[This story contains spoilers from the finale of Lessons in Chemistry.]
Academy Award-winning actress Brie Larson has had supporting roles in romantic comedies like The Spectacular Now and Trainwreck. But in Lessons in Chemistry, she gets to tell a love story of her own.
“Part of my initial interest in this story is that love depictions are so sacred and so important, and how they come to you and why they come to you is part of the magic of this life,” says Larson, who stars in the lead role of Elizabeth Zott in the Apple TV+ series. “It also means it’s very hard to grapple with.”
Deciding how best to show that struggle in bringing the narrative drawn from Bonnie Garmus’ novel of the same to TV is something Larson worked on closely with as an executive producer with showrunner Lee Eisenberg, who developed the series. Embodying Zott, a chemist who can no longer rely on the predictable when she falls in love with research chemist Calvin Evans (Lewis Pullman) at Hastings Laboratory and suffers an unimaginable loss, was a challenge for Larson.
“I’m just far more emotional than she is,” Larson tells The Hollywood Reporter, explaining that she would do takes where she would let out a big cry to release her emotions, and then get back into character. “Elizabeth’s just not a crier. She doesn’t have access to that.”
Yet figuring out how to depict a woman who doesn’t have to sacrifice her mind for love, but does have to learn how to be open to receiving it, was rewarding.
“It was so nice for me to be able to do something that’s loving and sweet, and not always talking about the darkest things that are happening in the world,” says Larson whose latest film, The Marvels, in which she stars as Captain Marvel, is currently in theaters.
“I think it’s a very sweet depiction of how to work with someone you love and the fact that their minds and their uniqueness and specificity and their love of science is what brings them together, I think, is very sweet.”
How does it feel to be on a press run post-actors strike and finally able to promote this project?
Oh, I’m so excited just to be able to hear what people are getting from it. We spend a lot of time thinking about it, and daydreaming about it and working on it. So I’m just excited to hear what came through and what’s resonating with people.
What about this story most resonated with you to make you want to take the reins as both the lead character and executive producer?
I cannot overstate how important the character of Elizabeth Zott felt to me from the second I started reading the book. The tone was really what got me, and what surprised me. Because I think a lot about tone as someone who makes things. It’s a dance of not making something less dark or scary as it is, but also making it in a way that allows people to get closer to it and actually consider it or contemplate it. I felt like in the book she did it so well. And that, to me, felt like the biggest thrill and the biggest challenge of this. I also think that the confluence of science and love is ultimately what it’s grappling with, of which one we organize our life around, and realizing that it’s both. It’s about process and care and being meticulous, but there’s also chance and randomness. And I think love falls into that. It can’t be contained. You don’t know when it’s going to come. So to feel that those are two things that are butting up against each other in this show just felt really rich to me.
How does your experience working on a period TV series like this compare with your other projects?
I will say about two weeks in, I got really confused, because my whole world, aside from when I was asleep, was the ‘50s and everybody’s dressed in those clothes, and they’re the only cars I see. And the Hastings Laboratory was one giant set; everything was connected. At one point I had to remind myself: I’m in downtown LA, my name is Brie. But you’re so immersed in another world and it’s really cool. Putting on her costume, for example, is such a departure from how I dress in my day-to-day life. That from the very beginning helps get into the mindset of what it is that we were making.
Lee Eisenberg says you and Elizabeth share some characteristics in terms of you both being —
Bossy? (laughs). Really opinionated and bossy probably.
Witty and incredibly focused, actually. In what ways do you identify with Elizabeth and in what ways did you find her challenging to play?
There’s a lot that I identify with. I do have intense focus. If it’s something that I want to do, I can just stick with it and I’m very dedicated to the things that I love and the things that I want to do. And, yeah, I’m bossy and opinionated. I believe in what is true. I also think I’m a pretty literal listener, and I’m pretty clear with how I feel and not afraid to say that.
But I think the biggest difference between Elizabeth and me is that I’m just far more emotional than she is. Just the beauty of life makes me cry all the time. Sadness makes me cry as well, but I would say I’m constantly moved and touched by humanity and Elizabeth’s just not a crier. She doesn’t have access to that. And I didn’t think about it so much until we were actually doing these scenes and Lee just kept going like, “Nope, you gotta keep it down.” And I was like, “I don’t think I can.” Sometimes I would have to do takes where I would just let out a big cry and then we would just keep filming because it was like I’m touched so deeply; I don’t have that capacity. So keeping that sense of detachment is interesting. It’s a cool part of my job that I get to explore different ways of being in the world. But I’m emotional. I can’t do it.
How did you and Lewis Pullman find Elizabeth and Calvin’s unique form of chemistry on set?
Part of my initial interest in this story is that love depictions are so sacred and so important, and how they come to you and why they come to you is part of the magic of this life. But it also means it’s very hard to grapple with. Everybody’s had their own experiences in life. So, how do you talk about it? Luckily, we had an amazing director who was really great at guiding us and mining it, because we don’t have that much time to talk about such a big love. And that’s part of the impact. So, when we were on set and it was working, we were all like, “Phew, is this gonna be okay.” Because the show really wouldn’t work if you don’t buy that relationship. It just doesn’t.
It was so nice for me to be able to do something that’s loving and sweet, and not always talking about the darkest things that are happening in the world. And as we were moving forward with that story, I just felt like that love story is really the anchor. In a book you have the ability to be in someone’s head so you can reflect differently; we have to show everything in a TV show. But I think it’s a very sweet depiction of how to work with someone you love and the fact that their minds and their uniqueness and specificity and their love of science is what brings them together, I think, is very sweet.
Elizabeth and Harriet’s (Aja Naomi King) friendship is an unexpected relationship that develops as well. Can you talk about what that unfolding brings to the overall story?
So, like I was saying with the difference between a book and television, you can read a page of Elizabeth going to the grocery store, but you’re just thinking about what she’s thinking about. You’re not necessarily taking the time to imagine who else is at the grocery store. We have to make those choices. And once we started talking about the series, it became very clear that there’s no way we could tell this story at this period of time without acknowledging the larger picture and context of what was going on. So, we had some really amazing consultants who were able to talk with us about this town [Sugar Hill], in this area, and what was happening. Aja Naomi King is just so brilliant. And you just — I feel like I’m going to cry. She’s just so beautiful and so true and honest, and cared so much. And I just felt so grateful that she really worked so hard and felt really compelled to tell that story, and I was there just supporting that. It’s a tough one when we’re talking about tone and how you show the reality of that, and those were hard days. But we had each other, and I’m really glad that we did.