In "Short Term 12," Grace is as cool, calm and capable as they come, working as an attendant at a facility for underprivileged children and dating one of her coworkers (played by John Gallagher of "The Newsroom").
But a new girl at the center reminds Grace of own troubled childhood, putting her relationship and sanity on the line. Brie Larson (who also appears in "The Spectacular Now" and the upcoming "Don Jon") plays Grace in a breakout role that requires her to carry both the movie's darker themes and its lighter, comedic moments. She talked to U.S. News about preparing for the film, which won the Grand Jury and Audience Awards at SXSW.
What first attracted you to his role?
The script was sent to me when I was in Georgia – I was working on another film – and within 40 pages I already was crying and was asking if I could please meet with the genius behind it. I couldn't believe that this was actually a script. It just felt like this transcript almost. It was so casual and impactful. Grace was complicated and this whole other internal world [of hers] was the subtext that was the driving force of the film.
What did it take for you to get into Grace's mindset?
It was listening to Norwegian black metal. I would just put headphones on – I had a few Burzum and Emperor albums that I was listening to – and get myself into this cacophony of negativity and then throw myself into a scene where I had to act like I wasn't thinking about the things I was thinking about.
How were you able to balance the dark themes with some of the lighter moments of the film?
Some of that is just from the environment we had on set. It was so fun. We were making jokes and laughing most of the time. It was not a silent, serious set, so some of that certainly bled into it. That's also something that John and I learned when we shadowed at a facility. You've got to keep it light with these kids. They've been through so much and it's very difficult for them to talk about some of these feeling that come up for them unexpectedly. The way that you create an environment that feels warm and opening is by being a little self deprecating, being funny and trying to show them by example that they're in a safe place.
At the start of the film, Grace and Mason (John Gallagher's character) are already in a long-term relationship. How did you and John get into character of two people in love but also in that comfort zone of a relationship?
We didn't have very much time before we started shooting so about three days before we started, John and I went out to dinner. John was walking out of the door and there was an envelope on the doorstep that was for John and I. It was from Destin [Daniel Cretton, the director and writer] and it said, "Do not open until you get to the restaurant."
When we got to the restaurant we opened it and there was a bunch of little conversation starters, little pieces of paper that we would draw out at random. Most of them were questions that Destin was thinking about when he was actually working in a facility very similar to the one in the film. There were also specific questions that got us to think and talk more about the mythology of Grace and Mason. So by the end of this two-hour-long dinner, we had shared stories about our childhood and figured what our first date was like and had created a whole world for them.
What kind of research did you do?
I shadowed at a facility and then spent some time outside the facility as well, just talking with line staff – people who have the same job as Grace and Mason – and picking their brain about what the day to day is like, what are the reasons for doing it, how did they decompress at the end of the day, the fuel that keeps them going, the failures and the successes that go along with this world.
What surprised you the most?
The thing that I found so inspiring and has been something that has just transferred over into my own life was the main woman I had been shadowing had been in the field for over 20 years. She is strong and firm and also very loving of these kids. I asked her, how does she do this? How does she do this for over 20 years? She so seamlessly and beautifully made her way through these kids and keep their emotions at bay. She said, "You let go." Her philosophy was when you're there on the floor with the kids you're there for them and you put everything you can in, being as aware as you can and as perceptive as you can, and you give as much as you can.
But then when you're off the clock you go home and you do things for yourself. You figure out what your hobbies are, the things that recharge you, so you never forget who you are and you can go back the next day and give more without feeling like you've given away all of yourself. It was something I had never really thought about. I just thought being as much as a selfless person was the most important thing. But you realize that if you just give it all away then you don't have the fuel to do it the next day.
So that is how I approached the film as well. I would - those 12 hours on set – give it everything. But then when I went home, it was making myself a bowl of really cheesy pasta and watching SNL and laughing and reminding myself as to who I am, so I didn't stay stuck in Grace's head.
How was acting with the younger actors who played the children and teens at the facility?
These kids were so good and so professional — in a lot of ways they were more professional than a lot of the adults that I've worked with. They were very connected to their characters and the material, so there was no pulling out a performance out of them. They came completely ready and wanting to do right by these people.
There's also a real, pure honesty that goes with their performances. They're not like these characters at all, but had this ability to tap into it and while they're doing the scene really feel these emotions. Then the second they yell cut, they're back to themselves again. And I found that really inspiring. Sometimes you work with people that do the method acting thing — they're in it all the time. And it's really refreshing, it was exciting to see that these kids even though they were playing such dark characters, that they're going to be just fine.
Do you have any dream roles you want to play?
I just like playing characters and being in movies that don't manipulate an audience and bring up questions that don't necessarily have a perfect answer, that allow us to continue to have good conversations. My favorite movies are the ones that, after you've left a film you start talking with a friend about it and then you realize 40 minutes later you're still standing in front of the theater talking about it.