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Dragon Tattoo star Rooney Mara ‘indomitable,’ says David Fincher

At the close of the Toronto International Film Festival, Star writers typically make their picks for Fresh Faces of the fest; actors who show the promise that leads to solid careers.

Among my choices in 2009 was Rooney Mara, 24-year-old co-star of a small-budget boarding school drama Tanner Hall, a demurely dressed young woman who posed for a photo at the Hotel InterContinental in a blue frock with white lace collar.

On Dec. 20, audiences will see Mara covered in facial piercings, dressed in leathers and sporting chopped inky hair and bleached eyebrows as hacker Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

Based on Swedish writer Stieg Larsson’s massive 2005 bestseller and directed by David Fincher, the thriller, co-starring Daniel Craig, Stellan Skarsgard and Christopher Plummer, is making an impression on critics and has netted a Best Actress Golden Globe nomination for Mara.

“Were we outside with all the girls? Or we were outside? I remember, and we took a picture,” Mara said with laugh of that afternoon in Yorkville. “And look where I am now. Very exciting.”She looks leaner now, her angular face framed by jet hair pulled into a ponytail, setting off her grey eyes and porcelain skin. It’s a surprise to hear her chuckle. The soft-spoken Mara isn’t one who is quick to laugh — not because she doesn’t have a sense of humour. Rather, she confesses during a chat in a chic Soho hotel room Saturday, she’s quite shy.

“Yeah, I am really shy. I’m really shy and then I’m not,” said Mara as she sipped on an herbal tea. “I’m really slow to warm up to people and slow to trust people. I’m not shy with people I’m super-comfortable with.”

Shyness doesn’t seem a word to use about a woman who completely immersed herself in Salander’s character, learning to smoke and ride a motorcycle with confidence, getting three facial piercings plus one in a nipple, and spending weeks training in martial arts for down-and-dirty fight scenes. The role required a great deal of nudity and sex scenes — Mara even wore a strawberry blond pubic hair wig, known as a merkin, because that was the original colour of Salander’s hair in the book before she dyed it jet black.

“I was really prepared to do anything for this character and for David (Fincher). I just felt really safe the whole time and I put all my trust into David,” Mara said. “I kind of had to go into it without hesitation. I had read the (Larsson) books and I had my own idea of who this girl was and I felt I had to play her and I could bring something to her There really wasn’t any part of her I didn’t want to portray. There were days that were hard but never ones I thought I couldn’t get through it.”

And she does have something in common with her character, Mara pointed out.

“Onscreen I’m playing a character I wouldn’t call shy but she’s similar (to Mara). She’s slow to warm and slow to trust but I wasn’t shy about any of the things I had to do in character.”

Like Salander, she’s also tenacious. Fincher described that quality in her as being the “most Lisbeth-ian” at a Saturday news conference. No matter how many times she was asked to come back and audition over the two-and-a-half months it took to cast Salander, Mara never backed down.

“She wasn’t giving up. She was indomitable,” said Fincher.

“I knew it was worth it,” said Mara later. “I don’t think I ever could have been able to go into the audition process if I didn’t feel as connected to that character and if I didn’t feel as strongly I was the person to bring her to life.”

Mara, who worked with Fincher briefly in The Social Network, where she had a small but key role as Erica Albright, Mark Zuckerberg’s (Jesse Eisenberg) plain-spoken girlfriend, landed the role as Salander, one of the most sought-after in Hollywood. Scarlett Johansson, Carey Mulligan and Natalie Portman were all rumoured to have auditioned.

“I never felt up against them,” said Mara, adding she knew the producers would either go with a big-name actor or someone lesser known, like her. “I wasn’t in the same sandbox as them so I didn’t feel like I beat out those people.”

Born Patricia — Rooney is her mother’s maiden name and her middle name — and raised a town outside New York City, Mara’s older sister, Kate, is also an actor. But football is the family business. Her family on both sides has affiliations with the New York Giants and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Mara graduated from NYU last year after studying international social policy and non-profits and is founder of Uweze, an organization which aids orphans in Kenya.

She lives in Los Angeles but is pleased to be in New York for the holidays with family. She may also take in a movie: Mara hadn’t seen Dragon Tattoo when interviewed by the Star, preferring to see it with a regular paying audience opening weekend rather than a private screening or at a premiere when all eyes are on her.

The whirlwind press tours that have taken her to London, Stockholm and New York over the course of just three days to promote the movie are her least favourite part of the process. She’s anxious to get back to work and hopes that includes the second and third movies in Larsson’s Millennium series trilogy.

“I would be really sad not to do the other two movies. I don’t feel finished with the character,” said Mara. “I would love to get back to work. This part of it,” she adds of the press tours, “I really don’t enjoy this part of it. For someone like me, it feels very scary and vulnerable much more than anything I was asked to do on this movie. This part is daunting. The actual work isn’t.”