Actresses who get their breakthroughs with indies tend to follow a well-trod path to big Hollywood fare. For Brie Larson, star of last year’s tiny hit “Short Term 12,” it’s the Mark Wahlberg vehicle “The Gambler.” Thing is, “The Gambler” is a most unlikely studio product. It’s a remake of a dark ’70s drama, starring James Caan as a betting addict forever flirting with destroying his life. Here, Wahlberg’s English professor actually is out to destroy his life, if only to start over — or not.
Larson found it even more unusual than that. “The script was really fascinating, the way it was written,” she tells us from a Central Park hotel. “I’m not sure if it comes across in the movie, but I remember it as so fragmented. None of the scenes started where scenes would normally start. They would start mid-conversation, or a scene would start at the end. Some of it made sense to me and some of it didn’t. But I knew all of it was brilliant.”
In the film Larson plays the best student in Wahlberg’s character’s class, who helps inspire him to find a new life path. But Larson is picky about the roles she likes. “All the money in the world doesn’t matter to me if I’m doing projects that I don’t connect with,” she says. As such, her character isn’t just a type. “She’s not the love interest; she’s the place to go to. I think of her more as a mental state. She represents this thing he is removing all of these things to get to.”
In this day and age, “The Gambler”’s rough edges, harsh sarcasm and self-destructive streak — all courtesy “The Departed” screenwriter William Monahan — stand out in Hollywood. “It’s unusual to have such rich, character-driven material and yet also have the budget to fully explore it. I’m used to it being one or the other; you get a great script but you’re doing it in a race against time. This was the first real studio movie where I had something to sink my teeth into. I’ve never felt so satisfied being at work.”
Though she “loved every second” of shooting “Short Term 12,” it could be frustrating. “We were trying to do a movie like ‘The Gambler’ in a third or half the time, with a fraction of the budget,” she says. Larson was a child actor who even cut a teen pop record, but she found herself scrounging about for a purpose. She was Jonah Hill’s love interest in “21 Jump Street,” then found herself drawn towards indies.
“I was so broke that year, when I was doing ‘Don Jon’ and ‘The Spectacular Now’ and ‘Short Term 12,’” she says. “Those movies pay like $800. You can’t live off it. No one can live off of it. And you’re working a crazy amount of hours and there’s nothing you can do but trust your instincts.”
In the wake of “Short Term 12” she’s accepted one other studio film — Judd Apatow’s Amy Schumer film “Trainwreck” — but also a small Irish-Canadian thriller, “Room,” by “Frank” director Lenny Abrahamson. “I made a promise to myself that that girl who was wearing an old sweatshirt at Sundance and was wearing my own clothes and no makeup to South by Southwest was going to stay. I have a value system that has got me here.”
Besides, she’s positive, thanks to the success of actresses her age, like Jennifer Lawrence and her friend Shailene Woodley. “I feel like I’m part of this really interesting shift that’s happening,” she says. “There are so many smart, funny, interesting, dynamic, complicated women who are willing to be all that onscreen. There’s such a desire right now for men to see women that way, for women to see women that way. Those scripts are becoming more readily available. I’m not banging my head against the wall and saying, ‘Gosh, there’s nothing here.’ There’s so much. I’m surprised by how much good material is out there.”
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge