herself to be one of the most talented and refreshing actresses to appear on our cinema screens.

With a subtly potent acting style and a knack for selectively choosing unique roles, she has been working since her early teenage days in film and television—from starring alongside Toni Collette in The United States of Tara to Oren Moverman’s Rampart—but in Destin Cretton’s powerful new drama, we finally see Larson emerge in a leading role—begging the question: why has she been hiding in the wings for so long? And with Short Term 12, Larson takes center stage amongst a brilliant ensemble, in a film that’s as raw and genuine as it is teeming with emotion and pain, yet filled with a compassion that makes you ache with a desire to love.

Written and directed by Cretton, and starring fantastic cast of John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Rami Malek, and many more, Short Term 12—in its simplest form—tells the story of Grace, a supervising staff member at a foster care facility for troubled minors , who finds herself forced to deal with her own past and psychological issues when a new member of the facility arrives. But with Cretton’s profound sense of emotional insight and authentic drama, the film becomes a complex look at the way we interact and connect with those around us and the challenges we face when learning to accept ourselves. Beautifully done and compelling to the last moment, Short Term 12 is rife with well-rounded and fully-realized characters whose struggles are not just there to pull at your tear ducts but to illuminate a human condition and engage you, bringing you straight to the heart of Cretton’s story. As Grace, Larson leads the drama with absolute strength of character, in a performance that shows just how young women of Hollywood should be doing it.
 
Back in July, I got the chance to sit down with Larson for a candid chat about her incredible experience working on the film, the plight of modern female roles, and learning to let go.
 
You and I are the same age, and for me, it’s rare to see a woman my age play a role that I genuinely love. But walking out of this I was like, thank you, this is something I want to see more of. I imagine wading through scripts is a pretty cumbersome thing, so how did you come across this film?

It’s just one of those things that it was a script that was sent to me. I was in Georgia at the time working on another project, and I’m at the point where I will get sent scripts directly but I’m also not at the point where I’m getting the roles that I really can sink my teeth into because they really don’t exist that often. But this was one that I was really pointedly told to read quickly because I would devour it and love it—and I did. I hadn’t even finished the script before I called and said I have to meet on this, I believe in this. Every so often you read something and you think: I’m the only person that can do this, I know how to do this for whatever weird reason, and that’s how Short Term was. So we did a Skype call and in my fear that Destin would think I was unqualified to play the part, I had applied for a bunch of volunteer jobs in Georgia to work with abused children. And he hired me. I don’t know if it was that, I’ve heard him say that that was a piece of what was impressive, that I’d already taken the time and already gone out on a limb to show that when I sign on to do something I go all the way with it. I just don’t see any other reason not to. 
 
Did you feel that you could really relate to Grace? Her struggles are very specific and what she’s been through is not something we can all relate to but there’s something in her mix of vulnerability and strength and her passion that feels universal.

I really related to her and it’s still something that I’ve been piecing together after the fact because the script and who she was to me was so clear and so obvious. I knew that person but I didn’t understand why because she’s not like me. But the more that I think about it, and the couple of times I’ve watched the film, I’ve realized she is, for me, like the wounded, sad, childlike vulnerable parts of myself that need tending to. Then on top of that, she is a representation of the callous that you put over it and how dust ourselves off and say, in a way, “I’m not human, I’m fine, there’s nothing that can touch me.” 
 
And especially as a woman, and a woman in the industry, I realized that I’d experienced a lot of pain and a lot of feelings of being abused in ways of being objectified. In time now I’ve been able to pinpoint a few experiences in my life that are nowhere near as painful as what Grace has gone through, but they are the same feelings I have felt, and that other women have felt, and other human beings have felt. We all know what it’s like to love something and have it be taken away from you, we all know what it’s like to feel like the rug had been pulled out from under us, and that what we believe to be life or reality is completely different. 
 
Towards the end you kind of get a clue into her, but for the most part, I feel like she becomes this weird emotional crusader for a lot of people. And it’s interesting, after the film you have every age, shape, size, color, that have come up to be and said, “I’m Grace.” I’ve had men come up to me and say, “I’m Grace.” It’s a testament to Destin’s writing and a testament that the film is metaphorical in a lot of ways. It’s very easy to say, Grace is a social worker and she was abused and that’s really sad and there’s also hope involved. But it would be unfortunate if someone walked away and just saw it as that. People get really emotionally charged about this thing because they see it in themselves—they see the child in them, they see this kid that’s not tended to. 
 
What I really admired about the film and took away from it in the end is that, yes, there is a cathartic moment but there’s no clear resolve. The only thing that is made clear was that if you can accept people into your life and accept love and show that love and share that, then there’s some hope in the world.
The movie has meant so many different things to me but right now, and ultimately, the idea of believing in and accepting in yourself that you are worthy of being loved, is such an emotional thing. I feel like I’m getting upset even just talking about it now, but that’s such an important aspect of the human experience that gets missed because we’ve never seen it. My parents were divorced and until recently, I wasn’t able to look at myself and go: you know what, I haven’t really experienced what it’s like to watch a healthy, combative relationship, I’ve never seen what that looks like. Every time someone fights I go, oh my god that’s the end. 
 
Yeah, because that’s all you’ve ever known and seen, and you don’t realize of how engrained that fear is.
But you start to realize that it’s this whole beautiful push and pull, and it all starts with yourself. I had spent much of life not wanting to be the lead of a film because I didn’t think that people would want to watch me for an hour and a half. Part the experience for me of doing the film was opening myself up to it and saying, you know what, maybe I can. Maybe this is okay, maybe just because I’m repulsed by my face when I look in the mirror it doesn’t mean that that’s the reality, that’s my skewed perception and that’s the point that I want people to get. The people in this movie are so beautifully flawed and it’s a very incredible experience for people to watch it and really relate on the human level with these people—not like “I just love that top that they were wearing or I want that haircut.” It has nothing to do with that except the true essence of a human. 
 
And speaking to that connection, the relationship between Grace and Mason was really wonderful and felt much more honest than the modern portrayals of young couples that you see on screen, you can really identify with both of them.

It’s hard finagling a life with another person. But I also appreciate, in watching that relationship,  it’s amazing that it’s not something that we have really seen before. I feel like the closest things are like when I watch Scenes From a Marriage or like something that’s older and foreign is the closest I get because they’re okay with exposing that side of it.
 
Or even someone who portrayed relationships like Cassavetes did.
Or Mike Leigh. But for whatever reason, we are here and so obsessed with keeping a strong front, and that everything is cool and everything is okay, and look at how nice my clothes are and these are the places that I go and these are my friends and this is how everything is supposed to look. But inside it much feel…
 
Terrible.

You must just feel worried all the time because you’re not in touch with who you actually are.
 
And it’s much better to feel things and be more miserable than to deny yourself that ability to have emotion, and as an actor it must be an incredible experience to be able to step into these roles and allow yourself that emotional experience in a different way every time.

It takes a lot. It’s a very trusting experience. And Short Term 12 was the most trusting I’ve ever had to be.
 
Did it take time to build that trust with Destin or was it something that felt natural right away?

We didn’t have the luxury of that much time. We only had a couple weeks because I was shooting this other thing. We met up maybe twice with the intention of going through every beat of the script, and instead we just were silent. It’s interesting because I’ve also heard him describe the same situation with Keith, where they’d end up just kind of existing with each other but not actually saying anything. I think that reflects upon the film that we made, that Destin has something in him and it’s just who he is, but you can get it without every speaking a word with him—you can trust him and he’s not judging you and perhaps it comes from the time he did spend working in foster care facilities. But it’s just good parenting. There have been a few times where I’ve worked with directors and walked away thinking—you fathered me, you accepted me, and allowed me to go to these far off places and I was able to do it because I felt supportive. I couldn’t have gone as a dark as I had to with Grace if I didn’t feel like there was a really strong hug at the end of it.
 
How does it feel watching the film now? Do all of those feelings come back to you?

I cry. Pretty much everyone involved in the film cries every time we see it. It’s the movie and what it represents, and also the feeling that actually transcends and comes through the screen—which is how much love was on set and how much care was put into it and how much fun we had. I think all of us agree that it was one of the best times of our lives, one of the most fun times, it was like camp and so productive and everybody was so ready for it. We were all together and had the same idea of what this film, which is a miracle it ever happened but everybody was in it for the right reasons. I’ve never enjoyed watching myself but for whatever reason, Grace is in it enough that it just starts to become like wallpaper to me, I don’t feel so jarred by image any longer. It’s also that I don’t wear makeup and I didn’t brush my hair and I wore my own jeans and things like that that feel comfortable watching it because it’s just an extension of myself, it’s not a facade of myself. I don’t like how I look with makeup and curled hair and a party dress on. It makes me itchy. I don’t feel good, I feel like a lie, so I think because of that an that I showed up and we shot things and I went home and I didn’t even really need to wash my face. 
 
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It must be important to have a separation between your character and yourself, your home life and your work life, and not bringing Grace’s struggles with you at the end of the day. Was that ever a problem?

It has been in the past, but it wasn’t with this because I was ready to not do that anymore. I thought that to be a good actor you had to live it all the time, and it’s fine for comedies if you want to be funny all the time and you’re learning to improvise all the time and that’s great, but when you’re doing something and it’s a very sad person or a tortured character or someone whose not dealing with themselves well, it’s impossible. You have to be really aware of yourself because you’re playing into that, you’re changing your mindset for 12 hours a day for weeks, months, who knows how long. You can’t help that those things just start to stick, you can’t help it, it’s scientific, it’s the way that our brain feels. 
 
When I shadowed at the foster care, you’re instantly shocked by how emotionally charged those places are and you have to cut through and navigate through all this emotion and pain and it’s just non-stop. So I said to the woman I was shadowing, how do you do this, how do you get through this day and go back and do it again and you’ve done this for seventeen years for 15 dollars an hour. How do you do it? And she just said, “You let go.” You are here, you do the best you can for these kids, you are as supportive as possible and then you go home and you don’t keep fighting for them when you’re at home, you use it as a time to fight for yourself, you use that as the time to decompress, to relax, and get yourself back to yourself. And I thought that was absolutely brilliant and the thing that was missing from my life. I would come home and I’d still be in the headspace of work or want to talk about what happened at work, and it was my world and my identity—I didn’t know anything else other than it. 
 
I realized I felt so much happier, so much more comfortable, and had better relationships when I came home and the stuff I had done that day was irrelevant and it was about cooking me and my boyfriend a nice dinner, watching the latest episode of SNL, or talking about his day and getting into his world a little bit more and keeping things light—that saved me. And I didn’t have to like, go to therapy or anything afterwards—which has happened before. There’s been times where I’ve done a three week shoot and then it’s like, oh great, and now I’ve just spent thousands of dollars on therapy from that experience. We have a hard time differentiating between reality and fiction, the whole world seems fictitious to me, the whole thing seems like make-believe, so it’s really hard for the brain to go, no this is real and this is not real. 
 
This is the person you are and this is the character you’re playing.
Yeah, because I would be playing a character that has ripped tights and the next thing I know I’m wearing ripped tights to work and I’m like, I never did that!
 
You’ve also been working since you were very young, which is when you’re supposed to be developing your own identity and who you are at your core, but as an actor you’re thrown into so many different people’s skin and I imagine that’s very confusing.

It’s really confusing! That was a realization I had a couple years ago when I had some photo shoot where someone asked me: I want you to come in your own clothes, in what makes you feel like you, I want you to be you. And I remember going in my closet and going, holy shit, I have no idea. I have clothes from every period, I have clothes that are grungy to preppy to vintage to the latest in trend, and I just was confused. I realized it was because I was all of these pieces of things and they were pieces of people that I had lived in for a while, and none of it made any sense. It really inspired me to start focusing on my true essence. The complicated part is that my true self is changing, it’s growing, I’m becoming more of a woman everyday and that’s a whole new level of cleaning out the closet—which I just did. It was a weird experience to be like oh, about three fifths of my closet I can’t wear anymore because I’m not a child. 
 
It’s a bizarre but liberating thing to realize.

Yeah, like why did I ever wear something that short ever in my life—what was I thinking? So many things like that where you realize how long we spend not understand what it is to be an adult, but seeing it other people and trying to emulate it, and seeing what that sounds like or looks like. The more time I spend doing these types of roles, it’s so important that I feel completely myself. If I’m sitting here in my princess attire it doesn’t work. 
 
And stepping onto the set in this role and being older than these kids, how did it feel to be in that position for the first time?

It was the best. I’m just ready for it and I feel really lucky that growing up in the industry that I did, that I’m really normal. I got the opportunity to be with people that were so gracious and so incredible and I was able to learn from them. But I also got to work with some people that were really self-centered and egomaniacal, and was able to clock, oh that’s not a cute look. And when I’d had enough time being on the sideline—I had been acting for 13 years or something silly like that before I was the lead of anything—I realized there are things I believe are important to bring to work and things that you don’t bring that are important to understand because no one can teach you those. And kids are sponges, so I really wanted to be sure, and it was Destin and John and the producers and all the adults on set, we wanted to create an environment that was hard working and really open and filled with positivity. Even though we were doing this thing that could be really dark, we wanted it to be a learning experience, and that carried onto the film, and it had to be that way. Those kids were going to naturally look up to me because I’m older and in the profession that they want to be doing, and they have the spirit that we want to keep forever—a pure, innocent hunger. So I just thought they were brilliant and loved them. 
 
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Are there any female actresses you really admire? I’m sure Toni Collette is one…
Yes, Toni. It’s weird that you say that, she was in my dream last night. I just realized that actually. I had a dream she saw Short Term 12.
 
Did she like it?

Yeah. That’s a weird dream to have, that someone I really admire liked a movie I did. But Toni Collette is a big one, Annette Benning’s a big one, Tilda Swinton, Diane Keaton, Julie Christie—those are the ones for me. I feel like they came from a different period in film; they played some really interesting, complex, and strong women.
 
And it’s rare to see roles like that nowadays.

Which is crazy because we all talk about it and people say that we want it and it still doesn’t get made—so what are we doing? 
 
I’ve seen Don Jon and The Spectacular Now and those were good roles, but not as meaty and unique as this one.
It’s really rare and I have no idea why. I think that if we were able to actually bring more complex roles to the surface, it would kick a lot of our butts in shape. A lot of actors I see just skate their way through things because they’re not challenged, like the kid in school who is really smart but they’re not challenged and so they fail. These are very talented people, we just have to really ask for it and not accept anything less than that. Movies are too influential of a medium and can be manipulative and if done the wrong way.
 
And so powerful if done the right way.

Exactly. It’s nice to be with Short Term 12. I feel like I’m spreading hope and love and compassion across the world versus doing some piece that at the end of the day is like having McDonalds. That wouldn’t feel good.
 
I’m sure it’s tiring to do tons of press but this seems like an amazing group of people to be around all the time.

We’re having an amazing time. I cried this morning, I was just excited. I woke up early and was lying in bed and they delivered coffee and the New York Times to my room, and I was like, how could I ever be upset, life is so grand right now. The cool thing is everybody involved in this film is really not concerned with the business side of it, we just want people to see it because we’re proud of it, but it really has nothing to do with anything else. So we find our ways to entertain ourselves.
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