Room: How Director Abrahamson Coaxed Oscar-Caliber Prformance from Jacob Tremblay, Age 7

room_5_larsonIn Room, a harrowing tale about a woman kept in captivity for years who ends up pregnant with her kidnapper’s child, Irish director Lenny Abrahamson was facing a major dilemma of how to make the boy scream.

The young actor, Jacob Tremblay, then 7, was supposed to be yelling at his mother — Ma, played by Brie Larson — after she disappoints him with a lumpy, half-baked birthday cake. But Tremblay wasn’t feeling it.

“He knows about acting,” Abrahamson, 48,  told the Hollywood Reporter, “but he’s still 7 years old. For a 7-year-old, shouting can be embarrassing.”

Tremblay’s performance, as a boy who spends the first five years of his life locked with his mother inside an 11-by-15-foot shed, which anchors the story, is crucial to the film’s impact.  He is in almost every scene, and everything on the screen is filtered through his eyes and shown from his subjective POV.

It’s an especially big gamble for A24’s Room, which strives to turn the darkest of premises into an uplifting movie about the protective powers of a parent’s love and the resilience of innocence in the face of real-life tragedies.

room_1_larsonThe search for Jack, however, was trickier. Abrahamson saw more than 2,000 child actors in seven American cities before he popped in an audition tape sent by Tremblay’s press-shy parents (his mother and father, a police detective in Vancouver, don’t do interviews), who have been overseeing their son’s career since he started acting at age 5 in Smurfs 2.

“You could tell he was special,” says Abrahamson. “He was so assured. Maybe too assured. I was a little concerned that he’s too coached because he’d done commercials. But he’s bright. Once we got him together with Brie, we started to realize just how intelligent he was. In rehearsals, we started to realize, ‘Oh, there’s real acting in there.’ ”

That first meeting between Tremblay and Larson (who avoided sunlight for six months to prepare for her role) took place in September 2014, three weeks before shooting began at Pinewood Toronto Studios.

Their early “rehearsals” consisted of hanging out together on the set doing such things as eating pizza and playing with Legos, building up Tremblay’s comfort level with his 26-year-old co-star.

The two would be spending many long weeks together in extremely close quarters: inside the shed (or “Room,” as Jack refers to it in the movie) that had been constructed on the soundstage.

Tremblay was a trouper, hitting his marks and delivering his lines like a pro. But occasionally, there were moments of tension. Like that scene, when Tremblay was supposed to shout at Larson but wouldn’t do it, no matter how much the director and co-star implored.

Ultimately, though, Abrahamson found a solution, as he told the Hollywood Reporter.  The director ordered everyone on the set–Larson, the camera crew, himself–to start shouting as loud as they could to make Tremblay feel more comfortable about his own shouting.  This peculiar strategy worked.  “We’d often find that what was holding him back was nothing complex,” says Abrahamson. “Sometimes it was about finding a way to get at what was worrying him and just taking that away.”

“If his performance didn’t work,” says producer David Gross, explaining just how much was dependent on Tremblay’s role, “we were a Lifetime movie.”