'Captain Marvel's' Brie Larson Can't Save Womankind — But She's Doing Her Best
Photographed by Dana Scruggs

'Captain Marvel's' Brie Larson Can't Save Womankind — But She's Doing Her Best

by Rebecca Keegan
February 13, 2019, 6:00am PST

The Oscar winner and fierce gender-equality activist is proud to be starring as Carol Danvers in the Disney-owned studio's first female-fronted franchise — just don't conflate its success with the fate of women in Hollywood: "We have been opening movies since the silent era."

In a bright and airy dance studio on an austere stretch of Melrose Avenue in late January, Brie Larson is mid-spin, her face a mask of concentration, the faintest glow of perspiration on her brow. In dance, as in life, Larson gives things her all, especially when the disco ball is turning and the Chaka Khan track hits.

Her hoodie tossed to the side, Larson is following the man she calls her "dance sensei" as he leads her in a simple ballet turn known as a chainés, some attitudinal walking and a move where she tilts her body back and thrusts her chin up imperiously, a la Gloria Swanson preparing for her close-up in Sunset Boulevard.

This dance studio is where Larson comes to feel empowered — occasionally via the out­stretching of jazz hands — and that means you can spare her any "you-go-girl" lines or confetti cannons full of condescension. Yes, she is playing the title role in the more than $150 million Captain Marvel, the 21st movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and first ever from the wildly successful Disney division to be fronted by a woman. But, three years after she won an Oscar for her performance in the indie drama Room, the 29-year-old actress is confident enough to reject your media narrative about box office stakes and the fate of women and blah blah blah because Larson has read this story before and she knows how it ends.

"There's this sense of setting this thing up," Larson says. "I know it's exciting and fun to be like, 'Will it sink or will it float?' 'What's going to happen?' 'Can women exist in the world?' 'We're not sure yet!' But women have been opening movies since the silent era. We have been part of every major art movement. People just push us away once the movement gains momentum and act like we were never really there."

After dance class, Larson digs into two slices of soppressata pizza in a cafe full of entertainment industry professionals on their lunch breaks from the nearby Paramount lot. With her hoodie pulled down low to just above her wide brown eyes, she goes unrecognized, even when she steps up from the table to demonstrate a type of lunge in the middle of the restaurant. It's a level of anonymity that will almost surely disappear after March 8, when Larson opens her giant movie, the movie about a woman who shoots photon blasts from her hands and grapples with extraterrestrial shape-shifters while atop a speeding train, the movie that definitely will not determine the entire fate of women forever and ever.

Except that it will, a little.

While Larson may resist the historical significance of Captain Marvel, the company making this film knows it has been a long time coming, and its arrival in theaters is freighted with meaning. "We feel like it'll be the first of many," says Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige, when asked why it took so long to make a Marvel movie with a female lead. "There were a lot of men in that initial run of Avengers."

Larson's character will return to theaters just seven weeks later in Avengers: Endgame, a pivotal movie for the studio that will establish the key heroes in the next era of Marvel movies. Another first on Captain Marvel's shoulders — it will be the first Disney movie to play on the company's upcoming streaming service, Disney+, rather than on Netflix.

Marvel announced that it was making Captain Marvel on the same day it announced another barrier-breaking film, Black Panther, four years ago. That movie defied critical and box office expectations and went on to earn Marvel's first-ever best picture Oscar nomination. "Knock on wood," says Feige, "one will work out as well as the other."

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In a town that rolls its eyes at sincerity and where activism can be just another way to build one's brand, Larson is unabashedly earnest — a trait revealed in her long-standing advocacy. She has been an early organizer of Time's Up, a vocal champion of sexual assault survivors (many of whom she got to know while preparing to play a woman held captive and abused in Room) and a tart critic of her industry's depiction of women. Captain Marvel is the most logical and populist extension of her advocacy, at least as far as blockbusters go. "The very nature of this film means that I'm having conversations that I'd like to have about what it means to be a woman," Larson says. "What strength looks like, the complexities of the female experience, female representation. It's surprising and cool that my first giant movie I get to be having those kinds of conversations. But that's also why I've waited and been particular about what jobs I do."

Captain Marvel is the embodiment of ideas Larson has been ruminating on since she was an awkward, home-schooled kid living with her single mom and younger sister in a studio at the Oakwood Apartments in Burbank, envisioning a future for herself that would be some mixture of Indiana Jones and the Spice Girls. Born in Sacramento, California, to two chiropractors who divorced when she was 7, Larson carries herself with the big-sisterly mien of someone who started playing an adult role in her home early. When talking about herself, the actress can be guarded and somewhat studied, sharing anecdotes and remarks that also pop up in other profiles of her, like the story about how acting taught her "how to be a person, how you make eye contact, how you connect with your feelings." Larson's whole face relaxes, however, when she's the one asking the questions — the format of an interview "just always feels selfish," she says.

Larson has been at this a while. Her first paid acting gig was in a Tonight Show sketch at age 9 — a parody ad for "Malibu Mudslide Barbie," and she began getting steady TV sitcom work by 12. In her mid-teens, she dabbled in a pop music career, eventually releasing her one and only album, Finally Out of P.E., about the trials and triumphs of teendom. After her breakout as the teen daughter of Toni Collette's character on Showtime's The United States of Tara and her Oscar-winning performance in Room, Larson tried her hand in a big studio monster movie, Kong: Skull Island, a role that critics said underutilized her.

When she first started talking to Marvel about the superheroine role, in the midst of her Oscar race for Room, "I was hesitant to even meet," Larson says. "I was like, 'I don't think what comes with a movie like that is anything that I can harness and hold. I'm too much of an introvert. I'll just collapse.' … But then they started talking to me about this film, and I was like, 'Drat, this is the culmination of a lot of things I've wanted.' "

The character, whose civilian name is Carol Danvers, is an Air Force test pilot during the late 1980s and early '90s, an era when female pilots were not allowed in combat. "Carol Danvers … had been held back much of her life from being able to pursue the kinds of things she wanted to pursue," Feige says. "She's constantly being told, 'Girls shouldn't do that,' or, 'It's too dangerous for you, you'll get hurt.' This film is very much about this character learning to not hold back and to not accept the boundaries put in front of her." First introduced in the comics in 1968, predominantly as a love interest for the male Captain Marvel, Carol Danvers evolved to become one of Marvel's earliest feminists — albeit one whose midriff was always exposed — under the name "Ms. Marvel."

The film, written and directed by indie veterans Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson) in their studio debut, is informed by the version of Danvers in the comics written by Kelly Sue DeConnick, who re-envisioned the character in 2012 as a female Chuck Yeager, with a cocky edge and humor. DeConnick's feminist read on Danvers — her insight that a female fighter pilot ought to, say, wear pants to work rather than a swimsuit — inspired a backlash among some male fans, but it's the take that won over a new, more female-skewing audience for the comic and, ultimately, Larson. On one of her early meetings at Marvel, Feige recalls, Larson saw back issues of the comic displayed on the walls. "If you look at the comics, the further you go back, the less clothes Carol Danvers seems to be wearing," Feige says. "Oftentimes it's a one-piece bathing suit basically, with outrageous comic proportions. … Brie pointed it out on the wall, and we went, 'Yeah … just so you know, that's not what we're doing.' She goes, 'OK. I didn't think so, but I'm glad you said that.' "

Some reactions to the marketing for the film suggest there still exists a gender divide among the Marvel audience, as when some male fans on social media complained that Larson wasn't smiling in the trailer, with one Twitter user going so far as to Photoshop a smile onto her face. Larson responded to the "smile more" critique — one familiar to many female politicians — by posting an Instagram story that featured Marvel posters of male heroes with idiotic grins Photoshopped onto their faces.

In the summer of 2017, after she had been cast but before Marvel began shooting, Larson went to see another superhero movie, DC's Wonder Woman, in the theater and found herself sobbing. "As a kid, I wanted to be an adventurer," Larson says. "I wanted to be a smart-ass. I wanted to get my hands dirty. But it wasn't until being in the theater seeing Wonder Woman ... I was like, 'Why is this making me cry so much?' I realized 'cause I hadn't had that, and there was a kid in me that was like, 'Oh, my God. I can do that?' " (She obviously wasn't alone: That film grossed $822 million worldwide, drawing 16 percent more female moviegoers than the average superhero movie, according to the moviegoer data analytics company Movio.)

Larson's preparation for the stunt-heavy role included an intensive, four-hour daily gym routine with trainer Jason Walsh that eventually saw the 5-foot-7 actress dead-lifting 225 pounds, hip-thrusting 400 pounds and pushing Walsh's Jeep up a hill. There were days when the intensity of the training reduced her to tears and days when she got irritated by men at Walsh's West Hollywood gym who doubted her strength. "This guy watched me lift something really heavy, and he went, 'Wow, I can't even lift that!' As if he were the epitome of health," Larson says. "I said, 'Yeah, I guess you're going to have to rethink your gender norms.' "

Larson says the weight-training was as transformative emotionally as it was physically, partly because it happened to coincide with the early days of the Time's Up movement, in which she was deeply involved, occasionally hosting meetings at her home. "It's the time that I was starting to be able to lift a lot more and I was learning how to punch and kick and do judo throws," she says. "It was also the time that I was learning how to sit at a conference table and slam my hands on the table and say, 'You need to listen to what I'm saying.' And learning to not feel guilty about taking up space like that."

In the fall of 2017, in the weeks after the first Harvey Weinstein stories broke, Larson and her female acting peers began texting one another and having conversations about workplace concerns, from issues like pay equity to how to deal with the discomfort of a sound man reaching inside your bra to pin a microphone. When it comes to pay, Larson seems to be doing OK — she'll make $5 million for playing Captain Marvel in this film as part of a deal that bests what Robert Downey Jr. made for his first outing as Iron Man ($500,000) and Chadwick Boseman for his first as Black Panther ($2 million). As for the microphone issue, she says she now mics herself in her trailer and advises her female friends on sets to do the same.

Time's Up "still takes up a solid amount of my time every day," Larson says. "We now have a lot of ways to try to hold ourselves and others accountable. We're also dealing with a lot of institutions — agencies, unions, studios. But I'm constantly getting emails that make me go, 'This is working.' " She cites the recent 4% Challenge, a Time's Up initiative launched in January calling on actors, producers and studio executives to commit to announcing a project with a female director in the next 18 months. Larson says she was "stoked" by Disney CEO Bob Iger's response to the challenge, which was to announce that 40 percent of Disney's upcoming movie slate is being directed by women.

Though it's easy to forget in an era of social media and extreme political polarization, there was a time when a movie star opening a giant, four-quadrant film was expected to smile through a press tour and not say anything that might offend ticket buyers. Larson, however, has not shied from potentially divisive issues. While accepting a prize for excellence in film at the Crystal + Lucy Awards in the summer, she highlighted the demographic homogeneity of the Hollywood press corps in a particularly pointed speech. "Am I saying that I hate white dudes? No, I am not," Larson said to a ballroom full of journalists. (According to Feige, Larson advocated behind the scenes to ensure that the junket for Captain Marvel included female journalists of color.) At the Oscars in 2017, she opted not to clap for best actor winner Casey Affleck when presenting him with his award, a decision that many read as Larson's rebuke of the actor, who had settled a pair of sexual harassment civil lawsuits. "I won't talk about it," she says of her decision not to clap for Affleck. "It's not my story to tell." Explaining why he would not consider asking a Marvel star to sand down her edges, Feige says, "You hear the stories of these old studio heads trying to control everything, and as far as I can tell, it always blew up in their faces."

At the same Oscars where Affleck won, Larson was at the center of another memorable moment, when she wrapped best actress winner Emma Stone in a long, emotional hug backstage that was so distractingly intimate a PricewaterhouseCooper accountant tweeting about the exchange mixed up his envelopes. Larson says that watching Stone, a close friend with whom she shared a hair and makeup team, win the best actress Oscar for La La Land transported her to the jarring moment when she accepted her own Oscar for Room a year earlier and stepped into the wings of the Dolby Theatre. "I hated being alone in that moment," Larson says. "I was able to feel it more through [Stone] than I ever was able to feel it for myself. It's just too overwhelming. But seeing it from, like, your sister, I was able to just celebrate it and feel the love and acceptance of it in a way that I hadn't been able to before."

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Female friendship is one of the core themes of Captain Marvel, which traces Carol Danvers' struggles in the Air Force beside a fellow test pilot played by Lashana Lynch. Larson's female friends characterize her as a kind of tribe leader — taking a loosely knit group of actresses, artists, musicians and chefs who first coalesced around watching The Bachelor together and expanding their adventures to excursions that include roller skating, mushroom foraging and karaoke. Larson and her fiance of two-and-a-half years, musician Alex Greenwald, recently called off their engagement, a subject she declines to discuss. She is vague about where she lives now. "With my job, you kind of don't really live anywhere," Larson says. "You get very good at moving around and living in different places. That's one of my favorite parts about it. The way you're just dropped into a new place by yourself and like, good luck."

Perhaps because of the dramatic roles she has played in movies like Room, The Glass Castle and Short Term 12, and because of her activism, Larson's public persona can seem ultra-serious. But her longtime friends describe someone goofy and accessible, who once wrote a screenplay while listening to the soundtrack from the musical Cats and wearing cat ears, who carries her own marinara sauce (Rao's) along in her backpack for when restaurants serve her favorite food, mozzarella sticks, with subpar dipping sauce. To unwind, Larson rents a private room at an L.A. karaoke bar and sings while wearing a sheet mask on her face. "She'll sing anything Dixie Chicks or Destiny's Child or Usher," says her friend, actress Jessie Ennis. "Anything that was really popular in, like, 2002."

It is clearly this side of Larson that shaped the comedic tone of her directorial debut, Unicorn Store, which premieres April 5 on Netflix. The film, which Larson stars in and produces, is about an art school failure who moves back in with her parents and seems destined to waste her adulthood at a soul-crushing office job until she receives a mysterious, sparkle-covered invitation promising the fulfillment of one of her childhood dreams. The comedy, which features her Captain Marvel co-star Samuel L. Jackson as a Willy Wonka-esque purveyor of fantasy, garnered mixed reviews at Toronto, with one male critic dismissing it as the "world's girliest movie." That was sort of the point: Unicorn Store is Larson's love letter to her younger self, a film granting girls permission to stay eccentric and impractical. Of the Netflix deal, Larson says, "I wanted Unicorn Store to be free to young people in particular."

Unicorn Store was the first movie made under best picture-nominated A Star Is Born producer Lynette Howell Taylor's female-focused production company, 51 Entertainment. Netflix is backing another project Larson and Howell Taylor have been developing with an eye toward the actress directing, a Working Girl-esque comedy called Lady Business, based on a Fast Company article about two young female entrepreneurs who had to invent a third male company founder in order to be taken seriously in the business world. The sense of aching to be listened to is something Larson has experienced on film sets when communicating with directors. "You do the, like, 'I'm probably wrong, but do you think that maybe we could try it like this?' " she says. "Or, 'I know it's stupid, but …' Or humor. You make jokes. … You learn how to sort of bend and contort in a certain way to be heard. But at a certain point, it just starts to feel really off and wrong."

It's likely Larson's voice will be amplified after Captain Marvel opens around the world. And maybe other women's voices will be better heard, too. But if that's true, she would like us to acknowledge that those women have been here, shouting, all along.

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FROM MISS TO MS. TO CAPTAIN: A MARVEL HEROINE EVOLVES
She first appeared in 1968 as a character noteworthy primarily for her beauty. But as the culture changed, so did Marvel’s Carol Danvers, gaining powers and the feminist moniker of “Ms. Marvel” in the 1970s, enduring a bizarre rape storyline in 1980 and earning the right to wear pants and the title of “Captain” in 2012

From left:

2019: TEAM OF HEROINES A new version of the comic sees Captain Marvel uniting with other female superheroes including She-Hulk, Echo and Spider-Woman.

1977: WOMEN’S LIB In Ms. Marvel #1, Carol Danvers attained her superpowers and tackled equal pay as a journalist at a women’s magazine.

2012: CAPTAIN’S PERCH Under writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, Danvers, an Air Force test pilot modeled on Chuck Yeager, becomes Captain Marvel.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.