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How Brie Larson Dives Into Intense Roles And Emerges (Relatively) Unscathed

The star of Room has blown away critics with her intense performance as a mother raising her son in captivity.

How Brie Larson Dives Into Intense Roles And Emerges (Relatively) Unscathed
[Photos: George Kraychyk, courtesy of A24]

If you’ve ever been scuba diving, you know that the deeper you go the more you have to stop along the way to let your body adjust. It’s an essential rule of diving that helps avert any danger to your inner ear or life-threatening risk of decompression sickness.

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When Brie Larson was learning to scuba dive, it dawned on her that this is pretty much what she does as an actor. “It’s not just that you go down,” says Larson, “it’s how you go down.”

For the new movie Room, based on Emma Donaghue’s bestselling novel, Larson went deep. She plays “Ma,” a young woman living in captivity. For seven years, Ma’s been trapped in an 11’ x 11’ shed and for the last five of those she’s been raising her son. It’s an intense role, to say the least, and it has already yielded some deserving Oscar buzz for the actress, who is perhaps best known for her nearly-as-intense turn in the 2013 indie Short Term 12 and a supporting role in the far-less-intense Trainwreck. Here’s how Larson handles the intensity without getting lost in it.

THIS IS ME, THIS IS MY CAREER

Larson may not be your typical 26-year-old rising Hollywood starlet. The northern California native, who spent a few seasons on Showtime’s United States of Tara, is adamant about maintaining perspective on the onslaught she is about to undergo as someone who’s being buzzed about as an Oscar contender. “I had someone say to me the other day, ‘This is your time, your moment, it only happens one time in your life with this career, you’re so lucky, so just go for it, put everything you’ve got into your career.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, that sounds awesome,’” she says, dripping with sarcasm. “So years from now I can just hang out alone in my room surrounded by my trophies?”

She has seen the tendency of people in the movie business to get so wrapped up, to think that nothing but their work really matters. “It’s about knowing what’s important,” Larson says. “I mean, you can convince yourself that shoes are important, but they’re not. And while my career is important to me, it’s not so important that I can let my relationships fall away.”

Larson says she wants nothing more in life than to explore the closeness and complications of human relationships on screen. “I’m not going to get that from keeping my distance, from running away from the world.”

THIS IS ME, THIS IS “MA”

And sometimes one part helps her find equilibrium with the other: “If my mom comes on set and looks at me, the jig’s up. Immediately she sees me. I could have a British accent and a top hat and be saying my name is Stella, it doesn’t matter. She’s like, ‘No you’re not.’ She can see through any of it. Same with the director, Lenny [Abrahamson]. When he looks at me, he sees me. Game’s over. You can’t keep playing pretend anymore, you have to go back to reality.”

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Larson literally made a list of her personal qualities, her support system and emotional strengths and weaknesses side by side with those of her character, Ma. “That way, when I woke up in the middle of the night out of sheer anxiety, I could remind myself that I’m not Ma,” she says. “This list told me what is me, what is Ma, and it helped me remember that the fear I was feeling, the terror, wasn’t mine–it’s Ma’s. I told myself that I could call these five people on my list right now and all of them would tell me they love me and they value me.”

She even had those friends and family members write her letters that she could hold onto to stay clear on who she is.

PUT ON THE TANK AND DESCEND WITH YOUR WITS ABOUT YOU

“When I learned about scuba diving, I realized that that’s what I do–I carefully descend into a role, working to maintain my equilibrium,” says Larson. So, how do you do that, I asked. “Some of it I can explain, some of it I can’t,” she says.

At its core it comes down to meditation, every morning, no matter what. That’s in addition to one hour of silence every morning. “I don’t look at my phone, I read a book I like, I journal, I go to the gym. I got that from Joseph Campbell: ‘Everyone needs an hour a day when they don’t know who their friends are.’ I really live by that.”

She advises: “Take an hour to drop off, have completely selfish me time, and you’ll be amazed what comes up.”

That is the foundation that helps her work towards the most emotional parts of her job. “It takes so long to hit that moment where you’re doing the emotional scene, it’s not about that morning because you’ve built it for so long,” she says, slipping into a slight spoiler (though it’s nothing compared to all the plot points that are given away in the movie’s trailer): “Lenny told me he could see my need for escape days before we shot [the big escape scene]. It’s about getting to the point where you do so much prep and you’re so trusting in it that you’re just being in it, you’re not thinking about it anymore as something beyond yourself.”

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Some of the biggest emotional moments in the movie were so affecting that Larson claims no recollection of them. “I remember distinctly cracking jokes with hair and makeup 10 minutes before shooting and then going and doing it and then I have zero memory of the scene.”

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About the author

Ari Karpel is a frequent contributor to Fast Company and Co.Create and an instructor at UCLA Extension. His writing about culture, creativity and celebrity has also appeared in The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Men's Health, The Advocate and Tablet.

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