Larry Busacca/Getty Images
Joe McGovern
October 26, 2015 AT 12:00 PM EDT

Breaking out is hard to do. That’s a truism expressed in the cruelest ways imaginable in the new drama Room, based on Emma Donoghue’s acclaimed 2010 novel. But it also applies to the career of Brie Larson, the movie’s star, who’s been acting for two-thirds of her life in a variety of projects — like Showtime’s United States of Tara, 2013’s Short Term 12, and this past summer’s Trainwreck — but has gone relatively unnoticed by audiences at large. That’s about to change.

Take a good look at Larson’s face, stunning for how much it radiates both toughness and warmth. You’ll be seeing her a lot over the next four months. Room (in theaters now) is a serious contender in this year’s Oscar race — and Larson, deservedly, is a lock for a Best Actress nomination.

In the film, Larson plays a woman named Joy, who for seven years has been held captive in a tiny shed. The place is a prison, but to her 5-year-old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay), it’s his whole world. Room is not a horror film, although it features a kidnapper named Old Nick. It’s not even a crime thriller. Its focus is on the reality we create, and the one that’s created for us. “It’s about what a mystery our lives are, even to ourselves,” Larson says. For her, exploring the role meant revisiting thematic echoes in her younger years. When she was 7, during the tumult of her parents divorce, she lived in a tiny one-room Los Angeles apartment with her sister and mother, and remembers the childish bliss of the uncomplicated life that she — not unlike Jack in the film — experienced.

“Brie understands how adults try to keep children in this protective sphere,” says director Lenny Abrahamson (Frank). “She can go very deep into character but with this amazing lightness of foot. And a lack of that showy intensity which is sometimes mistaken for great acting.” Abrahamson and Donoghue (who adapted her own novel) had privately mandated that Joy needed to be played by a person of uncontrived kindness. Not a phony. That was crucial to creating the mother-son intimacy we see onscreen. And the irony wasn’t lost on Larson that Tremblay, now 9, was just about the same age during filming as she was when her acting career began (with a Girl Scout skit on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno).

“I was thinking about those parallels,” she says, “But I’d also have these unexpected epiphany moments and realize, ‘Wow, I’m so not in control of this train.’” Case in point: In Room’s most dramatic sequence, Joy rolls Jack into a rug in order to facilitate his escape. When it came time to shoot, Larson began weeping and couldn’t unclaw herself from the rug. “It wasn’t so much Jack inside there. It was my inner child, it was my innocence, that little girl I was letting go of in order to grow up. That caused crippling pain — watching my inner child be taken away.”

Abrahamson praises her “facility to come out of character just to give Jacob some encouragement and then fall back straight into where she was,” but Larson deflects credit for Tremblay’s performance. “I wouldn’t have been as effective without him,” she says. “He’s a magic kid.”

Yet when she speaks, Larson eyes still possess the capacity to sparkle. Adults without access to their exuberant inner child can’t usually fake that. “I love chatting with people who have no idea what Room is about,” she says with a mischievous laugh. “‘Is this a post-apocalyptic world?’ ‘Are they in a bomb shelter?’ ‘Why does she have such a sh—y apartment?’ I love it.”

Larson’s good humor pairs, as it often does, with a lack of vanity. Room is liberal with close-ups of Joy’s pimply, malnourished face, but it was actually a scene halfway through the film that most fascinated the actress. Joy sits down for a television interview in lipstick and pancake makeup. “And she looks horrific,” says Larson. “It’s a Kabuki mask. Suddenly it’s like, why do we ever do this to our faces?”

She pauses, noting the industry of glamour that she’s a part of, but promising that with greater visibility comes greater responsibility. “We’ve seen a lot of movies with girls with makeup and that’s awesome. But there’s another side of beauty that isn’t seen most of the time. And I’ll consciously choose to show that.” We are attentively watching. 

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