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I don't know how Brie Larson does it, but when she looks at you – I mean, right at you – she communicates this: "Let's not waste each other's time. Let's make this the best version of what's going on." It's in the steadiness of her gaze, the clarity of her brown eyes, the calmness of her brow. Even amid the clutter of September's Toronto International Film Festival, she creates a space for you and her, and makes you feel that something real could happen in it.

We're in the usual hotel room, and Larson is wearing a retro-looking print dress. As she talks, her beauty constantly shifts, like light on a lake: One minute she's pretty in an unflashy, brown-paper-packages-tied-up-with-strings way, and the next she's a knockout. "Brie has this capacity to be incredibly luminous, but also very real," says Lenny Abrahamson, who directed Larson in Room, the new drama based on Emma Donoghue's bestselling novel. (It won the People's Choice Award at TIFF – a traditional harbinger of an Oscar nomination – and opens in theatres next Friday.)

"What's immediately apparent when you meet her is how bright she is, how well read, how interested in ideas," Abrahamson continues. "She doesn't run straight for showy intensity, the way some actors do."

Although only 26, Larson has built a roster of roles that require both simplicity of approach and complexity of character. "I was frankly very fortunate to have her in The Gambler," says Rupert Wyatt, that film's director. "She brings things out in a character that aren't on the page." Whether she's playing a rock of a sister (Trainwreck), the manager of a group home trying to figure out her life (Short Term 12), or a daughter who's acting out (United States of Tara), Larson suggests layers of inner life. No matter her behaviour, you want her to be okay.

Which makes her ideal to play Ma in Room. We meet Ma and her son, Jack (Vancouverite Jacob Tremblay), on his fifth birthday, and swiftly come to understand their reality: Kidnapped at 17, Ma has been trapped in a 10-foot-by-10-foot shed for seven years, raped nightly by her captor. The horror of that keeps dawning on us, but Larson never plays it. Instead, she shows us a woman who's exceptional because she's still trying to be ordinary.

Even more impressive is the generosity of her performance. Tremblay, who's nine, is a real actor, but he's still a kid; much of his naturalism is surely due to Larson. She's modest about that. "We'd just do simple things," she says. "For the two weeks before we started shooting, I'd come over and play Lego with him every night." Plus spend hours each day with him in the Room set, a box on a Mississauga sound stage (with moveable panels to allow different camera angles), until they felt "if we closed our eyes we'd know where everything was."

"Brie was out there on a limb by herself," says Joan Allen, who plays Ma's mother. "They shot the Room stuff first, for four or five weeks. So by the time I arrived, I understood how Brie might feel a little" – she mimes reaching out her arms. "I recognized the magnitude of what she was doing, what a toll it would take."

"There were scenes when Brie was ready to break, at an intense emotional place," Abrahamson recalls. "But there'd be something technical in the way. She was able to say to Jake, 'Drop your hand,' or 'Flick back your hair.' Then" – he snaps his fingers – "all the emotion would pour out."

Larson understood Room's story on multiple levels. "The surface issues are timely: sexual abuse, the difficulties of being a parent," she says. "Then underneath, I'm a huge fan of the Plato's Cave allegory, and that's an important piece of this. How we cling to our reality, how difficult it is when it's broken."

The film encompasses what Larson calls her "two main loves: folklore, and the complexities of the feminine." As to the former: "I'm fascinated by how to take folklore stories – that have been passed down for generations, that hold so much truth about our initiatory experiences – and put them in contemporary terms. Because movies are – oh, what does Jung call it? – participation mystique. It's where you forget about yourself and you become the hero. So what journeys do I want to give people?"

As for the latter, "There are more colours, more ways to be a woman, than we've seen in American cinema," Larson avers. She grew up watching movies that "depressed me, because I didn't see myself in any of them." Then she discovered films such I Am Curious (Yellow), "where I was able to see a girl who was owning her sexuality, speaking her mind, was a revolutionary, and was also at times unlikeable. I'm so curious to see what happens, to both women and men, when we show female complexity onscreen. To let women be mysterious beings who are filled with colours that are ever-changing, that we'll never quite get to the bottom of. There are a lot of ways to be a woman, and we need to see more of them."

Still, delving into the depths that Room required wasn't easy. To prepare, Larson spent a month alone in her home, cut off from contact with anyone else. Significant memories surfaced. At the age of 7, she, her younger sister, and their mother moved from Sacramento, where she was born, to a studio apartment in Los Angeles that was not much bigger than Room. They had few possessions; they slept together in a Murphy bed. "Yet I remember that time as being one of the greatest of my life," Larson says. "My mom instilled so much life in that space, that I never felt I was lacking."

She also remembered, however, waking one night to find her mother with her hands over her mouth, trying to be silent, but sobbing uncontrollably. "I didn't realize until years later that my father had asked for a divorce, and my mother was dealing with it completely alone." She nods. "Sometimes you don't fully understand why you're attracted to a project until you start getting deeper into it."

Our time is up, but Larson offers one final moment of honesty. To get to the Room set, she had to pass down a hallway, and then enter a door that closed behind her. "That helped me, because I could clock in and out," she says. "There's a danger when you're spending more time playing a character than you are playing yourself. It's really important to be able to switch it off, to be myself between takes. Otherwise it can get very, very sticky."

She pauses. "I was 25, and I go on these jobs alone," she says. Like Larson's most potent onscreen lines, that admission is deceptively simple. And a shot to the heart.