Oscar-nominated Brie Larson was a shy kid

Effortlessly affable and level-headed Room star Brie Larson is comfortable with acting but not with going to a friend's birthday party

When Irish film director Lenny Abrahamson cast up-and-coming American actress Brie Larson for the lead role in his kidnap- escape-salvation drama Room, he knew that "if we're going to make believe this at all, we're not going to have an actress who'll worry about what her complexion looks like".

Barely months since the film debuted to a hush of critical acclaim on the festival circuit, the actress has won a Golden Globe award and been nominated for an Oscar.

In person, Larson wears a plain shift dress to an interview with The Straits Times.

The signature sans-make-up, no-nonsense persona that has served her well in recent movies as the supervisor of troubled teenagers in Short Term 12 (2013), and also as the sensible sister of Amy Schumer's character in Trainwreck (2015), wears - surprise - a fine sheen of pink-orange foundation. Her hair - mousey-blonde on screen - glitters like gold in an array that has seen the attention of a seasoned stylist. And there is definitely mascara and lipstick, although subtle and unobtrusive.

"I was really, really shy as a kid, so I know when I apparently told my mum I knew what my dharma was and that I wanted to be an actor, she must have laughed," Larson begins, talking about her early aspirations for the profession.

"There's this dichotomy I had to deal with where performances were perfectly comfortable, but going to a friend's birthday party… I'd have a heart attack."

Effortlessly affable and projecting a quiet level-headedness, Larson, 26, reminds you of another underdog-turned-A-list star Jennifer Lawrence. Except that in the gentle smiles she shows you, there is also a sense that she is gently watching - the scene, yourselves and herself.

"I think I was always a little sponge as a kid and I was always looking for more information constantly. In order to keep up, I burned through all of our VHS Tapes - Pocahontas, Sleeping Beauty, Sesame Street," she muses of her childhood.

"My mum was trying to entertain us with Gone With The Wind and Fried Green Tomatoes. She just put those on and I got obsessed. I made all these re-creations of Gone With The Wind."

Larson, who has French- Canadian roots, was raised in California as the daughter of two chiropractors. In a long-term relationship with musician Alex Greenwald, she takes stock of her newfound fame and - surely a big career turning point - with aplomb and wariness.

"I don't find acting competitive - I don't think it's one versus another. When you hire an actor, I think you're hiring a life experience," she says.

"It's much more comfortable and exciting when you feel like these jobs and these stories are going to the right person and the person who is best able to embody and express these stories."

In the 118-minute Room, she plays the unnamed Ma, a high-school student kidnapped as a teenager and imprisoned in a garden shed with the son resulting from rape by her captor. The film's dark theme, based on a book by writer Emma Donoghue, does not make for easy digestion. But in Abrahamson's and Larson's hands, moments of distilled joy are unwittingly revealed.

"The room isn't a terrifying place," Larsen decides.

Her delicate chemistry with eight-year-old co-star Jacob Tremblay has resulted in many innocent slivers of mother-and- child intimacy captured preciously on film.

She adds: "Some of the things that happened in the room were traumatic, but I actually found the room to be a beautiful space that in some ways it was hard to say goodbye to."

It is her character's gripping escape that turns the story on its head and lurches into a new kind of psychological family drama.

She recounts the particular moment: "I just remember shooting a lot on that day. I was very tired. I was telling Lenny, 'I don't think I have any more tears to shed today.' He said: 'Take a second and I want you to run out.'

"I didn't know where Jack was, which car he was in. And then I ran out. And then afterwards, I had zero memory. This scene was over and I was pretty hysterical and the producers and everyone came over to me and, god - put me in a car, and the driver said, 'Are you okay?' And I just fell asleep instantly."

Larson's version of method acting here has put her in the league of the great actresses of her generation. This has no doubt been affirmed by numerous nominations and wins at the Golden Globes, Bafta, SAG, Critics' Choice and Indie Spirit awards, among others, in addition to the Oscar nomination.

The actress, who admits to have otherwise pretty much only toiled away on the independent film circuit and a few TV shows placed "on hold", puts it down to making herself seek challenges.

"There should always be this little bit of fighting for it, it shouldn't be like 100 per cent," she explains.

"There's going to be so much time to make some good movies and then have some failures and then make some good ones. I'm just open to the experience in general. Room was the hardest thing I've ever done to date."

There is a shy hint of a grimace in Larson's face here, but it disappears as quickly as she gets caught up in the excitement and detail of talking about the set, the back-stories and Abrahamson. The film was shot chronologically and featured plenty of claustrophobic close camera work in a space that she co-created with designers and co-actors.

"In some ways, it reminded me of when I was 10 and my sister was six. My mum remarried and we had the grand idea of renting an RV, but basically from Day One, we just wanted to kill one another because there was not enough space," she recalls.

Getting out of the shed for the second part of the film's arc was as much for the entire cast in spirit as it was for logistics.

Larson tells, in one long mirthful breath: "It was like, 'Come on, Brie, bring this home, you're doing this escape for all of us!' Except that by the time we're out of the world, it's the depth of winter in Toronto and it's freezing cold and we have to start at five in the morning instead of our casual eight or nine and we'd get trapped in snowstorms and you're filming outside and it's freezing and suddenly the crew was like, we wish we were back in the room."

The torturous wait until this point, as well as the eventual anti-climax that makes the film more than a kidnap or escape movie, was worth it. The second half of the film is a movie in itself asking the good question of "what next?", full of moments of redemption and affirmation. That Abramhamson and team decided to push it all the way to the end, Larson reckons, comes from "a real respect for the audience who is participating and for the journey I'm leading somebody on".

"Someone is going to spend two hours of his precious life. It needs to be something that is life-affirming, something that's important. There aren't much bigger themes more important than growing up, becoming a parent, what is freedom, how does love survive in such dire circumstances," she elaborates.

"It takes a long time to make a movie and takes even longer to talk about it. It needs to be something that will grow with you... so that every time you talk about it, it's not the same thing."

Her life may be the same, to hear her tell it. "As for finding myself, I don't think I have yet. I maybe understand certain aspects of myself, but the second you think you know yourself, it then becomes out of your grasp," she muses.

"It's a constant hide-and-seek."

  • Room is in cinemas
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 20, 2016, with the headline 'Two faces of Brie Larson'. Print Edition | Subscribe