Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Brie Larson is one smart cookie. Bundled in a fashionably warm coat, she was the only one who came prepared to tackle the frigid air-conditioned temperatures in our roundtable room at the Four Seasons Beverly Hills. This is exactly the kind of shrewd superhero mindset befitting of an Oscar-winning actress, whose latest film, FREE FIRE, positions her as our new favorite badass action movie heroine.
In the rambunctious, raucous shoot’em-up directed by Ben Wheatley, Larson plays “Justine,” an American business woman looking for her own piece of the action on a arms deal – one that goes pear-shaped quickly, courtesy of the men’s machismo, ego and bluster. She, however, remains calm and collected, well, for the most part.
Larson candidly admitted that being a part of a beloved genre wasn’t what made her initially take the role.
I don’t think that being part of action was my reason for doing this. It’s just whatever the story under the story is.
That said, there were new layers to discover and unlock.
This was the first physical role that I ever did. Exploring that in itself, dragging myself across a floor for a month… Well, I haven’t done that and I don’t know if I ever will again. It’s really hard. The action element of what I’d done before was really mental and very emotional. This was the opposite. Ben’s whole objective everyday was that we were always super confused so that we didn’t know what was going on. It wasn’t about crafting some sort of perfect performance. It was about throwing it all out the window and being panicked and confused.
Part and parcel to the physicality, this role required Larson and Co. to literally get down and dirty on that grimy, dusty seaside warehouse floor, which meant she was finding dirty in places she never knew dirt could go.
[I got it] Everywhere – especially later in the movie once it gets wet. Once it becomes mud, it brings a whole other layer of just feeling gross. I think we all know what that feels like. This was like a whole new level of stench. And it’s the same clothes. One pair of clothes we shot in order, every single day, that’s slowly getting blown-up and more fake blood and more fake dirt.
One of my favorite memories is Ben saying, ‘Okay everybody get in your positions,’ and everybody went to their part of the warehouse and watched all of us start rolling around on the ground to get covered in dirt to match everything else we’d done. It’s such a weird thing to see – a group of ten people all rolling around in dirt, doing dirt angels on the ground to try to get ready to shoot.
FREE FIRE takes place in the late Seventies, however, don’t expect much in the way of glamorous, flashy, disco-inspired realness out of Justine. She keeps it tight and right in a nice, but conservative pantsuit.
She doesn’t have money. She doesn’t come from money. So this piece of clothing is the nicest thing she owns that she probably stole for this one deal to make it seem like she’s really amazing. It’s just for show. The dudes are really the ones that are the peacocks. She’s actually playing it down. She wants them to feel like they are the most powerful and amazing because it puts them where she wants them.
The firearms used in the action-genre love letter also presented a few challenges – one being that Larson wasn’t comfortable at all holding a gun.
I didn’t like it. But that’s part of the job, putting yourself in uncomfortable situations and I don’t think my character is supposed to be particularly good at holding a gun. I don’t think I realized how uncomfortable I was with it until I started shooting the film that it’s a piece of equipment I feel awful holding in my hands. It feels like I shouldn’t be near it.
The noise of the guns firing also posed another challenge. The actors were equipped with wax earplugs which were cumbersome, but did their job.
We went through a lot of earplugs. The bottom of my bag in the movie was completely covered in wax. We were constantly putting them in and taking them out. There were earplugs everywhere – all over the floor, in my bag and in my pockets.
As this is a glorious ensemble piece, Wheatley would foster a healthy collaborative working environment on set, which allowed the actors to tap into their own creativity with their characters.
The way Ben would work is you do one that was on the script and then one that was improvised. It kind of blends into this thing that I don’t really remember what was improvised and what was in the script. I think a lot of it that was on the screen was in the script. It was a really good script. None of us knew each other before. There wasn’t a rehearsal process and it’s really smart because none of [our characters] know each other. We’re all just supposed to be brand new people in this space. You sorta cross your fingers and hope it all works out. Luckily, at least for the improv side, the dynamic was really fresh and really there. Certain things, like her disdain for Vernon, like the little eye-rolls, those are things that I added to it.
It’s those layers of moral ambiguity that intrigued the ROOM actress to keep digging further into Justine’s psyche.
[It’s] playing a little tongue-and-cheek of not really knowing who she is. I don’t think I truthfully know the answer to that. Who does she actually like? Does she actually like Chris [Cillian Murphy’s character] or is she playing him too? That’s the part I think is really interesting and as I watch it, I’m still kind of fascinated by what she’s aware of, what she’s planning ahead for, and what she’s winging it.
You don’t really understand the complication and the depth of her until much later in the film, which is rare to go, ‘Ooooh! She’s that kind of person?’ It’s part of what interests me about her. At the beginning, you see her be calm and quiet and trying to camouflage – not asserting herself too much, allowing all the other dudes to be the masterminds. She does a really good job of playing that game and you don’t know at first whether she’s super naive or super savvy. She plans for a lot of things, but also didn’t plan it well.
What Larson was eventually drawn in by Wheatley’s script was the humanity to the action.
What made us all laugh so much was the humanity of this. It’s not your typical action movie where everybody looks amazing and their timing is right. This is just everything is wrong…the whole time. It’s so human. It was a blast.
FREE FIRE opens on April 21.