Brie Larson was not at last week’s Oscars, though she won one for her acting in “Room,” about a mother in captivity, five years ago.
Quarantine, a different sort of captivity, had brought forth some other talents. Larson can scuba-dive, find edible mushrooms in the forest, create songs out of Instagram comments and bake cookies without a recipe. She signed up to climb the Grand Tetons without Googling a picture first. She is learning French.
And she is now also famous for her online doings.
Last July, after a series of celebrity gaffes, Larson’s name started trending on Twitter. No, she hadn’t posted an ill-advised pandemic message. On the contrary: She had opened a YouTube account and shared her first video, “so, I made a decision …”
In the eight months since, she has amassed more than half a million subscribers and used the channel to showcase her many, many interests in playful, rather homespun videos. She has been gaining 20,000 to 50,000 subscribers per month.
Unlike many actors, Larson, 31, wasn’t midproduction when the world shut down.
“I had already decided to take time off because I felt like I needed to recalibrate,” she said. But the onset of the pandemic was a “moment of growth,” because she gained new insight about her Hollywood colleagues based on how they discussed safety issues.
“The thing that I care the most about are the people that I’m making anything with. They are more important than any piece of art,” Larson said.
She eventually scrapped nearly all of the projects she had been developing pre-pandemic.
“I love that my job is like holding up a mirror to society, and society changed, so it meant I needed to start over again,” she said.
The only project she didn’t scrap was the YouTube channel, which had been planned for almost a year. It mirrors society in a different way; a hundred years from now, someone could watch her videos and get a sense for the mundane ways the creative class spent their year indoors. Larson cut her own hair! She wore tie-dye! She played Fortnite! She even investigated one of life’s great mysteries: “but will it air-fry?”
“My days usually involve staring at a screen, answering emails and spiralling occasionally,” Larson said in a recent video.
‘We could do crafts’
For most of her career, Larson, perhaps most widely known as Captain Marvel, aka Carol Danvers, has been a chameleon. She had a stint as a pop star, opening for Jesse McCartney in 2005. She also is the type of person who packs an entire suitcase of art supplies for a theatre festival in the Berkshires, and after meeting a kindred spirit, Jessie Ennis, at a rehearsal for “Our Town,” a decade ago, invites her to “make summer valentines.” The two have been best friends ever since.
“She was like, ‘Hey, want to come over to my place? We could do crafts!’” Ennis said, in a very good impression of Larson’s voice. When she arrived at the house, Larson showed off an arrangement of construction paper, glue sticks and scissors.
“Most people my age were just trying desperately to seem cool,” Ennis said. Instead, Larson exuded self-assured sincerity.
But after finishing the “Captain Marvel” press tour in 2019, glue sticks and scissors weren’t going to cut it as creative escape.
“I was starting to feel like my own image of myself was oppressive,” Larson said. “There’s something very different about being shown to the world as a superhero,” because carrying the mantle of Danvers’ superhuman strength came with pressure “to uphold a certain image.”
With that blockbuster movie came a platform bigger than any Larson had imagined, and while she tries to use that platform to talk about antiracism, inclusivity and other causes she cares about, she started to feel that every time she spoke to the public, she needed to Say Something.
“It’s so exhausting to spend so much time nitpicking within your own head every detail of what you’re going to say,” she said. “I needed to know that it was OK for me to do something that was silly or simple and it wouldn’t blow everything up, which sounds really absurd almost a year later.”
Dishes in the sink
Vlogging has become a form of self-care. Larson blocks out an hour every week to talk to herself in a painted corner of her garage, the brightest spot in her rustic Los Angeles home. The resulting video “might not be much, but it matters a lot for me.”
Though most of her videos bubble over with whimsy, she has also talked about social anxiety, rosacea (breaking out in hives on the way to red carpets) and food issues (“I’ve probably had every eating disorder that’s possible. Why? Body dysmorphia and a sense of control, I guess.”).
She’s not trying to elicit sympathy by being vulnerable; instead, she wants to dispel the myth that Hollywood actors live perfect, polished day-to-day lives. “Since we’re not together physically, the internet is our whole world right now,” so she believes it’s her responsibility to share her life as it is.
“I’m not precious with the fact that I don’t have anything together,” she said. “There’s dishes in my sink right now. I would be embarrassed to do a walk-through of my house.”
She doesn’t engage with comments, because she doesn’t consider it her “business” to know what people think of her. “I’ve had that promise to myself since the moment that I signed up for Instagram,” she said. “I’m such a mystery to me. How could I be known by anybody?”
On Larson’s desk is a French textbook and a copy of the “Tao Te Ching,” translated by her friend Stephen Mitchell. At any given time, she’s reading five to seven books, usually a mix of fiction, poetry and spirituality. She once told Ennis, who is also an actress, “you might go a year without work, but you can fill it with all this learning.”
This insatiable curiosity prompted the friends to start a podcast in March called “Learning Lots,” on which they invite guests like mountaineering filmmaker Jimmy Chin and Instagram poet Rupi Kaur to discuss big topics, like fear, truth and friendship.
Though the friends compare themselves to the emoji of sisters with linked arms, they spent most of 2020 apart; Ennis said watching Larson’s vlogs helped her feel connected.
“I was surprised to learn she doesn’t use any measuring cups when she’s baking,” Ennis said. “That gives me a full-blown rash.”
Larson plans to channel her YouTube baking experience into her next role, a scientist who hosts a 1960s cooking show in the upcoming Apple series “Lessons in Chemistry,” which she will also executive produce.
“I put myself in situations where I’m immersed in the subject and see what comes up,” she said, in terms of what her character, Elizabeth Zott, may be feeling.
She has no plans to quit vlogging, though: “The most rewarding part is, it hasn’t been that much of a big deal.”