At just seven years old, Jacob Tremblay made waves for his performance in A24’s 2015 indie drama Room. The actor won a slew of awards alongside his costar Brie Larson (who would claim an Oscar for Best Actress), including Best Actor in a Leading Role at the Canadian Screen Awards. Child actors are something of a miracle in general: from Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense to Drew Barrymore in E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial, their honest performances stem from instinct and imagination instead of an adult’s learned-in experience.
That preternaturally gifted naturalism has led to some of cinema’s most powerful moments, a movie stratosphere that includes Tremblay’s turn in Room. Five-year-old Jack, Room’s co-protagonist, contains adult multitudes in a child’s frame — yet by the very nature of Room’s story, his performance would feel incomplete without Brie Larson by his side. The monumental highs and lows both actors are called to inhabit are impressive enough, but Larson and Tremblay meet one another on a level of raw intimacy that surpasses every other adult-child acting duo. Accurately capturing the unique chemistry that exists between an adult and a child can be tricky; Larson and Tremblay make it look easy.
Tremblay and Larson’s Real-Life Bond Reflects Their Onscreen Relationship
Room is a film about many things: trauma, survival, individualism, and the primal yet profound bond between a parent and their child. Larson and Tremblay play Joy and Jack Newsome. respectively; Joy was abducted at 17 years old and has spent seven years locked in a shed, subject to the sadistic whims of her sexually abusive captor (Sean Bridgers) which ultimately leads to the birth of Jack. Joy is malnourished from lack of sunlight and poor nutrition, but despite her ongoing trauma, she’s done everything in her power to enrich her son’s life. Jack is a cheerful boy, oblivious to his situation. He believes that nothing exists beyond the shed and adores his “Ma” with the guileless passion of a five-year-old. When Joy and Jack escape the shed, his world opens wide while hers shatters into pieces.
Such a demanding plot necessitates a believable, intense connection that goes beyond most adult-child acting companionships. Through words and deeds, Larson and Tremblay immediately establish Joy and Jack’s easy, unconscious intimacy. The two share a bed and sleep face-to-face, or with Joy curled protectively around her son’s tiny form. On the morning of his fifth birthday, Joy gathers Jack up in a hug, bakes a meager birthday cake, and takes care of him on a fundamental level with their routine of vitamins, breakfast, and teeth-brushing. At night, she soothes a restless Jack and tenderly tells him to go back to sleep.
Even when Jack issues the whining complaints of a normal kid and Joy barely suppresses her exhausted irritation — and despite the bruises around her eyes — Joy clearly adores her son. There’s a playful ease between them that’s almost sibling-like; they’re as close as two people can be, almost symbiotic, a world unto their own. Mother and child were forced together by tragedy but create as much beauty out of it as they can. These positive moments are a reflective testament to the connection between the actors. When they giggle in the bathtub and exchange snarky remarks, we see Larson and Tremblay, not Joy and Jack. And that’s a compliment.
Before filming, Larson and Tremblay spent time nurturing a natural, strong, mutually protective relationship. The two bonded over their love for Star Wars, rode to set together, and played in the Room set by themselves. According Rolling Stone, “[Larson] was the one who’d be taking care of Jacob’s immediate needs, from asking for bathroom breaks to simply entertaining him between shots. By the time “action” was called, the two had forged something that resembled a real parent-child relationship.” That connection is evident in how effortlessly and potently the two interact on screen. Acting is always playing pretend, but realism helps inform a performance regardless of whether the actor is an adult or a child. If Tremblay didn’t implicitly trust Larson and feel safe with her, Room would have fallen apart.
‘Room’ Understands That Love and Fear Are the Same
In many ways, Room is motherhood in the microcosm — and parenthood is never as simplistic as sunshine and roses. Any intimate relationship shouldn’t, and can’t, celebrate just the good: if you know someone that intimately, it means you’re privy to their lowest moments and their darkest impulses. You can hurt them with unique acuteness, defend them without hesitation, and draw (and inspire) courage from their love. Joy and Jack existing in such inescapably forced proximity brings out the good and the bad in equal measure. There are days when Joy’s traumatized despair leaves her catatonic with grief; it bleeds through her emotional shields and colors her love for Jack because there’s no other outlet for her pain. Yet Joy instantly recognizes the hurt she’s inflicted upon her innocent, precious son, and her unconditional love for Jack is powerful enough to move mountains.
Larson and Tremblay’s connection means the two could breach these darker, more complex narrative arenas and healthily navigate them as a team of two. Despite the age difference and Tremblay’s youth (for his emotional safety, he never read the full script), they feel like true scene partners in ways that evenly-matched adult actors can’t manage. The pair draw gut-wrenching honesty out of one another, whether it’s tenderness, rage, or agony (or all three at once). They approach Room’s excruciating heartbreak with the same unflinching honesty as they embrace its hopeful conclusion. Taken as one, Larson’s fierce screams of protection and Jack’s cries of terror capture humanity at its most fundamental: the fact that love and fear co-exist.
A Genuine Connection Made ‘Room’ a Better Movie
Room is based on a critically acclaimed book of the same name by Emma Donoghue, who also wrote the screenplay. Donoghue was inspired by her experiences as a mother and the case of Elisabeth Fritzl, a survivor of kidnapping and rape who spent a quarter-century locked in her father’s basement. When Fritzl was rescued, her five-year-old son Felix “entered the larger world for the first time ever.” To portray Joy as accurately and benevolently as possible, Larson researched kidnapping survivors, spoke with a trauma specialist and a nutritionist, and temporarily restricted her diet to better reflect Joy’s vitamin D deficiency. She wanted to avoid yet another “voyeuristic” view of a woman’s pain, and she succeeded: Joy’s trauma isn’t sanitized for the screen. She can be vicious toward the innocent Jack, but Room never victim-blames, and Joy’s love for Jack never wavers.
Offscreen, Larson spoke about how Tremblay’s presence helped her navigate that complex web of emotion. “For Ma,” she said, “Jack becomes this constant living reminder of this horrible thing she endured. For me, Jack was a constant reminder that this is not real.” The actors’ genuine bond is a beautiful reflection of how Joy and Jack protect each other. When Jack tells Joy “It’s still just you and me,” the fictional statement seems equally applicable to Larson and Tremblay. Jack and Tremblay share an innocent clarity that compliments the harsher emotions Larson had to tackle to bring Joy to life.
Because Tremblay was too young to understand the material and therefore didn’t read the full script, his and Larson’s simpatico camaraderie is even more impressive. When asked how he approached achieving such a mature yet scrupulous performance, Tremblay kept it simple: “I pretended that I was Jack and I thought of what it would be like to be trapped in Room.” Because they embraced emotional truth offscreen, Tremblay and Larson raised the bar for adult-child acting partnerships to new heights.