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Rooney Mara on reinventing Lisbeth Salander for Hollywood

Rooney Mara is sitting in a brightly lit boardroom in Stockholm’s Hilton hotel. Step outside and you’re in the heart of Stieg Larsson country, just yards away from the streets in the suburb of Sodermalm where his best-selling Millennium Trilogy is set. The computer store where hacker Lisbeth Salander bought her laptop is just round the corner; the building where investigative reporter Mikael Blomkvist is said to live a mere five minutes up the hill. Or, at least, that’s what the tour guides will tell you. But for the girl in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, this is where it all began.

To most people, Rooney Mara is an unknown quantity. A brief role in the Michael Cera comedy, Youth In Revolt (as a promiscuous teen), two episodes of ER and the lead in last year’s remake of the classic horror, A Nightmare On Elm Street, is not much to go on. Dropping her first name, Patricia, to adopt the mildly more flamboyant Rooney (her mother’s maiden and her middle name) is about the most Hollywood thing she has done. She’d rather read a book than face the hordes on the red carpet. “I’m very low-key,” she says. “I don’t need a lot to keep me entertained.”

The search for the actor to play Lisbeth Salander was one of the most high-profile Hollywood projects of the past two years, during which A-listers such as Carey Mulligan, Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson were said to have been considered. Already played by Noomi Rapace in the original Swedish adaptations of Larsson’s detective thrillers, which have sold more than 60 million copies, Salander is an actor’s dream: bisexual, anti-social, damaged – “There’s so many yins and yangs in her,” acknowledges Mara – this wounded animal is one of modern fiction’s most compelling creations.Put that in the hands of David Fincher, the director of Fight Club and Se7en and the man entrusted with this $90 million Hollywood remake, and it’s an incendiary combination. You’d think Mara would be wearing a permanent grin, then. Yet she’s anything but smiles. Quiet and withdrawn, first impressions suggest this is difficult for her. Like a rabbit in the Hollywood headlights, she feels “exposed” right now. And impending fame? “It’s definitely scary. I try to not think about it and I’m in great denial. I’m a very shy, private person. I’m much more like the character in that respect.”

Is she feeling the pressure, the weight of expectation? “I felt the pressure before I got cast, and then as soon as David offered me the part, I had to literally let all of that go and lose all hesitation,” says Mara.

“I would drive myself into the ground if I let any of that in. Of course there’s a lot of pressure. There are so many people who feel close to this character. You’re never going to please everyone, and I had to just forget about all that.”

She was right to. Her performance as this “weird, alien creature” is nothing short of sensational. Sexual, cerebral, vengeful, animalistic, Mara sinks so far into the role she almost gets swallowed up.

Having briefly worked with Fincher on The Social Network – she played Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s ex-girlfriend Erica Albright – Mara knew what to expect from the director, but not from the attention the role would bring.

“Just because everyone wanted the part didn’t necessarily mean that everything that comes along with the part is going to be a good thing,” she says.

If a dark cloud hovers over this 26-year-old, it’s no surprise. Exhaustion is close to setting in. After spending 150 days “in this bubble”, principal photography finished in September, but there were reshoots, dialogue touch-ups and press conferences to complete – a never-ending cycle that kept her locked in the dark world which Salander inhabits.

“You can’t really leave the character,” she says. “You spend a year in an extremely intense situation, going at 100 miles per hour, all day, every day. And I think it’s hard to come off anything like that.”

When I ask how she likes to unwind, Mara sighs. “I haven’t unwound in so long. I’ve forgotten how.” The residue of Salander still lingers, it seems, even if she no longer dresses like her. Today she’s wearing navy jeans, a forest-green scarf and a blouse with puffball shoulders, a conservative ensemble far removed from Salander’s Goth-inspired black leather and ripped denim. Gone too are the multiple piercings – ears, eyebrow, nose, lip and nipples – that took her to a series of sessions in Brooklyn and Stockholm in preparation for the role.

With her eyes a beguiling blue-green, her hair is still dyed jet-black, cropped short and held in a tight mini-ponytail. It’s severe – although nowhere near as frightening as Salander’s aggressive, asymmetrical style. Nursing a cup of hot water with a slice of lemon, Mara is as thin as a rail, although not quite the “pale, anorexic young woman who had hair as short as a fuse” that Larsson describes in the book.

“She is also about four inches too tall for Salander,” Fincher has said, unconcerned.

If anything, the actor’s mesmerising resemblance to Salander comes from within. “It’s a personality thing,” adds Fincher. “In her real life, she’s very much a wallflower. She’s very reserved. She’s guarded. All that stuff seems like it worked really well.”

There was physical preparation – motorcycle training, skateboarding lessons, kickboxing classes – but to enter Salander’s headspace Mara watched controversial films such as Larry Clark’s dysfunctional teen portrait Kids and Gaspar Noe’s rape-revenge drama Irreversible.

Surely staying in this permanent frame of mind for close to a year must have been mentally taxing?

“I think, luckily for me, I’m more of a dark person anyway. That part of it wasn’t that difficult,” Mara says. She paid visits to The Help Group, a school that teaches children with special needs relating to autism, ADHD and other problems, and a centre for women who have been sexually abused, where she talked to physicians and counsellors. For those who haven’t read the book, one of the key moments is Salander’s rape at the hands of her guardian.

Inspired by a traumatic event in Larsson’s own life (he witnessed a girl, named Lisbeth, gang-raped when he was 15), when it comes to the film’s scenes of sexual violence, Mara is under no illusions about the reactions she anticipates from viewers. “I hope that it would cause trouble in the film,” she says. “I don’t think it should be easy to watch. I think it probably should be very difficult. I think my revenge scene should be difficult for people to watch. People should be conflicted. But I think most movies should seek to conflict the audience in some way.”

If she sees Salander as some sort of feminist icon, however, Mara isn’t saying. “I don’t really want to make some political statement. Obviously violence against women, or anyone, is a terrible thing.”

Is Salander a role model? “I don’t know. The words ‘role model’ really scare me. Certainly I think feminists see her as their heroine, but I don’t specifically think she’s a feminist. I don’t think she’s a part of any group or subculture. She has her own moral code and she does things based on that, but I don’t think she’s fighting for any feminist cause.”

At least she has a partner-in-crime (or should that be solving crime?): Daniel Craig. The 007 star plays Blomkvist, the star reporter for the Millennium magazine who takes Salander on as his researcher (and later his lover) when he is hired by a member of a wealthy industrialist family to solve a 40-year-old murder. So how did she find Craig? Attractive? She blinks, but doesn’t hesitate. “Daniel Craig, of course, is a very attractive man. He’s James Bond. I’m sure he’s been sexiest man alive a few times. It’s a silly question because it’s such an obvious answer.”

Unlike Salander, Mara comes from a vast support network (22 aunts and uncles, and 40 cousins). Born and raised in Bedford, New York, her family is National Football League royalty. Her father, Chris, is the vice-president of player evaluation for the New York Giants, while her uncle, John Mara, is the president, CEO and co-owner of the team. Her great-great grandfather, Tim Mara, actually founded the Giants. Not to be outdone, her mother, Kathleen, a part-time real estate agent, is a descendant of Art Rooney Sr, founder of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Having been weaned on the sport, it can’t have been easy growing up in a family that made its fortune from such an all-male occupation. “Obviously it’s a unique and important part of my life,” she says, diplomatically, although you get the impression she’d rather pull out her own teeth than discuss the Superbowl. Unsurprisingly, she was never sporty at school. “I was never really into ‘group’ anything – I was much more a loner. Even with acting, I wasn’t a part of the theatre group. I was never a part of a group.”

With an older sister, Kate, who also acts professionally, Mara had someone to look up to when she was young. “She’s been acting since she was 12,” she says of her sister. “We were both acting when we were young, in silly little drama classes. And I always knew that I wanted to do it. But I didn’t want to do it professionally like her. I wanted to go to school and do it when I felt ready.”

That’s quite a level-headed attitude, I say. “I don’t know. I think I may be a little contrary. There probably was a bit of ‘she’s doing that, so I’m not doing that. I’m going to do my own thing’.”

Curiously, I met Kate Mara in Glasgow, when she was filming Stone Of Destiny, in which she played Kay Matheson, one of four Glasgow University students who “stole” the Stone of Scone from Westminster Abbey. The contrast between the two is startling – and Rooney knows it. When I ask if she’s discussed the prospect of fame with Kate, she replies: “Well, me and my sister are very different. Very, very different. I think it comes easier to her. She’s a little bit more open and friendly than I am. She’s the likeable one.”

What does she mean by that? Is she hard to get to know? “Very much so. I’m so slow to warm, and my sister’s very warm and open. She’s lovely and people really love her. I’m an acquired taste.” Has it always been this way? “Yeah, I’ve always been that way. I don’t know why. Nature versus nurture – who knows?”

Mara, who also has two brothers, Conor and Daniel, seems to be the awkward one of the family. Like her character in A Nightmare On Elm Street, whom she describes as “the loneliest girl in the world”, there’s something very solitary about her.

Still, she’s unquestionably a high-achiever. She graduated early from high school, then joined the Travelling School, an open-learning environment that took her to South America for four months. “We’d be learning about Machu Picchu while sitting at Machu Picchu,” she says, “and that to me was so amazing.”

It’s the first time she really lights up, talking about trekking through Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. “I was always really into travelling.” She once even considered becoming a photographer. “I was trying to think of different jobs that could get me travelling.”

When she returned to the US, she wound up at New York University’s Gallatin School – a college designed for those who wish to individually tailor their studies. While starting to act on the side, Mara chose to study psychology and social work, yet was soon itching to travel again.

“I was quite bored at university. I was taking this ‘writing about Africa’ class. And I was really sick of being in a classroom, so I decided to go somewhere in Africa.” She chose Kenya. But this was no safari. Mara soon encountered Kibera, the square-mile slum on the outskirts of the capital, Nairobi. “Obviously I’d never seen anything like it before,” she says. “It was shocking. It’s the size of Central Park, but there are more than one million people living there. It was crazy to be there and think about Central Park and then think about putting a million people in that space, and what it would be like, what it would look like, what it would smell like. So, it’s quite shocking. It’s also shocking because you’re in this horrific slum, and then, down the street, are diplomats living in these huge mansions. It’s very extreme.”

As a result, Mara founded Faces of Kibera, a charity dedicated to helping young orphans from the slum. She’s also heavily involved with Uweza, a foundation dedicated to abolishing poverty in Kibera. Named after the Swahili word for opportunity, ability, and power, Uweza run a variety of different programmes, from soccer leagues to after-school tutoring. Sadly for her, Mara’s sojourn to Sweden has kept her away from Kenya for longer than she’d like. “Hopefully, next year I will get a chance to go.”

It’s not hard to see why a place like Kenya, where she won’t be recognised, might appeal. Fortunately for Mara, stripped of Lisbeth Salander’s armour, she looks markedly different. “I think I have an easily manipulated look,” she says. “Some people have a face that is recognisable and always going to look a certain way. I think I’m easily morphed.”

And it’s true. Look at early photos of her, with long brown hair and a winning smile, and she looks high-school cute. “To be honest, I would rather not look like myself in anything that I do. I find that much more interesting.”

Talk to others and they think Mara is set for life. “She’s going to sky-rocket,” says her Dragon Tattoo co-star Robin Wright. Which might be why she’s bracing herself for an onslaught by the paparazzi.

“Some people get annoyed with actors who complain about that. They say, ‘It’s part of the job, you signed up for that.’ It’s actually not a part of the job. It’s now become a part of our culture, so it’s something we have to live with. But where someone goes grocery shopping or what they buy from the grocery store has nothing to do with acting or movie making. But certainly it’s part of our culture now.”

Depending on how Dragon Tattoo fares at the box office, there is a chance that Mara will return to make the second and third episodes. “I would be very happy to do that,” she says. For the moment she’s signed on for Lawless, the new film by The Tree Of Life’s Terrence Malick, which she will shoot next year with Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling and Cate Blanchett.

“I can’t say anything about the story but he’s someone I’ve always wanted to work with.” Such opportunities are “mind-blowing”, she says. “I’m very grateful for it.” And, in her own quiet way, I think she is.