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In conversation with Rooney Mara

Rooney Mara’s sapphic turn as a 1950s department-store clerk who falls in love with an older woman called Carol (played by Cate Blanchett) has all the makings for Oscar glory. Not only is Carol the darling of the film-festival circuit, achieving widespread critical aplomb and winning Mara the Best Actress award at Cannes, but the film also aces the Bechdel test and arrives at a time when discussions about women in film are more passionate than ever. And it’s a role Mara very nearly didn’t take.

“I actually passed on Carol when I was first offered it because I was exhausted from making the The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” she explains when we meet to discuss the film at the Soho Hotel. “It was out of fear of not being good that I turned it down. A year later they came back to me when Todd Haynes was attached to it and I was in a completely different mindset. I re-read it and couldn’t believe that I had passed on it – it felt like something I really wanted to do.”

Based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt, the film has been beautifully and lovingly adapted for the big screen by Haynes, the director responsible for Far From Heaven and I’m Not There. It has drawn comparisons with fellow Cannes Film Festival favourite Blue is the Warmest Colour, which is about the lesbian romance between a French teenager and an art student. Yet while the leading ladies on that project, Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos, have been heavily critical of their director Abdellatif Kechiche’s graphic methods, the opposite is true of the more subtle Carol, with Blanchett and Mara have nothing but praise for Haynes. Mara felt the project was safe in Haynes’ hands.

“Todd is such an incredible storyteller for women,” she says. “He loves and respects women so much and you can really feel that in this work. Carol is very different from any other period love story – it’s not your typical love story or your typical period piece, and that’s all down to Todd.”

The nature of the plot meant that Mara was able to work with predominantly female co-stars (as well as Blanchett, Sarah Paulson also co-stars as Carol’s former lover), with men taking a backseat in this female-centric drama. It was a rare opportunity, and one that the actress relished.

“It’s been years since I’ve worked with women in any real way, so to get to do so many scenes with Cate [Blanchett] and Sarah [Paulson] was really different for me and it was really fun,” she explains. “Cate’s on a different level to most people – I’ve looked up to her since I was 13 or something. I was probably nervous to work with her the whole time, but she’s such a generous actor – she’s so low key and funny – I don’t think people know that about her. She’s got that great Australian wit.”

The film’s warm reception when it premiered at Cannes back in May was not something Mara was prepared for, let alone for winning the Best Actress award.

“The reception at Cannes was better than anything I could have dreamed of,” she says. “The Best Actress award was totally unexpected and I was so shocked by it. My first reaction was that, ‘Oh, I wish it could have been the film, or Todd or Cate…’ I want everyone else to win. But at the same time the film had already won in every way with the way it was received, so I was pleased.”

Yet Mara’s has been a career marked by what she calls unexpected recognition, with her breakthrough role as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo earning her a Best Actress Oscar nomination.

“It was really an honour,” she explains. “It was really nice, because winning awards is something you campaign for, it’s like being a politician, and I really didn’t do that for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – I mean, I did everything I had to for the film coming out, but I really did do the bare minimum, so it was a surprise. It wasn’t something I was expecting. It felt really genuine because of that.”

On the subject of Hollywood’s politics, we ask Mara her thoughts on the gender pay gap, an issue that fellow actress Jennifer Lawrence recently highlighted once again in an open letter for Lena Dunham’s Lenny newsletter.

“I can’t comment on Jennifer’s letter because I haven’t had the chance to read it yet, but I can comment on the gender gap because I experience it on a daily basis,” she states on the day of our interview, which was the day after Lawrence’s letter was published. “On the one hand, actors get paid so much more money than most people, so to complain about it feels really foolish and unfair, but a gender gap is a gender gap, and I’ve been in many a film where the guy is getting paid double what I am, for no real reason. It’s frustrating, but it’s not something I think about too much or complain about too much because I feel lucky to be doing the work and getting paid at all.”

Acting aside, Mara is a firm fixture on best-dressed lists thanks to her unique sense of style and love of designers including Alexander McQueen, Givenchy and Louis Vuitton; yet despite this love of fashion, she’s no fan of the process of walking the red carpet itself.

“I think red carpets are really stupid,” she laughs. “I love clothes and I love fashion as an art form; I’ve got a very specific aesthetic and I love picking the outfits out but I hate having to then wear them and be judged on them in such a harsh way. A red carpet is such a bizarre thing.”