Rooney Mara is not known for giving off the warmest of first impressions. Standoffish, aloof, icy, remote, guarded, distant, opaque, steely, impenetrable, unreadable: such tend to be the words used by journalists to describe their encounters with the actress, a less than inviting list of adjectives that I decide to lob at her the moment we meet in Manhattan. I figure my little ignoble stunt will put Mara on the defensive, stir up some deep-seated insecurities, maybe even provoke a flash of anger, all in the name of exposing some new, hidden dimension of the actress to the world.
“Yeah,” Mara says when I finish. “I kind of have a bad reputation, don’t I?”
Her tone is so unruffled that she may as well be remarking on the weather in a city she doesn’t care to visit. And from there? Silence. Mara fixes me with the same unblinking, glacier-eyed stare she deploys so penetratingly on screen — most notably in her breakout role, as the cyberpunk Lisbeth Salander, in David Fincher’s 2011 adaptation of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” Finally, sensing victory in my discomfort, a sly grin springs up on Mara’s elfin, alabaster face.
“Isn’t mystique and the unknown,” she asks, “part of what keeps you drawn to someone?”
Well, yes. Then again, in our confessional age the desire to conceal has been largely eclipsed by the urge to reveal. Today, the sort of actors who once complained about the tabloids now take to Twitter and Instagram to produce their own self-centric versions, carefully curating their personas, forever setting the record straight, always ensuring that we are fed a steady and quasi-intimate diet of everything from their eating habits to handbag preferences to what they look like (gasp!) without makeup. Mara, in this landscape, represents a disarming and refreshing outlier: she may not win people over in the way of Jennifer Lawrence, who never fails to come across as an irrepressible dervish of Kentucky Fried Fun, but she also doesn’t risk exhausting us with the robotic eagerness to please of an Anne Hathaway. Should I or anyone else choose to reinforce the chilly stereotypes of Mara already laid out for public consumption — well, go right ahead, is her attitude, one she began honing long before she became famous. “In high school, people thought I was stuck-up because I didn’t talk to anyone,” she says of growing up in Bedford, N.Y., a bucolic suburb of the city. “It was just because I was shy and scared, but I think because I’m super-self-possessed that it doesn’t come across as scared so much as stuck-up. I would hear what people thought and be like, ‘No! I’m actually nice!’ ” She laughs, rolls her eyes. “But now people can think whatever they want.”
Indeed, in person Mara is quite friendly, punctuating many sentences with laughter and exuding an eager curiosity about subjects ranging from Philip Roth’s novels to her newfound addiction of binge watching the Swedish pop star Robyn’s latest music video. “She doesn’t take any interactions for granted, and she won’t hide it if something isn’t worth her time,” Fincher says. “But once you get to know her you realize she’s a playful girl, very funny, with a biting wit.” True, yet Mara seems to prefer that you don’t know this about her, recognizing that so long as people get her wrong it means that, as an actress, she is doing something right: remaining a slate so blank that just about any idea can be convincingly projected onto her. Her much-documented transformation for “Dragon Tattoo” (the motorcycle riding! the pierced nipple!) justly earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination, and in the wake of that success Mara spent the better part of last year shooting four films back to back, a dizzying run during which she got to showcase her chameleon-like ability to mold herself into a variety of disparate characters while collaborating with a fantasy list of directors. First there was “Side Effects,” Steven Soderbergh’s Hitchcockian thriller about the pharmaceutical industry, in which Mara turned in a nuanced performance as the manipulative, pseudo-depressive wife of a fallen banker. Right after that wrapped she made her way to the Los Angeles set of “Her,” Spike Jonze’s take on sci-fi scheduled to come out in November, in which she portrays the ex-wife of a writer who falls in love with his computer’s operating system. Then she was off to shoot two films in Texas: the just-released “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” by the newcomer David Lowery, and Terrence Malick’s still-untitled meditation on love and obsession set against the backdrop of Austin’s music scene.
Even before she had a career, Mara, who keeps a secret list of characters she’d like to play and people she hopes to work with, had a precociously clear idea of how she wanted to be seen in the industry. She became interested in acting at a young age, when her mother took her and her sister, Kate, to Broadway musicals and introduced the two to classic movies. “My sister started acting when she was young,” Mara says of the elder Kate, who’s currently starring in the Netflix political thriller “House of Cards.” “But I just knew I didn’t want to be a child actor. I knew I wanted to go to school and wanted to start when I was older, so I would be taken seriously.” The topic of her family, however, is one that retriggers Mara’s desire to keep certain facets of her life hidden behind veils. “I hate it when people ask me about my family — my football family,” Mara says of the clan known in sports circles as the founding and current owners of the Pittsburgh Steelers (on her mother’s side) and the New York Giants (on her father’s), an N.F.L. legacy from which she is eager to extricate herself. “It has no relevance to acting.”
Mara’s latest decision — to stop working for a while when she is in her prime of what can be a maddeningly narrow window for women in film — is further evidence of how the 28-year-old actress values the idea of staying shrouded in a bit of mystery. “I haven’t worked since last Thanksgiving and I have no plans on working anytime soon,” she tells me. “After a movie I always feel a little lost. While you’re doing it you feel like you’re having some sort of revelation, like it’s real, and then its over and you’re like, ‘That was not real.’ ” Mara acknowledges that this hiatus is something of a gamble but to talk to those close to her is to learn that her ambition is tempered by her instincts toward self-preservation. “She doesn’t operate from a place of fear,” Jonze says. “She’s looking at the whole picture, and wants to figure out how to live her life.”
These days that means leaving Los Angeles to spend time in New York. Talking about the possibilities of a summer spent unemployed, Mara becomes downright giddy, far from the frosty creature she’s typically portrayed as. “What’s something I could learn? What’s a new skill I could acquire?” she wonders aloud, before launching into a to-do list of achievements she hopes to rack up by summer’s end: learning a new language, probably French or Spanish; getting a sewing machine and teaching herself how to quilt; maybe dabbling in embroidery; finishing a novel she’s been struggling to get through. But more than anything, she tells me, she has become fixated on the idea of learning ballroom dance. She explains that, like acting, dancing would force her to shed her naturally reticent husk. “I have hidden rhythm — like, I’m a crazy dancer when I’m alone — but I’m a little too shy to let it come out in public.” Mara pauses, and then adds, “But, let me tell you, it’s going to come out.”