Many would say that there are few things more powerful than the bond between mother and child, and in Leonard Abrahamson’s Room, this is the truest statement you could make. Based on author Emma Donoghue’s book and screenplay, the film follows the story of Jack (Jacob Tremblay), a 5-year-old who only knows of one place: Room. His mother, whom he fondly calls Ma (Brie Larson), tries desperately to shield him from the reality of their surroundings and situations. But as it gets more and more difficult to keep up appearances, Ma comes up with a plan to finally escape their small prison and re-enter the world.
Brie Larson (Trainwreck, 21 Jump Street, Short Term 12) gives a layered and emotional performance as Ma. While in Washington, DC to promote Room, she kindly sat down with myself and several other film critics–including Travis Hopson (Punch Drunk Critics), Leslie Combemale (Patch.com), Lauren Bradshaw (Cloture Club) and Lauren Veneziani (DC Film Girl)–to talk about the film, how she connected with her character, and her relationship with her young costar Jacob Tremblay.
Larson was very gracious, thoughtful and articulate with her answers, providing us with lots of insight. Sidenote: She also likes to give hugs at the conclusion of an interview. You can read the entire interview below!
Be sure to check out my review of the film here! Room is in select theaters October 23.
Lauren Bradshaw: I was reading that you put a lot of preparation before filming and went on a limited diet and stayed enclosed in your apartment for a while. Could you talk a bit more about that and what your indulgence after?
Brie Larson: Well, I went on a restrictive diet, no carbs and no sugar, for three months before I started shooting and then three months during shooting, so about six months of no toast or sweet potatoes, which was really painful. Especially in the winter in Toronto when that’s all your body wants. And I stayed at home for a month because part of my research in trying to understand where the brain would be at seven years into being in this confined space, it’s a lot different than if we were starting a movie a week in. We can almost comprehend that easier than seven years, which is so abstract.
I remember I had friends who had gone on these silent retreats where you could go for ten days and you’re not allowed to speak to anybody, not allowed to look at anybody because that’s also seen as a form of communication. And you basically are in stillness, quiet with yourself and you see what comes up. And I had imagined that she had had years of that. So I decided to try and see what would happen for a month, which really wasn’t hard for me because I like to really be at home [everyone laughs]. What came up was really interesting because I remembered…. Whenever I sign onto a project, there are certain things I know for sure the reason why I’m interested in it, but there’s always new things and new discoveries as to why you’re connected to something.
And so in this stillness, I remembered this memory from my childhood from being around seven or eight years old, my sister about three or four, and my mom had packed up our old Mercedes and we each had a couple pairs of jeans, a couple of shirts, and we were really broke at that time. We lived in a room that was not much bigger than Room [in the film]and we basically ate ramen and those two for $0.99 Jack-in-the-Box tacos and I didn’t have any toys but I remembered it as being one of the greatest times of my life because my mom has an incredible imagination. She turned that space into something that was bigger than these four walls and there was one memory in particular that I’d completely forgotten. When we were all sleeping in bed together, I woke up to my mom in these choking sobs, but was covering her mouth so we couldn’t hear. And I remember just thinking, “This sounds like one of my toys were taken away from me,” but I didn’t know anymore than that.
When I remembered this, I realized that what had happened was my dad had asked my mom for a divorce and my mom had packed up the car, driven us from Sacramento to Los Angeles having $4000 to her name, not knowing anybody there and living my dream of wanting to be an actor and stuff. And she was figuring out what her identity was, trying to find a place and figuring out how to survive and who she was now. But I knew as a kid. I only saw that there was this world of imagination around me and it was my mom’s way of coping with that situation as well. Me and my sister were having fun and laughing and being entertained, creating this alternate reality. That was a world she could go into and live in herself and didn’t have to fully stay in her adult world of pain.
Lauren Veneziani: One of my favorite parts was watching your relationship with Jacob [Tremblay], who plays your son in the movie. Before filming, did the two of you do any bonding activities to get to know each other? Or did the relationship start when you started filming?
BL: They had us go to Toronto about three weeks before we started shooting so we had time to hang out. There was no real set plan because I just didn’t want it to feel like we were ever forced to be friends. Like if he didn’t dig me, that was totally ok and I’d figure out another way to make the movie [everyone laughs]. It was fine. Luckily, in our initial meeting we went and got pizza and he had these Star Wars figurines and I started talking to him about Star Wars and he looked at me like, “You gotta be kidding me! You know about Star Wars?” [laughs] He invited me over that night to play Lego.
We kind of had a pretty simple routine. We’d get picked up in the morning. We’d have a 30-45 minute to the production office. We’d build toys, we built all the toys you see in Room. We’d do drawings of each other. We’d spend an hour or so doing those crafts and then we’d spend a couple hours in Room, seeing that routine that you see in the beginning. We did it everyday and then sometimes they’d close the door and let us hang in there and see what we would do. I was teaching him checkers. We just hung out. It was just really natural. We just lucked out that we happen to have the same interests and enjoy each other’s company.
Travis Hopson: I really appreciate that you jump around a little bit. Indie movies, smaller movies like this, “Digging for Fire,” which I saw a few months ago and bigger movies. Do you prepare differently for either of those or are you finding yourself liking one style more than the other at this point?
BL: No. I mean I think the setting is part of what inspires and creates the final product so there’s something to the intimacy to a small set and a small crew which can create one type of movie. And then the bigness of being in a bigger movie creates another setting and another sort of creative process that is enjoyable. It’s like working with different directors. Every director has their own way of getting into it and there’s no other aspect of our life where we could be like, “I only do this,” or “I only camp in a tent.” Well sometimes you want to stay at the Four Seasons. It kind of depends on where you’re at and what you’re feeling and what you mentally need.
There are times I want to be a passenger in a car and sometimes I want to drive. The process of preparation kind of has to be the same with everyone because yes, the bigger movies seem to have not as much emotional depth sometimes, but I do think if given the right amount of time and care, and if the right people are involved, you get something like Trainwreck that has the best of both worlds. It would be a huge disservice to these larger movies where, quite simply more people are seeing, to not put the same amount of care into those.
Leslie Combemale: When you found your character in “Room,” once you were inside the character and lived in her for a while, what surprised you the most about her and about your connection to her?
BL: What surprised me the most about Ma? Well, her strength is something I would say that is something about her that always shocked me. It didn’t matter how exhausted I personally felt because sometimes these characters come into you like a spirit or odd entity that they reveal themselves to you and grab you and take you on this journey. And I was blown away by the strength that she had because I remember right before the scene where we’re [Larson and Tremblay] reunited after the escape of being so tired and standing on my mark.
I made a joke to Lenny [Abrahamson], I was like, “This is going to suck. I’m going to be so bad. Just bear with me while I figure it out.” And take one is what you see in the movie. It’s just amazing… a magical thing I can’t really explain. But in the process of making the movie, the thing that surprised me the most about the movie and about her and my connection with her was as we were shooting the escape sequence, I had always imagined the story of me giving up my son to the world and the pain of letting go of that son. But it wasn’t until we were shooting and I remember really clutching, my nails really digging into that rug.
What really came over me was not that this was my actual child, but that this was my inner child. This was my innocence, the little girl inside of me that I had to let go out into the world and I didn’t know if I was going to get her back again. And it really hit me to my core that this was not just a story of a real mother and child, but this is mother and inner child. We don’t just then live our life without innocence. We spend the rest of our lives trying to get back to that.
Mae: I read somewhere that you got someone to get you some journals and you had Ma at different stages in her life that helped you connect with her and her background story before she entered Room. Did that help you to emotionally connect to her?
BL: I was cracking myself up making those journals [everyone laughs]. It was so much fun. That’s what I do when I go home to decompress. I went to a bunch of different stores, like $0.99 stores and found everything I could get my hands on and found everything from leopard print to scotch tape, bought all the tacky pop magazines, glitter stickers and picked out notebooks. One for when she was about 10, one when shes 13 or 14, and then one for 16-17, right before she got kidnapped. It was a great opportunity for me to go back in time for myself and really channel what those years felt like.
I wanted something almost a time capsule for myself that would be triggers. So I put a lot of things that I remembered from old notes that I had written to my friends or the old journals that I had. I even was able to remember how I used to draw people when I was 10. I think you see it briefly in the movie. But I put all of that in there because that was shown near the end of the movie, and so it was something I could come back to, that I could search through. The concept being that the things she’s writing about in these journals, these things that are the most important things in her life. The nervousness that the boy at school maybe noticed her today and maybe they’ll sit together tomorrow and the pain of feeling uncomfortable in your body and wishing for highlights.
All of those I remember doing as a girl that then when she comes back to it and is basically looking through these notebooks, trying to find herself and trying to remember what was so important about her life that she wanted to get back to and there’s almost nothing there. It’s just a life. It’s just an average, ordinary life. There’s an amazing thing that happens as we get older our awareness as to what’s important grows so there’s nothing for her of her old life that’s there anymore for her to hold on to. There’s only moving forward. The past of Room and even before Room needs to be let go so there’s space for something new.