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Marvelous: Let's Talk About Brie Larson

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Celebrity | July 26, 2017 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Celebrity | July 26, 2017 |

As San Diego Comic-Con wrapped up, thus ensuring the continuing pop culture domination of the Marvel universe, its extensive array of stars took to social media and beyond to help promote the upcoming slate. Selfies were posed for, tweets were sent and fans rejoiced. Small scale interaction with your audience isn’t exactly a necessity when you’re the biggest entertainment juggernaut on the planet next to Star Wars, but some of the ensemble went above and beyond the PR mandated platitudes.

Twitter’s been good for the Marvel A-Listers: Samuel L. Jackson (6.78m followers) keeps his iconic cadence and charisma shining through with each tweet; Mark Ruffalo (3.29m followers) primarily uses his page for engaging with his preferred political activism, with the occasional movie tweet and family moment thrown in; and Chris Evans (6.28m followers) has basically become real life Captain America, only his Nazi punching is metaphorical and he likes dog pics more.

With this trio and their social media, you get a real sense of their personalities, their professional images, and what makes them so alluring (Jeremy Renner, by contrast, feels even more like a cipher through his Instagram, despite obvious attempts to seem more approachable). One Marvel name I don’t see mentioned so much in these circles, despite her incredible social media prowess, is Brie Larson. This is probably because she hasn’t been in a Marvel movie yet, and has only properly kicked off promotional work for the franchise at Comic Con, but for the past two years, having accumulated over 598,000 followers, Larson has excelled at the Twitter game. In many ways, her account is a natural extension of what makes her so notable in an industry where pretty twenty something white women actresses are as disposable as toilet paper.

Larson’s Twitter account has a lot of Marvel messages, but more than any of her cohorts, she seems willing to engage on a personal level. She’s mastered the flashback tweets, posting delightfully embarrassing throwbacks to her tween star days and fashion disasters. Her book tweets are fascinating but never inauthentic, her activism is deeply earnest, and she regularly chats with and retweets voices in need of amplification, from posting suicide prevention hotlines to sharing advice from fellow users on engaging intersectionally as a better ally. So much of her feed reminds me of the profiles of Twitter friends, mixing silliness with seriousness and truly desiring an opportunity to listen to under-represented voices. Granted, those friends don’t have Oscars or post pics with Cate Blanchett, but we can all dream.

It seems silly to start any discussion of an Oscar winning actress and future geek icon with a deep dive into their social media postings, but they demonstrate something crucial about Larson: She’s far more interesting than she’s given credit for, and her unique attributes are often overlooked so she can be dismissed as the pseudo-Emma Stone or Jennifer Lawrence. Despite having the top accolade Hollywood can offer, plus a starring role as the only leading female superhero right now next to Wonder Woman, I seldom see Larson discussed in wider fandom or critical circles. On an episode of the highly recommended Lainey Gossip podcast Show Your Work, Lainey and Duana discussed whether or not we were supposed to care about Larson. While the pair were mostly ambivalent about her, I believe she’s worthy of reconsideration and a closer glance. Like her Twitter account, she has some fascinating layers to peel back.

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Brie Larson was born Brianne Sidonie Desaulniers in Sacramento, the grandchild of French Canadians from Manitoba. She was home-schooled from a nearly age and her first language growing up was French. The name ‘Larson’ came from an American Girl doll called Kristen Larson, a Swedish immigrant struggling with the hardships of her new life. On The Tonight Show, she explained the choice as a way to get over others constantly mispronouncing her surname, and also so that ‘Kristen can be in our family.’ She started acting at the age of nine in sketches on Jay Leno’s run of The Tonight Show before moving into pilot season and landing the daughter role in a Bob Saget sitcom, Raising Dad. It only lasted a season and isn’t remembered with much fondness, although several of Larson’s other child-star projects are. She’s one of the six chick gang in 13 Going On 30, she starred alongside young Logan Lermen in the adaptation of Carl Hiaasen’s Hoot, and she even put in her time on the Disney Channel circuit, in a drag racing sisters comedy called Right on Track.

Like other Disney proteges of the era - although Larson herself was never officially on their roster - Larson dabbled in a teen singing career. She landed a major deal with Casablanca but only released one album, the painfully teen offering Finally Out of P.E.. To her credit, her efforts on what can best be described as the audio exemplification of mid 2000s American adolescence did include some song-writing work of her own. The songs aren’t bad and neither is her voice but it’s too much of a time capsule to look at now with clearer eyes. There’s a lot of Mandy Moore in there, with twinges of that patented Disney sound to soften the guitar before it rocks too hard. In the video for ‘She Said’, she even looks like a strange hybrid of Moore and Avril Lavigne. After some label delays, Finally Out of P.E. was released in October 2005 and sold around 4,000 copies. A follow-up never materialised, although one was teased.

Larson isn’t usually thought of as a former child star, not in the way many of her contemporaries are. This is probably because her early career wasn’t particularly memorable. That’s not a bad thing, since it allowed her to simultaneously have a clean-ish slate to make her adult debut with while benefitting from enough years in the industry to have honed her craft. She had the luxury to dabble in music without it haunting her like Marky Mark’s Funky Bunch days or being turned into a walking joke. As she left the terrible teens, Larson’s work grew more varied and allowed her to build up a reputation as an indie favourite. She had a supporting role in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg, she played Envy Adams in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, giving her a chance to sing once more, and she kissed jonah Hill in 21 Jump Street. Arguably the highlight of this early 2010s era came from her supporting performance in the criminally underrated dramedy United States of Tara.

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The Showtime series isn’t discussed much in terms of the prestige TV output, but it’s a series that offered a fascinating and increasingly dark take on a tricky topic. Toni Collette starred (and won an Emmy) as the eponymous Tara, a suburban housewife living with dissociative identity disorder. Larson played Tara’s teen daughter Kate, and what could have been the token bratty kid role evolved into a complex, abrasive portrait of an adolescent girl desperately trying to find her identity in a family where her own mother has several. Larson credits the show with giving her ‘a safe place where I was so loved and understood and nurtured’, and compared the experience following the series’ cancellation to ‘graduating high school and wondering which college you were going to. That was my home. That was my place with my people for three years of my life. I was there from 18 to 20, such an important part of my life.’ She wouldn’t have to wait too long, as two years later would see the premiere of Short Term 12.

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Larson auditioned for the lead role via Skype, and prepared for shooting by shadowing staff at a group home for troubled teens, akin to the one her character Grace supervises in the film. It became a festival success, winning the Grand Jury and Audience Awards in the Narrative Feature category at South by Southwest, and landed Larson the reviews of her career. A slew of critics awards followed as well as her first Independent Spirit Award nomination, and for good reason. Larson is achingly good as Grace, a deeply empathetic figure who works hard to help others but struggles with her inability to help herself. That brief sounds like a typical character beat but Larson plays it stripped of pretentiousness, flowing naturally with the film’s emotions. If the film had been a bigger success, this would have been a star-making performance for her. For now, Larson remained a low key treasure.

She flipped easily from bit parts in film to bit parts in TV, including a three episode run on Community. Larson was always working, with no fewer than nine credits to her name before her true breakout happened. She was like many indie and character actors, sturdy and reliable but one that viewers with a keen eye would always try to keep a lookout for. Many years ago, Empire Magazine did a segment called 27%-ers, dedicated to those actors outside of the A-List whose names you could never remember but whose performances always improved any film they were in by at least 27%. That’s a good descriptor for Larson in the indie years. The problem with that career model, as professionally rewarding as it can be, is that it’s financially tough to maintain.

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In her Vanity Fair profile from April of this year, Larson was candid about the challenges of her childhood, where money was tight, even as her acting work built up: She, her mother and sister shared a bed in their studio apartment (her parents divorced and Larson admits she hasn’t spoken to her dad in over a decade), they bought uniforms second hand from thrift shops, and sometimes had little money to buy food. What’s most striking about this moment in the profile is the follow-up confession that she was ‘living off the food in the film-festival welcome gift bags’ only a few years before hitting it big. The cold hard economics of the entertainment industry are something most actors work hard to avoid answering because too often there is no good answer to give that won’t be perceived by someone as snotty or entitled. Despite masses of cases to the contrary, the image of the spoiled child star still prevails, and that’s clearly not the experience of Larson, who worked consistently from a young age but never in the realm of a Miley Cyrus or Fanning sister. Working with Joe Swanberg and Noah Baumbach looks great on your filmography, but the stark reality for most jobbing actors is that sometimes the work doesn’t really pay.

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In 2015, Larson was launched into the stratosphere with Room, the adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s bestselling novel about a young woman held captive in a tiny space for five years who creates a fantasy world for her young son to save him from the trauma of their lives. Everything about this story screams ‘torture porn’ at first glance, especially if you’re familiar with the real life stories it’s inspired by, so it’s a small miracle that the film is as good as it is. The role of Joy was much coveted by Larson’s contemporaries, with names like Emma Watson, Shailene Woodley and Rooney Mara tossed around during pre-production. Larson won the role after an associate of director Lenny Abrahamson suggested her after seeing Short Term 12. Knowing a golden opportunity when she saw it, Larson leapt into preparations, including avoiding sunlight, dieting, and meeting with trauma experts.

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These are the parts everyone hears about during the hubbub of the awards campaign: The perceived difficulty of the hard labour getting into character is half the work in snagging the award. Larson and the Room team were no different, but what struck most people about Larson’s work was her relationship with Jacob Tremblay, the young actor playing her son. Both on and off the screen, the closeness of their bond was evident, and they find joy in such overwhelming bleakness. Larson herself is expectedly wonderful, and always in the same ways: She’s layered in her portrayal and refuses to rely on the cliches of the craft. It’s easy to imagine another actress just screaming their way through this role, an eye forever on the prize, but you never sense that with Larson. It’s a performance separate from that hype.

That’s not to say that Larson didn’t go all out in campaigning for her Oscar. She definitely did. Like contemporaries Jennifer Lawrence and Emma Stone, Larson did the whole shebang, shaking hands and attending every shindig to get her face out there. The Academy loves an ingenue, especially when they’re a beautiful 20-something white woman who has the right narrative already in place (that same year, the winner for Best Supporting Actress alongside Larson would be Alicia Vikander, who neatly fits that mould). There’s something incredibly appealing to them about a woman they can crown the next big thing. That happens less with men, who seem more likely to win if they’ve put in a few more years of work and ‘earned’ their place. By this point in time, Larson was practically a veteran of the business, but that was never at the heart of her narrative.

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Oscar in hand, Larson seemed to slow down. Aside from a festival release, she didn’t have a film come out at all in 2016, but she filmed Kong: Skull Island, her first major blockbuster, and reunited with Short Term 12 director Destin Daniel Cretton to shoot The Glass Castle, an adaptation of Jeanette Walls’s memoir. Of course, there was one major announcement that year, and it came during San Diego Comic-Con, as Larson was revealed to be the future Carol Danvers, better known as Captain Marvel.

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To say this was a boon for Larson is an understatement. Even as the superhero franchise model reigns supreme, its history of female leads remained disheartening at best. Aside from Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, few women seemed at the centre of the Marvel universe, outside of supportive love interests and ensemble members. Wonder Woman was a year away but Marvel were still playing catch-up, so landing a bona fide Oscar winner for the role wasn’t just having a horse in the race; it was a sign that they planned to dominate further. There’s no reason to go for major stars or critical darlings for these roles - the films will make money regardless of the actors’ fame - so getting someone like Brie Larson on board gives them a new sheen of legitimacy, helped by additional castings like Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton and Josh Brolin. Why get big stars? Because they can.

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Larson probably wouldn’t classify as an A-Lister by the standards of that increasingly archaic mould, but with every door open to her thanks to that golden statuette, that she would take the franchise route is fascinating. Given what we know about her past struggles with money and the lack of funding in the indie scene she previously inhabited, the promise of a multi-film contract would certainly have its appeal. She did take her time considering the role before taking it, even as Marvel demanded that she discuss it with no one. Ultimately, she decided she ‘couldn’t deny the fact that this movie is everything I care about, everything that’s progressive and important and meaningful, and a symbol I wished I would’ve had growing up.’ Still, even for those of us excited to see her in the film, there’s a strange sadness to the seeming inevitability that every actor, sooner or later, will succumb to the franchises. There are only a handful of hold-outs right now, and we too often discuss the futures of rising stars exclusively through the lens of ‘what superhero movie will they do?’ This is a major commitment for any actor and one that will eat up a lot of Larson’s time, forcing her to drop out of other projects or turn down ones close to her heart. So in the meantime, she’s squeezing in a few treats.

In the discussion of whether or not to care about Brie Larson, one unique attribute is oft-overlooked, and that’s her move into directing. At the age of 26, she shot her feature debut, Unicorn Store, starring herself, Samuel L. Jackson and Joan Cusack. Before this, she’s already directed a couple of shorts, but it’s still impressive and highly rare to see an actress her age make the jump behind the camera. Jackson, who she acted alongside in Kong: Skull Island, was highly complementary of her work, calling her ‘well prepared… cooperative. She knew why she hired me. She allowed me to bring a lot of different things to the part and have as much fun as I wanted to have’. The film will be released this year by the newly founded 51 Productions, who have pledged to focus on female-focused and driven entertainment. For Larson, this is a great chance to walk the walk, as her film is directed, written, edited, cast and designed by women. Hollywood can be a tough place for any woman to get shit done, more so when done to explicitly lift up other women in the process. Larson starting off on this foot is a refreshing change of pace from hearing vague platitudes about equality while the status quo continues. Quietly radical steps are nothing new for Larson.

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It is tradition for the winner of the Best Actress award at each given ceremony to give the award for Best Actor the following year. As Larson swept the major awards with Room, that meant a lot of red carpets and golden envelopes in 2017. That also meant confronting the elephant in the room: Frontrunner and eventual Oscar winner Casey Affleck, a man with sexual harassment allegations to his name and a steamrolling PR campaign leading the way. The year of her own victory, Larson hugged and thanked every individual survivor or sexual assault who appeared on stage with Lady Gaga during her Oscars ceremony performance of her nominated song ‘Til It Happens To You.’ It happened while the show was on a break but the moment quickly went viral thanks to shared photos and videos. It was another quiet gesture of power and support, voicing her solidarity but not drawing too much attention to herself. How do you centre your unflinching support for the victims of sexual assault in the face of constantly giving awards and industry validation to a man who managed to sweep his own accusations under an expensive and well-maintained carpet?

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There was little Larson could do and nobody would have blamed her if she’d put on her professional smile and played the part. But she didn’t. It was clear every time she gave an award to him that there was hesitation in her moves. When she handed Affleck his Golden Globe, she gave him a clipped ‘congratulations’ before stepping back quickly. On Oscars night, there was a flash of steel in her eyes as she opened the envelope. When Affleck gave his speech, Larson did not clap. She simply stood to the side and watched, still and silent. People quickly noticed, and her tiny steps became a beacon of sanity for so many of us who spent months wondering why we were all supposed to ignore what everyone already knew.

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When asked about it, Larson was somewhat cagey but did own the moment, saying, ‘I think that whatever it was that I did on stage kind of spoke for itself.’ Even now, with Marvel by her side, Larson seems painfully aware that things work very differently for women than men in this industry. Yet she also had the luxury of that industry privilege to even do something so small and be lauded for it. Compare that to the very vocal opposition to Affleck of Fresh Off the Boat star Constance Wu, who did not mince words in pointing out the difference in treatment of Affleck to Birth of a Nation director Nate Parker, a former Oscar favourite whose star fell as quickly as it rose after an earlier rape charge returned to the public eye. Obviously, Affleck is not directly comparable to Parker, but Wu was sharp in her observations of the privilege of whiteness, something she did not have the luxury to pretend didn’t exist. Larson is a keen ally and clearly puts in the work to learn, but the gap between her and Wu on this issue highlighted the gap between white women and women of colour in an industry that seldom prizes either.

Captain Marvel isn’t scheduled to start shooting until next January, giving Larson enough time to breathe before the madness starts. She has a couple of films awaiting release, and a wedding to plan to musician Alex Greenwald, the lead singer of Phantom Planet she’s been dating since 2013 (yes, Brie Larson’s boyfriend sang the opening theme to The O.C.). That her private life didn’t come up until the end of this article is a testament to how cleanly she defines the barriers between personal and public.

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I keep coming back to the Show Your Work podcast and that question of whether to care about Brie Larson, and I can’t deny that she’s an oddly hard sell for many. She’s not rude or obnoxious - she’s actually very funny in interviews - but she’s not an instantly definable personality in the way Lawrence or Stone is. I love her but my mum doesn’t know who she is. The so-called It Factor is a lightning-in-a-bottle phenomenon dictated by little more than preferences, conjecture and luck, so asking if Larson has ‘it’ feels like the wrong question. Why does she need to have ‘it’ when she has 20 years of chameleonic acting work on her belt alongside ambitious directorial plans and a public earnestness to engage with progressive discourse? She doesn’t have the goofy cool appeal of Lawrence or Stone, but why should she need to? Even the Vanity Fair profile seeks to tie her to those women by naming them below the headline.

If I were to define Brie Larson, I would say that she shines. Not only does she draw attention to herself through her warmth and delight, she seeks to share that brightness with others, be it her fellow cast members, the women of the industry or the marginalised voices of social media she is eager to learn from. That could read as dull to some, or a lack of intense star quality, but I don’t see it that way. There’s freshness and excitement in seeing a figure of her calibre continue to be part of a team. How many actors do you know are willing to moderate their Instagram comments to keep conversations going and allow them to be positive and productive? I can’t think of many people in her position who are actively working to make her space encouraging and ever-evolving for the benefit of others as much as herself. Brie Larson is a seasoned supporting player, but as an independent star laying her own path, for herself and others, she has marvellous possibilities.

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Kayleigh is a features writer for Pajiba. You can follow her on Twitter or listen to her podcast, The Hollywood Read.