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Rooney Mara: A ‘Dragon’ Lady Down To The Core

It’s marketed as the feel-bad movie of Christmas: David Fincher’s version of the Swedish thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, opening next week.

Rooney Mara, 26, stars as the fierce, pierced punk heroine. Mara’s a relative unknown, though she did have a couple of brief, crackling scenes in Fincher’s The Social Network. But the part of Dragon Tattoo’s Lisbeth Salander was huge. Some of the biggest names in Hollywood were eyeing it.

‘I Couldn’t Imagine My Life Without Playing Her”

Mara says at first, Fincher didn’t even consider her for the part. Then he came to her with a list of requirements.

“He was like, ‘You’re going to have to learn how to smoke,'” she tells NPR’s Melissa Block. “‘You’re going to have to ride a motorcycle. You’re going to have to be naked. You’re going to have to, you know, do these horrible rape scenes. You’re going to have to perfect the accent. You’re going to have to go off and really sort of be alone for an entire year.'”

Before Mara auditioned, she hadn’t even read the books — but she started to get excited about the role after Fincher approached her.

“I knew I had a really good chance at it,” Mara says. “I read all three books and just became obsessed with the character. And I couldn’t imagine my life without playing her.”

It was helpful for Mara to be an unknown quantity of sorts for this part, as opposed to some of the familiar names — Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman among them — that were being considered. She thinks being a largely blank canvas for an audience was key.

“I’m nowhere in the same league as those girls,” she says. “When those names started flying around, I always knew that it was either going to be someone from that camp or someone who is unknown … I never felt like I was up against those people.”

Mara says the character needed to be played by someone unknown because she’s such an enigma, a question mark. If they had cast someone who the audience already had a relationship with, she says, it could have done a disservice to the character.

‘I Never Felt At A Loss’

Despite the tattoos, a brutal extended rape scene and the piercings — in sensitive spots — that Fincher warned her the role would require, Mara says the only thing that genuinely scared her was Lisbeth’s motorcycle.

“That seems like the most dangerous thing to me,” she says. “The rest is sort of emotional, intellectual work that I was really excited for.”

In the book, Lisbeth Salander rides a small Kawasaki bike, but the one that Mara rides in the movie is a monster.

“I was like, ‘Hello, did you read the book?'” she says, laughing. “[It was] like three times my size. [But] we wanted her to have a really old, kind of cool-looking bike that she kind of pieced together from different parts. . … [And] the older bikes are heavy, so we didn’t really have a choice.”

For Mara, the key to understanding Lisbeth’s motivations — and getting her head around the character’s psychological damage — was on the page.

“You know, I was kind of lucky that I didn’t really have to figure that out. It was very spelled out for me. I had three books with sort of an endless well of information, and I never felt at a loss.”

Despite the difference in their circumstances, Mara says she found personality traits at Lisbeth Salander’s core as a character that she as a real person could relate to.

“I think I’m pretty slow to warm, like she is,” Mara says. “Slow to trust people. She likes to investigate every facet of something completely before she engages with it, before she’s ready to reveal herself to the world. And I definitely have that trait to a fault.”

Noomi Rapace, who played Lisbeth Salander in the original Swedish Tattoo movies, told NPR last year that she’d become physically ill at the end of the series — that she’d had to leave the wrap party to vomit, and that she felt as if “my body was physically just throwing Lisbeth out.”

Mara, too, says keeping up with Lisbeth was rough.

“It’s certainly hard to sort of embody such a dark place for that amount of time,” she says. “I felt as though it was much harder to come out of it than it was to go into it. Going into it was really easy for me.”

And for Mara, the transition from shooting the film to living her normal life again wasn’t a clean break.

“We would finish and come back and have a week off, and then we’d have to re-shoot one of the rape scenes,” she says. “Then I had photo shoots and press dates. So I didn’t have a last day of shooting, and then I was free … I had to stay in the hair and piercings for a few weeks.”

Mara says her family is proud of her success — but that given the darkness of the film, and the terrible things that befall her character, her dad was more nervous to see Dragon Tattoo than he ever was at the Super Bowl. (Her family is football royalty: Her namesake great-grandfathers Art Rooney and Tim Mara founded the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New York Giants, and her father and uncles are still involved with the teams.)

Mara says she hopes the film wasn’t too excruciating for her family to watch.

“You kind of forget that it’s me,” she says. “It doesn’t look like me. It doesn’t walk like me or talk like me. And so I think it was easier for them to get lost in it than maybe any other part.”