Oscar-winning actress Brie Larson on navigating fame, playing dynamic but vulnerable roles and how her new film, The Glass Castle, helped her move on from her past.
When journalist Jeannette Walls’s acclaimed 2005 memoir The Glass Castle was released, Paramount snapped up the film rights. Yet, even though it has taken more than a decade to get this vibrant drama about a dysfunctional family made, Walls doesn’t seem disheartened. In fact, this lengthy period enabled film-makers to employ the person she believes is the ideal embodiment of herself: the talented Brie Larson; an actress who, serendipitously, would not have landed the coveted role when the book was released.
‘I wanted Brie Larson to play this part even before I knew who she was,’ Walls said in an interview.* ‘She understandshow to be strong and vulnerable at the same time… she knows what it’s like to fight and be scared.’
Emotionally charged and highly topical, the film explores a poverty-stricken upbringing with deeply troubled parents(Naomi Watts and Woody Harrelson), expanding into a more conventional and glamorous adulthood. It highlights the thrilling highs and devastating lows that come from growing up in an unstable environment… a father, for instance, who would disappear for days at a time, returning on a whim to uproot his brood, always hiding the brutal reality of his problems from his children by promising one day to build them a glass castle – the blueprints of which he has on hand.
Walls eventually ran away from her family and became a successful journalist in New York. Larson, too, experienced hardship in her youth: following her parents’ divorce, aged seven, she moved to Los Angeles with her mother and sister. The actress has said in the past how the three of them would sleep in one bed in a studio apartment but, in spite of the challenges, it was a happy time, thanks to her mother’s fierce desire to protect her children from the pain of poverty.
‘It’s great when films represent a sort of a homecoming in terms of the timing of the role and the poignancy of the story,’ says Larson. ‘You always want something that feels accessible from within.’
These days, Larson’s life couldn’t be more different. She lives in the Hollywood Hills with fiancé Alex Greenwald – former front man for the rock band Phantom Planet – and her spectacular rise continues with the upcoming Captain Marvel production, along with her first foray into feature-length directing in the comedy Unicorn Store. Although she’s had to work hard and wait a long time for success, struggling to get noticed has awarded Larson a wealth of experience to draw on as a performer. It’s also made her gracious, fearless and confident enough to head up her own stand-alone film franchise in Captain Marvel, plus a potential second Oscar for The Glass Castle.
You’ve been travelling the world a lot lately with your jungle epic Kong: Skull Island [Hawaii, Australia and Vietnam], then shooting Free Fire In Brighton in England, and The Glass Castle in Montreal.
That’s just how it goes. It’s usually a couple of months in one spot, which is enough to get a handle on a place. I love that I’ve worked in so many locations. But, because we are always moving around, there are certain moments, like attending a banquet or an awards ceremony, that are amazing. It’s like having a reunion.
Apparently, you had a pleasant surprise while filming The Glass Castle in Montreal.
Yes, Jennifer Lawrence was also shooting there, so we spent our weekends together. We were like, ‘How could we be so lucky?’ You get used to being on your own and meeting new people all the time, so it’s such a treat when there’s a friend there.
Has success changed you in any significant way?
I’m quite a private person; so much of my day-to-day is the same. The beauty of being a 20-year ‘overnight’ success is that I’ve had a lot of time to have a very clear understanding of what I’m interested in and why it fulfils me.
You’re going to be the star of your own superhero franchise in Captain Marvel. Is it important to be part of a major studio film like that?
I think it’s vital that women are presented in a more positive and serious way. Society has changed dramatically and women are finding their way into all levels of business, and becoming leaders in so many fields. Movies need to reflect this, as well as the skills we have that set us apart from men. Playing Captain Marvel gave me a chance to portray a dynamic and powerful woman, who will inspire people in the same way that male superheroes have done in the past.
In Kong: Skull Island, you also play a rather determined woman.
It goes beyond being tough; it’s about relating to women in an unusual way and not simply replacing a male character with a female one. You need to get into the sensibility and sensitivity that women bring with their way of seeing the world, and that’s one of the things I loved about Mason [in Kong] and what I’d like to bring to Captain Marvel.
You’ve been quoted as saying that you had a challenging time while promoting Room, – and with all the publicity that came from winning the Oscar.
This job can be really draining on one side, because you have to give so much. You’re giving emotionally when you’re playing a character, and you’re giving emotionally when you are doing interviews, and meeting fans. It’s an act of service. You have to find a way to balance it with things that are for you and that fi ll you back up again. I feel as if I’m still learning aboutthat balance, because the output is more than it used to be – however, my overall life is the same.
Like many actors who fi nd success, there must be a sense of relief in not having to worry about paying the bills and being able to work regularly?
It makes your life much easier on a practical level. Not that I’ve changed my spending habits dramatically or live differently now from the way I used to, but at least I don’t have to worry about money any more. It’s not pleasant having to live under that pressure when you’re trying to find good roles and wanting to prove yourself. I guess that, on an artistic level, I still worry about the kind of work that I’m doing and whether I’m living up to my own ambitions. I don’t think that will ever change when it comes to how I approach things.
Room resonated deeply with audiences. Do you still think about the experience and emotions that came with telling that story [about a kidnapped woman and her son]?
While we were shooting it, I felt more connected to my past. We had a pretty tough time after my mother, my little sister and I moved to Los Angeles. I remember calling my mum in tears and telling her that I understood at last how many sacrifices she had made for me. She was crying, too, during our conversation, and she apologised for all the difficulties that we went through. It taught me how we all need to be more forgiving of ourselves.
How do feel about your life these days?
I feel extremely lucky to have some wonderful friends anda good partner. And I love my dogs