Brie Larson‘s ascent in recent years has reached near-mythical proportions. There was her breakout role in 2013’s phenomenal but criminally underseen drama Short Term 12; two years later the Sacramento native was riding a steady wave of buzz and accolades all the way to an Academy Award win for Room.
This year alone, Larson, now 27, has already starred in three movies (Kong: Skull Island, Free Fire, and The Glass Castle), is prepping for Marvel’s first female-led superhero outing, Captain Marvel (2019), and somehow, some way, found the time to not only act in but also make her directorial debut with the whimsical new comedy Unicorn Store, which premiered last week at the Toronto International Film Festival.
But her journey has not been all unicorns and rainbows. “I started auditioning when I was 7, and I wasn’t getting anything until like two years ago,” Larson told Yahoo Entertainment at TIFF, where she was joined by costar Mamoudou Attie. “Maybe I’d get one job a year so my IMDb looks sort of relatively healthy… But I was broke my whole life.”
Tapping into that struggle is what allowed Larson to connect to Kit, the down-and-out dreamer she plays in Unicorn Store. At the onset of the coming-of-age story, scripted by Samantha McIntyre, the free-spirited, creatively rebellious Kit flunks of out art school and is forced to move back in with her parents (the reliably entertaining Bradley Whitford and Joan Cusack). She’s in a full-fledged quarter-life crisis, toiling away in the vanilla confines of an advertising agency’s office space, when she receives an invitation from a mysterious, eccentric man (Samuel L. Jackson) promising her a real live unicorn.
“I’m still feeling insecure all the time, and most of my life has been massive failures. It’s just that now we only really talk about the successes,” Larson said. “I’ve failed for like 99 percent of my career. It’s only in the last couple of years where I’ve had a few successes and now suddenly I seem like a success story.”
The actress has indeed worked steadily over the past decade, with supporting roles in films like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010), Rampart (2011), 21 Jump Street (2012), and The Spectacular Now (2013). But as recently as 2015, the same year she wowed audiences in Room, she had a low-billed role in the Amy Schumer vehicle Trainwreck.
And what her résumé doesn’t indicate is all the projects she couldn’t close on. “I don’t even think I can be honest with myself with how many auditions I’ve gone on my life and almost all of them I didn’t get,” she said. “We’re talking about tens of thousands of auditions.”
The clout Larson has compiled over the past few years no doubt put her in a better position to make her debut behind the camera with Unicorn Store, which she’s been working on since wrapping production on The Glass Castle last summer.
Like another film that had TIFF in a frenzy last week, Darren Aronofsky‘s mother!, one of the aspects that drew Larson to the undeniably quirky story was that it was steeped in deeper meanings. “It was so rich in metaphor and allegory for so many different things,” she said of McIntyre’s script. “It depends on which way you wanna look at it. The unicorn could be about your biggest dream or our childhood dream or just connecting with your childhood or your spirituality or your sense of self or awareness of others outside of yourself because the horn represents the third eye…”
Attie interjects: “Damn, you went deep with this!” The young actor, who portrayed hip-hop icon Grandmaster Flash on Baz Luhrmann’s Netflix series The Get Down, is enjoying a breakout year of his own, having earlier gained noticed for his part as the oddball, recluse music producer Basterd in the Sundance sensation Patti Cake$.
In Unicorn Store, Attie plays Virgil, the home improvement retail clerk who reluctantly agrees to help Kit construct a stable for the pending arrival of her creature, even as he worries about her mental state. Attie fully embraced having an actor as shot caller on set. “I hate it when somebody like talks to me like a kid,” he said. “If there was something to be said, she would just say it very efficiently and very honestly. It was just clear and awesome.”
Larson cited Agnès Varda (and particularly her work on 1962’s Cleo from 5 to 7), Todd Solondz, and Spike Jonze as filmmaking inspirations, calling them “people who are unafraid to look at the world and say, ‘Things are weird here… It’s not normal what we’re doing here as humans, and it’s funny and it’s weird.”
With Unicorn Store, Larson wanted to “push the envelope as to what an independent film can really accomplish. You have a lead character who’s incredibly innovative and making things out of nothing, will build art pieces out of trash, and so when you have that working for you, it means that you can sort of stretch your budgets because nothing has to be super glamorous.”
It remains to be seen whether or not Larson will find the same level of success in her filmmaking endeavors that she’s (finally) found in front of the camera. But she’s already proven one thing: She’s not afraid to fail in the process.
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