The actress Brie Larson, perhaps best known for her roles in 21 Jump Street and United States of Tara, is having quite a summer. Last weekend, she received the best actress award at the Locarno Film Festival for her work in Short Term 12, starring as a foster-care-facility worker with troubles of her own. (The film, which also won the grand jury award at South By Southwest, opens in theaters on Aug. 23.) She can also be seen playing a popular teen in The Spectacular Now (which came out Aug. 2) and, this fall, in Don Jon (Sept. 27). Here, she talks to TIME.
TIME: Your characters in The Spectacular Now and Short Term 12 are almost opposite, a teenager who’s supposed to be sort of perfect and then a young woman who’s so troubled.
Brie Larson: I feel like that’s kind of the only way for me to do it. I finish some sort of deep drama, which I really enjoy doing, and by the end of it I’m like, God, I don’t want to go to work and anticipate crying. Then you go to the other side of it and do some broad comedy and by the end of that I’m like, ugh, I don’t want the pressure to make people laugh.
So by that logic the next thing we can expect to hear you’re doing is a big action franchise.
I just did a musical in India.
And you’ve had a music career of your own. Are you planning to continue with that?
I’ve always been writing music, the whole time. I don’t know if that’s something that I need to do professionally. Maybe it is. I have no idea.
How did you first get involved with Short Term 12?
It was a script that was sent to me while I was in Georgia filming The Spectacular Now. I was told beforehand ‘you’ll want to read this as soon as you receive it because you’re going to really relate to it and love it,’ and that’s absolutely true.
What jumped out at you when you read it?
The interesting thing about it, and it’s something that I think is transferred into being something really interesting about the film, is that there were specific spots in the script that had holes in them because [my character] Grace has a very internal life. For an actor that’s kind of the most beautiful gift to be given, a script that has the structure to support you but then also gives you this whole other side of creative freedom, to create something that is unique and mine.
It’s pretty heavy stuff. How did you prepare?
I shadowed at a foster-care facility and got to hear about the struggles of it and the reason why you do it and the feeling behind it. It’s pretty informative, to say the least, if you spend even just an hour there. I discovered that each kid is so unique that you use a different side of yourself or a different tone of voice in order to get into their world. So before we started shooting I sat down with each one of the kids and spoke with them about the backstory that they had created and then I was able to figure out what the rules and regulations are for each kid.
What was it like working with the kids?
There’s a lot of wisdom in kids. They’re not putting on some façade and it seems very easy for them to get into these dark characters and then get out of it. That’s something that as an adult becomes harder to do, or at least it was for me. If I was playing a dark character I would feel dark even off camera.
Did you develop any tricks to unwind at the end of the day?
That was the other lesson I learned shadowing at the facilities. It’s so important to put in the good fight for those kids and to be there, but then when you go home you let it go. For me it was cooking. I would take the food from lunch and box it up and take it home—I didn’t have time to grocery shop and I was pretty broke at the time—so I would take the food from lunch and play Iron Chef with my boyfriend, reconfiguring the ingredients and turning it into something else. And watch South Park, and really just try to not talk about it as much as possible. I didn’t need to keep getting into it, reliving it. During that drive [home] you brush your hair—I wear my hair on a side part but Grace wears it in the middle—and you just kind of differentiate yourself.
What was your best Iron Chef creation?
Oh gosh. Most of the time it just ended up being tacos. A lot of tacos.
(MORE: Richard Corliss reviews 21 Jump Street)
I noticed on your Reddit “Ask Me Anything” that you like to make fonts. Where did you learn how to do that?
I didn’t. It’s just something that I’ve always been really interested in. I get kind of stressed out about fonts as well. If they’re ugly I have a really hard time with it. There are certain movies that I’ve just shut off after the beginning credits; if they’re bad I just think ‘this isn’t for me.’ But it’s a really easy, structured way for me to decompress. You’re just writing the alphabet over and over again and perfecting a letter.
Final question: serif or sans?