At 11, Brie Larson was cast in her first TV show as Bob Saget's young daughter. At 13, she starred in her first movie and at 15, she released her first record. That was phase one of her career: teen stardom and a hit on Radio Disney. Now 22, she's launched phase two with a take-me-seriously role alongside Toni Collette in Showtime's United States of Tara, a devastatingly glam turn as the rockstar ex-girlfriend in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and a critically acclaimed turn as Woody Harrelson's idealistic, angry punk rock daughter in Rampart. As Molly, the incredibly charming high school queen in 21 Jump Street, it's time for Larson to break out big as the next drop-dead funny comedienne. Says Larson, she's ready for it—as long as she doesn't have to watch herself on the big screen.
Tell me about the process of figuring out who Molly is as a character.
The main thing was coming up with this idea that she wants to be an actress. There was a lot of talk about how maybe every time you see her, she looks completely different because she's embodying all these different characters. The same way I remember watching A Woman is a Woman [by Jean-Luc Godard] for the first time and instantly wanting to dress like Anna Karina. I raided my closet trying to find a big red sweater and red tights. We started going down that route and then really wanted to go down the classic movie vibe. There was a lot of talk about Billy Liar [the 1963 comedy starring Julie Andrews], these really iconic leading ladies, and that she spends a lot of time watching them and grooming herself to be one, so she dresses similarly. And that's kind of what sets her apart from the rest of the kids at school.
The movie has this funny bit about how teens in 2002, when Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill first went to high school, are so different from teens in 2012—like teen culture went from slackers to socially engaged. You were born right between those two microgenerations—does that agree with what you've seen?
I think the idea of what is cool has definitely changed, and I think a lot of has to do with the Internet. Because of cellphones and the Internet, information is available so readily to us that we're a much more aware generation than we ever were before. And a lot of things are much, much more socially acceptable. You couldn't talk about gay rights—even women's rights—and now we're so far beyond that. We have a black president. We've really come a long way, so through that I think high school is not so much about this weird hierarchy.
And now you wear your backpacks with both straps on, not just one.
Yeah, plus we're spending more time on the Internet so that we don't have to go to the doctor—we can self-diagnose ourselves. We're much more hyper aware about back pain and things of that nature.
There's a moment in the film I like where Jonah is worried he gave away his age because you're shocked that he called you on the phone instead of just texting.
I love that so much! I think it's so funny. I really relate to that deeply. I'm much more of a talk-on-the-phone type of person, but we're about immediacy. It's this very detached yet extremely connected mycelium. I'm on my phone constantly—constantly—texting because it allows me to multitask, and we're a multitasking generation. I can be talking to my friends in London, New York, Los Angeles and Austin all at the same time.
In the movie, there's this whole subplot about an amazing drug that all the kids are taking. What did you imagine it was like when you had to pretend to be on it?
It's a combination of a lot of different things. Maybe it's like weed and LSD, kind of, mixed with an Everlasting Gobstopper because you go through so many kinds of phases on it.
You started acting at 13. Did you go to a normal high school yourself?
No, I only lasted a day and a half at my high school. I really didn't like it at all. Molly's lucky that she has this school that's accepting of her eccentricities, whereas I feel like my school was a little more close-minded and not very artistic, so I had a hard time fitting in. It was a lot of Hollister and Abercrombie and PacSun, and I was wearing granny shoes and wanted to make art. I was seen as a weirdo and I didn't really enjoy that too much, so I left.
I'm curious what could have gone wrong in just a day and a half?
It was also that I didn't feel like the teachers were cultivating anything. And I was already working and already immersed in this other world—and loving every second of it—and staying in a high school wasn't really conducive to that. They wanted my butt in a seat. They weren't going to put things aside for me because I couldn't be in class when I was working. So it wasn't the right fit. And also, really what I wanted to do is I wanted to put on plays and shows, and the year that I showed up, the teacher went on maternity leave, so that wasn't even in the program. It was just time to go out into the world and have an adventure.
Between this, Rampart and Scott Pilgrim, you've done a good job of finding parts that are more than just "the girlfriend." How hard is it to avoid those roles?
It's hard. You just accept that you're not going to work all the time. But they're out there—they're just competitive, which is great. It makes the whole time much more exciting because it becomes more about doing things because you really want to do them, that it's a story you want to tell, and not just about getting your face out there as much as possible.
How did you compete for 21 Jump Street?
Jump Street was interesting because it started before I even knew it was starting. A friend of mine, Michael Bacall, wrote the original draft with Jonah Hill and I was really curious about what it was going to be like because I knew they'd make an awesome combination, but I didn't know if there was going to be any part that was right for me. The Judd Apatow crew is really fun because they're like a little community, and they do table reads for scripts that they've written all the time. Sometimes, the movies don't even go, but it's just a way to get a group of people together and make each other laugh. So I was invited to do one for a Jason Segel movie and Jonah was there watching. We'd known each other peripherally, but hadn't caught up in a while, so we were talking and as I was leaving, he said, "Hey, can I introduce you to my friends?" I was like, "Sure!" and he introduced me to these two kids, these two young guys, and the four of us started bantering and being silly. They gave me a piece of gum, which I thought was nice. Afterward, the two of them were like, "Best friends forever, right?" and I was like, "Oh, yeah—call me tomorrow," not thinking twice about it. A couple days later, I had a meeting for 21 Jump Street and I kept looking up pictures of the directors. I was looking at their faces and going, "Why do I know these people? I know I know them!" And then when I walked into the room, they were like, "It's our best friend!" and I was like, "Oh s--t-that's crazy!" "Brie, we gave you gum! Don't you remember us?" It was one of those awesome, awesome times where I think we spent an hour at the audition and barely went over the material. We just hung out and by the end of it, we had invented the long-sleeve Hawaiian shirt that we were planning to go on vacation with to test out. We thought we were going to be millionaires. And that was kind of it. Throughout the whole process, I didn't really realize the magnitude of the film because they were my friends—it just felt like any time I had a scene for it, I was just excited. I was never nervous because I was like, "I'm going to go be with my friends!" and we would hang out and make each other laugh—which is the best thing in the world, when you can make your friends laugh. The next thing I knew, I had the job and we were in New Orleans and it was a real thing.
And you were like, "How did this happen so easily?"
The thing that was so strange is I got the job and I was so over the moon happy. And then there were these press releases and things like that that I was never used to. I was like, "Oh, s--t. This is a real movie. This is really going to happen. I'm going to show up on set and I'm actually going to do this." It's a strange thing—auditioning is such a different animal than actually doing the job. You just can't think further than doing a good job in the audition. You never think about the actual being there.
Because before you have the job, it just feels presumptuous.
Yeah, it's like going on a couple dates with someone. You don't think about marrying them, you're not already planning the wedding. You're just like, "I hope I don't get anything stuck in my teeth."
You weren't drawing doodles of the IMDb page with your name on it.
I've definitely done that. [Laughs]
You've shot TV shows, music videos and movies—which is the weirdest for you to watch yourself perform?
It's just hard to watch yourself, but whatever's the smallest. An iPhone is probably the easiest. The smaller it is, the easier it is to stomach. Once you start getting into 10-feet or larger-anytime onscreen you is the same size or larger than you—it gets a little hairy.
Going forward, how are you going to balance music with acting?
That balance is kind of happening naturally. Music is so important to me, but I haven't been playing it as much because writing songs is so incredibly personal. IT can't not be. Music has such a deep, visceral connection within humans that I don't know if it's something that I'm interested in pursuing because I need to keep some parts of my life private. I started doing this thing where I"m going ot write a song every day for a year, but I don't think it's anything that I ever plan on releasing. It's just for myself. But I've gotten incredibly obsessed with DJing and buying vinyl records, so like once a week, I go DJ and show off the records that I bought that week. Getting people dancing and moving is just as exciting to me, and it takes the personal side out of it.
I hear that. Kind of how everyone thinks they know Taylor Swift because of her songs.
Exactly, exactly. But we don't know Tay Swift! We don't, we don't. We would love to, but we don't.
Okay, be honest. Between Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, in 20 years, who's going to be the Johnny Depp and who's going to be the Richard Grieco?
That's so mean! I couldn't do that! If I was a male, I'd be castrated for answering—it's a highly controversial question. I think they're both so f--king amazing and talented that they'll both be the Johnny Depp. Although, Richard Grieco's also great.
I didn't think about that consequence: whether Jonah or Channing loses, he also loses.
Exactly! That's why I can't do it.