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The girl who plays by her own rules

It is the eternal question with actors: how much luck is involved in a career? If it hadn’t been for the director David Fincher and that crucial opening scene of The Social Network, is it inevitable that Rooney Mara would have ascended to the unique niche she now occupies in Hollywood, collaborating with Ryan Gosling, Steven Soderbergh, Terrence Malick, Casey Affleck, Joaquin Phoenix and Spike Jonze? Was it always the natural order of things for Mara to become the perfect poster girl for an angsty, anxious age?

In her roles as the damaged, alienesque hacker in Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the clinically depressed, medicated young wife in Soderbergh’s recent Side Effects, and even the vulnerable single mother she plays in her new film, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, from the writer-director David Lowery, Mara is conflicted, conflicting and irresistibly watchable, but also understated and underemotive in the best possible sense. Had Fincher not staged his intervention, though, she might still be stuck in cheap horrors and unremarkable indies. She might not even be an actress at all.

“If The Social Network hadn’t happened, I don’t know what path I would have gone on,” muses Mara down a crackling phone line. “I think I would have kept trying to find things I believed in, but I don’t know.”

In Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, she plays Ruth Guthrie, a complicated woman who finds herself lulled by the security and comfort offered by the very same cop (Ben Foster) she shot during a standoff, for which the father of her child (Affleck) took the fall. Lowery’s second feature, set in a moodily shot 1970s Texas, is promising, a lyrical homage to cinema’s own poet laureate, Terrence Malick.

My first encounter with Mara was at the Cannes Film Festival, where she was an eye-snaring presence on the red carpet for the opening-night Gatsby bash in a black-and- white jump suit. The conversation dwelt on whether Lowery’s film is a western (it’s not, but deploys the genre’s tropes to evocative effect). It may be why Mara, her thin frame draped in a chic white blouse and black skirt, her ebony hair pressed compactly to her scalp, appeared less electrified to be answering questions.

Nearly three months later, she is in a perkier, more relaxed mood. Perhaps she just finds it easier relating from afar. Her voice, a husky, low-key monotone, is less deadpan than in Cannes; she’s graciously engaged. On occasion, she even laughs. The first time it happens, I wonder if I’ve misheard down our terrible line — it’s an unexpected but pleasant sound. She is in New York, hanging out, though not enjoying the city’s heatwave at all. “It’s been making me miserable,” she confesses.

One wonders how she will cope in Brazil, where she is about to spend two months shooting Stephen Daldry’s street-children exposé Trash, or how she fared last summer in the fetid troposphere of Louisiana making Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. “For some reason, when I was there, I loved it,” she drawls. “I gave myself over to it.” No question, though, Mara seems better suited to chillier climes, not simply because she has the soft-spoken reticence and chalky pallor of a natural-born Nordic type (despite being of Irish and Italian extraction), or that her signature role to date came playing a Swede, in Sweden.

Prior to that, Mara appeared to spring like Botticelli’s Venus onto Hollywood’s shores as Erica Albright, the brainy college girlfriend who inspires Mark Zuckerberg to launch Facebook after she rejects him. Has a single scene ever had such a huge impact on an actor’s career? Nine pages of clever dialogue fine-tuned to a scorching 5min 22sec sequence: four days’ work for Mara, life changed for ever.

Earlier the same year, Mara was headlining the horror reboot A Nightmare on Elm Street, a thankless scream-queen gig that saw her discussed less than the advancements in Freddy Krueger’s scorched-face prosthetics. Before Nightmare, an experience she admits made her contemplate leaving the business, she had done TV guest spots, a handful of indies and played the lead in an obscure Sundance entry called Tanner Hall, a coming-of-age portrait set in a girls’ boarding school.

Her own life, Mara stresses, wasn’t nearly as rarefied, even though, bizarrely, she comes from a football dynasty: one great-grandfather founded the Pittsburgh Steelers, another the New York Giants. That’s like being related to the founders of both Manchester United and Chelsea. Now 28, she grew up in sedate Bedford, NY, in the seventh-richest county in America, though she describes her family home as ordinary and suburban. She attended the local high school and denied having a trust fund to one interviewer who asked.

It’s her mother, Kathleen, whom she credits with infecting her and her older sister, Kate, with the acting bug. Kathleen took them to Broadway plays and watched old movies with them. The two sisters took “silly little acting classes together”, Rooney recalls. Kate started acting professionally at 12; Rooney held herself back, travelling around South America before enrolling at university to study psychology and international social policy. She graduated from NYU in 2010 and launched a not-for-profit outfit aiding orphans in the Kibera slum of Nairobi. She’s a vegan, too. Her film debut came in the 2005 horror sequel Urban Legends: Bloody Mary, courtesy of sister Kate, one of its leads, who has gone on to play the guerrilla journalist in Netflix’s acclaimed House of Cards. Mara the younger insists there is nothing competitive between the two sisters. “We’re so different,” she says, “so we’ve never gone up for the same things.

It’s never been an issue, it’s always been a comfort.” It’s almost impossible to picture Mara striving to be Miss Popularity in high school. You imagine her always standing alone. “I have always been very self-possessed,” she agrees. When she was three, she told her mother she wanted to dress up as Klara, the crippled girl in Heidi, for Hallowe’en. “I always knew who I was and who I wanted to be — and who I didn’t want to be. Maybe I was too serious as a little girl, but I wanted to be taken seriously. I was never that concerned with being liked; I was always more concerned with being respected. More to the point, I wasn’t going to change who I was to get people to like me.”

Who she was, originally, was Tricia (Rooney is her middle name, her mother’s maiden name), shortened from Patricia, which does not compute and sounds like frilly pink dresses. She always despised Tricia — “As soon as I felt able to, I changed it.” In images early in her career, she’s much more girlie, so credit Fincher for seeing Tattoo’s vengeful, Asperger’s-spectrum Lisbeth in the same actress he cast as Erica Albright. Mara made the lone hacker an oddly lovable, heartbreaking blend of awkwardness, anorexia and androgyny. The question is, did Lisbeth bring out a dimension in her that she wasn’t aware existed?

“I wouldn’t have been able to play the role if I didn’t see that in myself,” she says, “if I didn’t know that was already there.” It could be our muted long-distance connection, but it sounds as if she is treading carefully, as if afraid of being too closely identified with Lisbeth. But that exhilarating breakout turn has granted her the power to defy industry moulds and to bring a palpable sense of otherness, both psychological and physical, to a landscape of unlined, immobile faces and inflated lips.

Fincher has described Mara, who pierced a nipple, bleached her eyebrows and generally ghouled up to play Salander, as “a great weirdo”. Does she accept his observation as both complimentary and valid? “Well, he’s a great weirdo also,” she laughs. “I am a bit of a weirdo, but I think most people are. I don’t think I’m special because of that.” She would relish the chance to inhabit Salander again. But she flinches at the notion that it might not be Fincher directing. A change at the top has been mooted for the second instalment because of the film-maker’s demanding schedule, not to mention Sony’s qualms about his unyielding perfectionism.

“I don’t have a choice,” she sighs, “but I would be completely devastated if it wasn’t David.” Mara clearly worships him, which isn’t surprising, as he has allowed her a CV that surpasses that of every other young American actress. “After working with David, the director just became everything to me,” she declares. “That’s how I’ve been trying to make my choices from there on out, by choosing film-makers I want to get behind and feel safe with.” Mara can now count herself part of Hollywood’s “in” crowd, the network making the most intriguing films: Phoenix and Jonze in the upcoming Her; Gosling and Malick on Lawless. “I owe it to Fincher, because he keeps getting his friends to hire me. I’ve been lucky to work with a lot of amazing men. I’d like to do something with some incredible women next.”

I mention how nice it is to see her smiling a lot in the trailer for Jonze’s upcoming Her. Affleck joked that he only saw Mara smile three times during Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. “That’s not why I took the role,” she deadpans, before adding cryptically: “There were a lot of dark moments on that set that won’t make it into the movie.”

As swiftly and lightly as an eyelash flutter, her mood lightens, however. “Casey is such a little liar. We laughed so much on that set. He only said that because photographers are always screaming at me to smile, and he thinks it’s funny that I don’t want to. But definitely there should be more smiling in my future.”