Brie Larson is an actress who has given standout performances in films such as “Short Term 12” and “Trainwreck.” In 2016 she won an Oscar for her turn as a young mother willing to do anything to protect her son in “Room.” Now she’s premiering her feature directorial debut, “Unicorn Store,” at TIFF. Larson also stars in the touching film, which follows a young woman whose childhood dream is unexpectedly fulfilled when she begins receiving invitations to “The Store.”
We recently spoke to Larson about “Unicorn Store,” how she learned to direct herself, and the much-anticipated “Captain Marvel.”
“Unicorn Store” will premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival on September 11.
This interview has been edited. It was transcribed by Kaidia Pickels.
W&H: Talk a little about your description of the logline of the film.
BL: That’s a tough one, because you have the plot points, which are that we have a young woman who’s questioning her creativity because for her whole life it’s been critiqued and pulled apart and for her, it’s part of her identity. Once she has this final blow — this professor shatters her completely — the course of the film is then her trying to choose between what feels right in her heart, which looks crazy to everybody else, or what everybody else is doing, which feels wrong to her.
The film questions why we as a society have an obsession with making everybody the same. I think that’s a part of growing up, too. I think so many people who are growing up hit a certain point in your preteen years when you become self-aware, and with that self-awareness, it becomes safe to just suppress yourself and be like everybody else and play it safe. I’ve always struggled with that, and struggled with knowing what I’m supposed to be and then ultimately having some sort of breakdown and realizing that it’s not possible for me. I can’t actually do things like everybody else.
I sometimes wish that I could, but as I’m growing older, I’m realizing that it’s the thinkers that are looking for things outside of cultural norms who are the ones changing society and helping it grow. They’re great teachers of this earth, and I hope that as we’re continuing to grow, we can start to nurture those people more. The film is in some ways a film directly for those people who are maybe going, “This world feels wrong to me and I feel like there’s another way to do it, but I’m afraid to, and I think it might just be easier to be myself.” This film is calling to you, saying, “We need you. We need you more than ever.” Those are the real superheroes of the world.
W&H: You seem so comfortable playing this part. What was it like directing this film and acting in it? And, were you able to get this film going because in the five years since you originally auditioned for this role, your status in this industry has changed?
BL: Yeah, totally. I think that part of why I didn’t get the part the first go-around was because I wasn’t as “bankable” or whatever term industry people would use. That’s kind of the tricky thing that we’re always dancing with here — finding a way to keep artistic integrity but also making sure that this is an investment that feels safe to people. It’s just part of it.
Having the opportunity to direct “Unicorn Store,” at first I had no intention of playing Kit myself. Then, after working on the script for about a year with the writer Samantha McIntyre, she kind of coaxed me into it. She said, “There’s nobody who knows this character better than you. You’ve lived with this character for so many years. It spoke to you, and you’ve been working on writing it and shaping it. I can’t imagine anybody else doing it.” It took me a little bit to wrap my head around it — I thought, “It seems too hard, it’s impossible!”
But then, I realized that although it was going to be difficult, there was a real asset to it, that, for my first go at this, it was a little bit more contained for me in that I knew exactly what my lead actress was going to do. I knew how she was going to play certain scenes, I knew how to cover it because I knew how she was going to play it. I knew she was going to show up on time! I knew she wasn’t going to have a problem with the blocking that I’d set up ahead of time. There were a lot of things about that that were really helpful.
From my past experience being on set, I know that a huge part of directing actors is actually giving direction to their partner that they’re playing off of. It’s not always giving it to the person that’s on camera, it’s giving it to the person who’s speaking the lines. Because of that, I could fluidly direct. When you’re on somebody else’s coverage, for pretty much every scene Kit is in, I was able to redirect my actors through my own performances off camera. It just made everything feel quite easy, actually.
W&H: You’ve said, “I love that we’re seeing stronger women on-screen, but I don’t think that’s the end of this conversation. I think that the best place to start would be more female directors, more female filmmakers of every type of race, and we need to get out of these binary ways of thinking and we need more intersectionality and unique voices.” What is your inspiration to direct, and has that always been there? Can you talk about your passion for this conversation about having more women behind-the-scenes?
BL: My obsession with film has been all-encompassing since I was really young — even when I was four years old, I made storyboards of “The Lion King” to take with me on a trip to Disney World so I could get critiques on them. I’ve always loved every part of the process. When I was in school, every summer vacation I would write a script and direct it. I’d get my cousins to be in it, and I’d build sets in our garage out of sheets and tape. This idea of creating new worlds has always been really fascinating to me. I started with some shorts and really loved the experience that I had doing that. Now with this continued conversations and this lack of change that’s happening still, I’m very grateful that we continue to be talking about. I feel like there’s a ton of progress happening for at least as much as I’m asked about it or that we talk about it.
Because of that, it turned into thinking, “Well, all of change starts with me.” I feel afraid to direct a film, because it’s truly terrifying — you’re saying, “This is how I view the world, this is what the world looks like to me” and you’re hoping that there’s some other people that agree with you. It just felt like with having won an Oscar for “Room,” it allows you to have these open doors for a brief period of time and you get to choose, you’re rewarded with that. For me, I thought, “Well, I just want to put more pieces on the board.”
Whether or not this movie is successful or whether people like it is kind of irrelevant, to be honest. In my opinion, if women go to see this movie, or people who are of a different race or identify with a different sexual orientation, who don’t feel like their stories are being told on-screen and may be afraid to step up and do it, I hope that they can watch this movie and think either, “Wow, she did it! I want to do that and I can! I feel like I can now,” or “This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen, but if she can do this, I can definitely do this.” Either way, it’s putting something out there that’s allowing for more conversation about this, to say, “Let’s do this. It’s totally terrifying, but let’s jump in the water and do this together.”
With that, there was a very specific choice in making this movie in this way — even in the way that I handled the end credits. I felt like softness and innocence were something that we’re not seeing on-screen right now because we have an obsession with taking male characters and making them female [gender-swapping characters]. That’s not to say that that’s not incredibly valuable or that I don’t enjoy watching it — I love it, but we can’t say that we’ve solved anything then, because it’s all still about women needing men in their space.
The cliche of men is that they’re masculine, they’re tough, they don’t mess around, they’re straight-shooters. For decades now it’s been about women kind of acting in that male space, saying “We’re here, we’re tough, we’re strong, we can go toe-to-toe with you,” and of course we can go toe-to-toe with them — but can men then meet us in our softer spaces? Is that possible? Are we allowed to now challenge them and say, “We’ve proven ourselves time and time again. I don’t know why we’re still having this conversation. Can you prove it to us?”
W&H: It’s like when women wore ties to go to work in the ‘80s.
BL: Yeah, and you know what? If you want to wear a tie in the workplace, then that’s your own prerogative. It just shouldn’t be that that’s the only way that we’re doing this. It needs to be a two-way street. By continuing to have conversations like, “Do I feel pressure as a woman to do this?” or “Do I feel like I have something to prove by doing this?” the subtext is still, “Do you reallybelieve that women could be equal to men?” To me it makes me laugh, because why should I believe that I am less than? Just because somebody invented a patriarchal society doesn’t mean that I have to believe it.
The other thing about this is that I am a woman, so it’s very easy for me to speak my truth from the space of being a woman. I do think that as women, and having taken a backseat for so long, I think that we can very much relate to others who have also had to take a backseat for many, many years. Part of this is opening up our space, even though we’re still trying to find our own space in here. Part of it is creating opportunities for others who’ve been left in the dark as well.
W&H: When you got the role of “Captain Marvel,” did you say, “I want to make sure that we have a woman director as part of this?”
BL: That was actually part of what they said to me, and that was part of why I was excited about doing this. They said, “It’ll be female screenwriters, a female director, as many females on the team as possible.” That’s part of why I felt comfortable making the leap into that field, because these movies are huge and they have such a major platform. Being able to give a message to people on this global scale is an interesting opportunity, but what are we saying? How are we saying it?
That all comes from the collaboration of a team — it comes from the script, it comes from the director, it comes from the editor, it comes from even costume and production design. There has to be a real awareness of what’s progressive for us. What’s interesting for us to see? What’s the new way that we can show the world that we’re dynamic, interesting, complicated beings? We’ve never been just one thing.
W&H: What made you decide that you wanted to play Victoria Woodhull? She’s a woman who’s such an important piece of history, but lots of people don’t even know who she is.
BL: That’s part of it. It’s one of the most incredible true stories that I’ve ever read that most people don’t know about. She had extreme conviction and a real belief system, and an interesting dynamic in that the things that are her strong suits are also her weaknesses. She’s incredibly savvy and kind of a genius when it comes to things like publicity, but it’s also the thing that continues to get her in trouble. She saw through the veil that existed at that point — there weren’t many people who were thinking the way that she was.
As the same time, she was struggling with her past, struggling with where she came from. There are so many parallels still to where we are today versus then. A lot of the hurdles that she was going through, a lot of the obsession that the public had with certain aspects of society are exactly the same. I think it’ll be interesting for audiences to see that, to see the cycle that we’re in and how we can move forward.