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Brie Larson takes a sip of a seemingly diet-geared beverage while installed at a back table at an actually swanky midtown Manhattan workspace (like an office, except for people who don’t want to work in “an office”) – it’s a spicy lemonade, a prepackaged version of the very Los Angeles “master cleanse,” but Larson drinks it because she likes the taste. She likes it so much that she encourages me to take a sip straight from her own bottle, and it’s as delicious and refreshing as she promised it would be. Then she says that she thinks that cleanses are “really bad for you” and that, when it comes to those oft-buzzed-about toxins supposedly ruining our bodies, it’s just “an actual scam.”

Brie Larson is the type of Hollywood “it girl” who drinks spicy lemonade because she likes the taste, not because pop culture tells her it’s good for her. This is the exact moment I stop trying to pigeonhole rising stars by what they do or do not drink, and instead focus on what they say and do not say – and Larson has a lot to say.

The twenty-three-year-old actress has been working steadily since she was still in single digit territory – first cutting her teeth while appearing in sketches on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno (perhaps the coolest resume entry for a nine-year-old ever) before making her way into sitcoms. Larson was a regular on the Bob Saget-starring Raising Dad at age twelve, in addition to making appearances on shows like Touched By An Angel, Popular, and Then Came You around that same time period. Larson’s transition into movies included some necessary cute kid stops – a Disney Channel original, then something called Sleepover, a small role in 13 Going on 30 (she played a Six Chick!), even a family-friendly drama about endangered owls (appropriately titled Hoot).

Her first breakout role came care of one of cable’s first groundbreaking shows – the Diablo Cody-created and Toni Collette-starring United States of Tara, where Larson played Collette’s daughter for the show’s entire thirty-six episode run. After that were the movie roles you probably recognize her for – Greenberg, Rampart, 21 Jump Street. She even had a memorable guest-starring role on Community last season, if you happened to be questioning her coolness.

Oh, and along the way, she put out an album, because Larson doesn’t shy away from creativity in its many forms. Though she does candidly share that she’s not sure if a music career is still in the cards for her, likening her teen experience with the industry to a strange slice of middle school that was inhabited by a former version of herself she doesn’t recognize. “I don’t even know at this point how I feel about that other Brie from many years ago who was given a microphone and had photos taken of her at a time when I feel like I was probably too young to understand what was going on, but I don’t even really connect with that person anymore,” she says of her time as a pop singer and songwriter.

But even without music, Larson’s career is poised to break out in a big, big way, in true it girl territory – thanks both to her outstanding (and already award-winning) leading role in Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12 and her work in two other indie darlings from the festival circuit, The Spectacular Now and Don Jon. Cretton’s Short Term 12 offers Larson her juiciest (and most demanding) role yet, and it’s the part that fans of her work will likely always look back on as the role that changed everything. Short Term 12 sees Larson starring as Grace, a foster care facility work who is equal parts empathy, strength, and secrets. Larson appears in nearly every scene, most of them charged with emotion and realism – Short Term 12 is unquestionably her movie and it’s one hell of a coming out party. So why this film? Why now?

It’s the first question I ask Larson, and it’s a big one, but she’s more than ready for it: “I thought about it. There’s no way I didn’t think, wow, this is a big undertaking for me that I haven’t done before, and I really wondered if I could do it…I don’t know if I want to say that it was conscious or unconscious that I hadn’t been the lead of something.” She pauses, then goes back into it, “I didn’t do it for awhile because I didn’t think that I could do it. Until Short Term 12, I didn’t find myself all that interesting. I sit with myself all the time, it’s really hard, I think, for any sort of person with an intelligence to look in the mirror and say, yeah, aren’t I great enough to be followed around for twenty days and then make a movie about it? And with a movie that’s in so many ways so subtle and a character that’s so subtle, I think it was hard for me to grasp that that would be worthy of a film, I guess.”

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Really, though, Larson says she was “more comfortable with the idea of doing films that I could be an interesting part of something that didn’t live or die based upon my performance. And I thought that I would always kind of be like that. I liked that.”

But Short Term 12 changed things for Larson, not even because she wanted to do the film so badly, but because she felt as if she needed to. It doesn’t seem like a stretch, because Larson is clearly passionate about the work she’s done with the Short Term 12 crew. “When this script came around and I felt more than a hundred percent, I felt like every fiber in my being knew that I needed to do this role and that it was important for me to do and something that I knew I could do,” she says. “Now, much later I realize that, perhaps I didn’t step forward to do a leading role before because there wasn’t the story that only I could tell and that I felt like I needed to tell. And that’s what carries you through twenty days of shooting, you know? That’s the only way I feel that I could have gotten through and really put so much care and thought and love into something.”

It’s a career high that Larson is well aware of, a benchmark for her already: “Now I just wonder what the next one is, when’s the next time I’m going to feel that way? I don’t know,” she muses. “It’ll happen when it’s going to happen.”

As the film is based on Cretton’s short of the same name, Larson’s process of getting to know her role as Grace also included getting to know Cretton’s previous work with the material, and she credits watching the short Short Term 12 for helping her to get a true sense of the filmmaker’s vision. “The short was really helpful in seeing the realness, the naturalness, and the ease – that short has so much feeling in it. I think that a good short is really telling of a good director, because you have to tell so much in such a little amount of time.” Larson knows a little bit about what it takes to make a good short, as she’s written and directed two of her own (Weighting with Dustin Bowser and The Arm with Jessie Enis and Sarah Ramos).

Larson’s first steps into her own filmmaking also uniquely informed the whirlwind experience that was her first half of 2013 – a heady period that saw both Don Jon (in which she plays Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s nearly-silent sister in a role that demonstrates her comedic timing in a whole new way) and The Spectacular Now (where she plays the should-be-thankless role of Miles Teller’s former girlfriend with an uncanny layer of self-awareness) premiere at Sundance to major acclaim, which was swiftly followed by Short Term 12’s lauded bow at SXSW just two months later.

“I’d never had a movie get into a film festival until two years ago, and it was a short film that I wrote and directed, so I got my first taste of Sundance on the filmmaker side, and so I feel that I have it viewed from that perspective, which is – it’s really beautiful and it’s a really wonderful time for a bunch of people that have so many thoughts and projections inside their mind, and are fighting the good fight to do independent film, which is against the grain,” Larson says. “It becomes this really wonderful reunion at the end of the year and this incredible celebration and camaraderie, with everybody seeing each other’s movies and being really excited and giving these pats on the back like, whoa! That was inside your head? Or that’s what you did this year? That’s why I didn’t hear from you for four months? That’s so cool! I’m so excited for you! It’s been so exciting and so fun and so life-affirming.”

The experience of sharing her work with her friends and peers still delights Larson, as the actress says, “It’s so exciting when the lights come up at the end of the Short Term 12 screenings and you see all these faces of all these people that you love and admire and respect, and it’s a great, fun carnival ride. It’s a carnival for us.” In short, “It makes you inspired and gives you the fuel to want to do it all over again.”

Even though I met with Larson in support of this week’s Short Term 12, and there is more than enough to discuss about that film alone, we also met during this year’s Comic-Con and I couldn’t resist asking her about Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and its legacy, one that got its roots during Comic-Con back in 2010. Larson’s reaction to discussing the Edgar Wright-directed graphic novel adaptation is immediate and palatable – she lights up.

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“Once it started having its own monthly midnight screening at the New Bev [the New Beverly theater in Los Angeles], I felt like that was the greatest success of my life,” Larson says, unable to contain her pride in the film and its people. “That’s one of my favorite movie theaters and seeing all these people that still dress up and now people bring coins and they throw coins at the screen when Scott Pilgrim turns someone into coins. It’s so amazing.”

And while the possibility of Scott Pilgrim remaining a cult favorite for years to come makes Larson wonder, she does know for sure what it means to her – a nifty litmus test to find the like-minded. “I don’t know what happens next. Some of my favorite movies are the cult movies, the ones that are not necessarily understood by everybody,” she shares. “But when you find somebody who does get it, you’re like, oh, you’re my person. You’re one of mine. You understand the language that I speak.

What is Scott Pilgrim to Larson? Something extremely important. “I feel really proud of that movie,” she says. “It was also such an incredible and very different experience from any other experience that I’ve had. I feel very grateful for it, and I love it, and I’m very proud of it.

Weeks later, I had a similar experience with Edgar Wright in yet another swanky Manhattan setting, as I mentioned Scott Pilgrim and Larson after we’d completed an amusing round of questions about The World’s End. Wright’s reaction was striking, because it was nearly the exact same as Larson’s – he simply lit up when talking about the project, and he even mentioned those New Bev screenings and how the film has transformed into a cult sensation. The latest midnight screening even features Larson’s own Weighting as an opening act, and it’s been a great pleasure for Wright to able to provide that stage for a cast who has all gone on to “amazing” things.

That all said – a television career under her belt, a former crack at music, a string of well-regarded films, a cult film she adores, and three already-beloved films hitting theaters in 2013 alone – is Brie Larson an it girl?

She laughs at the question. A genuine laugh, not one meant to push for explanation and praise. “Who is the panel for this? Who started this? Who is the first person to say it?” she wonders.

It girl status aside, Larson still seems to be grappling with her fame, or even the possibility of her fame, but she knows what she wants and what she likes, and that means keeping both the full range of her abilities and her personal life close to her vest. “I like keeping my mystery, I like the luxury of playing lots of different characters, and I like exposing myself in surprising ways, but I don’t want to show everything ever,” Larson says.

“I really appreciate the anonymity of my life. I appreciate that. I enjoy the fact that I can do certain things and have a conversation with certain random people, and it’s not with any sort of air of them knowing who I am,” she continues.

“But I also think there’s a lot of people that I really admire and respect who are able to have well-regarded careers and still have a normal life,” she goes on. “I think it’s just how you go about it, what you’re willing to talk about, what you’re willing to expose and do, and at what point you let that stuff in. some people really enjoy that. I don’t really like being observed as myself. My hours are nine to five. I don’t have a problem like, letting go and exposing myself as a character, but once I’m off the clock, I don’t want people following me around.”

But Larson’s desire to keep her personal life, well, personal isn’t just in service to herself – it’s to the benefit of her work, too. As she puts it, “If you don’t recognize me, it makes it a lot easier for you to fall in love with Grace.” After all, she says, “I think it ruins movies if you know my favorite brand of potato chip or whatever.”

Whenever Larson’s it girl status finally becomes undeniable to everyone, people will undoubtedly clamor to find out exactly what her favorite brand of potato chips happens to be (or even what brand of spicy lemonade she likes just for the taste), but those details will never be the most compelling part of her. What’s most compelling about Larson is that she already recognizes the importance of letting her work and her choices speak for themselves, and that snacking trivia is the least interesting thing about a worthy (if reluctant) it girl.

Short Term 12 hits theaters this Friday.


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