In con­ver­sa­tion with Rooney Mara, amaz­ing ac­tor and Eng­land’s record goalscorer.


The role of a steely Scandi avenger, which Mara would sub­se­quently pur­sue and win, didn’t seem like an ob­vi­ous match for the ac­tor, given her most high-pro­file screen ap­pear­ance up to that point was get­ting dumped by Jesse Eisen­berg’s Mark Zucker­berg in The So­cial Net­work. But this friend had known her since she was two and knew her na­ture. Mara is tena­cious. Al­ways targeting the tricky and chal­leng­ing. Amid her up­com­ing re­leases this year,

A Ghost Story is a lo-fi lament in which co-star Casey Af­fleck spends most of the film with a sheet over his head — and Mara eats an en­tire pie in a sin­gle take that lasts for more than five, un­for­giv­ing min­utes, try­ing to di­gest her grief.

Mary Magdalene sees her re­unite with Lion di­rec­tor Garth Davis, smash­ing the conventional view of one of Je­sus’ clos­est friends. But the fo­cus of dis­cus­sion to­day is Una, a pro­foundly trou­bling story of child abuse and its af­ter­math. Mara rarely does any­thing easy. In this adap­ta­tion of David Har­rower’s play

Black­bird (di­rected by the­atre vet­eran but first­time film­maker Bene­dict An­drews), the ti­tle char­ac­ter turns up at a fac­tory run by Ray (Ben Men­del­sohn), try­ing to re­con­nect with the man who went to prison for sex­u­ally abus­ing her when she was 13. He has a new life, while she is stum­bling through hers, un­able to re­cover. Their re­union is com­pli­cated, dif­fi­cult, up­set­ting. Una is a film that gets un­der the skin.

I met Mara for the first time in 2010, hav­ing a drink with Dragon Tat­too di­rec­tor David Fincher at a Soho ho­tel. Back then she was ini­tially a lit­tle quiet, per­haps wary of my be­ing a jour­nal­ist, un­til it be­came clear we were off the record. Dur­ing a for­mal in­ter­view on the Dragon Tat­too set she was thought­ful and hon­est, if a lit­tle ten­ta­tive. Seven years later she’s more con­fi­dent — her an­swers are more con­cise, more direct — but still in­quis­i­tive and con­sid­ered. She may be quick­sil­ver on screen; off screen she’s fun­da­men­tally the same. And not as scary as she is so of­ten por­trayed to be.

The last few years, from the out­side, feel like a dizzy­ing as­cent. How’s it felt from the in­side?

Just like life. I mean, it’s been how many years now?


Six since Dragon Tat­too’s re­lease.

In a lot of ways it feels much longer than that. And then it also just feels like yes­ter­day. I’ve worked a lot in that time. I’ve also prob­a­bly grown up quite a bit. [I’m] 32 now.

It’s all down­hill from here.

Not quite yet. Six more years! I’ve been so lucky with the peo­ple I’ve been able to work with, but a lot of that’s also be­cause of the choices I’ve made and things that I didn’t do. It could have gone a num­ber of dif­fer­ent ways. It still could.

There could have been big pay cheques in mas­sive movies, but the ex­pe­ri­ence might not have been that en­joy­able.

I’m all about the ex­pe­ri­ence.

Would you make a film know­ing it would be a mas­ter­piece but would be hard to make?

Yeah, be­cause there’s some­thing to be said about hav­ing an aw­ful ex­pe­ri­ence. You learn so much about your­self when you have a chal­leng­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. But I guess it de­pends in what kind of way it would be a bad ex­pe­ri­ence. There are cer­tain things I don’t want to com­pro­mise on. But I’m not against suf­fer­ing for your art!

Una is… tough. How did it first come to you?

Una was some­thing I saw [as the play Black­bird] in 2006 or 2007, when­ever it first was in New York. My mom dragged me to it. I didn’t know what it was about and I was just blown away. And I’ve been kind of ob­sessed with it ever since. I was work­ing on Carol and me and Cate [Blanchett] were talk­ing about the­atre and I was like, “Oh, I’m dy­ing to do Black­bird.” And she was like, “Oh my God, my friend Bene­dict [An­drews] is di­rect­ing it and he’s ac­tu­ally des­per­ate to meet you for it.” I got in touch with him through my agents. I thought he was do­ing a play, but he was mak­ing the movie, and we did it a year later.

It’s for­tu­nate how it worked out with the con­nec­tion be­tween Bene­dict and Cate…

Yeah, but even if that hadn’t hap­pened, I would have met with him be­cause I wanted to do it so badly. Of course, the fact Cate had worked with him and re­ally re­spected and liked him gave me that much more con­fi­dence about him, but I prob­a­bly would have done it re­gard­less. I’ve worked with a lot of first-time di­rec­tors. That doesn’t scare me so much.

You haven’t seen the film yet. Is that a con­scious choice or just the way it’s worked out?

Last year, in Tel­luride [Colorado, at the film fes­ti­val], was where I could have seen it. And I was go­ing through a lot per­son­ally and was right about to do Mary Magdalene. So I just didn’t wanna see it be­fore then, be­cause if I hated it — like, thought I was crap in it — I didn’t want it in my head.

It’s a pro­foundly up­set­ting film. How did it af­fect you dur­ing film­ing?

It was a re­ally in­tense shoot. Not a lot of time. Had so much to do ev­ery day, and so much di­a­logue. So yeah, I was wrecked. It was an all-en­com­pass­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, but one of my best ex­pe­ri­ences. Ben was just amaz­ing and we re­ally were such a team. I felt so safe with him. We re­ally looked out for each other. And most of the movie is just us. Any­time any­one else had to come in, other ac­tors, we didn’t want any­one pen­e­trat­ing our bub­ble — which would have been very much the way [our char­ac­ters] would have been in life.

What was it about the story on stage that made you go after it?

I re­ally don’t know. I was so con­flicted when I saw it, be­cause it’s ob­vi­ously about this hor­rific thing that hap­pens, but there’s this tiny lit­tle part of you — maybe it’s just me, ’cause I’m like a twisted ro­man­tic — that kind of wanted them to be to­gether. Not when she was a child, but in the present mo­ment. And you feel so weird about that. I loved that it was so com­plex. There were so many grey ar­eas and you just didn’t know what to think.

You don’t hate him, but you feel sorry for her… It’s not black-and-white.

Yeah, be­cause there’s also parts where you’re like, “This bitch is crazy!” Espe­cially in the play: when she first comes in, you don’t know what’s hap­pened. You think she’s a crazy ex-girl­friend. At least, I did when I saw it. You think like, “Oh, they’re exes and she’s mad,” and you don’t re­alise it was when she was a child. And then that changes ev­ery­thing.

Do you tend to do a lot of re­search for roles?

It de­pends. For this I didn’t have to. I al­ready knew a lot about it.

You’ve played an abuse sur­vivor be­fore.

You’re re­fer­ring to Lisbeth? That’s very dif­fer­ent. David [Fincher] al­ways used to de­scribe Lisbeth by say­ing, “She’s all scar tis­sue.” And Una is very dif­fer­ent in that she’s still an open wound. 

What do you think gov­erns your choices? It’s re­ally just a feel­ing. I mean, I’m very film­maker-driven. The di­rec­tor to me is so vi­tal. I’ve done things where I’m not su­per drawn to the part, but I re­ally wanna work with the di­rec­tor. So it’s just dif­fer­ent. Usu­ally it’s just a feel­ing I have when I read some­thing.

You said in one in­ter­view, “I feel like an artist with­out an art form”… Yeah, I do feel like that. Oh, but I hate it when ac­tors call them­selves artists! I don’t like call­ing my­self that. But as an ac­tor you are so be­holden to the peo­ple mak­ing it. You don’t re­ally have con­trol over it.

You can’t nec­es­sar­ily con­trol the sto­ries, but you can con­trol the choice of sub­ject — whether it’s grief with A Ghost Story, or fam­ily with Lion [where Mara’s char­ac­ter en­cour­ages Dev Pa­tel’s In­dian-aus­tralian adoptee to find his birth mother]… That’s how I felt about Lion. I mean, I wasn’t like, “Oh my God, I have to play the sup­port­ive girl­friend.” But I was like, “This is a beau­ti­ful story that should be out in the world.” There’s so few movies where it’s a story that makes you feel like that: hope­ful and good about hu­man­ity. On top of that, I spoke to Garth [Davis] and just had a feel­ing that I wanted to work with him. But it’s dif­fer­ent for ev­ery­thing. With A Ghost

Story, I thought the script was beau­ti­ful. David [Low­ery] is such a good writer. And it just sounded like a lot of fun, mak­ing some­thing with your friends that no-one else re­ally knows about.

Was it a se­cret shoot, then? Yeah. He emailed me: “I’m do­ing this thing. No-one knows about it, not even my agent. I just wanna make some­thing again.” It was re­ally fun, five to six days of shoot­ing for me. Such a small crew. So un­of­fi­cial. And that pie scene was re­ally…

You must have thought, “I get to eat pie!” No, I hate pie! I just thought that was such an in­ter­est­ing dis­play of grief, that scene.

You worked with Garth again on Mary Magdalene — how did that come about? We were talk­ing about do­ing this other thing I had been de­vel­op­ing for a while, then he emailed me: “How do you feel about Mary Magdalene?” And I was like, “Oh, fuck.” I said, “Garth, don’t make me do this.”

Your fam­ily is Catholic, right? Uh-huh. And I re­ally did not want to make a re­li­gious film at all. I was re­ally hes­i­tant. But I knew I was gonna do it. I was pissed off at him. Like, “Fuck you, don’t make me do this!”

Does the film fo­cus on her re­la­tion­ship with Je­sus? [It takes place] just be­fore she meets Je­sus to a lit­tle bit after his death. But it’s her story. Most peo­ple think she was a pros­ti­tute. That’s what I thought. Not true at all. Not even slightly true. And I was fas­ci­nated by that. I was like, “This is shocking, that ev­ery­one thinks that.” She was his first fe­male dis­ci­ple. She was cho­sen by him to be wit­ness to his death. And [yet] she’s known as a pros­ti­tute and all those other guys have churches all over the world in their name.

It’s sub­ject mat­ter that some ac­tors would avoid, but you didn’t. Do you think, “That seems dan­ger­ous. I’m go­ing to go after that”? Yeah. I’m a con­trar­ian per­son. I like to stir the pot a lit­tle bit.

You’ve said be­fore that as a teenager peo­ple thought you were stuck-up, be­cause you were re­served. Did you al­ways have a strong sense of who you were? I think I’ve al­ways been very self-pos­sessed, yes, but when I was younger I think I was afraid of it. I was more aware of what other peo­ple thought of me. I think I was also pretty aware that I was dif­fer­ent than a lot of the other kids and even adults I was sur­rounded by. I grew up Ir­ish­catholic, in a more con­ser­va­tive town. I was just al­ways kind of a lit­tle dif­fer­ent. Or at least, I felt that way. Maybe I wasn’t.

Maybe ev­ery­one thinks they’re spe­cial… I don’t think it’s that I thought I was spe­cial. I al­ways felt a lit­tle bit like an alien. I’m sure peo­ple now think... I don’t know what the word is. What’s the word now? That I’m like kind of icy or a lit­tle cold? I think peo­ple are a lit­tle scared of me some­times.

Pro­file pieces of­ten say you seem aloof. When I hear that I’m like, “Oh my God, but I’m the one who’s scared!” Part of me wants to try and make other peo­ple not feel that way, but then part of me is also like, “So what if peo­ple don’t un­der­stand me?” There’s a lot of great peo­ple in his­tory who were mis­un­der­stood. I’m not say­ing I’m one of them, but I don’t re­ally know that it’s my job to be un­der­stood.

Is there a film of yours that’s par­tic­u­larly un­ap­pre­ci­ated? Apart from, ob­vi­ously, Ur­ban Le­gends: Bloody Mary…

[Laughs] Oh my God! That’s a good question. I don’t know. I guess we’ll see. I mean, I haven’t seen Una yet, but I was there for the ex­pe­ri­ence. It hasn’t come out yet, so I don’t know what the re­cep­tion will be. But I think that’s a movie that de­serves to be seen.

What’s the best ad­vice you’ve ever been given? Kind of go­ing back to what we were talk­ing about [in terms of ] be­ing mis­un­der­stood. It was prob­a­bly ad­vice that some­body gave me about that. They ba­si­cally said, “Be­ing liked is the booby prize of life.” Like, that’s not what it’s about. That’s not what’s im­por­tant. I think that’s a hard pill for peo­ple to swal­low, ’cause most peo­ple’s in­cli­na­tion is to want to be liked and want to be un­der­stood.

Ev­ery­one wants to be liked, but… Fincher doesn’t care about be­ing liked. I’d like to be a lit­tle bit more like that.

Next time we in­ter­view you, your first words need to be, “Fuck you!” I hope so!


Far left: Una (Mara) and Ray (Ben Men­del­sohn) in

Una. Left: Mara gets her cool on as Faye in Ter­rence Mal­ick’s Song To Song, also out this month. Be­low: With a sheet-clad Casey Af­fleck in Au­gust’s A Ghost Story.

Here: Mara as that girl with the dragon tat­too in David Fincher’s 2011’s re­make.

Be­low: Fall­ing for Cate Blanchett in Carol (2015). Be­low right: With Dev Pa­tel in last year’s Lion.

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