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A lot has happened over the last year or so for the young actress Rooney Mara, who I interviewed by phone earlier this week. (You can tune in to the audio of our conversation at the top of this post.)
Prior to last October, most people primarily thought of Mara — who was born Patricia but began going by her middle-name after she moved out to Los Angeles in 2007 (“I never really liked my first name that much”) — as the younger sister of the actress Kate Mara (127 Hours), or the girl who hates fat people in a silly episode of TV’s Law & Order: SVU (her first gig as an actor), or the lead actress in the unfortunate remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010). But then David Fincher‘s The Social Network, a film about the evolution of Facebook, opened the 2010 New York Film Festival, and within minutes it became quite clear to many of us that she was, in fact, a genuine star.
In the film, which went on to score eight Oscar nominations (winning three), Mara plays Erica Albright, the renamed love interest of Mark Zuckerberg. Though the actress was on set for only four days and had only 10 or so minutes of total screen time, she knocked the part out of the park, especially during the film’s electric first five minutes, when her character and the future billionaire engage in a rapid-fire conversation that ends in her terminating their relationship. Fincher reportedly demanded 99 takes of the scene over two days; Mara says, “That’s what they told me, but then I’ve also heard that that was just a joke and not true. You know, it was a six-page scene, and we shot it over a day-and-a-half or two days, so, you know, 99 takes actually isn’t that unreasonable if you think about it.” (On 11/14/10, I wrote that Mara deserved a best supporting actress Oscar nod for her performance.)
After completing her work on The Social Network, Mara took some time off from work to focus on other things, including Faces of Kibera, a charity that is near and dear to her. During that same period, The Social Network‘s producer Scott Rudin asked Fincher to direct an English-language adaptation of the late Stieg Larsson‘s blockbuster novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which had been made into a Swedish film in 2009, and Fincher accepted the job. Not long thereafter, Fincher began looking for a young actress to play what was arguably the most coveted part in Hollywood since another David — David O. Selznick — scoured the country for a young actress to play Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939): namely, Lisbeth Salander, the goth hacker at the center of — and otherwise known as — The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
When Mara heard that Fincher would be directing the film, she reached out to express her interest, but, she recalls, the feeling was not immediately mutual. “He didn’t want to see me at first,” she tells me. “I think it was hard for him to imagine me as Salander when the things that he needed from me to play Erica Albright were, you know, the exact opposite qualities… At first, I was like, ‘Okay, I can understand that. I don’t necessarily think that I’m right for it either.’ I hadn’t read the books at that point. And then, you know, when I started seeing all of these names thrown around for the part, I was like, ‘Well, that doesn’t make any sense! If these girls are going in, I should be able to read for it, because they’re not any more right for it than I am.'”
Fortunately, Cean Chaffin, Fincher’s longtime producer, spoke up on Mara’s behalf; Fincher brought her in to read with the casting director; and, Mara says, “after seeing that, David started to get behind me.” Not long after, she got another call to come in to meet with Fincher. “I thought I was coming in to do another test, and I wasn’t,” she recalls. “I was coming in for him to offer me the part. He sat me down in his office, and, sort of, gave me this long speech. He wanted to lay it all out for me. He wanted me to be aware of all of the bad shit that would come along with playing the part, not just the good stuff. And I didn’t really fully know what was happening throughout the speech — you know, it was a great speech, I wish I had recorded it. And then he showed me the press release that said that I was gonna be playing the part, and he told me that he was prepared to send that out, and that I had, you know, a half an hour to decide if that’s what I wanted.” Having already spent two-and-a-half months thinking about the part and how playing it might impact her life and career, she didn’t need a half-hour — or even a minute — to arrive at an answer: she was in.
Mara totally committed to the part of Salander, shaving her eyebrows and half of her head; getting eye, ear, and nipple piercings; “starving” herself to lose a significant amount of weight (“David didn’t want me to lose any weight; that was something that I wanted to do that he was, kind of, opposed to”); visiting a rape-crisis center; and the list goes on. In fact, her only reservation about playing it was not that she would have to appear nude or as a victim in brutal rape scenes (“Obviously that’s really scary but…”), but rather that she would have to learn to ride a motorcycle (“… that was the one thing I was not sure I wanted to do”). Of course, she ultimately overcame her fear, and rides impressively in the film.
Many people the world over — but primarily women, and especially feminists — regard Salander as a hero. Mara says, “I can understand why people might uphold her as a feminist icon, you know, because she’s uncompromising, and has her own beliefs about things, and doesn’t really cater to other people. I think the other thing is that she doesn’t ever see herself as a victim; she doesn’t ever play that card, you know, even though, in a lot of situations, she is, in fact, a victim… But I never thought of the character as a feminist; I don’t think she would characterize herself as that either, you know? I don’t think she really acts or does the things she does in the name of any group or person.” And is “feminist” a label that Mara herself embraces? “You know, I don’t even know really quite what that means,” she says. “I think I’m more like the character, in that sense. I don’t really feel a part of any group or anything like that.”
Dragon Tattoo opened in theaters only yesterday, so we haven’t yet seen reliable box-office numbers, but there’s a great likelihood that it will be a phenomenal hit, thanks in part to strong reviews (it’s now at 84% on Rotten Tomatoes) but much more so to the public’s familiarity with and strong loyalty to Larsson’s books. Speaking of which, will his others also be made into English-language features? That will probably depend on how much money this one makes and also whether or not Fincher wishes to remain a part of the franchise. Mara, for her part, is quite clear about her intentions: “If they do make sequels, I will definitely be a part of them. Hopefully there’s an audience for it. I certainly don’t feel finished with the character, and I would definitely be sad to have that be it for me.”
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