Far from being thrilled to have nabbed the lead role in David Fincher’s blockbuster film of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Rooney Mara is suitably glum, A dark star is born
IT’S 3PM and already hovering between dusk and night proper in Stockholm when Rooney Mara sits down beside me in a guarded curl. She is dressed from head to toe in prim-widow darks and still sporting Lisbeth Salander’s hardened, raven crop from the shoot of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and the bright hotel lights overhead seem to dim with the serious young actor’s arrival.
“The world is gloomy,” she shrugs later. “All you have to do is turn on the news.” Never mind the reality check. Mara is a very big deal. A popular geek world screensaver even before she kicked Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerman to the kerb in The Social Network, Mara won the title role of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium heroine over betterknown thespian rivals Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson and Jennifer Lawrence.
Every starlet in Hollywood had good reason to try out for Lisbeth Salander, an industrial-punk hacker embroiled in an onagain, off-again partnership with a middleaged investigative journalist.
The Millennium franchise is a very big deal. Larsson’s popular potboilers – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl who Played with Fire and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest – have shifted more than 65 million units internationally. A trilogy of Swedish films based on the books concluded in theatres earlier this year and propelled its Scandinavian stars into the global limelight: Noomi Rapace is currently appearing in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows; her costar Michael Nyqvist acts as Tom Cruise’s nemesis in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.
You’d imagine Mara would be thrilled with landing the headlining role in the glitzy Hollywood version yet today she seems uncomfortable and unamused.
“This is the part I hate the most,” she ventures later and by way of explanation. “Meeting journalists and doing press. The photo calls are the worst. It’s um . . .” And her tiny, monotone voice tails off under a slow blink.
What? Worse than lying face down, naked and spread-eagled for three days while director David Fincher shoots you as an anal rape victim? “Much worse,” she says. “Between the tattoos and the piercings I never really felt naked even though I was for a lot of the film. I always felt like I had a kind of costume or armour on. So that was okay.”
She got six piercings in total but stopped short of the titular tat. Was it a physical shortcut to getting into character? “No. But the fake ones were much more uncomfortable. If anything they left me with scars. And when else am I going to get a nipple piercing?”
The remark is as close as Mara gets to levity. Fincher has repeatedly described the performer as reserved and cautious. He’s not wrong. She avoids specifics whenever possible especially when it comes to the franchise. “I don’t think of Lisbeth as a feminist figure at all,” she says. “When you read the books it’s clear she would never call herself that. She doesn’t belong to any group. She’s an outsider wherever she goes. She isn’t part of any subculture. She’s not the face of anything.”
Careful and halting with her words, beneath the cool there’s something of a doe in the headlights about Mara. When I notice her hands are covered with what looks like charcoal she pulls out to reveal fingers dragging nervously across her Dragon Tattoo jeans; “I know. I think I’ve been rubbing these all day.”
Who could blame her for feeling antsy? Dragon Tattoo is a very big deal. Hell, it’s a movie with its very own inky trouser line at select branches of H&M.
The studio has already spent around $200 million (¤154 million) on a project that’s been helmed by Seven and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button director Fincher and stars Daniel Craig. The rape sequences and bible-thumping Nazi conspiracies will restrict audience numbers – it’s an 18 Cert release here and just about everywhere else – but
“I was a gloomy kid. I’ve always been a little dark. I’ve always been a loner, off reading by myself”
Dragon Tattoo comes with a ready-made army of fans. It’s simply too big to fail.
Mara knows as much. “But I try not to think about it,” she says. “I’m just kind of in denial right now. When it happens it happens. It’s sort of overwhelming. All of it.”
She admits also that’s she’s been living with Lisbeth Salander for just a little too long. This past year has been “intense”. There were endless readings with the casting director followed by endless tests with hair and make up. Would they bleach her eyebrows or shave them? To ink or not to ink? There was boxing training and there were motorcycling lessons. There was a daunting production schedule with a filmmaker that’s never known to use four takes when 40 will suffice. Mara threw herself into the work, spending time at a centre for women who have been sexually abused and with The Help Group, a school for kids on the autistic spectrum.
“That’s how I saw her. It’s never really defined outright in the book but they do talk about Asperger’s Syndrome a lot without being direct. I spent a lot of time reading about it and watching videos. At the school, too, the kids were amazing
and so adorable and honest. There are no filters. I loved that. I met one girl who was very similar in character to Lisbeth. And to see it in front of you. To be able to think of the character in a way I could relate to. It was really interesting.”
Since early September Mara has divided her time between reshoots and press duties. Noting her exhausted blankness, several USbased glossies have depicted her as a Coppélia figure, a mindless puppet through which Fincher’s Svengali can project his Lisbeth Salander. He’s dismissed the idea, as does she. “I didn’t know David at all before,” she says. “I worked for four days on The
Social Network. That was all.” If she has developed a “shining” with her character, she suggests it’s organic not auteur made: “I was a gloomy kid. I’ve always been a little dark. I’ve always been a loner, off reading by myself.” Emily Dickinson poems? “No,” she smiles. “I’ve always been more of a Brontë girl.”
Born into a large and powerful clan with roots in Co Down, Mara is sporting royalty. Her Ulster-born great-great-grandfather founded the New York Giants and her family retains a controlling stake; Uncle John is CEO, dad takes care of player evaluation. Her mother, Kathleen Rooney, another Irish descendant, hails from the Pittsburgh Steelers dynasty. Her great-uncle, Daniel Rooney, is Steelers chairman and the United States ambassador to Ireland.
“My grandparents still have a house in Ireland,” she tells me. “We’ve very, very Irish if that’s possible. It’s something that’s always there. Being Irish and football.” Is she sporty? “No. Never a tomboy. Football was always around and it’s part of our family but I was never into sports beyond being taken to football games. I was always very girlie.”
Even without the glossy cascading locks that defined her early appearances in
Nightmare on Elm Street and Youth in Revolt, she’s still in the femme camp; Bridesmaids was her favourite movie this year and she says her interest in film mostly stems from watching women’s pictures with mom: “Bringing Up Baby, Gone with the Wind, Rebecca, The Philadelphia Story. All films mom loves. All films mom made us watch.” Have her parents seen The Girl with the
Dragon Tattoo yet? “No. They’ve read the books and they’ve seen the Swedish movies. So nothing is going to be a surprise to them. They know what’s coming. We have a screen- ing set up so they can watch it in private.” Will that be a family outing? “No. I definitely won’t want to be in the room.”
If the pigskin millions have spoiled her it doesn’t show. Mara studied non-profits at NYU’S prestigious Gallatin School of Individualized Study and oversees the Uweza Foundation, a charity that funds and supports empowerment programme in Nairobi’s largest slum.
It took a while for her to think of drama as a proper job. She was already 21 when, in 2005, she decided to follow her sister Kate Mara ( Brokeback Mountain, Entourage) into the profession.
“I’ve always liked travelling so there’s that,” says Mara, who has trekked across Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia in her time. “But mainly I like acting because it exposes you to places and people and worlds that you would never learn about otherwise.” Dragon Tattoo has, she admits, restricted her globetrotting activities to Sweden and her leisure time to none. There is, moreover, the prospect of at least two sequels.
“She’s a very magnetic character so she is tiring,” says Mara. “But I’m grateful for that. It’s amazing to be locked into a character like this.” Before the inevitable sequels there’s
Lawless with director Terrence Malick, cinema’s most celebrated recluse.
“But I feel like I don’t want to talk about him because he’s so private,” says Mara. “I’d worry I’d give some of his secrets away.” Sounds like they’ll get along famously.
Mara smiles decorously at the notion but, crucially, without giving too much away.