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Interview: Rooney Mara on Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

Rooney Mara has a very simple dress code: black or white. Sometimes it’s just black, or all white. She jokes that it makes wardrobe decisions easier first thing in the morning.

Almost every occasion we’ve met, she seems to be indulging her darker taste. The white tends to be premieres and parties. “I try not to wear colour,” she deadpans.

On screen her choices can be just as stark. In her Oscar-nominated role as sociopathic hacker Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher’s version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, she was pale, punked and pierced, vrooming across Sweden on her motorbike like Batman. This month she’s the compelling centre of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints as a much more open-hearted character, who is one half of an outlaw couple whose relationship becomes more morally complex when he takes the rap for her and goes to jail, leaving her to raise their daughter alone.

She read the script just after the release of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, at a point when she had the muscle to make just about anything except a naturalistic low-budget picture about slow-burning love triangles. In the first draft she read, her character was under-developed, but she stuck with the project from then on, because “this was the thing I responded to.”

From such character choices film stars are born, and Mara gets more interesting with every movie. Her emotional range runs from violated to vengeful. She’s not so animated about the interview process, especially when it is part of a day-long conveyor belt of journalists. “I’m slow to warm to people and slow to trust people,” she warns. This is not a protective veneer to cope with the Oscar nomination and Dragon buzz; even at school she was notoriously reserved. Some of her classmates pegged her as stuck up “but I was just shy and scared”. Even those working with her find it difficult to get past her defences. Her Side Effects director Steven Soderbergh says she’s “very private – or whatever the opposite of oversharing is.”

It’s not that Mara isn’t friendly but she has firm ideas about intrusion and boundaries. Last month she became the face of a fragrance campaign, which shows the life of an actress, possibly that of Mara herself. At one point she’s surrounded by a bank of press conference microphones and smiles, and you can’t help feeling that this is a private joke by Fincher, who directed the commercial.

Comfortably minimalist, Mara refines some responses down to “No,” and an apologetic laugh. Extraneous accessories are kept in check too: she wears practically no jewellery, and her face is almost bare of make-up. Her home life is a little more decorated, with a dog called Oscar that she dotes on, and a long-term boyfriend, Charlie McDowell, the son of actors Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen. She probably likes him, too, but any attempts to draw out details go nowhere.

In Saints, however, she is achingly in love with Casey Affleck. They are lovers in a Bonnie and Clyde mode, but once he goes to jail for her crime, Mara’s character becomes the focus of some intricate emotional work. It’s also the first time she has played a mother on screen, at 28. “I saw a lot of scripts about women and children, but it was always ‘the protective mom,’” she says. Finding interesting roles is a struggle even when you are young, hot and with the pick of scripts. “There are many great scripts, but the female roles aren’t that great in a lot of them,” says Mara, who plans to develop material herself in the future.

Where did Rooney Mara spring from? Even the name is only a few years old; until 2008, she was Tricia Rooney, but decided to go by her middle name because she never felt Patricia was a good fit. The way Mara tells it, she had a middle-class upbringing, with fundraising lemonade stalls, theatre trips, and a weekly shop at Costco, not a fancy deli. Yet she was assumed to be rich at school because her family are rooted in two American football teams. Her mother’s side founded the Pittsburgh Steelers, while the Maras founded the New York Giants. “I didn’t love football growing up, and I’m not obsessed with it, but it’s a huge part of my heritage,” she says. And do two teams in one household create any divided loyalty? “I love both teams very much. But my dad works for the Giants, and I live in New York …”

Mara is the third of four children. Her elder brother is in finance, and the younger one has just joined the sports business. Her sister, Kate, has described NFL as ‘the glue that holds our family together,’ but both sisters were drawn to acting rather than athletics. Kate, two years older, recently finished starring in the Netflix series House of Cards, and began acting professionally when she was 12, forging a blockbuster CV that includes Brokeback Mountain.

Her little sister held out much longer. “I always wanted to be an actor, but I was always fighting it,” she admits. “I was always afraid that I might fail.” In the end being in the same business has brought them closer. They talk movie shop, and when Rooney finds a script that she likes, Kate is the first person she calls to discuss it. There is, she says firmly, no sibling rivalry. “We’re so different there’s never been competitiveness between us in work. She is outgoing and fun and I have looked up to her all my life – to the point of annoying her and wanting to be like her. I followed her around and stole her clothes.”

Rooney began acting aged 20 when she was at university in New York. After plucking up the courage to audition for a production of Romeo and Juliet, she was so abashed that she darted for the door as soon as her monologue was over. Her English teacher ran after her. “I had no idea you could even speak,” he told her, when he caught up.

Her earliest professional engagements were television series such as ER and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Later came a couple of bigger roles in Urban Legends and the Nightmare On Elm Street remake, but her real break was the pre-credit opening of The Social Network, when Fincher cast her as the girlfriend who verbally tussles with Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg).

When Fincher invited his friend, Steven Soderbergh, to view a rough cut of Network, Soderbergh was intrigued and minded to hire Mara for his Hitchcockian thriller, Side Effects. Her portrait of a manipulative depressive was immersive, then surprising, and would have been more praised if she hadn’t starred in an even more off-kilter movie the previous year.

Mara says Fincher didn’t want her for Dragon Tattoo. “The work I did in The Social Network made him think that I wasn’t right because this character was the complete opposite,” she recalls. But she eventually beat the likes of Scarlett Johansson, Carey Mulligan and Jennifer Lawrence to the role. Turning up hungover for a reading clinched it, and at last she was able to move on to the business of bleaching her eyebrows, dieting down, motorbike lessons, getting her eyebrow, lip and nipple piercings and moving to Stockholm to get familiar with Scandic touchstones. She found all this far less discombobulating than the Oscar ceremony, when she was nominated for best actress alongside Michelle Williams, Viola Davis, Glenn Close and eventual winner Meryl Streep. “After I left home in my outfit, I didn’t go to the bathroom once, because you can’t. I knew I wouldn’t win but it was still stressful, and after watching it so many times on TV, it just felt surreal.”

Officially, Mara is on a break from work at the moment and frets about becoming overexposed, especially with four films in the pipeline next year. They include Lawless, a Terrence Malick love story opposite Ryan Gosling, Spike Jonze’s sci-fi flick, Her, with Joaquin Phoenix, a BBC film called Brooklyn adapted by Nick Hornby, and Stephen Daldry’s street-children verite, Trash. There is also the possibility of completing the Millennium trilogy with Daniel Craig, although the future of Lisbeth is oddly still up in the air. “I hope that they make the second one but I don’t know. I’m just not sure when.”

Then she offers a rare Rooney smile: “I hope it’s soon though, because I’m not getting any younger.”