The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Room.
Can you talk about finding this role and the decision to take it?
I had read the book maybe a year before the script was sent to me and I just loved it. A book hadn’t suspended my disbelief in that way, and I’m always reading. I love to read. I hadn’t felt that connection, and felt so upset during the escape sequence: I was sobbing, I was pacing the room, I thought for sure they weren’t going to get out, even though it was so obvious that they were because I still had half of the book in my hand. I also hadn’t cried like that since I read Where the Red Fern Grows in fourth grade. I cared about them so much, but at the same time Ma is an essence in the book… It’s told from Jack’s perspective, so everything has this sort of innocence and simplicity to it. Ma is his Ma. She could do no wrong. She doesn’t really feel pain. He can’t understand what’s going on with her at night, or why he sleeps in Wardrobe. It’s his Ma. You don’t really get a full complexity of her from the book. You don’t really even know what she looks like from the book. She’s just a feeling. When the script came along and I felt such a connection to it, I respected the material so much that I didn’t want to assume that I knew, or that I was the one to do it. It went in a slow step of first meeting Lenny [Abrahamson] the director for coffee. It was supposed to be a short thirty-minute meeting and it turned into a four hour-long epic talking about everything. Then he asked everyone who was interested in playing Ma to come in and audition. I was so excited about it because it gave me the opportunity to basically test a theory. If I got it, I would never have to worry, “Am I the right person for this?” I would know. It was a theory that was tested and proven. I could just let go of everything else and just do my job.
“Ma is his Ma. She could do no wrong.”
When did you meet Jacob Tremblay?
We met about three weeks before we started shooting. There was a lot of excitement around the two of us meeting and I think a lot of panic as well, because we have three weeks to get to know each other, and a whole movie is hinging upon this relationship. I think there was a sense of basically do we have a movie, is this going to work? So we went and got pizza. He had little Star Wars figurines and I named a fact about Star Wars, and he was like, “What? You know about Star Wars? That’s a boy’s movie” After we had pizza, he said, “You should come over tonight and play Lego with me.” I realized after that first time that I went over and played Lego with him that I had never wanted to be so badly accepted by anybody as I wanted to be accepted by him… The fact that he really liked me right off the bat, and then allowed me to come into his world and invited me to play Lego with him every night. We would go in Room every day and just do improvs. Very quickly we became really, really close… We spent at least eight hours a day together—that’s how long he could work—every day including rehearsals a few months before. When spending that much time with anybody, you start to get close with them.
How did you prepare for the role?
I gave myself a lot of time with this one because there were just so many factors that are really hard to wrap your brain around. The thing that I had the hardest time understanding was spending seven years in this room. It would’ve been much easier to do her first week in Room; I can get that. But seven years it is so foreign to me. I talked with a trauma specialist about how the brain organizes trauma and how Ma really had no awareness of the trauma while it was happening because the body just wants to survive and so does whatever it can to shut off the fear in order to just get through itband to protect herself and to protect Jack. I very quickly learned that it was going to be in the second half of the movie where we were actually going to see the effects of the trauma and her trying to deal with it. I spoke to a nutritionist about what would happen to your mind and to the body when you don’t have vitamin D, no proper nutrition. What would your skin look like without washing it; what would your teeth look like if you didn’t brush them. I started slowly putting all of these pieces together in order to create her. I went on a rigid diet. I was eating the healthiest I ever eaten in my life, but it was small, no carb meals throughout the day to sort of strip myself down. I was working with a trainer because I wanted to gain more muscle because I imagined she would, in that time when you have endless amount of time in a day, you would be trying to be active and not becoming a body that was just atrophied. And she’s gone through a pregnancy, she’s carrying a kid, she’s constantly very physical with him, thinking about moving him, wrestling with him, and trying to keep herself with some strength because the only way she has to defend herself if something were to happen to her or to him would be her own strength. So I put on fifteen pounds of muscle in the months leading up to it and had to stay out of the sun in order to get pale. Did it all, growing armpit hair, which I’m bummed you don’t see in the movie. Not washing my face. All those things.
How did you put yourself in the mindset?
We shot in chronological order. It was so that we could tell the story as honestly as possible and let the experience of making it sort of inform where it was going to go. There’s so much about this story that is not of a world that we know. I think the movie itself is so universal and deals with so many things that hit so close to home. You don’t know in which ways they’re going to hit unless you go through it linearly and feel the whole thing out in sequence, which was such a luxury to do. I can’t imagine making this movie in any other way because every day informed the next and I’d be constantly surprised by where I was emotionally going through this forward, to see what were the things that were maybe not so upsetting to Ma that I thought would be, or the opposite.