Jacob Tremblay as Jack and Brie Larson as Ma in Room
There are certain performances that cannot lend themselves to Daniel Day-Lewis style immersion in a character without risking deep psychological harm. Brie Larson’s performance as Ma in Room, which has made her one of the favorites for this year’s Academy Award for Best Actress, is one of those. As a kidnapping victim trapped in a solitary room along with the son she bore in captivity, Larson had to take precautions in order not to lose herself in the pain and anguish of the character she was playing.
“There were things I did like being open with my friends and family, making sure that they called me constantly to remind me what my name was and send me care packages,” Larson explains. “I even went so far as to take a piece of paper and draw a line down the middle with Brie and Ma at the top so that I could list all of the things that were me, and all the things that were Ma so that I could very clearly call back on it. At those moments when I thought of my problems, I could say that’s not me, that’s Ma. Learning about the brain helped a lot. Then I realized I wasn’t going down a dark path.”
Larson began her career as a child actress and even earned a deal with Universal Records at age 13, but despite spending essentially her entire life as a performer, she speaks with the poise and intelligence of person with a far deeper formal education. She is a woman who is intensely self-aware, with a keen knowledge of just how her mind works.
“In the course of the seven months I spent prepping and filling my brain with Ma, I was changing the neurological patterns of my brain so that she was accessible to me,” she says. “Your brain works as if you are functioning as this other person, so you have to be quite gentle with yourself and understanding to be a vessel for somebody. It’s important to have an understanding that it’s not you, it’s not your problems.”
Instead of referencing the obvious inspirations for Room, such as the case of Jaycee Dugard or the women held captive by Ariel Castro, Larson cites mythology instead of real-life true crime.
“This was not just some crime tale, this was Plato’s Cave. This was Rapunzel, this was Bluebeard, this was Persephone,” Larson tells. “It was these reference points woven into the story in such an innocent and delicate way that I loved.”
It was this perspective, as well as the presence of Jacob Tremblay, the young actor who plays Ma’s son Jack, that helped keep the experience of filming Room from descending into a sense of gloom.
“You remember that there’s this sense of play and ease to acting, and even though we’re telling a story of very dark material, it’s not something we need to dip that far into,” Larson relates. “The same way that Jacob brings this perspective of innocence and life to the movie, he did that on set. It was easy to not get too dark when you have him around constantly making jokes.”
In perhaps the most emotional scene of the film, Tremblay could not understand why Larson had trouble catching her breath, even though he had just seen her 10 minutes before, so he sang her Jackson 5 songs.
Despite not wanting to lose herself in evoking the terror necessary to play Ma, Larson did attempt to delve into what her character would have been like before her captivity, even going so far as to write three journals from the perspective of her character at ages 10, 14 and 17, just prior to her capture.
The most difficult period for Ma, Larson surmises, would have been the two years of captivity before she gave birth to Jack. Larson imagines that this time would have been one of near-perpetual silence. She stayed at home for a month in order to understand that silence and loneliness, what she calls “the myth of my reclusive life.”
Larson compares it to friends who would go on silent retreats in which any communication, even looking at another person, is forbidden. Some could last the entire 10 days, others would run screaming from the experience after only a short period of time. For Larson, her silence brought up moments from her childhood that she had long forgotten.
“It was something to feel the painful moments and the eureka moments,” she concludes. “There were moments that were completely beautiful, and others that were completely painful.”
Room opens in theaters Oct. 16.