Brie Larson Takes the Lead

By Colin Bertram
|  Thursday, Aug 22, 2013  |  Updated 8:35 AM PDT
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Brie Larson (l.) and Kaitlyn Dever star in "Short Term 12"

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In "Short Term 12," actress Brie Larson makes the jump from bankable supporting player to full-fledged leading lady.

"I don’t know if it is confidence or just growing up but I feel more capable," Larson, 23, says of her experience on the film and stepping into lead role territory. "I really flourished as a leader and I enjoyed that. I didn’t cower at that, I liked that my readiness, preparedness and willingness to get the job done pushed the day along and I wasn’t at the mercy of outside factors."

Her fans had little doubt she could take the acting reins of a film and lead the charge. A native of Sacramento, Calif., Larson began studying drama at the tender age of 6 when she became the youngest student ever to attend the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.

From there, she steadily built a diverse career that has seen her appear on television shows such as "The Ghost Whisperer," "Hope & Faith" and "Community." Her most notable small screen role was as Kate, the rebellious daughter of Toni Collette's character on the acclaimed Showtime series "United States of Tara."

Larson's big screen credits include "The Spectacular Now," "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" and last year's comedic reboot of "21 Jump Street." Mere weeks before sitting down to discuss "Short Term 12" (opening Aug. 23) she had been in India filming "Basmati Blues," a political musical, and can next be seen in theaters playing opposite Joseph Gordon Levitt in "Don John's Addiction."

For Larson, the character of Grace in "12" carried not only the added pressures associated with any lead role but a storyline centered around the inhabitants at a foster-care facility for at-risk teenagers, and a script that placed equal importance on the inner emotional worlds of the characters as much as their spoken dialogue.

"The first day felt like the first day of school, and I was slightly preoccupied with the idea that I was under qualified to take this one because I was the lead and I had never been the lead on anything before," Larson says in her modest tone. "And I was afraid to admit that to everybody. I was like, really, you want to put your money on me? Okay, I guess I have to as well."

Director Destin Daniel Cretton saw the character of Grace within Larson early in the casting process. "[Brie] was really funny, but she also had something about her that was extremely thoughtful," Cretton said in a statement. "She would stop and think about things, and it was in those moments where I saw a combination of intensity and lightness, and I knew she would kick ass as Grace."

A supervisor at the foster-care facility, Grace must deal with the daily needs of her charges, in particular a new intake (Kaitlyn Dever) whose turbulent background dredges up long-buried memories from Grace's childhood past. As her demons resurface, Grace struggles to find emotional common ground with her co-worker and boyfriend Mason, played by "The Newsroom's" John Gallagher.

Larson describes Grace as "somebody who is so complex and so human and has this very alive internal world."

To ensure verisimilitude, she spent time with actual line workers, the name given to those who work within foster care facilities. "These line staff are full of wisdom, to say the least. It takes a lot of mental strength to get through not just one day but weeks and months and years. And they are incredible people," Larson said.

As the buzz around the movie grows (the film swept the Grand Jury and audience awards at SXSW), Larson remains unfazed by her growing celebrity status. When questioned about how she deals with the blossoming media scrutiny, she shrugs her shoulders and says with a wry smile, "I have no idea."

Though she professes ignorance, it's a subject that's occupied her mind of late. She lists former co-star Collette as an example of how to maintain mystery both professionally and personally. Not only can "The Hours" actress inhabit diverse characters onscreen, but she's also successful in her everyday life, says Larson.

"She has a family. Family is extremely important and she does a great job, she is a great mother. I look at her and I think that there is a way to fuel an artistic, creative self, be respected and also be a mom."

While happy to dwell in the "Short Term 12" spotlight for a brief moment, Larson maintains it's the bigger picture, the broader conversations going on out in the world that hold an enduring allure for this Hollywood veteran of 15-plus years.

"A lot of people have been telling me this is only the beginning. But I have been doing this for a long time now. When does this get to the middle bit? I don’t know," she says, choosing her words carefully. "The best way I can think of it is I have only played Blackjack a couple of times in my life, and every time I have won a lot of money. It’s always when I am in a really good conversation and I am barely paying attention to the cards on the table.

"And it never fails that the second I look and think, wow I have a lot of chips, then I start feeling like there is something to lose or to gain. And then I do lose it all and I don’t have my head on straight anymore, because these factors that don’t exist suddenly feel like they are important. And they are not important to me. So to I try to just keep enjoying the conversation and pay as little attention as possible to the chips on the table."

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