If you don’t recognize Brie Larson on the street, she’s done her job.
Larson, a 23-year-old Sacramento native and star of the new, critically acclaimed film “Short Term 12,” seeks an acting career free of persona, preferring to vanish into roles.
Larson’s brief stint as a teen pop songstress highlighted the distinction between performer and personality.
“I really enjoyed it for the time I did it,” said Larson, who released a 2005 album called “Finally Out of P.E.” that featured catchy pop with a slight, Avril Lavigne-esque edge. “But I found I really didn’t get much satisfaction out of being ‘Brie Larson.’ I felt like a product of myself, and I didn’t like the way that felt.”
Larson, reached by phone during a publicity stop in San Francisco, is having a moment. And it could not be further removed from bubblegum pop.
She’s the current “It Girl” of indie cinema, appearing in three quality films in or about to hit theaters: “Short Term,” which marks her first starring film role, and “The Spectacular Now” and “Don Jon,” in which she plays supporting parts.
Larson has won high praise for her nuanced, sensitive performance as a professionally solid but personally conflicted foster-care facility supervisor in “Short Term,” which won the grand jury and audience awards at the 2013 South by Southwest festival.
Larson also shines in “Spectacular,” a high school drama-romance in which she plays the lead character’s regretful but forward-thinking ex-girlfriend.
On Friday, the actress will show a more comedic side when “Don Jon” opens. Larson plays the oft-silent but highly expressive sister of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s porn-obsessed, muscle-bound character.
“I think Brie can do absolutely anything,” Larson’s “Spectacular Now” director James Ponsoldt wrote via email. “Her sense of timing is pitch-perfect. She’s like some strange combination of Gena Rowlands and Lucille Ball.”
Larson’s current indie-world status represents one of the best possible outcomes for a one-time kid actress whose show business career already has undergone several phases. Perhaps best-known for roles on Showtime’s “United States of Tara” and the film “21 Jump Street,” Larson began taking acting lessons at age 6, while living in Elk Grove.
When she was 8, she moved with her mother and younger sister to Los Angeles. Her parents, both chiropractors, had split up. Within a few years, Larson had earned her Screen Actors Guild card and a regular role as Bob Saget’s daughter on the short-lived sitcom “Raising Dad.”
In her teens, she discovered Toni Collette, who Larson said would become her acting “idol.” And that was before Larson played the daughter of Collette’s multiple-personality character on “Tara,” which aired from 2009-11.
“I was home-schooling myself, trying to graduate so that I could be an actor, and I would watch movies while doing schoolwork,” Larson said. “It took me so long to realize that the person that was the mom in ‘The Sixth Sense’ was also Kitty from ‘The Hours’ and Muriel in ‘Muriel’s Wedding.’”
“I just remember that really clicked for me. I finally felt like there was somebody out there who understood what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to be a ‘type’ and I didn’t want to just be myself in everything.”
Once on set, Collette was “complimentary, and loving and wonderful,” Larson said. “She still to this day is somebody that I speak with often … her presence in my life greatly changed how I viewed my craft.”
Actors adept at disappearing into character eventually win notice for it. Collette won an Emmy for “Tara” and was nominated for an Oscar for “The Sixth Sense.” Larson appears to be on the same path.
“Short Term 12” director and screenwriter Destin Daniel Cretton said that before he cast Larson, he had followed her career and was knocked out by the versatility displayed on her “reel,” or visual résumé.
“She is always changing, and not just changing, but kind of changing dramatically,” he said. “I was watching her reel and didn’t even know it was her in a scene. I watched the whole reel and was like, ‘Well, why did they put this in?’”
It’s not that Larson wears wigs or floppy hats on screen. But her performances, devoid of big, actorly moments, always serve the story first.
In “Short Term,” Larson’s character, Grace, deftly handles the constant emergencies arising among the at-risk youths in her care. But she carries doubts about furthering her relationship with her boyfriend (John Gallagher Jr., from HBO’s “The Newsroom”), even though he is loving and supportive.
To prepare for the role, Larson spent a day shadowing real-life “line staff” at a Los Angeles group home. Cretton, who based his script on his own experiences working in a youth facility, also scheduled team-building exercises before the low-budget film’s 20-day shoot outside Los Angeles. One was a group gathering that allowed Larson one-on-one time with the young actors playing teens in the film.
Larson’s clear rapport with the young actors with whom she shares scenes, along with her small, steady reveals of the demons beneath Grace’s capable demeanor, are key to the film’s slow-blooming authenticity and power.
She wanted to play Grace, Larson said, because “of the depths that I was going to explore … . It was someone who was struggling internally and had a very alive personal world.”
Grace’s hesitancy to move on with her life contrasts with the straightforward pragmatism of popular high school senior Cassidy in “Spectacular Now.” Though Cassidy still holds feelings for her charismatic, heavy-drinking ex-boyfriend (Miles Teller), she recognizes his lack of goals and has moved on to the school’s ambitious star athlete.
These characters, though highly distinct, share a beyond-their-years knowingness that also informed Larson’s work on “Tara” as Kate, who often took the grown-up role in interactions with her troubled mother. Though Kate was raised in chaos and sometimes made faulty decisions herself, Larson gave her unexpected depth.
“Brie creates life around the edges; the audience can imagine her characters have vast and complicated lives just off-screen,” Ponsoldt said. “Brie’s characters seem to possess secrets — which draws the audience in and makes them want to know her better.”
Larson’s “Don Jon” character, who mostly stares at her cellphone and keeps quiet during family gatherings, certainly draws the viewer in. Larson’s eyes and pointed looks often mimic audience sentiment.
“She brings the house down — she gets some of the biggest laughs,” said Gordon-Levitt, who wrote and directed “Don Jon.” “I think it is a credit to her as an actress that she is really listening (within scenes).”
Larson credits “Tara” with helping her land her current film roles. Not necessarily because the show increased her visibility, Larson said, but because working on it, and especially working with Collette, boosted her confidence.
After “Tara,” “I felt like I was able to walk into auditions — it’s really hard to walk into auditions, and it’s a weird thing to do — like I had something to offer,” Larson said. “Instead of looking into them and going, ‘Please don’t hate me.’”
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB