Brie Larson’s Twitter feed is all goofy-glamorous photos, promotions for her films and quotes from Alan Watts. The late Zen Buddhist philosopher pops up like fortune cookies of wisdom during appearances on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and at couture fashion shows. Take this Watts gem about cultivating detachment: “Life is not going anywhere; there is nothing to be attained. All striving and grasping is so much smoke in the clutch of a dissolving hand.”
The day after that particular post, Larson was nominated for this year’s Best Actress Oscar. Oh, the irony. And after being the clear front-runner, she took home the Best Actress trophy, in addition to picking up the SAG, Golden Globe, Critic’s Choice and BAFTA for her performance in Room, a drama based on the best-selling novel about a young woman raising her son in a backyard shed after having been abducted as a teenager. “Thank you first to the academy,” she said, accepting her Oscar. “Thank you to everyone…” It’s not the first time Larson’s name has been in the discussion for best actress — in 2013 she became a critical darling thanks to the indie hit Short Term 12, in which she plays a counselor at a facility for at-risk youth — but it’s the first time the idea has stuck.
There’s a deafening chatter about Larson’s Hollywood moment, but the actress at the center of it excels at the unspoken, Zen-like gesture. (Through representatives, she declined an interview.) Room ends with a close-up of Larson, soundlessly mouthing the film’s last, haunting line. In Short Term 12, she clubs the shit out of an abusive parent’s car, delivering an emotional sucker punch without any of the words an earlier script called for. “Initially, her experiences had been spoken about more, but you don’t need it in the script when it registers on Brie’s face,” says casting director Rich Delia. “You can sense she’s been there.”
“I have a long history of being cast in movies that I think are dramas that I later find out, when the movie comes out, are comedies,” she joked on Jimmy Kimmel Live!.
Wherever she’s been has brought Larson to her new place as the newest Hollywood It girl: plastered on the covers of Elle, Variety and W and written about in the New York Times, Vanity Fair and New York Magazine’s Vulture, which asks, “Can Anyone Beat Brie … ?” But for those who think she burst onto the scene with her scene-stealing performances, the truth is, stardom doesn’t happen overnight — and is almost always accompanied by “striving and grasping,” even if Watts might disapprove.
Like a number of American actors, Larson, born Brianne Sidonie Desaulniers, broke into the profession at a very young age. In a 2013 interview in the Guardian, she said that as a kid she told her mom, “I know what my dharma is: I’m supposed to be an actor.” At 7, Larson started acting school. Her admissions interviewer, the director of San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, Craig Slaight, recalls, “I was so taken with her maturity and her commitment and sparkle that I accepted her at an age younger than we normally do.”
The next year, she moved to Los Angeles with her mother and younger sister, telling Variety, “It was Room. It was all one room; the bed came out of the wall. I had two pairs of jeans, a couple shirts, a couple headbands and a pair of orange Converse [sneakers],” she said. Her first gig, in 1998, was a fake-commercial sketch about a Malibu Mudslide Barbie on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, followed by a Disney Channel movie, Right on Track, when she was 13. And from there, the work kept coming. To date, the 26-year-old has been in 15 features — in major supporting roles that registered with few audience members as the same girl of flicks like Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World, The Spectacular Now and 21 Jump Street. Last year she co-starred in Trainwreck, as Amy Schumer’s sister, after Judd Apatow invited her to several lunches with Schumer where they just told stories. “I have a long history of being cast in movies that I think are dramas that I later find out, when the movie comes out, are comedies,” she joked on Jimmy Kimmel Live!.
There was nothing comic about Short Term 12, the film in which Larson starred in her first leading role. It got everyone talking and caught the attention of Room casting director Fiona Weir. For Short Term 12, Larson was the first piece in a complicated casting puzzle, according to Rich Delia. “She always had such a disarming vibe when she’d come in, so lovely and generous,” he says. “She had an old-soul quality — in the best sense of the word.” And that quality has served her well. As GQ noted, in two years, Larson has played high-schoolers, college students and moms, and no one really knows her age because she’s been around so long.
Looking ahead, Larson’s next project is her first franchise leading role in Kong: Skull Island, a voucher from Hollywood that she is bankable in a big way. After that, she has the lead in another smaller film, The Glass Castle, based on Jeannette Walls’s best-selling memoir, in a role originally intended for Jennifer Lawrence, fueling comparisons between Larson’s ascent and Lawrence’s path from indie starlet in Winter’s Bone to blockbuster heavyweight in the Hunger Games.
It doesn’t take a fortune cookie to know that the future is unknown. But the 20-years-in-the-making overnight star seems content not to know where her path will lead, as she quotes Watts once again, “There is no Way. Nobody knows the Way.”