Brie Larson’s new movie, Room, is sparking an urgent question among fall film festival audiences. The question isn’t, “Is it good?” - reaction coming out of early screenings is almost uniformly positive, with much of the praise directed at the 25-year-old actor’s performance. The question is, “Can I handle it?”
“I would say, if a movie makes you cry, you probably needed to cry,” Brie Larson said.
Adapted by Emma Donoghue from her bestselling novel of the same name, Room tells the story of a young woman who has been kidnapped and trapped in a shed for seven years, where she is raped and gives birth to a son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay). As in the novel, the movie unfolds from Jack’s point of view, and his growing understanding of his circumstances mirrors that of the audience.
“This is a story of escape and of freedom, ultimately,” said Room director Lenny Abrahamson. “You start in the darkest place, and then it’s a journey out of that. It’s not a misery memoir. The challenge in bringing the film to audiences is to communicate that.”
After an auspicious Telluride Film Festival premiere earlier this month, which sparked early Oscar talk, Larson, Abrahamson and Donoghue spoke with The Los Angeles Times about making their unusually intimate movie - and the disorienting experience of introducing it into the cacophony of Oscar season.
Larson, who had been given a T-shirt with an Oscar on it at a film academy party the night before, is aware that she is now the focus of a new level of attention. “I almost wore the shirt today, but then I thought, ‘I don’t know if people will get that I’m being funny,’” she said.
Room is one of a number of films with awards hopes on the festival circuit featuring female protagonists, including Carol, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara as lovers in the 1950s; Suffragette, featuring Carey Mulligan as a campaigner for women’s voting rights in England; Freeheld, with Ellen Page and Julianne Moore in the true-life story of a lesbian couple fighting for pension benefits; Truth, an adaptation of journalist Mary Mapes’ memoir; and Our Brand Is Crisis, starring Sandra Bullock as a political consultant.
Room was inspired by the harrowing case of Elisabeth Fritzl, a 42-year-old woman who told police in Austria in 2008 that she had been held captive for 24 years by her father, and had borne seven of his children. Donoghue, who is a mother of two, wondered what that captivity and sudden freedom would feel like from the child’s point of view.
In the translation to screen, the audience sees more of the character known as “Ma” and her heroic struggle to create some semblance of normalcy for her child - exercising, playing games, baking birthday cakes - within the confines of captivity.
“I’ve been nagged for years by fans saying, ‘Tell us more about Ma,’” said Donoghue, who began work on the script herself before the book was even published. “I was very cheeky. I knew there was a lot of hype about the book, so I thought, ‘The eyes of the world will be on me after it’s published. I’ll get started.’”
Abrahamson, an Irish film and TV director captivated by 'Room' wrote Donoghue a letter laying out how he would shoot the film, including elements that other directors might have shied from, including Ma’s breast-feeding Jack well past the age that might be considered normal.
Larson too was transfixed by the story.
“I read the whole thing in a day, and I hadn’t had such a strong emotional reaction to a book since I read ‘Where the Red Fern Grows’ in fourth grade,” the actress said. “I was pacing my room. I was so upset.”
“It’s been really important to me to show something that’s real. So if we’re gonna do this movie, it’s not gonna look pretty. It’s gonna look real.”
Though Larson responded to the intensity of the story, it was her lightness and humour that won over the writer and director.
“Lenny early on said, ‘We need somebody who can do comedy,’” Donoghue said. “‘We don’t want somebody who’s like, ‘I’ve been born to tragedy’. We want somebody who has some fundamental warmth.’”
Larson had her own concerns. “The biggest question for me was, ‘Will I be protected?’” she said. “Will this be a safe environment for me? Once Lenny and I met, it seemed like this was just a right fit.”
Larson is pretty and petite, with expressive brown eyes and a self-deprecating sense of humour. “My main audience are receptionists,” she quipped, after learning it was an office worker who’d tipped Abrahamson to her 2013 film Short Term 12. "No one higher up.”
She appears almost feral in Room, without makeup and with unwashed hair.
“When I was younger, watching movies, it felt like everything was glossy and beautiful, and I didn’t really relate to it,” Larson said. “It’s been really important to me to show something that’s real. So if we’re gonna do this movie, it’s not gonna look pretty. It’s gonna look real.”
Since finding an audience in independent films and TV, she has been inching more toward studio fare, playing Amy Schumer’s more together little sister in this summer’s Trainwreck and getting cast opposite Tom Hiddleston in the upcoming Kong: Skull Island.
“It becomes a game where five of us are up for the same role every time,” Larson said. “I’m up against four other white girls who are also small. It’s an extremely narrow view of the world. If you’re something outside of that, you’re the best friend or the boss. That’s what I find disturbing. Movies have this incredible global reach. They show you, ‘This is how the world looks.’ How are we showing, say, my little sister what the world is?”
Before making Room, Larson met with a trauma counsellor and with victims of sexual assault to better understand the emotional terrain she would be entering.
“I talked with a lot of girls who had gone through sexual abuse,” Larson said. “One thing that was a recurring theme was that they couldn’t say no [when initially approached], that they thought they had to be nice girls … We’re still coming back from many years of girls being chiselled out to be identical and quiet.”
The movie found financing from an assortment of sources, including its American distributor, A24, as well as Irish, Canadian and British backers, and was shot in Toronto.
Perhaps the most searing scene in the film is a cathartic explosion from Larson that lasts less than a minute. Before it was shot, the actress was barefoot and cold, listening to the song “Love Is to Die” by the band Warpaint on a loop on her headphones. A crew member tapped her and she dove into action, Abrahamson said.
“I have zero memory of it. I did not expect that reaction to come from me at all,” Larson said. A week later, an actor who’d returned to the set asked how she was doing, and Larson was startled to learn what had happened that day. “She said, ‘Are you OK? Do you not remember that you slipped and fell? You were punching us, fighting us. You hit your head.’ I was like, ‘I don’t know myself at all.’”
Room is set to open in Australia on January 28, 2016.