Brie Larson Refuses to Stick to Hollywood’s Script
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Recently, Brie Larson went to see a friend who was starring in A Streetcar Named Desire in London. As they left the theater together, the security guard told the actor that there were fans outside waiting for their programs to be signed. Larson stood near him as he did so, unbothered—and, to his surprise, unnoticed. She recalls, “I was just standing there, and he was like, ‘How is this possible?’ ”
Despite the fact that she is Captain Marvel, star of the first female-led superhero franchise in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and despite the fact that she is an Oscar winner, and despite the fact that she has been acting since she was six, Larson, now 33, is still rarely recognized in public. “If I’m checking out at the grocery store, I don’t get recognized,” she told comedian Mike Birbiglia on an episode of his podcast. “I get ‘Are you friends with my cousin?’ I am the classic face of ‘friend of your cousin.’ ”
Larson, though, is not just content with her relative anonymity; she needs it to feed her soul. “I want to be in reality. I love reality. It’s all I want,” she tells me. “My biggest fear is to not be in reality. It matters so much to me. I don’t wear super-flashy clothes when I’m out in the world because I want to stay in reality. I’m very good at confrontation in my relationships because I want to be in reality. I want to be in what’s as close to what’s true as possible.”
It’s noon on an overcast day in February, and Larson and I are ensconced at a bar in London starting in on our first of three cocktails. Larson, who lives in Los Angeles, is in London shooting additional scenes for The Marvels, the upcoming Captain Marvel sequel, at Pinewood Studios, “hanging from wires in a superhero suit, fighting imaginary aliens.”
Larson has suggested that we take a cooking or magic class, so we are doing a bit of both. We are learning to mix cocktails at Le Magritte, a “classic American bar” in the early-20th-century style (think walnut-paneled walls and red leather stools) located off the lobby of the Beaumont hotel. The actual cocktails, though, are for the most part inspired by the bar’s namesake, the Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte.
"I WANT TO BE AS CLOSE TO WHAT'S TRUE AS POSSIBLE"
We have the bar to ourselves. Larson is wearing a kelly-green cardigan with a Los Angeles County Museum of Art sticker still on it; she recently went there to see an exhibit on the Transcendental Painting Group, a passel of esoteric American artists from the 1930s and ’40s. As we take our first sips of the “Larry Sent Me”—pisco, Muyu Chinotto Nero, pineapple juice, house-made pandan syrup, Peychaud’s bitters, and a vegan foamer, named after a popular secret password used to access speakeasies in the 1920s—we fall into a conversation about liminal states and dream realities. Manuel, our contemplative white-coated Italian bartender, explains that the cocktails were concocted by the hotel’s bartending team during freewheeling brainstorming sessions: “Like fantasy hour,” he says, “in which all of us throw ideas on a table without judgment.”
“Ooh, take us to fantasy hour!” Larson enthuses.
And then—I’m not kidding—completely of its own accord, a cork spontaneously flies out of a champagne bottle chilling in a silver bowl nearby as if to signal agreement with an emphatic pop!
“We’ve entered the fantasy hour!” Larson exclaims.
“That was surreal,” I tell her.
“Welcome to my life,” Larson says.
In addition to The Marvels, Larson recently wrapped both Fast X, the latest chapter in the Fast & Furious franchise (“Is it bad that I think they’re amazing?” Larson says), and Lessons in Chemistry, an Apple TV+ adaptation of the best-selling book by Bonnie Garmus, which Larson both stars in and executive produced.
Set in the 1950s, Lessons in Chemistry is about a brilliant scientist who is forced to become a TV chef after she is fired from the lab where she was underemployed as a tech—a woman in a hostile, male-dominated world that sees her as an unwanted interloper. Larson, whose casting as Carol Danvers, the Air Force pilot turned superhero, in the original 2019 Captain Marvel unleashed a tsunami of misogynistic trolling and abuse, can relate. The movie was also the first female-led superhero film to gross more than $1 billion.
Between Captain Marvel and now, Larson also teamed up for the third time with director Destin Daniel Cretton (she’d previously worked with him on 2017’s The Glass Castle and 2013’s Short Term 12) on Just Mercy, about a wrongfully convicted death-row inmate. In 2020, she won an Emmy in the Outstanding Original Interactive Program category for producing an episode of The Messy Truth VR Experience, a series that bills itself as using virtual reality to build empathy. She created and executive produced a docuseries about adolescence, Growing Up, and starred in Remembering, an augmented-reality short-form fairy tale, both for Disney+, and she also voiced the character the Paradigm in a recent season of Fortnite Battle Royale.
“I WANTED TO PROVE THAT I COULD PUT STUFF OUT AND IT WASN’T GOING TO BE LIKE, ‘OH, MY GOD, I CAN’T BELIEVE SHE SAID THAT.’ ”
Larson’s eclectic career choices are what she gets asked about the most. After winning an Oscar for Best Actress for her raw portrayal in the wrenchingly emotional A24 film Room in 2016, at the age of 26, there was an expectation she’d follow suit with similarly weighty roles. Instead, Larson pursued an unpredictable string of action movies, a quirky comedy (Netflix’s Unicorn Store, which she also directed), and even a musical (the critically panned Basmati Blues) before joining the MCU as Captain Marvel. People find her answers about her résumé confusing. “I’m like, Well, if I said, 'What would you like for breakfast a year from now?' you would be like, I don’t know. I just don’t know.” She understands why people like consistency. “It makes them feel like everything is going to be okay.”
During the pandemic, Larson took a deliberate step back—into her garage, to be precise. With the world on pause, she started her own YouTube channel, Brie Is Online! The channel, which has since acquired nearly 700,000 subscribers, was an attempt to be “free to be nothing.” On it, for the past couple of years, she has made videos chronicling her adventures in working out, ad-hoc baking, video games, composting, air frying, and crafts. She loves crafts. Her latest obsession is darning. She also did a podcast, Learning Lots, with a friend, the actress Jessie Ennis, as a place to dive deep with interesting people on subjects like regret, reflection, and flow. Rather than capitalize on her fame or “extend her brand,” as A-list actresses are now wont to do, she used it to test whether she could be in the world without triggering a tempest. “I wanted to prove that I could put stuff out and it wasn’t going to be like, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe she said that’ or ‘I can’t believe she did that.’ ” The past three years have given her perspective. She was grappling with big questions rooted in deep feelings, like “Am I allowed to exist? Am I allowed to just be lovable as I am? Am I worthy of just being here?”
Larson loves video games because they are similar to acting: Doing a take is like playing, dying, and starting over. When she was preparing for Room, Larson spent nine months creating her character by reproducing her circumstances as best she could. She restricted food, stayed out of the sun, and remained in her house for a month before shooting began. After it was over, she was left “with all these memories and this residual feeling,” she says, as if she had experienced something big. It took her a year to feel like herself again. “You rewire your brain to think a certain way, and then you have to get an exit strategy. I didn’t have one. And it made me feel stupid, because I’m like, ‘This is not my life, but I feel it is. In my head.’ ”
Our bartender points out a Magritte reproduction right behind us. “It’s not a pipe,” Larson says, regarding the famous The Treachery of Images, otherwise known as Ceci n’est pas une pipe. “It’s not a pipe.”
Rather than become one thing, she tries to remain in a flow state: “That’s the through line.” She doesn’t make strategic moves or base her decisions on money or world domination. She resists categorization because she doesn’t think it will serve her as an artist or a person—because she wants to continue to live her life as a pipe and not as a picture of a pipe.
Larson has acted professionally almost her whole life, since she told her mom at the age of six that it was “her dharma.” Her mom was surprised she knew what “dharma” was or what acting was, but two years later, after her parents divorced, she moved with her mom and sister from Sacramento to Los Angeles so she could pursue a career in the entertainment industry. Larson grew up poor and was homeschooled as a kid, spending a lot of time in her room, making things up. It’s important to her to stay connected to who she is, to remain grounded in the world.
Occasionally, Larson has to make an effort to keep her life and her characters’ lives separate. On Lessons in Chemistry, the set was connected and walkable. Everyone was dressed like it was the 1950s, and the cars were from the 1950s. She would wake before sunrise and drive to work and go into this building to live this other life, and by the time she left, it was dark again. “The only time I was myself was in the car and asleep. And after two weeks, I really had to sit there and go, ‘My name is Brie. It is 2022. Right outside that door it is downtown Los Angeles and no one knows about what’s happening in here. No one cares.’ ”
“ANYTIME I FEEL LIKE I’M BEING PUT TOO MUCH ON A PEDESTAL, IT’S MY JOB TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO REMOVE THAT WITHIN MYSELF.”
“What’s astounding is, you’re talking to her,” says Lessons in Chemistry showrunner Lee Eisenberg, “and then the director calls action, and all of a sudden, you just see her eyes change and she becomes this different person.”
“We were doing a scene that was more emotional,” The Marvels director Nia DaCosta recalls, “and Larson turns to me, take three or four, and goes, ‘So, I’m holding the tears in, but if you want them to fall, let me know.’ The kind of control she has over her instrument is really impressive.”
Larson is wary of the dehumanizing effects of global superstardom. Promoting a finished project can produce a sense of alienation as well. “You do press at certain times,” she says, “not when you’re lost. Not when you’re questioning yourself.” She can reflect back on it but finds that doing so during moments of success doesn’t tell “the whole story of what it is to be a human, not even close.”
This is why the idea of doing Captain Marvel frightened her at first. “I was scared of what would happen to me,” she says. She worried that it would cost her the ability to be a person in the world for the rest of her life, that it would prevent her from doing the things she loves, like going to museums, which nourish her ability to play other people on screen. The choice felt surreal.“I was like, ‘What world is this, where these are the choices I have to make as an artist?’” Ultimately, the opportunity warranted the risk, but a billion-dollar franchise generates expectations. Larson is diligent about containing them. “Anytime I feel like I’m being put too much on a pedestal, it’s my job to figure out how to remove that within myself,” she says.
In the past couple of years, Larson has developed confidence and a stronger sense of self. She attributes part of that to getting into fitness. She learned new things about what she was capable of, how resilient she was, how she could say no. Vin Diesel tells me that she based her character in Fast X on his eight-year-old daughter, who was wearing a jacket with “Good Vibes Only” printed across the back when they met. “Brie went to the wardrobe department and had them re-create the jacket,” he says. “She wore it throughout the movie.”
“I think you would love the last cocktail,” Manuel tells us. “It’s a mezcal cocktail, so it’s like a magic one.”
Mezcal is Manuel’s favorite. “There’s so much magic behind it,” he says. “High priests and shamans used it to purify body and soul. It’s always been considered something to try to elevate consciousness. It takes seven years for an agave plant to ripen. Then you need to give the field some time to rest. They say a full year before planting again, otherwise you would just destroy the soil. … You need to give the soil a rest.”
Larson gets this. When she goes too long without taking the time to experience life, it starts to feel strange. “It’s like you’re just being a copy of a copy of a copy. You can’t play a character that’s based off of—I don’t know—watching documentaries and secondhand information.”
"I HAD ALL THE SAME NORMAL FEARS AS EVERYBODY ELSE ABOUT BEING SINGLE AND BEING 30"
Three years ago, she was being offered lots of roles that were variations on Room, but she felt she needed to recalibrate. She was turning 30 and feeling nervous about it. “I had all the same normal fears as everybody else about being single and being 30,” she says. Aside from everything that was happening in the public eye, she felt she would soon be called to make big life choices. “What do I want? How does a family and a future fit in with my weird life?” In October, she turned 33. “That’s such a big place to be in,” she says. “Certain existential questions come up.”
Larson’s team used to joke that she was making awkward choices and not following a well-laid path long before she had any right to. “We do these cover stories, and they tell a story, like everything made sense, but it didn’t.” A couple of years ago, she was at a David Hockney career retrospective, and his life and work looked so cohesive that it made her cry. “I was like, ‘I’ll never be like that. Maybe I’m not even an artist.’ ” Then she realized that that’s not how he must have experienced it. It only made sense in retrospect.
In the end, the thing about her choices is that they’re hers. “What I always come back to is, I have to live with myself in a way that nobody else has to. The choices I make, I have to live with, whether I regret them or not,” she explains. “Artistically, I always understood that. But for some reason, as me, it’s been totally different. You can follow me around on set and be like, ‘Wow, she really knows what she’s doing.’ And then I go home and I’m like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’ I get insecure, and I think I’m not enough, or I have a hard time asking for help or speaking up for myself in relationships.”
For now, she’s open to whatever. “I don’t have a next job. I don’t have a home. I don’t have a partner. I don’t have a plan. I’m just completely open,” she says. She’d like to have kids, though “how that happens, when that happens, in what capacity—I don’t know,” she says. She’s enjoying losing track of time (“I start to get back into What do I like to eat? What time do I wake up? What time do I go to sleep?”), exploring the world, going to art museums, and replenishing her creativity. Without this, she couldn’t take another job. “I have nothing left to give unless I go through this period of adventure.”
Hair: Cim Mahony for Studio Cim Mahony; Makeup: Nina Park for Decorté; Manicure: Jada-Elize Lorentz for Chanel Le Vernis; Production: Mayor Productions; Set Design: Amy Stickland.
This article originally appeared in the April 2023 issue of Harper's Bazaar.
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