‘Do­ing the Ir­ish ac­cent was ter­ri­fy­ing’

Rooney Mara talks to Tara Brady about play­ing an Ir­ish woman in The Se­cret Scrip­ture, and how her friend Cate Blanchett helped her get cast in the ‘morally am­bigu­ous pae­dophile drama’ Una

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - COVER STORY -

By her own ad­mis­sion, Rooney Mara has al­ways been a rather se­ri­ous young woman. As a young­ster, between de­vour­ing the works of the Brontë sis­ters, she once dressed up as Clara from Jo­hanna Spyri’s Heidi for Hal­loween. She founded the Ugan­dan-based char­ity Faces of Kib­era while she was still study­ing at New York Uni­ver­sity (where she read in­ter­na­tional so­cial pol­icy and non­prof­its). In 2011, hav­ing been cast in David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tat­too, an­other ac­tor might have squealed with de­light. In­stead, she vis­i­bly squirmed through­out the swish Stock­holm press con­fer­ence and later told me: “The world is gloomy. All you have to do is turn on the news.”

Even by Mara’s weight­ily minded stan­dards, Una , a new screen adap­ta­tion of David Har­rower’s con­tro­ver­sial play Black­bird, is some heavy-duty stuff. The film, as adapted by Har­rower, un­folds as a con­fronta­tion between the dam­aged young woman of the ti­tle (Mara) and Ray (Ben Men­del­sohn), the neigh­bour and fam­ily friend who sex­u­ally abused her when she was 13.

“I was re­ally very pas­sion­ate about it for a long time,” says Mara. “I wanted to do Black­bird since I first saw the play in 2007. And then when I was mak­ing Carol, me and Cate [Blanchett] were talk­ing about the­atre and I told her that this was the play I re­ally wanted to do. And she said: ‘Oh my God: my friend is mak­ing that into a film.’ It turned out Cate has worked with Una’s direc­tor Bene­dict [An­drews] many times and she said that he was des­per­ate to meet me for the role.”

An­drews, the Aus­tralian direc­tor who made a huge splash when he reimag­ined Caligula on foot­ball ter­races for the English Na­tional Opera in 2012, is cur­rently a hot ticket in Lon­don’s the­atre­land, hav­ing scored hits with his spin­ning pro­duc­tion of Ten­nessee Wil­liams’s A Street­car Named De­sire, star­ring Gil­lian An­der­son, and with a spa­tially dar­ing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, fea­tur­ing Si­enna Miller and Jack O’Con­nell.

“[Rooney] is an in­tensely fo­cused, deeply col­lab­o­ra­tive ac­tor,” says An­drews. “She loved the play Black­bird and was fully pre­pared to put her­self on the line to bring it truth­fully to the screen. Her per­for­mance is vis­ceral, unset­tling, and raw. She draws us into Una’s mys­tery, her se­crets and her hurt. She’s sim­ply one of her gen­er­a­tion’s most fear­less and com­mit­ted ac­tors.”

Viewer dis­com­fort

That fear­less­ness trans­lates into a great deal of viewer dis­com­fort while watch­ing Una. In­deed, one yearns for the com­par­a­tively easy pae­dophile re­venge cy­cle of Hard Candy or To Catch a Preda­tor, or for the sub­ver­sive vic­tim­hood of Paul Ver­ho­even’s Elle, but An­drews’s film stub­bornly re­fuses to play ball. Most dis­con­cert­ingly, Una re­mains con­vinced that she and Ray were in love, de­spite co­pi­ous ev­i­dence to the con­trary.

“That was one of the things that was very chal­leng­ing about it,” says Mara. “She doesn’t re­ally know what she’s do­ing when she tracks him down. She doesn’t know what she wants to get out of it. It’s un­fold­ing mo­ment to mo­ment, and that was re­ally ex­cit­ing to me. I think ev­ery­body will have a dif­fer­ent opin­ion of whether he is telling the truth, and I think that’s part of what makes it great.”

Re­views have var­i­ously de­scribed Una as a “morally am­bigu­ous pae­dophile drama” (South China Morn­ing Post), “the one film you can’t miss in 2017” (Bus­tle), and “com­pellingly toxic” (The Guardian). The words “unset­tling” and “dis­turb­ing” have been bandied around quite a bit.

What ac­tor wouldn’t want that, asks Mara. “Those are the things we should be go­ing af­ter,” she says. “All of those things sound great to me. I don’t know why you’d be run­ning from that. Unset­tling and dis­turb­ing and un­pre­dictable are all the things that drew me in.”

She has al­ways been a sin­gu­lar crea­ture. She may be the great-grand­daugh­ter of the founder of the Pitts­burgh Steel­ers on one side, and the founder of the New York Giants on the other (the Steel­ers is still fam­ily-owned; her dad and his 10 sib­lings share a 50 per cent stake of the Giants) but she never cared for the sport “be­yond be­ing taken to the games”. She took a ca­reer break right af­ter Dragon Tat­too, when few ac­tors would have dared, and an­other on the back of a series of crit­i­cal wows in 2013 (in­clud­ing Spike Jonze’s Her, Steven Soder­bergh’s Side Ef­fects, and David Low­ery’s Ain’t Them Bod­ies Saints).

And, most cu­ri­ous of all, when her grief-stricken widow scoffs an en­tire pie in David Low­ery’s A Ghost Story, it was the first time she had eaten such a thing. How does one live for 32 years with­out ever eat­ing pie?

“It’s def­i­nitely true in my mind,” Mara in­sists. “My mom was like: you’ve def­i­nitely eaten pie. But no. I re­ally haven’t. I was a very picky eater grow­ing up. There were only like five things that I would eat. And desserts were a prob­lem. When peo­ple brought cup­cakes into school on their birth­day I didn’t like the ic­ing. I never liked sweet things. So I never had pie. And David was re­ally in­sis­tent that she was go­ing to eat a pie. I wanted it to be some­thing else. But you know what? The pie was very de­li­cious.”

Star­ing at meat­loaf

For Mara, the third of four chil­dren from an ex­tended Amer­i­can fam­ily, picky eat­ing re­quired a con­sid­er­able ef­fort: “There’s one meal made for ev­ery­one and if you’re not go­ing to eat it, you’re go­ing to have to sit in front of it. There were lots of times I ended up sit­ting and star­ing at meat­loaf.”

Si­lently star­ing down meat­loaf seems to have dou­bled as solid prepa­ra­tion for her un­con­ven­tion­ally quiet act­ing style. Largely un­spo­ken turns in Todd Haynes’ Carol, A Ghost Story and Ter­rence Mal­ick’s Song to Song chron­i­cle Mara’s re­mark­able rein­ven­tion of the silent-era stare for con­tem­po­rary cin­ema.

“I’ve al­ways been a very in­tense per­son,” she says. “So I’ve al­ways had a very in­tense stare. I think you can al­ways tell a lot about how I’m feel­ing just by my body language. That’s not some­thing I think too much about when I’m work­ing. It’s just part of who I am. Any­one can read me. I’m a re­ally ter­ri­ble liar. I’ve never tried to play poker. But I’m guess­ing I couldn’t.”

Per­haps. Yet Pa­tri­cia Rooney Mara, as it says on her birth cer­tifi­cate, is fre­quently char­ac­terised as se­cre­tive and im­pen­e­tra­ble by in­ter­view­ers. She is “guarded”, by her own ac­count, and “self-con­tained”, ac­cord­ing to such chums as Cate Blanchett. To­day’s en­counter only hap­pens af­ter multiple doomy warn­ings to “stick to the movie” from var­i­ous in­ter­me­di­aries.

Now, though, Mara seems more at ease around en­quir­ing strangers than she did dur­ing own first meet­ing in 2011. She talks freely about the joy of her multiple col­lab­o­ra­tions with David Low­ery, Casey Af­fleck and Joaquin Phoenix. She and Phoenix ar­rived as a cou­ple at the Cannes Film Fes­ti­val last May, and will soon play Mary Mag­da­lene and Je­sus, re­spec­tively, in Garth Davis’s in­com­ing bib­li­cal drama.

“It’s not so strange. Most peo­ple work to­gether in the same of­fice for years, and when you find peo­ple you con­nect with and have a short­hand with . . .” She laughs: “It helps when they are ve­gan.”

She’s hop­ing to come back to Ire­land soon, as the tight shoot for Jim Sheri­dan’s The Se­cret Scrip­ture didn’t al­low any ad­di­tional time to visit her ma­ter­nal an­ces­tral home in Co Down. “I felt com­pletely at home in Ire­land,” she says. “Ex­cept that do­ing the Ir­ish ac­cent was hard. It’s a hard ac­cent to mas­ter and one that – even I can hear – of­ten ends up be­ing done hor­ri­bly. Do­ing it was ter­ri­fy­ing. Es­pe­cially be­ing on set with real Ir­ish peo­ple.”

Una is out now on lim­ited re­lease and VOD, and is re­viewed on page 10

All of those things sound great to me. I don’t know why you’d be run­ning from that. Unset­tling and dis­turb­ing and un­pre­dictable are all the things that drew me in

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