Lisbeth Salander, the darkly fierce heroine of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy of novels, is a career-making role. Rooney Mara, who plays Lisbeth in David Fincher’s adaptation of the first novel, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,’’ has been getting career-making reviews. The movie opens Tuesday.
Mara, 26, first made an impression on viewers in “The Social Network.’’ Her brief but crucial role as the young woman whose dismissal of Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg led to the creation of Facebook was a star turn in everything but duration. Prior to “The Social Network,’’ Mara was third-billed in the 2010 remake of “A Nightmare on Elm Street’’ and had done work on such television series as “ER’’ and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.’’
The actress owes her distinctive name to an impeccable pigskin pedigree. On her mother’s side, she’s related to the Rooneys, who own the Pittsburgh Steelers, and on her father’s to the Maras, who own the New York Giants.
Earlier this month, she spoke by telephone from Los Angeles about learning to ride a motorcycle, getting to speak with a Swedish accent, and why Lisbeth doesn’t play well with others.
How much pressure comes with landing a high-profile role?
It’s there, of course, but you try not to think about that. Certainly I didn’t think about it while we were shooting. You just have to kind of ignore that pressure.
Do you ever feel like Vivien Leigh, getting the lead in “Gone With the Wind’’?
No. I know people made that comparison during the casting process, but Lisbeth and Scarlett O’Hara couldn’t be any more different.
Were you a fan of the books?
I was, but I hadn’t read them until I was in the audition process and knew I had a fairly good shot at getting the part. I know how obsessive I can get so I didn’t want to get disappointed if I didn’t get cast as Lisbeth.
Is it easier or harder playing a literary character? You have so much more information to work with.
I think it’s always easier the more information you have. That said, it may be harder for the audience to believe in you because they already have something in their heads about what the character looks like.
Are you tempted to see the Swedish version?
I saw the Swedish version before I even knew I’d be auditioning. I thought all three [adaptations] were great, and [Noomi Rapace, as Lisbeth] was amazing, but I didn’t leave the theater thinking, “Oh my God, I have to play that part.’’ Once I did get cast, I never wanted to go back and reference the other movie. I wanted to stick with the book for my research.
Does using an accent help you get into the character more quickly or does it distance you?
It makes it much easier. I enjoy it. It can make things a little more challenging at times. But overall it’s easier. If it’s done right it’s helpful for the audience to lose the person giving the performance and get to the character. Once we got to Sweden we realized there is no such thing as a standard Swedish accent. Some people have a slight accent in English. Some have no accent at all. Others sound British. You can’t really generalize. It’s like a Southern accent versus a New York accent. Everyone sounds different depending on where they’re from in the country. Daniel [Craig]’s character is very educated, so he just used his British accent because it just felt right for him. Mine isn’t educated, so her accent is stronger.
You mention being in Sweden. How did you like Stockholm?
I loved it. It was really incredible being able to shoot the film there. I think it’s probably the most informative thing I was able to do. It informed so much about the character and story.
Did you get to pick out your own wardrobe?
Trish Summerville, our costume designer, is incredible, really incredible. She pulled together the most amazing wardrobe for the character. Certainly I had a say. “No, no, she wouldn’t wear that.’’ But it didn’t happen very often. My strongest thing was to wear something androgynous, to look boyish.
What felt less natural: playing Lisbeth fully punked out or playing the scenes where she’s disguised in that blond wig?
Oh, the blond wig! I hated the blond wig. I was just miserable. I felt very uncomfortable in it. People knew to avoid me while I was wearing it. Maybe my discomfort was because I was so deep in the other side of Lisbeth.
Could you ride a motorcycle beforehand?
No, I couldn’t at all. And I didn’t have any desire to learn [laughs]. I had to spend about two hours a day, five days a week, doing it. My stuntgirl, Alice, had to do a lot of it. It was good for the character to have that in my muscle memory. In the end I’m glad that I learned how to do it.
You’d worked with David Fincher before. Did that make things easier for you?
I only worked for four days on “The Social Network.’’ Still, I had a sense for how he worked and really liked how he worked. But I didn’t have any real working relationship with him. Obviously, this was a very different experience. We were in this intense situation for over a year. I love the way David works. I can’t imagine having made the film with anyone else.
Do you like Lisbeth?
I do really like her. I think most people really like her. I also think part of the reason she’s so great is that you don’t always agree with what she does yet you still like her. I think that’s really why she’s so interesting.
Would Lisbeth like you?
I don’t know. I feel like if we were stuck in a room together not a lot would happen. We’re both shy and quiet and not very good communicators. It’s not really a conversation I’d want to be a fly on the wall for.
Would you be up for playing Lisbeth again?
If this movie’s a success, there are plans to adapt the other two books. I’d be really happy to play Lisbeth again.
You have serious NFL connections on both sides of your family. If Lisbeth were a football player, what would her position be?
[Laughs] I don’t know enough about football to answer that question, unfortunately. I will say this. I don’t think she could be in a team sport. I don’t know that she could get along well enough with her teammates.