Film & TV

Actor Brie Larson Makes the Leap from ‘Tara’ to ’21 Jump Street’

Film & TV

Actor Brie Larson Makes the Leap from ‘Tara’ to ’21 Jump Street’

We instantly fell in love with Brie Larson when she semi-assuredly sat on a cake, dressed as Princess Valhalla (red booty shorts, a Thor-like plastic helmet, and a blonde wig that would have made Rapunzel blush), at the bizarre request of a comic-book nerd with a pastry fetish. She let him ogle her via webcam as she asked, “Wait, before I do this, help a lady out. Do I hate this, or do I like this?” We loved it. At the time, her character, Kate—of Showtime’s critically acclaimed series United States of Tara—was going through a phase of exploring while exploiting herself on the Internet. Didn’t we all?

Created by Diablo Cody, the hyper-verbose, Oscar-winning writer of Juno and Jennifer’s Body, and based on the original idea of executive producer Steven Spielberg, the story followed Tara Gregson (Toni Colette), a wife and mother of two with Multiple Personality Disorder. In times of distress, Tara would often transform into one of her three main “alters”: T, a sexed-up, 16-year-old brat; Alice, a June Cleaver–inspired ’50s housewife; and Buck, a short-tempered, beer-guzzling alpha-redneck.

Larson played the unfortunate daughter of Colette’s erratic character, who turned into T and pressured her daughter to smoke pot, then turned into Buck and beat up her boyfriend before eventually becoming Alice, only to wash her foul mouth with soap. Given the circumstances, it’s remarkable that Larson was able to inject so much self-effacing humor and sharp-tongued sarcasm into these otherwise dire situations. Unfortunately, like so many unsung classics before it, United States of Tara was canceled before its time.

Following her brief fling with television, Larson has been busy filling her now blank schedule with a diverse slate of film projects. First, she’ll play the daughter of Woody Harrelson in Rampart, a crime drama based on James Ellroy’s story about a crooked cop nicknamed “Date-Rape Dave.” Also awaiting a release date is East Fifth Bliss, an independent comedy in which she plays Michael C. Hall’s young temptress. After that, she’ll appear in her most anticipated project: 21 Jump Street, a big-screen adaptation of the TV procedural starring Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, and Johnny Depp.

Larson was only 9 when she realized her passion for acting, and moved to Los Angeles. One of the youngest students ever accepted into the American Conservatory Theater, she quickly proved her parents weren’t foolish for uprooting the family. She appeared in sketches on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and took on the role of Bob Saget’s daughter in Raising Dad, a short-lived sitcom on the former WB network. At the tender age of 13, she ventured into music and promoted her own tracks on the Internet, which caught the attention of Tommy Mottola from Casablanca Records, who then signed her to his label without meeting her. Various guest appearances in TV shows followed, before she landed a small role in 13 Going on 30, which served as her entrance into film. Her other recent projects include the video-game inspired comedy, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, with Michael Cera, and Tanner Hall, a boarding school drama starring Rooney Mara.

Though Larson has a lot to juggle, she appears carefree when she arrives at the shoot. Dressed in a plaid skirt, Doc Martens, knee-high socks, and a sleeveless cotton shirt she’s tied into a crop top, she looks more like a schoolgirl skipping class than the in-demand actress that she is. Couture instantly transforms her, adding a timeless allure to her innocent charm.

By the time she gets her bright blue lipstick applied, Larson has already started humoring us, relaying horror stories from the night before, when she was required to attend a “very LA” event. When it comes to her place in Hollywood, if Larson feels like a deer caught in headlights, then her peers are a cackle of hyenas. It frightens her, the insincerity of so many scripted beauty queens who compete with each other for the attention of photographers, stepping and repeating all over each other. Fortunately, Larson is not the kind of girl who knows the brand of her nail polish or her mascara—the reason behind her self-proclaimed disorientation at certain red carpet interviews.

In fact, Larson doesn’t waste much time thinking about events. Instead, she’d rather go foraging for mushrooms (she is in a mushroom club, which is exactly how it sounds). While she’s inarguably beautiful, it’s her charisma that’s most magnetic. Her attractiveness gets slightly overshadowed by her coolness as she charms us with her honest mannerisms and wicked sense of humor.

Larson’s ardent approach and her boundless perspective for creative expression are clearly beyond what ‘Young Hollywood’ has to offer nowadays. She is refreshingly articulate and mature enough to poke fun at her chosen occupation. “There’s no way that auditioning hasn’t done something to my brain that has changed me in my everyday life—it’s just not possible. It’s something that I think about all the time. I feel at times like the Looney Tunes characters when they run off a cliff and then they’re running on air, until they look down and they fall.”

I meet Larson the next day at Flore Vegan, an unstuffy café in Silver Lake. While picking at lettuce leaves from my plate of salad, she considers the magnitude of her past three years. She recalls receiving the screenplay that would herald a new chapter in her young career. “I just remember reading it and being like, The part has arrived, and you are on your merry way! Everything is revealed and understood,” she says mocking her big break, what then seemed too good to be true. Not long after her audition, she received a phone call from Tara’s producers informing her that they’d cast someone else. “I fainted, because I honestly believed this was it,” she says. “It was like being left at the altar.”

Discouraged, she considered getting a “real job,” possibly as an interior designer. “I thought maybe this was a clue that I should not sit around and watch movies all day. I just felt so lost.” As luck would have it, she received another phone call from the show’s producers, asking her to audition again; they were recasting the part of Kate. She went through the distressing process once more only to land it this time. “When I was cast, everybody had already done the pilot together. All of a sudden I was there with bigger leagues, and I was thinking, Oh my gosh, I hope I’m doing this right.

At the show’s premiere, Larson finally met Tara’s executive producer, Steven Spielberg. She was about to enter the theater, when she ran into the film legend, who was blocking the entrance. “It was as if the Great Wall of China came down. I was like, I can’t walk that way. And I actually started to scoot behind him, up against the press wall, just to not even touch him, like he was an electric fence,” she says with lingering astonishment. “He accidentally stepped on my foot and I instantly went, Oh sorry! And he looked at me and said, ‘Brie! I’ve been wanting to talk to you.’ And I’m like, You know my name?” Spielberg showered her with well-deserved praise, almost none of which she remembers given the sheer panic that flooded her in the moment. He told her there that it was his kids who insisted he hires her; which had a great impact on Spielberg’s final decision. “He was like, ‘You’re killin’ it, as they say.’ That was pretty incredible,” Larson says, still in disbelief.

After three years spent working together, the cast and crew have grown into the unlikely family they were meant to portray, especially Larson and her on-camera brother, Keir Gilchrist. “He’s actually staying at my place with his girlfriend. He’s such a badass,” she says. She’s just as effusive with praise for her on-screen mother, Academy Award nominee Toni Colette. As it turns out, Larson’s admiration for the actress manifested long before their first encounter. “I’d watched so many of her movies but it wasn’t until I saw The Hours [in which Collette shares a deeply-felt kiss with Julianne Moore], and her amazing performance in it—so brief, but so impactful—that I realized what an a great performer she was.” Shortly after, Larson researched the actor, and noticed that she’d played wildly disparate characters in many of her favorite films. Larson admired her chameleon nature. “That’s when something clicked for me,” she says. “It is such an interesting and exciting way to go about it. That you’re not some brand, but ever-changing.”

She spent a good portion of her time on set trying to impress Colette. When they were about to film a scene in which Tara’s alter, Alice, tries to put soap in her mouth, she saw it as her chance to bond with the actor, “Oh my gosh, Toni Collette was going to put stuff in my mouth. I felt like I needed to prove that I was super badass and that I was real, and serious about it and wasn’t just some kid.” In a poor attempt to seem tough, Larson refused to film the scene using the substitution suggested by the prop team and insisted on using real soap instead. She thought the plan would surely secure a few points with the star, but instead it backfired uneventfully. “They were like, ‘That’s a really stupid idea. You’re going to have to do this 20 times.’” Even Colette wasn’t impressed by Larson’s wasted bravado. “We ended up using yogurt.” Larson says. “It was still gross. And I realized after the first take, that that soap was a bad idea, but I was trying to be super-cool.”

From her humble (and humbling) beginnings as a teenage pop star to her recent success on television and in film, Larson’s been testing the waters across artistic outlets—she’s even begun writing and directing her own short films. Though she is still on the greener side of experience, she will, undoubtedly, soon find herself on the set of a high-profile project, rolling her eyes at a rookie actress trying to convince the crew into doing something unnecessary, all in the name of impressing Brie Larson.