Brie Larson in The Gambler.
Claire Folger—AP
December 24, 2014 9:00 AM EST

If musicals and inspirational World War II epics aren’t your pick for holiday theater-going, The Gambler is your antidote. In this dark, gritty drama — a remake of the 1974 film of the same name, out this Christmas Day — Mark Wahlberg stars as Jim Bennett, a college professor by day and a gambler by night in Los Angeles’ seedy underworld. When his self-destructive tendencies get the best of him, Jim has seven days to make things right or lose it all.

On the sidelines the whole time is his most promising student and love interest Amy, played by Brie Larson, who wowed critics in last year’s deeply moving Short Term 12. Where Jim’s creditors see a man hell-bent on his own ruin, Amy sees a man exorcising his demons and rebuilding his life from scratch. TIME caught up with the actress to talk about working with Wahlberg and why the life of a wealthy, high-stakes gambler is actually more relatable than it seems.

TIME: This is kind of a downer of a Christmas movie.
Brie Larson: Yeah, it’s about someone trying to get rid of material possessions — an odd choice for Christmas day!

Well, when you put it like that, maybe there’s no better day to do it.

Mark said that the audition process for this role was unusually lengthy. How extensive and competitive was it?
Instead of your typical 30-minute audition where you go in and you read and you leave and you get a phone call with notes, this was far more in-depth. It wasn’t so much about me arriving and having it all figured out, it was about being willing to be open and play and work on it. It was about an hour or two. We just worked on it. It felt more like a rehearsal than an audition. It was really fascinating because Mark Wahlberg was working on Transformers at the time and had flown out just to audition people. I assumed, stupidly, because he was working on another film, that he didn’t have his lines memorized. He was one foot in and one foot out at this point because he was working on something else.

But I was completely wrong, because when I arrived he sprung on me that he wanted to do the scene from the beginning of the movie — the 15-page monologue where he speaks to the classroom. And I thought, “Sure! If you want to do that!” It’s kind of easy for me. I say very little during that. It’s more about me observing him. I think it’s a great representation of the relationship, but it’s a lot for him. He had the whole thing memorized already. It was six months before the movie was about to shoot, and he told me at that point that he had already been reading the script everyday. That’s just what he does. When he agrees to sign on to something, he reads it every morning.

Do you have a sense of what you brought out of the character that no one else did?
I never knew that — that’s kind of how it works. They position it so that none of us see each other. I don’t know who’s going in or who they like or even why. I’m not sure. It’s a bunch of different flavors, and they liked mine, I guess.

I ask because [director] Rupert Wyatt said that if he didn’t get a great actress in an admittedly “underwritten” role, the character of Amy would just serve the protagonist like a 2-D sidekick. How do you prevent her from becoming prop?
We spoke a lot about it. Rupert, Mark and myself had so many conversations about it, because we were trying to say a lot in very little. How do you condense something to get just the actual thing that it is? That’s something I really enjoy. I think you can say for more in a glance or a smirk than you can in a 10-page monologue. That’s a huge part of what I believe the movie is about. We’re dealing with Jim, who is using these lectures to use these grandiose words. He’s highly articulate and everything is psychoanalyzed. And Amy is also, we can assume, incredibly gifted with words as well, being a writer and one that he considers to be a genius. And yet, when the two of them are together, there are actually very few words spoken. The thing that they have together isn’t something you can use words for.

For all those little moments, then, the smirks and the glances — is that the kind of thing you spend hours perfecting in front of a mirror?
No, I don’t really look at myself. I never look at myself. I have a hard time watching myself on film. I avoid mirrors because it just makes me feel really self conscious. I just trust that if I feel it, then you can see it.

Wait, but what about movie premieres? Are you watching with your hands in front of your eyes?
I usually don’t watch it. I’ll watch it before I do things like press because I have to know what the movie is. My favorite part about making movies — one part is the process, and the other part is having conversations about it and trying to understand what it is. This film in particular deals with so many fascinating things to talk about it. But the hardest part, and one that I’m trying to work on, is the bizarreness of seeing yourself that big. A theater is a very big screen to see a closeup of your face. I don’t think a human being is supposed to see that. Your brain will go to a place of judgment, which is not what a human being should be doing. It’s just a face! It’s just my hair. It’s just my legs. It’s nothing. It’s just a body. There’s so much more happening. But it’s bizarre because, if I do catch myself in the mirror, I’m like, “That’s not what I look like!”

So with a script like this, are you having long conversations deep into the night like freshmen philosophy majors in a college dorm?
Kind of! That’s when I think filmmaking is at its best — when you have a bunch of highly intelligent people. The whole pre-production process is fascinating, and then as the movie starts to unfold, it becomes something different as you start making it because you can’t anticipate what’s there on the day. I can think about it all I want. We create a schedule and shoot out of order — how could I ever anticipate what is emotionally available to me four months later at two o’clock on a Wednesday right before I’m about to eat lunch? And it’s freezing out, or I have a parking ticket, or I had a great call with my best friend. There’s just so many factors that go on, it’s impossible to really grasp onto it. The beauty of it is, you let go of it and you just see what’s available every day and what’s true. Through that, it becomes a conversation everyday. We’re surprised by each other and the things that we do, whether it’s a camera angle or the way that someone raised an eyebrow. It becomes this microcosm that we all start to analyze.

Did you at least hit up the casinos between scenes?
We did not gamble, but we had a great time. I had so much fun. Amy is such a clear light. I think she has gone through what we see with Jim and these seven days. I imagine these seven days from Greek mythology — the gates of hell. He has to give up something each day to get town to his innocence, to get down to his true self. I imagine that Amy went through those seven days before this movie started. We’re seeing a person who has let go of everything, battled all her demons and is now available to experience life and find all of these complications that people create for themselves rather amusing.

There was a lot of debate this year about the likeability of female characters and how that factors into criticism, at times unfairly. Has being in a movie where the main male character can be so frustrating given you any insight into those questions?
I think that the likeability just means that the movie is a little harder to digest. We know that side of it. I think we expect movies sometimes to just give us this nice feeling, this nice imagery, a happy ending. I’ve always loved films that are difficult to watch, difficult to stomach — [movies] that show us things that we don’t necessarily want to see but should. And I know what you mean — did you see The Comedy? It’s from a couple of years ago.

I haven’t.
That’s a more extreme example. He’s just a despicable character. I was so traumatized by the end of it. That is a horrible character! But by the end of it, I got home and was like, “That’s a brilliant movie.” I loved it because it’s not someone we think to focus our attention on for a film. But I don’t see why not. We’ve got plenty of films exploring these other ways of life, why shouldn’t we explore this way? I think if it bothers us, it’s because it rings so true. Making the movie, reading the script, watching the film — I didn’t dislike [Jim] at all. I really relate to him and understand that struggle. We live in this world where we strive for riches, we strive for luxury, we strive for extravagance, we work all year for a week of vacation. At a certain point, I feel like you’ve got to a hit a point where you go, “Is this my life? Is this happiness? Is this real? Is this true? Why am I working for this?” And everyone will have their own way of dealing with it, some maybe not as extreme as him. But he’s not really having a gambling addiction — I think he’s kicking a luxury habit. He’s kicking all the inventions that humans have created.

What occurred to me later was that the question he’s asking — who am I if you take everything away? — is actually a little terrifying for most people to confront. I think part of writing him off as a selfish jerk could also self-defensive — you don’t have to ask those hard questions about yourself if you do.
Yeah. You don’t want to let go. [I’ve been asked] a lot of questions about how [Amy] could just sit by and watch him blow $250,000? How could that happen? That’s the point of the movie! You can’t change people. She believes that. You can just support and kindly guide them to the other side. She doesn’t believe in that invention either. She’s already gone through it and gotten to the point where she lives this very simple existence of writing and living frugally — and is fairly happy, I imagine.

Do you fill in all the blanks of her backstory?
I love creating the story! That’s the most fun part — creating her life and her imagination. Once I sign on and start working on a job, I see it everywhere. I feel like I run into things and see things. I see the perfect painting, or I watch a strange interaction on the street corner that is exactly what I needed, and it all starts to fit together for me into this tapestry of what the movie is. Whether that’s fully clear to an audience member doesn’t really matter. Those are all of the things that fuel something as small as a raised eyebrow.

I’m very excited about your role in Trainwreck, the upcoming movie from Amy Schumer, whom we just profiled in TIME. Tell me everything — or, at least, as much as you can without getting in trouble with Amy.
The film is loosely based off her life — loosely based, like, there are certain major plot points that are based off her life. But it’s transformed into a film, so there are other aspects that are very different. I play her sister Kim. She has an actual sister Kim. A lot of the names are real, and there’s a lot of us reenacting moments from her life. I had to reenact a bunch of old photos she has with her sister, like bad vacation photos with disposable cameras. We re-did all of them. It was fun.

Have you spent time with the real Kim?
The real Kim is with her all the time! The real Kim came to the premiere of this movie!

So you’re intimately part of the family now.
Yeah, yeah — I’m kind of a Schumer.

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