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Awards

‘Room’ star Brie Larson grapples with newfound fame, surreal moments and a certain giant ape

Brie Larson

Brie Larson, who lost 15 pounds and met regularly with physicians and sex abuse experts to educate herself before playing Ma in “Room,” now has time for some lighter moments.

(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

Brie Larson is excited about her new noise-canceling headphones, which says a lot about the actor’s life lately.

She’s managed a months-long charm offensive for “Room,” a film adaptation that has changed the course of her career and made her the odds-on favorite for this year’s lead actress Oscar.

Along the way, Larson is either collecting other awards or jet-setting to exotic locales where her name tops the call sheet on Warner Bros.’ $190-million tent pole “Kong: Skull Island.”

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“This is my first time sitting and thinking about my life in a long time,” Larson said, calling from Australia’s Gold Coast on a rare day off. “I’ve spent most of the morning staring at the ocean.”

Despite all appearances to the contrary, Larson considers herself a private person. She certainly plumbed the depths while preparing for her role as Ma, a sexually abused captive raising her 5-year-old son (Jacob Tremblay) in a garden shed they call “Room.”

Larson not only dropped 15 pounds for the part and met regularly with physicians and sex abuse experts to immerse herself in the mind of Ma, she also endured a punishing level of self-inquiry. She spent weeks alone in her apartment, reading accounts of rape and child sex abuse, filling journals with Ma’s girlhood memories in carefully written, girlish script. Eventually, Larson stopped going outside.

“I started reading about silent retreats and the effect they have on the mind,” she said. “When you leave yourself all this space, you just start having a dialogue with yourself and I wanted to know what that voice sounded like. What were the memories [Ma] was looping on? I thought it would create some delusions. Her memory of certain things were like a game of telephone in her head.”

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Indeed, the experience naturally conjured up Larson’s own childhood and life after her parents’ divorce, when she and her sister shared a one-room apartment with their struggling mother. Larson had been right around Jacob’s age at the time.

“There was no way there wasn’t something subconscious at play,” she said of her performance. “Jacob became less Ma’s son to me and more Ma’s inner child, the young innocent part she’s trying to protect and keep free.”

In the film’s most wrenching sequence, Ma is so desperate to free her son that she vomits on him to deceive her captor into thinking the child is sick enough for a hospital. When that doesn’t work, she pretends the boy has died and rolls him inside a rug so his body can be removed.

That scene summoned such raw emotion that Larson lost contact with reality, thrashing around, slipping and hitting her head, oblivious to the pain.

“The escape sequence, the rolling [Jacob] up in the rug, handing him over, running out to the car — I don’t have any memory of,” she said. “It’s one of those weird amnesia moments that happen to actors. You become so bizarrely present and in a moment and everything becomes so surreally real you don’t have any conscious awareness of what you’re doing.”

This was uncharted territory for an actor like Larson. Up to this point, she’d built a career in comedic roles that played up her looks. She was typically the familiar face supporting the main talent, most recently alongside Amy Schumer in “Trainwreck.”

Larson was Toni Collette’s sexy rebel daughter in HBO’s “United States of Tara,” Michael Cera’s bombshell ex-girlfriend in “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” Jonah Hill’s love interest in “21 Jump Street” and Ben Stiller’s flirt in “Greenberg.”

If you listen carefully, her resentment at being typecast all those years bleeds through her praise for “Room.”

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“This isn’t a film about me,” she said. “It’s not about looking at me or making me an objectified object to observe like an animal in the petting zoo. It’s a universal story about saving the child in all of us.”

In 2013, Larson saved herself the fate of countless other talented blond actresses in L.A. by landing the lead in the gritty indie “Short Term 12.” Her portrayal of a troubled supervisor at a group home for foster children earned her film festival awards and the attention of “Room” director Lenny Abrahamson.

“Until ‘Short Term 12,’ I wasn’t the lead in anything and I wasn’t sure I wanted to be,” said Larson, 26. “I always worried about losing my anonymity and my mystery. I worried that being the lead meant that the movie was about me. And I wanted things to be about somebody else. Another cause. I don’t really enjoy the attention to be on me.”

As the froth of celebrity gathers around her, Larson is clearly struggling to take deep breaths. She recently felt compelled to reassure People magazine, “I have an awesome therapist.”

However, from her oceanfront perch on the Gold Coast, her noise-canceling headphones within reach, Larson allows herself to drift into some positive self-talk.

“If you can get a step past the fear that people are going to hurt you, [being famous is] actually the most loving experience,” said Larson. “You have a friend wherever you go. There’s someone who feels they have participated in your life.”

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For the record, 3:10 p.m. Feb. 28: In detailing actress Brie Larson’s early career, a story in Sunday’s Envelope section said her series “United States of Tara” aired on HBO.  The series, in which Larson played the daughter of Toni Collette’s character, ran from 2009-2011 on Showtime.

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