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Rooney Mara: Who’s that Girl

Rooney Mara is bundled up in a scarf and black jacket, looking like that skinny loner girl who got into Nick Drake, Rimbaud and Alcoholics Anonymous way too young; who was rumoured to be a cutter (but laughed when she heard); and who dyed her asymmetrical hair jet black because, well, she ran out of green dye. It’s nighttime and we’re in Los Angeles, at a low-key neighbourhood diner, and Mara’s pale, quivering fingers play with a cup of hot water – the only thing she’s ordered, with a squeeze of lemon added. Her subdued yet intense energy – imagine a young Sinéad O’Connor, with more hair and eyes just as glassy – helps her blend in, for now at least. Give it a couple of months and she might find it more difficult to drink hot lemon water in diners unnoticed – she’s about to grace screens across the world as the dykey, computer hacker anti-heroine Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher’s version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

“I’m really disconnecting myself,” says Mara, who is avoiding thinking about how her life will change once the trilogy of movies comes out. “I’m in denial. I’m not preparing at all for it.”

Playing Salander would have been a big responsibility for any actress, let alone one who was pretty much unknown before this. You might remember Mara from the opening scene in 2010’s The Social Network, where she appears for a few minutes looking totally different, all chatty, feminine and pretty with long hair. Now she has transformed into the coolest Hollywood weirdo since Edward Scissorhands, after beating out actresses including Scarlett Johansson, Natalie Portman and Jennifer Lawrence for the role.

If you’re not familiar with the books, or with the Swedish movie adaptations, here’s a primer. In a world of airbrushed, watered-down femininity, Lisbeth Salander represents modern womankind’s most intriguing rebel, an androgyne who loves women and men, an outcast with no need for social acceptance. Do not try to categorise Salander – is she gay? Is she straight? Is she goth? Is she punk? She’s none of these things. She’s indefinable. She’s Lisbeth. She’s just weird.

“She is definitely not ‘goth’,” says Mara. Her voice is deep for her small frame – she’s only 5’3”. “We don’t like to use that word when describing her. Her whole thing is that she is not part of any group. To be goth or punk means you are part of subculture and a group of people – she doesn’t want to be perceived by anyone as anything. She wants to be invisible, and that’s why she dresses the way she does. To keep people away.”

Rooney Mara as Salander – it’s the kind of role that defines an actor or actress. In the way that Christopher Reeves is forever Superman, Harrison Ford is forever Indiana Jones and Kristen Stewart will forever be Bella, Mara will forever be Lisbeth Salander, whether she likes it or not.

“The road is littered with people who have been lucky enough to play characters that the public identifies with them for many, many years,” says director David Fincher. “The best example I think is Vivien Leigh… you can’t really give a performance much better than Blanche DuBois, yet she’s still Scarlett O’Hara. That’s a tricky thing to explain to a 25-year-old. In the same way that The Social Network made it hard for people to see Rooney as Lisbeth, Lisbeth is going to make it hard for people to see her as anyone else.”

Born Patricia Mara into a well-to-do Irish Catholic household in Bedford, New York, Mara grew up one of four children in a prominent American football family. The perception in the US media is that she comes from an extremely privileged background, but she refuses to be branded a trust fund baby. “I grew up in a little cul de sac,” she says. “My dad is one of 11 children and I am one of 40 grandchildren. I didn’t grow up poor by any means, but I didn’t grow up in some crazy dynasty.”

When she started acting in 2005 she took her mother’s maiden name as her first name. She was still a student when she landed her first lead role in a film (Tanner Hall). The following year she starred in the widely-panned A Nightmare on Elm Street, then, in August, landed the role of Lisbeth Salander. Going from B-movie horror to the most hotly-anticipated Hollywood trilogy of the year, in a matter of months? To say Rooney Mara came out of the blue is an understatement – so where, exactly, did her talent come from?

She had taken “silly little acting classes” as a kid, and did “a little bit of theatre in high school, but just fun.” She and her sister Kate fell in love with the stage when they were little girls, going to see Broadway musicals with their mother. “Rent, Miss Saigon and Les Misérables – I saw that one six times. I know the whole thing by heart, but I can’t really sing, so don’t ask me.” While her sister decided to move to LA to focus on her acting career, Rooney went to university to study psychology, international social policy and non-profits, while working on films and TV throughout. “I always wanted to act. I just didn’t want to go to school and learn to act. I wanted to go to school to learn other stuff.” In 2007 she took the plunge and moved to LA herself, by which point her big sis was already a bona fide starlet (she played Heath Ledger’s daughter in Brokeback Mountain). “Kate had been an actress for so long, working since she was 12, so it was beyond helpful to have her around,” says Mara. “I can’t imagine having moved here without her being here – it’s hard enough being an actress starting out in LA, let alone doing it by yourself.”

Being Salander, however, is a journey she’s taking all on her own. It’s a responsibility only the bravest of actors would have taken on, which makes it all the more remarkable that Fincher went against the feelings of almost everyone in the business, his studio included, to select the little-known Mara for the part. Maybe he saw something of Salander inside her? “Well, I was a pretty dark person to begin with,” says Mara. “I have always been more drawn to darkness, and I think Lisbeth is very dark.” She pauses to elaborate. “I mean, she has a lot of pain but she’s not someone who is carrying around a hurt. This is what David has always said to me. There are no wounds left. She’s all scar tissue.”

Mara met David Fincher on The Social Network, where she was on set for just four days. “She’s naturally shy and very feline,” says Fincher of Mara. “She susses things out and stays in the corner and watches everybody until the time comes for her to do what it is she needs to do.” So Fincher was able to recognise her suitability for Dragon Tattoo from that short space of time? “Oh no, I don’t think so,” she says. “I barely knew David from that shoot. I think actually he was kind of hesitant until he saw me audition. After that, he knew he wanted me. He was adamant.”

To play Salander, Mara had to radically alter her appearance, and agree to a laundry list of requirements – she would have to become a smoker, be naked, take part in a horrific rape scene, move to Sweden, and learn to ride a motorcycle. The only thing that fazed her was the motorcycle. “I was like, ‘There is no fucking way I am learning to ride a motorcycle’,” says Mara. “It seems so dangerous and scary to me.”

Five days after she got the part she moved to Sweden, where she lived for four months. “The winters are brutal there,” she says. “It’s pitch black from 3.30pm, and once the snow is on the ground it’s there until spring.

The change of environment helped Mara slip into Salamander’s character . She had her eyebrows bleached (they have grown back nicely since then – “they’ve had a year to grow wild”). She had her nipple and her eyebrows pierced, as well as “a bunch of ear stuff”. And she got to dress like an Emo boy. “It was awesome; I loved it. It is so much easier to roll out of bed and just put on whatever pants are there.” For the role she also got computer hacker training – “not as much as I would have liked” – and learned how to take apart a computer and put it back together. These things appealed to her inner geek – Mara describes herself as a natural born loner, who loves nothing more than sitting alone in her bedroom and Googling stuff. “Yeah, I’m weird. But, like, everyone’s weird though, right? And yeah, a lot of things about my life are going to change, but I’m not at all worried… because I’m still going to be up alone in my room Googling stuff, whatever happens.”