At a moment when her acting career is in full bloom — with her Academy Award-, Golden Globe- and Spirit Award-winning performance in “Room,” a starring role in this year’s “Kong: Skull Island” and an upcoming turn as the title character in anticipated superhero adaptation “Captain Marvel” — Brie Larson presumably has other things to do than think about rainbows covered in craft-store tinsel.
Yet by making her feature directing debut with the aggressively whimsical “Unicorn Store,” in which she also stars, Larson has again shown herself to be an unpredictable, unconventional talent. The movie has its world premiere on Monday as part of the Toronto International Film Festival, and, as she explained, making “Unicorn Store” took on a therapeutic aspect, plugging her back into her own creativity.
“I feel like this film is like an abstract self-portrait of myself,” Larson said in an interview before the festival. “It’s totally a metaphorical journey of not only my experience of being an actor and learning how to be true to myself in the face of people telling me no or that I was wrong or telling me to change, but it was also directly my experience directing this film.”
She added, “And so I think part of making this movie was the joy and feeling the magic of creativity, but also having these crippling moments of ‘Is it OK to have my voice? Am I allowed to speak up for what I believe in, or am I going to get completely demolished and shattered to pieces?’ ”
Written by Samantha McIntyre, the film has a cast that also includes Samuel L. Jackson, Joan Cusack, Bradley Whitford, Hamish Linklater, Martha MacIsaac and Mamoudou Athie. The movie features score and songs by Larson’s fiancé, musician Alex Greenwald.
This film is like an abstract self-portrait of myself.
In the film, Larson plays Kit, a young woman who has washed out of art school and is back living at home with her parents (Cusack and Whitford), who run a self-help outdoors camp. Depressed and unsure of what to do next, Kit becomes glued to the couch watching infomercials. She signs up with a temp agency and is placed into a sterile office environment that she struggles to make the best of under the watchful eye of her new boss (Linklater).
A series of playfully cryptic invitations beckons her to a seemingly magical place overseen by a salesman (Jackson) who informs her she will soon receive a unicorn of her very own if she follows his instructions. This leads her to enlist a disaffected hardware store employee named Virgil (Athie) to help her prepare for her unicorn’s arrival.
Larson actually auditioned for the movie as an actress about five years ago. She didn’t get the part, and the project never came together. Having already made two short films — “The Arm” and “Weighting” — she had been casually looking for a feature project to direct when “Unicorn Store” came back around.
At a time when her acting career had reached a new height, Larson could have simply enjoyed her newly minted status of movie star rather than taking on the added responsibilities of directing, in particular to make a movie as boldly earnest and willfully eccentric as “Unicorn Store.”
“I’m really not good at being comfy,” said Larson. “I really want to keep being in this state of being a little bit off-balance and a little bit scared and ready to be surprised.
“There’s this kid in me that doesn’t have a voice, there’s this innocence inside of me, and this dreamer and this hope and this optimism that reside inside of me that was dying,” she said. “Kind of everything I was doing was about digging into the darkness and revealing the darker parts of our world. Which we need to see. But I also think, at least for myself, that I need to remember the other side of it too and that they work together. And to not feel repulsed by innocence or by happiness.”
Larson had at first wanted to find an unknown actress for the lead part of Kit. Once she decided to play the role herself, she became even more determined to give the kind of opportunity to an up-and-comer she felt other directors had previously extended to her. To that end, she cast Athie as the male lead.
Originally from Mauritania and raised mostly in Maryland, the 28-year-old Athie attended the Yale School of Drama before landing roles in projects such as Baz Luhrmann’s “The Get Down” and the recent “Patti Cakes.” He was also named a recipient of TIFF’s Rising Star award as part of this year’s festival. In Larson’s words, “He’s a movie star.”
“Once I got his audition tape, it was very striking to me. He just has a different way of being a man on screen,” Larson said of Athie’s unassuming yet charismatic screen presence. “I felt like Kit was a new way of perceiving a young woman on screen, and I wanted somebody who was excited about breaking new ground and showing a new way of being a young man on screen.”
Yet Athie said he felt he had learned a lot about acting for the camera from watching Larson as a fellow performer in their scenes together and also in how, as a director, she established the tone for the set. Athie would even come to hang out on days he didn’t have scenes to shoot.
“It was a really fun set to be on. It was a special, welcoming, well-run machine,” Athie said. “And I was learning a lot from Brie. I was learning a lot from watching Bradley Whitford and Joan Cusack — I’d admired them for years. And of course, Sam Jackson. So it seemed like it would be kind of a waste to be hanging out in my room if I could be on set.
“I feel like every time I do an interview I sound like I’m about to break into song. It’s so corny, but I really mean it,” he added. “I had never felt a stronger connection to a character.”
In her director’s note for “Unicorn Store,” Larson ties the act of making movies into her own sense of personal activism and the elevated platform she has via social media and her profile as a celebrity. The intense attention given to her has only risen following her Academy Award win and the anticipation for the upcoming “Captain Marvel.”
“Part of that activism is creating empathy for characters you wouldn’t normally empathize with, finding ways to connect with people that are living in darker corners of the world that you’re not thinking about,” she said.
“In working on this film, I was able to recognize that there’s still a lot of magic and a lot of beauty in this world,” she said, “and the way that I’m personally going to be able to keep going as an activist is through having opportunities for play and for lightness. It doesn’t always have to be about seriousness and this hard form of work. It can also be done in a song and a dance, through community and through innocence.”
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