Dialogue: Brie Larson on 'Short Term 12' and Her Breakout Performance in One of Summer's Best Movies

Dialogue: Brie Larson on 'Short Term 12' and Her Breakout Performance in One of Summer's Best Movies

Aug 21, 2013

Short Term 12Short Term 12 has already screened at SXSW, the Seattle International Film Festival, the Los Angeles Film Festival and more, and in case you haven’t heard from the ensuing buzz, this is a very, very special movie.

It stars Brie Larson as Grace, a supervisor at a group home for at-risk teenagers. Passionate about her work and her kids, Grace knows each and every one of them individually and is determined to ensure they get what they need and, when the time comes, are ready to move on. However, doing that for the facility’s newest arrival Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever) proves to be particularly difficult because Jayden’s situation conjures up memories of Grace’s own dark past.

Odds are you’ve seen Larson in the films Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Rampart or 21 Jump Street, and while she’s quite good in each, Short Term 12 is on another level. Larson insists on not attributing the film’s success to her own work, but when you see it, her thoughtful and thorough approach to the role is at least partially responsibly for the all-consuming and incredibly poignant result.

Check out what Larson told us about her experience working with writer-director Destin Cretton, her top-secret process, some very special pairs of socks and more, and be sure to catch Short Term 12 when it arrives in New York and Los Angels on August 23 or when it expands thereafter. This is not one you want to miss.

Movies.com: We assume you saw the short film of Short Term 12 before signing on for this, right?

Brie Larson: Yeah.

Movies.com: Did you get to talk with the actor that played Denim?

Larson: Brad Henke! I had actually worked with him before. He played my father in another small independent film so it was so awesome to see him be so good. I also took his acting class.

Movies.com: Anything you learned there that stuck with you?

Larson: I just audited a class, and it was great. He’s just a really great dude. He’s from the school of thought that I like, which is create a fun and loving environment, and people do really well in that. It doesn’t have to be this very strict, you know, [where] you must become the character and whip people. It’s more about just love and feeling it out.

Movies.com: There’s so much of that short film in the feature, so did seeing Brad’s performance in that influence your own?

Larson: No, because he’s a male and I’m a female. [Laughs] It allowed me to understand what that world was like before I was able to shadow and before the film was made. It’s hard at times when you get scripts sent to you to understand the mind of whoever wrote it. I think about it sometimes, there are scripts that I’ve read that I’m like, "Oh, I don’t like that," and then later I think, "well, it’s really just my imagination of what I think it’s gonna look like that I don’t like." It really has nothing to do with the director. It’s just, I hate my own interpretation of it inside my head!

Brie Larson in Short Term 12

Movies.com: Is there anything you pictured while reading the Short Term 12 script that turned out drastically different in the final film?

Larson: No, because I had watched the short and so I had pretty clear ideas to what it was that we were doing. The whole film was a surprise to me because I didn’t watch anything while we were shooting it and so I was just surprised by some of the camera angles of a lot of things. It’s so interesting. A lot of shots I didn’t even know were happening so it was nice to see.

Movies.com: You became a real expert in all of this, so can you talk a little about what you did to achieve that?

Larson: I shadowed at a facility before we started and spent a lot of time, even outside of a facility, talking with different line-staff members about their experience and how they get through it because so much of it is you’re coming into this world and Grace has been doing it for many years and is very familiar with this place, so I wanted to be as familiar as I could possibly be because I wanted to do right by these people.

Movies.com: Do you prefer to also be able to find a piece of yourself in the character?

Larson: You can’t not relate because I think all of the characters that I play are going through that broad spectrum of human emotion, so you always connect. There are certain things that I go, oh, I understand that pain or I understand that happiness, but I try and keep myself as separate from them as possible because if you start putting your own feelings or your own life experience into it, it becomes colored by you and it’s really important to just be the upper puppet master. It feels like shooting a documentary in some ways. You just film it. You don’t change what’s actually happening. You’re not allowed to manipulate what’s happening and it’s hard sometimes because you end up loving these characters that you’re playing and sometimes get confused. You want to do what you want them to do that is less painful or a happier ending for them, but it’s not what actually happens.

Movies.com: It seems like you’ve got a really solid sense of what you need to do when you go in to make a movie, but how does that change when you’re working with such a big ensemble? On this, did anyone have a completely different process that you had to adjust to?

Larson: I’ve worked with so many different people that have different processes, all parties involved. Some sound people even use different fuzzy microphone tips or they have different ways of putting it on your body, DPs have a different way, some people take longer than others and actors have different processes as well. That’s what keeps it exciting, and you go into every project knowing that you’re not gonna go into it and come out of it the same way twice. And it takes some time for everybody to kind of jell together and understand how we’re making this movie.

Movies.com: Was there anything on Short Term 12 that stood out in that sense?

Larson: There was a lot, but the one thing that I think really shows is that our DP did pretty much everything handheld. We had a second camera operator for those times when we had two cameras or, it’s a heavy camera, so sometimes they had to switch off. But our DP was the one that was operating most of the time and he didn’t ever go on sticks. It was all handheld, and so he had this incredible ability to just feel like another character in the film. I never felt the camera in my face, and I think it’s really important for actors to not feel like they’re observed and not feel like, "Okay, now we’re rolling and you have to be 'on,' and now we’re not and you can relax. And now were filming and it’s gotta be on!" It all kind of was a continuous flow. We got into the scene and got out of it and it was all just very easy.

Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr. in Short Term 12


Movies.com: Can you tell us about building relationships with your costars? Grace has a different connection to every character, so did that require you to do something different with each actor off set?

Larson: Yeah. I sat down with each kid before we started shooting and kind of created a file -- not quite as in depth as if we were really in a place like this, but enough that it allowed me to understand what the rules and regulations were for each one of these kids. What their pasts were, even things like physical contact, what that would be like, what they would be okay with, what they wouldn’t be okay with when it came to personal space and eye contact. What I could expect from them and what I couldn’t expect from them. And just tone of voice, too. If you want to watch the film again, you’ll notice that Grace’s voice does change depending on which kid she’s talking to. Even just simply, [with] Luis (Kevin Hernandez) it’s a firmer, kind of drier tone mixed with a squirt gun that gets him out of bed, but then with Sammy (Alex Calloway), to get him out of bed requires a much more ethereal, loving, mother-earth voice. 

Movies.com: How does that affect you in terms of jumping in and out of each scene? Do you have to sit there and remind yourself of the facts in the files?

Larson: No, I’m very organized. I have a process.

Movies.com: Can you tell us about your process?

Larson: [Laughs] No. There’s a method to the madness. I go into it knowing as much as I possibly can beforehand and then the second we say action, I’m not thinking about any of it and I understand the confines of what it is I’m doing, what I’m trying to get out of the scene, but then I completely release myself to the process and just be present, honest, all those things.

Movies.com: A lot of times the answer is "No, I don’t have a process. I just go in and do it."

Larson: No! But even the Q&As have been difficult for me. It’s like, I’ve never gone to a magic show where there’s a Q&A afterwards. It doesn’t work that way. It kills part of the experience. I think there are certain aspects of filmmaking that are interesting and fun to talk about, especially for those that want to make film or those that want to be part of the acting world, but my process is not the ultimate way. It’s just what works for me. My process is very specific for me, but I’m not gonna open a school of technique. [Laughs]

Movies.com: What works for you when you’ve got to jump into the film’s darker moments? Is there anything or any person you turn to to get out of it?

Larson: It’s usually music. I usually have a soundtrack for whatever character I’m playing and for Grace it was Norwegian black metal, which is pretty aggressive. But there’s also a lot of more symphonic aspects of it as well depending on which band and which era we’re talking about. So there’s varying degrees, which is similar to what she’s going through. It escalates in a way that that music does have and it’s aggressive and it’s in another language that feels very harsh as well, so it worked for me.

Movies.com: You clearly gave this role an incredible amount of thought. Does that change when you do something like 21 Jump Street or Scott Pilgrim where it’s more about a clearer narrative and perhaps less about building a world and letting an audience live in it in a way that mimics reality more closely?

Larson: No, it doesn’t do anything for me. The exciting part was that Grace had secrets that were what pushes the subtext of the whole film, but any character I’ve ever played, I enjoy creating those secrets. I feel like every character I’ve had has had one, Scott Pilgrim in particular. Each character in that film had about 10 things that were our personal secrets for our character that we weren’t allowed to share with anybody else.

Movies.com: Did you keep those secrets?

Larson: Yeah!

Movies.com: Where does the experience making this film and the reaction it’s getting leave you? Does it change your perspective on your work or your career trajectory?

Larson: It’s inspiring that it doesn’t really matter the size of the film. I think that the intention that went into it is really important and I think that we have to understand how smart and perceptive human beings are. It just played in Switzerland where people don’t really speak English -- just a few -- but mostly people that spoke German or French or Italian, and so they had those subtitles and it still had this overwhelmingly emotional response and people wanted to speak with us after, but they didn’t know how to say it. And the fact that we can transcend written language through film and create these cenesthetic experiences has always been really important to me. It’s a magical thing when you can actually do it, when all the right elements, when the visual mixed with the audio can create this emotional charge for people, so that’s something I want to keep exploring. It has nothing to do with me. I don’t think that the film really has anything to do with me at all. I pay more tribute and I’m more inspired by everybody else who is still believing in film and allowing it to feel and connect to each other. The feeling people feel when they’re connecting with the people they watch the movie with, that if they connected with this film and cried and had this shared experience that they’re one in the same, that’s powerful.  

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