With the weight of 'Lessons in Chemistry' on her shoulders, Brie Larson lightens the mood

: Brie Larson is photographed in Los Angels on April 18, 2024. (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)
Brie Larson plays Elizabeth Zott, a scientist forced by mid-20th century inequities to work as a lab tech for men whose work could never equal her own, in Apple TV+'s "Lessons in Chemistry." (Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Brie Larson fell hard for the book “Lessons in Chemistry” by Bonnie Garmus. “When I read something and it’s the right thing for me to do, it’s like the most intense crush you can ever imagine,” says the Oscar-winning actor via video chat from her home in L.A. “And just like a good crush, you don’t even know why. You can pick it apart and be like, ‘Well, I love the character and I love the writing’ — and all of those things are true — but there’s some sort of underneath piece that my heart feels tied to, and I won’t know what it is until I get to the end, if I’m lucky. That’s part of what’s fun and what keeps the crush alive is this great mystery, it’s this adventure you’re going on, like, ‘I don’t know, but I trust my heart that says keep going.’”

The book’s protagonist is the extraordinary Elizabeth Zott, a scientist forced by mid-20th century inequities to work as a lab tech for men whose work could never equal her own. Almost against her will, Elizabeth falls in love with chemist Calvin Evans (Lewis Pullman), her match in genius and character. And almost as quickly, she loses him. In her heartbreak, she finds herself opening to the world in ways she never could before.

Read more:It was all good 'Chemistry' for Lewis Pullman, whose role in the series was expanded

“Bonnie is an absolutely exceptional writer,” Larson says. “The story had this tone that had been something I had been daydreaming about and didn’t know if it existed, which is a way of expressing and holding the reality of dark things that happen in our life without having to bog ourselves down with it.”

Larson came on board as an executive producer as well as the star of the Apple TV+ limited series adaptation, created by Lee Eisenberg, and was hands-on from pre- to postproduction. “She carried the show on her back,” Eisenberg says. “Every day, Brie made everything better.”

Many of their discussions about the series centered on Elizabeth slowly finding her community. Larson herself quickly created a community on set, in part by bringing in games for the cast to play during breaks. Boggle, Spot It!, Catch Phrase and the like served myriad purposes. “I think people at first thought it was me being a host, and there is that too,” she says. As No. 1 on the call sheet, “Making people feel comfortable and welcome is a huge part of my job.”

With a breakneck shooting schedule, the games helped everyone break the ice. “I personally like to have a little bit of a warmup; to me it’s like puppies playing,” she says. “It gets you laughing, and it gets you out of the boredom talk: ‘What’s the weather outside?’ ‘What did you have for breakfast?’ It allows you to get into something that feels deeper, without actually invading anybody’s privacy.”

Playing games also helped keep Larson from getting too weighed down by the show’s more heart-wrenching scenes. “I think of it like Willy Wonka saying, ‘Far too cold,’ and putting a coat in it. That’s how it feels to me sometimes when I try to grapple with the emotional and ephemeral nature of making something. Even though it’s not real, I am still spending a month grieving as this character, and it feels really good to play Heads Up! for five-minute increments; it lessens the heaviness.” It even helped form romantic bonds between characters.

Read more:Building ‘Captain Marvel’: How Brie Larson trained to be a superhero

Her warmups weren’t all fun and games. Larson brought a rowing machine to set so she could practice in any spare moments, as her character does. “The rowing was hugely important,” she says. “It is very methodical. If you’re not in a flow state, it feels surreal and clunky. And it’s very punishing and very exhausting. So I felt like there’s something about Elizabeth asking her body to keep up with herself, no matter what. Pain, pregnancy — she was going to keep going, and saying, ‘Everybody else has got to keep up, keep the pace.’ She’s not lowering her bar ever.”

Try as she might, Elizabeth cannot control all the variables of life, and she slowly allows herself to love a world of people. Larson felt the same way on set. “When you get an opportunity to work with actors who are just there with you in it, you share moments. I get that it’s all pretend, but our souls are still there. It’s a feeling that your vulnerability is safe in the hands of your co-star. When you experience that, you’re just bonded for life, really.”

She feels the same way about her character. “The thing I learned during this job is that this planet is here to please us and to romance us if we open ourselves up to it. Elizabeth’s way is not my way, but it was beautiful dancing with her for so long.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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