It is a film that is set to change her life for ever, and yet American actress Rooney Mara almost bailed out of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Cast in the role of Lisbeth Salander by director David Fincher, who had unearthed her talent when looking for somebody to go toe-to-toe with the verbally dextrous actor Jesse Eisenberg in his 2010 film The Social Network, Mara is something of an unknown, and the studio funding Fincher’s film was determined that she prove her mettle before it agreed to her appointment.
“The audition for The Social Network was quite easy,” says Mara, 26, “whereas for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo it was a two-and-a-half month process.” During that time Fincher asked Mara to complete copious screen tests and even took the actress out on to the LA subway system to shoot a number of scenes in character.
“The whole process was quite frustrating towards the end,” she says. “I felt like, ‘You either think I have proved I can do this to you or you don’t, but at some point I have to move on with my life.’ It was a really long, hard process.”
And yet Mara hung in there and Fincher remained her champion, banging the young actress’s drum whenever he met studio executives to discuss his vision for the film. Their English-language adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s novel represented a huge investment, and a temporary hiatus in the James Bond shooting schedule had already granted them Daniel Craig in the central role of Mikael Blomkvist. Now they wanted a female lead with the same star power.
“But I knew that Rooney had something special,” says Fincher. “Finding somebody who can take on Jesse Eisenberg, with an Aaron Sorkin script, is not an easy thing to do, but that’s what Rooney did in The Social Network. Just from that one small scene in that film I thought that Rooney could be just right.”
Fincher’s instincts proved correct, and he and Mara eventually convinced the suits that she was the ideal person to play Salander, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s spiky, ice-cool and unconventional heroine, a character that the director describes as, “incredibly damaged and who has a hard time with eye contact, somebody on the margins”.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the first novel in the Millennium trilogy by Swedish author Larsson, who died aged 50 in 2004. The series has sold more than 20 million copies worldwide and has already inspired a Swedish-language film trilogy. The central character of Salander has emerged as an icon of popular 21st-century literature.
When we meet, Mara has only just finished work on the film – a number of scenes needed reshooting – and she is quiet and a little subdued, though she speaks eloquently. Growing up in New York, she started her film career with 2008’s Dream Boy and took her first lead role in the 2010 remake of Nightmare on Elm Street. She was recently cast in Terrence Malick’s Lawless, which is due to open next year.
“I grew up with my mum, enjoying old films and going to the theatre,” Mara says. Her family traces their history to County Down, Ireland, while recent ancestors were pivotal in the founding and subsequent success of American-football teams the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New York Giants. Mara, however, leaned towards film rather than sport.
“My mum wasn’t a film buff per se, but she was always playing films like Gone With the Wind and Bringing Up Baby. And I did silly little acting classes, so I always knew I wanted to act in some capacity.”
Last year, Mara’s star rose further with her celebrated turn in the opening sequence of The Social Network. However, nothing else has compared to what she had to endure on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. She altered her look severely for the film and is still wearing Salander’s lip ring when we meet.
“I think having my eyebrows done freaked me out the most,” she says of her on-screen transformation, perking up at the memory.
“That really changed the way I looked. I think I was freaked out for about five minutes, then I just let it go and became used to it. The pain wasn’t too bad either, with the piercing. I still have the lip-ring, but I am going to take it out.”
As well unconventional looks, Mara’s character also carries a harrowing past, having suffered a traumatic childhood that has left her with an introverted, anti-social, and often-hostile demeanour. She is, however, a brilliant computer hacker, and, in spite of her outwardly fragile appearance, is as hard as iron. Larsson had likened Salander to an adult version of the fictional Swedish heroine Pippi Longstocking.
“I really understood her as a person,” says Mara, “and that made the whole process a little easier. Lisbeth resonates with so many people because at some point in their lives they relate to the feeling of being held down by the powers that be, being an outsider, being oppressed. They see it happening to Lisbeth and they want to root for her. They want to see her succeed.
“She is meant to look incredibly frail and young and tiny. Yet, just like Pippi Longstocking, she can thoroughly defend herself and has a sort of super-human strength. Both she and Pippi are fighting against bad guys.”
The story places Salander alongside Craig’s disgraced journalist, Blomkvist, and together they fight the bad guys, linking up in a bid to crack a 40-year-old missing-person case that leads them down a dark and dangerous path. The story is shadowed by a series of sinister moments and Salander, in particular, goes through the wringer. Mara was required to film a number of difficult scenes, including an infamous moment of revenge.
“The rape stuff was the toughest to film,” she says of the story’s most brutal moment, “because it’s so important to not just this film, but to the entire trilogy.” Shooting in Sweden, too, also proved difficult, with the cast working in temperatures hitting minus 15.
“I had prepared myself and I knew how emotionally and physically challenging making The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo would be, but the whole project really pushed me. The physical challenge was probably even more shocking than the emotional, because there were lots of days that we were doing stunts, with many takes, over and over. It was an amazing experience and I know that I have learnt so much.” She smiles. “I am just not quite sure what that is yet.”