Actress and singer Brie Larson first made her mark on television, and has since appeared in such films as 21 Jump Street, Scott Pilgrim Vs The World and Rampart. She really made her mark with Short Term 12, the 2013 drama in which she starred as Grace, a supervisor in a home for troubled teenagers. It was a sensitive, thoughtful performance, and like the film itself, widely acclaimed and nominated for numerous independent film awards.
Larson’s latest film is The Gambler, a drama starring Mark Wahlberg as a well-to-do college professor with a tendency to lose money in various gambling dens. Larson plays Amy, a gifted English student who’s uniquely aware of her teacher’s insidious addiction. Although The Gambler’s very much Wahlberg’s film, Larson again brings intelligence to her role here.
Ahead of The Gambler’s UK release, we caught up with Brie Larson to talk about her performance in the film, Greek mythology, and playing alongside Woody Harrelson in Rampart.
Bit a predictable question to start with, I suppose, but what interested you in getting involved in The Gambler?
Reading the script, I was so surprised to find such an interesting depiction of a story that goes back as far as Greek mythology. The idea is, over the course of seven days – or in Greek mythology, it’s seven gates – as you go through each one, you have to remove another piece of material to get to your true, authentic self. It’s the death that leads to rebirth.
The script was that story, but really fragmented and contemporary. It was something I was excited about exploring.
It struck me that your character’s important to the story, because she’s one of the only ones that isn’t compromised in some way, or corrupted.
Yeah. I imagined that before the movie started, Amy’s gone through her own seven days that we watch Jim [Mark Wahlberg’s character] go through. So when Jim sees her, she represents to him the place that he’s fighting to get to.
I thought there were quite a few contemporary themes in here. For example, I thought of Jim as being a too-big-to-fail bank.
Oh, that’s interesting. Jim represents a really big bank?
Yeah, well, there’s a moment where he has to borrow more money to gamble with in order to pay his debts back. I thought that was quite interesting.
That is interesting. I had never thought of it like that. But I think that’s the wonderful thing about this movie, is that it’s up for interpretation.
Some of the scenes have a really laid-back atmosphere – Jim’s lectures, for example. Were those moments all scripted, or was there room to improvise in those moments?
No, that was all scripted. That was the magic of the script, that it seems like one internal dialogue, and we’re talking out loud to try to figure out what it is we’re trying to say. It was all in the script – it’s not your typical, on-the-nose, slick dialogue.
Did you watch the 70s version of the film, or did you avoid it?
I did watch it. I loved the original. When I watched the film, it was more to understand what had happened before. But it’s like Greek mythology – it’s a very human thing, to tell the same story from generation to generation. The stories change as we grow and as we evolve. We’re taking the story and putting it in contemporary terms. We’re changing certain aspects of it to reflect the moral landscape of today.
William Monahan said recently that he didn’t believe in addiction – that everything’s voluntary. Do you agree with that?
Well, I did read a scientific study recently, which said that addiction is emotionally-based, and that there’s no physical addiction in the body, which is interesting. I’m not sure. Our mental capacity’s quite strong when we get stuck in certain things, so I’m not sure it’s something we humans can even understand at this point. But I like to believe that we can change if we would like.
You have an amazing cast in this film, but did you necessarily get to meet them? For example, John Goodman?
I didn’t get to meet John Goodman. They only person I got to meet was Jessica Lang. I didn’t have any scenes with her, but just watching her was a very ‘pinch me’ moment.
I recently read that one of the ways you coped with some of the heavier scenes in Short Term 12 was to design your own typefaces. Did you have any similar mechanisms for working on The Gambler?
Well, it usually parallels what the character’s doing to continue that headspace. I was reading a lot. I was reading constantly between takes, because I thought that Amy’s constantly in her own head, in a separate world. Either in the world of a book, or observing the world from a distance. I mostly tried to not get too involved, and try to step back and watch it all unfold.
Were you prepared for the acclaim you received for Short Term 12?
Oh no. I don’t think anybody can be prepared for that. Unless you’re confident. Which I’m not.
I take it you got offered an awful lot in the wake of it, and it seems to me you’re not interested in pursuing the whole Hollywood star path.
I am and I’m not. If it happens, I’ll deal with it when I get there. I love storytelling. I love these stories of initiation. The theatre becomes this church-like experience, where you let these images wash over you. It becomes a chance to empathise and reflect, and learn something about the human condition in ourselves. So that’s my guiding light, and whatever that is – whether it’s an independent film or a huge movie, it doesn’t really matter. It’s all the same story.
Talking of empathy, the interesting thing about The Gambler was, I wasn’t sure whether I really liked Mark Wahlberg’s character. But gradually it reels you in. Do you think films need to have a universal aspect to them, even when the characters aren’t ones we can immediately identify with?
Oh absolutely. I love exploring the characters that I play, but the reason I sign on for something isn’t the details of the story, but the universal message.
Looking back over the films you’ve done over the last few years, you seem to have gone for roles that interest you rather than ones that are high-profile. The role you had in Rampart wasn’t huge, but it was an important one, I thought.
That’s nice. I didn’t know it was important, but thank you!
She complemented Woody Harrelson’s character a lot. It was interesting to see you spark off him.
Yeah. It was fun. That was at a time too when I had no name for myself or anything, so it was a surreal experience. He was amazing. In the case of that film, it was interesting, because the director lights everything. So if we were shooting in one part of the house, he’d light the entire house. And everything from the camera to the microphones could move, so nothing had to be as it was on the page, so we had these really volatile experiences.
We shot in the film where I tell him off in front of the station he works at – that was the first thing that I shot, and it was so surprising to all of us how intense and upset we all got by it. After that, the script got rewritten and retooled to explore that relationship a bit further.
It was a really effective moment. So how did that compare with Rupert Wyatt’s way of working?
I find that the projects I enjoy signing up to at the moment are with a director who’s interested in the script – isn’t completely sure what the movie is, and isn’t concerned about it. He’s just interested in going on the journey and discovering it. You never know what a movie is until you’re actually in the editing room. So I spent a lot of time with Rupert and with Mark, just the three of us in a room, bouncing ideas in a room, talking about what it really means to us. A lot of it was about the relationship between Jim and Amy, but also about how it fits into the big picture of the movie.
Brie Larson, thank you very much.
The Gambler is out in UK cinemas on the 23rd January.
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