Short Term 12 should be on your radar by now -- the film premiered at SXSW earlier this year, and is currently playing in select cities, expanding on September 20th. In the film, Brie Larson plays a social worker whose interactions with troubled teenagers begin to take new shape when she discovers she's unexpectedly pregnant. Short Term 12 examines relationships, the families that we're given and the ones we create, and how our individual experience is transformed into shared experience.
It's exactly the kind of movie that makes me love movies and writing about movies, a film that focuses on genuine personal experience, that asks its characters -- and the audience -- to look within themselves for empathy and understanding. It's a film that understands that we, as people, are made up of so many individual experiences that color who we are, that hurt us, and that can define us if we allow them to; a film that addresses how we deal with pain and how it can help us be better people -- and the beauty of what happens when we see ourselves and experiences reflected in someone else.
I had a chance to chat with Brie Larson over the phone about the film and how it changed her. There was also some talk of ponies.
First of all, you made me cry a lot when I saw this movie yesterday.
Sorry? Or, I'm not sorry.
Don't be sorry! It was good! What attracted you to this story, and the character of Grace in particular?
It's an incredibly well-written script, and an incredibly well-written character that's very complex. The script felt so natural I felt like I was reading a transcript of people talking, not like it was written dialogue. I loved everything about it. I loved that it was a movie about people finding family and learning to love themselves. I loved that it was subtly complex with this whole other internal world that was inside of Grace that I was able to create on my own, and that it was exposing a side of this world -- the foster care world -- that we weren't really that aware of.
How much work did you put in to creating Grace's back story?
Are there any bits of her back story that you feel comfortable enough to share?
I wouldn't think so. You can tell, though, that there's so much going on with these characters outside of the dialogue that's written for them. I love the way that everyone plays off of each other, and so much of the film feels rooted in ideas of empathy and reflection -- of the self and off of others. How hard was it for you to place yourself in Grace's shoes and relate to these kids?
It was not very hard at all. It certainly wasn't hard to relate to the kids because they are absolutely brilliant and miraculous in every way, and I loved every minute with them. All of the need to fight for these kids was very easy for me to understand, but it's emotionally quite taxing to play ... I think when the movie's all put together you watch about an hour of Grace struggling with her thoughts and feelings and decisions that need to be made, and in reality I was feeling that for 12 hours a day for two weeks. That is a lot for a mind and for a body, and required me to be aware of it and to find ways to decompress at the end of every day, and learn new ways to separate myself. You know, to learn the difference between Grace and Brie. It's really fun -- I know that maybe when you watch it it doesn't feel like it's fun, but it really is. I enjoyed every aspect of the process.
Was there a moment in particular when you were reading the script that made you think, "I have to do this"?
It was pretty clear from the beginning. From the very first page it just feels so authentic and honest, and it's not manipulative. I think a lot of times you find those movies that are trying to get a certain point across, or trying to get an audience to care about characters and to just simply feel -- they use little tricks, and little symbols in order to squeeze that out of your audience. You can't even see the structure of it. There's a very specific structure that's been created with the script and it's all well-balanced. It's not an accident that the movie is the way that it is, but you wouldn't know. It's this really gradual, slow-burn where suddenly you're crying and you don't even know why. That is so brilliant.
It reminded me of Precious, in the way that Precious is a really manipulative movie where a character is forced to endure so much pain and suffering, and everything feels so carefully telegraphed to elicit a certain response from the audience. Short Term 12 is the antithesis to that because it does feel incredibly genuine and honest.
I think, quite simply, if we support the films that are not trying to manipulate us -- to want to feel, to anything. It's a biased opinion. If we don't support those and support films that are telling authentic stories, then we can make a difference in the film world, and it's so important that we do it. It makes me furious sometimes when I look at the movies out in theaters.
The movie is very emotionally taxing, even as a viewer it's very taxing, but it also seems like it was physically taxing -- it's much more physically active than I anticipated.
Yeah, I didn't really realize until we were doing it how much running and restraining and exercise I was going to be getting on set.
And getting cupcake smeared in your face.
That was great. I did have to keep it on my face for continuity purposes for a couple of hours. That's not a big deal either.
This movie has been hitting a lot of people on a deep emotional level. I think that's a testament to you and your acting ability, and the whole cast, as well. How was it to work with such a talented group? Especially the kids, who are so wonderful.
It was awesome. Everybody was so good that it made everything in the movie easy, and there was no ... we never had to wait for anybody, there was never trying to get somebody prepared for a scene. Everyone was kind of ready and had a deep connection and understanding with their characters, and were ready to work and explore and have fun. It was so simple.
In the film your characters already have these connections and relationships in many cases, but was there anything you did to help build bonds between yourself and these actors you didn't know?
We really didn't have very much time. I think we only had about a week before we started shooting to kind of get all of those connections together, but I spent a day -- well, I spent like, a lunch, a couple of hours with the kids. We had our "line staff" and our "kids" all sitting in a room together, and we played Big Booty, which is that clapping, number-calling game that happens in the movie. I did little five-minute improvs with each kid, to kind of get a sense of what characters they had created because some of them were a little different than what was on the page. I created files for all of the kids.
I'd go up to each one of them after the improvs and pick their brains about what back stories they created for their characters that Grace would know. And then stuff that Grace didn't know, I wouldn't want to know and that could just be their own private thing. If there was something that would be in their file, then I wanted to know about it. It was great because it instantly gave me the rules and regulations for each kid. You can see very clearly when you watch the film that there's even a tone of voice that Grace uses with each kid because they require different ways of communicating in order to get through to them, based upon their past experiences.
The story itself feels urgent, not just in the way that it's constructed, but in the sense that it feels urgent in its need to exist. The themes of abortion, abuse, and empathy are timeless, and yet we still need stories like this to help us be more understanding people. Is there something about Short Term 12 that you personally feel is important to share with audiences?
I think that the movie covers so many incredibly important things that humans should ask themselves, and I've had the pleasure of being there at the end of the movie when people are leaving and a lot of emotions are felt, and I've asked people, "What is it that you're thinking about right now?" And they all seem to be so different and so personal that I would hate to color anyone's experience with what I see in the movie. I think it's very open for interpretation and all interpretations are welcome. As long as you're thinking and feeling, you're good.
That's the perfect way to answer that question.
I feel like the movie, again, deals so much with empathy and personal experience, and how we choose to share those experiences. I think everyone should just find the meanest person they know and take them to see this movie immediately.
[Laughs] You know what's really interesting is when it premiered at SXSW, a lot of producers and movie industry people were going to see it, and after one of the first screenings there were these 20-something, very L.A., baseball caps to the side, very low-cut tank top producers that saw the movie. And after this movie the three of them were crying and they looked really confused, and they said, "I feel like I need to be a better person!" And I thought it was the best!
Similarly, I was at Whole Foods a few weeks ago, and some lady brought a miniature pony to the parking lot and dining area.
No! That is so awesome!
It was so great, but it weirdly reminds me of what you just described because there were all these people of different ages and genders just so excited about this pony. Dude-bros in baseball caps who looked all tough were running up and like kids they were just going, "Oh my god, it's a pony!"
That's so awesome. That's amazing. It's so good to know. Maybe my next film should be about miniature ponies. They bring people together.
Yeah! Short Term 12 and miniature ponies will solve all the world's problems.
I feel like with any experience -- a relationship, acting in a movie, or even seeing a pony -- you bring your own baggage and expectations in, and you hopefully leave having learned something or experienced something that enriched you intellectually or emotionally. What did you take from this experience?
So much. I think that strangely through playing Grace I became more comfortable with myself, which I think is a weird thing to experience. In a world where ... I mean, last night I went to a concert with my little sister. We went into the girls bathroom -- it was a concert for an AIDS charity, like a benefit for AIDS kids, and we went into the bathroom and it was all of these girls with huge heels and tiny little dresses, and they're all in there frantically fluffing their hair and fixing their make-up, and I was shocked because I thought, "You're here I think because you're trying to help people, and you still don't get that what you're doing right now does not matter, and should not matter." I think, for me, I've always felt uncomfortable with wearing hair and make-up, however there are pressures in the world, and probably just from huge cosmetic companies that make you feel like to be beautiful you have to put brown cream on your face. I've always felt more uncomfortable with foundation and hair done up than I do when I'm just in my pajamas. It was a huge, wonderful lesson for myself, and I think for others with the way the movie has been received, that you don't need any of that -- you don't need any of the extra Rococo, and all of the flashy stuff. At the end of the day, we want to watch those human beings be human beings, and there's something so beautiful about the pimples that are on my face. I love 'em. Sometimes it takes -- I mean, I hope it doesn't take everybody being in a movie to figure that out. I feel stupid that it took me so long, but I feel like I found a more comfortable in my own skin person through the act of removing everything.
That's something I also admired. I write a column about women and gender issues in film and television, and something that I'm always angry about is the way magazines and tabloids manipulate us with these weird universal beauty standards.
You're absolutely right.
It's really refreshing to see a film where women and people are represented as human beings without the distraction of aspirational clothes and make-up.
Exactly. That's still a manipulation. It's all over the place. Once you're going down that rabbit hole ... I mean, that whole last week I just sat in the back there and cried for a while because I couldn't believe once I started opening my eyes more and more to the power of suggestion, you just can't believe how we're trying to be pushed in ways that are not actually human, and they're not natural for us to be doing or feeling, or judging each other for these things that are just, you know, immaterial.
So this conversation has been really serious. I want to talk about rap music because a rap song made me cry.
What is it?! I want to hear it!
It's the song in the movie!
Oh, Keith [Stanfield, who plays Marcus in the film]! Of course!
I don't know how that happened. A rap song made me cry.
It's such a powerful moment. Were you similarly affected?
I was! I wasn't there. It was one of the only times I wasn't on set 'cause I'm not in that scene ...
I didn't even know that it had happened. I was probably getting ready for something else. I think we had been done for a week, and Destin [Cretton, the writer/director] put together a little kind of teaser of some of his favorite shots and moments in the film so everyone could get the immediate satisfaction that yes, in fact we did make a movie and it happened. It was all done to that rap, and I couldn't believe it. It gave me chills. That's also not exactly how the rap was in the script. Destin and Keith worked on it together, and it's so powerful. It's also the way Brett [Pawlak], our DP, shot it. It adds to the moving nature of this performance he's giving, getting in on those eyes to really feel what he's saying.
You hear stories a lot about people filming in camp-y locations and living there during shooting, and how miserable but ultimately amazing it was. Did you guys stay at the location?
We didn't stay the night there, but we pretty much shot there. Aside from Grace and Mason's apartment and Jaden's house, everything else we just re-dressed in the same ... like, it's the hospital. We had our own little area, a couple of bungalows and one of the bungalows was the production office, and so if you had a moment you could peek your head in. And one was the bungalow that was all of our dressing rooms, and me and all the kids had our own little rooms with bunk beds, and in the center hall was where the food was and ...
I enjoyed the confinement of it. There wasn't a phone signal at all there, which I think also added to us making something really good because nobody was distracted and you couldn't even believe that an outside world existed. You show up, and I was wearing -- a lot of it was my own clothes, down to my own socks, and you show up and have no phone signal or way of contacting anybody for 12 hours. It wouldn't be until I was about 10 minutes way from that facility where we were filming at, and you'd drive down this big steep hill and all of a sudden my phone is just exploding, and back into my own world. Two different realities.
That sounds pretty amazing.
It's awesome, but it becomes very intense, though, and really hard to explain. It was very satisfying when my parents and my boyfriend and my best friend were able to see it because they would go, "Oh, that's what you were doing?!" I just didn't really talk about it and it was hard to explain because then they'd go, "So you had a cupcake smashed on your face today? What movie is this?! What are you doing?!"
You talked about how playing Grace transformed you and made you more comfortable with who you are. Has it changed the way you approach other roles? Are you looking to find more complex roles in the same vein?
I think that anything I am interested in playing has to have depth and complication to it, and also serve a purpose. I like films to bring up a lot of philosophical questions that I'm interested in exploring, and that's what drives me to keep pursuing the material and show up on set every day inspired to make it. But it also has to serve a much bigger purpose of posing philosophical questions to others, and they don't have to be just the ones I'm thinking of. I'm not making movies because I really love my face and I love the sound of my voice. It has nothing to do with me at all. It has everything to do with wanting to service these characters and these points of view and these slices of life as best as I can. And try and get some voices heard through the process. That's the main criteria for me. I'm just the vessel.
Are there any directors that you'd love to work with that do the kind of things you want to do?
Sure! I love Charlie Kaufman, and I love Spike Jonze, and I love P.T. Anderson. My favorite is Stanley Kubrick, but that's not gonna happen. I love the movies that are entertaining but also have a big mystery in it, so I'm not really opposed to anything as long as the message is there.