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Actress Brie Larson Finds Light Within The Darkness Of 'Room'

Ma (Brie Larson) snuggles with her son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) in <em>Room.</em>
George Kraychyk
Ma (Brie Larson) snuggles with her son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) in Room.

In the new film Room, actress Brie Larson plays Ma, a woman who has created an elaborate fantasy world for her 5-year-old son, Jack. The fantasy covers a harsh reality: She and Jack are imprisoned in a small backyard shed by the man who abducted Ma as a teen and raped and impregnated her.

Adapted from a novel by Emma Donoghue (also called Room), the film tells a dark story, but it's made lighter by the fact that Jack doesn't understand their predicament. They find comfort together in their small space with the daily routine and the games that Ma devises for Jack.

Larson tells Fresh Air's Ann Marie Baldonado that Jack's innocence in the face of trauma reminds her of her own childhood. Larson's parents split up when she was a girl, and she and her mother and younger sister subsequently moved into a small room that wasn't much bigger than the one inhabited by Ma and Jack.

"We had very few things," Larson says. "I had a couple pairs of jeans, a couple shirts. And same with my mom and sister. I think my sister had, like, two toys. We were living off of instant noodles."

And yet, Larson says, despite the starkness of the room, her memories of the time are very positive. "I've always remembered that time as being one of the greatest times in my life," she says. "I think because this was such a strong imaginative world that she had created for me and my sister, it was one that she could live in as well."

"Because of that," Larson says, "I felt really strongly that there was a way to tell the story of Room in a way that was relatable — that it was plausible that life could be made out of this small space with these circumstances."

Interview Highlights

On how Ma's character in the book is different from her character in the film

The character of Ma [in the book] is not a complete one. She's just sort of this ethereal essence in a way. It's all told from the boy's perspective, from this 5-year-old's perspective, and so everything about Room has this sort of dreamy innocence to it, and so you don't get to see the complexity of his Ma. In his eyes, she's doing great and their life is awesome and there's nothing outside of "Room." And that's not a big deal — that's great because it's just the two of them and that's all they need.

So the movie became a great opportunity, once I was reading the script, to really make Ma three-dimensional and to show all of the complexity and all of the ways that this room is wearing down on her.

On how her experience as a child actor informed her work with Jacob Tremblay, who plays Jack

I remembered the times that I was talked to like a person and the times that I was talked to like a kid. I really had a passion for acting at Jacob's age and I wanted to do real things. I didn't want to do a fish stick commercial — I wanted to do monologues and I wanted to cry and I really wanted to express emotion. And I felt frustrated when I was reduced to being a child. I wanted to be a creative force, just like everybody else. So that was something that I was really aware of in meeting Jacob and realizing that acting is not a game for him. Acting is something he really cares a lot about, that he's very committed to.

On "rewiring" her brain to inhabit the role of Ma

It's an interesting process, because I think the brain just wants to help you so much that it latches onto things, and it'll put things at the forefront of your brain. So, for instance, with Room, as I was prepping in those eight months, things like my wrists had to be sore. And so I started wiring my brain to think that my wrist was sore, so that by the time we started shooting, I didn't have to remember, "Oh, my wrists are sore; I can't do that." I almost felt it like a phantom pain in my wrist.

And you do that with all sorts of things, and you do it ... so that when you're on set and you can be in the moment, you can listen to the other person and you can almost surprise yourself with what your reactions are. You don't have to think, "Oh, I can't do that, because my wrists hurt," or "I can't chew like that, because I've got that bad tooth," or "I'm really sluggish and tired, because I don't have vitamin D." You inhabit it. ... The brain is quickly going, "Let's put that stuff right at the front so that Brie can really access it right away." But then when the movie is done you have to clean house and rewire your brain again.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Ann Marie Baldonado is an interview contributor and long-time producer at Fresh Air with Terry Gross. She is currently Fresh Air's Director of Talent Development. She got her start in radio in 1997 as a production assistant at WHYY and joined Fresh Air in 1998. For over 20 years, she has focused on the show's TV and film interviews. She became a contributing interviewer in 2015, talking with comedians, actors, directors and musicians like Ali Wong, Kumail Nanjiani, John Cho and Jeff Tweedy. In 2020, Baldonado hosted the limited-run podcast Parent Trapped, about the struggles of parenting during the pandemic. She talked to Julie Andrews about encouraging creativity in your kids, and comedian W. Kamau Bell about what to watch with them.