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Rooney Mara Explains Why ‘Carol’ is Not a Political Film

Nobody can deny that Todd Haynes’ “Carol” is a love story. Based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel “The Price of Salt,” the Palme d’Or-nominated feature has steadily gathered critical steam and awards season buzz since it debuted at Cannes in May, thanks to career-best performances from both Cate Blanchett (as the refined and alluring Carol of the title) and Rooney Mara (who won the Best Actress award at Cannes for her turn as shy shopgirl Therese) that bring their romance fully to life.

“Carol” doesn’t revel in the salacious nature of its plot, instead opting to deliver a story that plays up emotions over sweeping statements. That’s all part of its design, according to Mara, and moreover, it may even be the true source of both its power and charm.

Indiewire recently sat down with Mara to talk about the pressures of an awards campaign, why “Carol” isn’t a political movie and the one thing she gets asked about all the time.

This must be a real marathon for you.

I guess we’ve been talking about the film since May, since that’s when Cannes was, but there’s been breaks in between that time.

How do you keep the emotional momentum going when talking about the film?

Fake it till you make it? [laughs] I’m obviously very proud of the film, so it’s an easy film to talk about, but it definitely gets hard. Obviously, other people are hearing the answers for the first time, but you always feel weird. It’s always challenging to try, but you kind of have to submit to it and just give the same answers to the same questions and just do it.

The awards chatter must also add another level of stress to it.

I can only speak about this experience, but it doesn’t really add a level of stress. There’s been talk about it that has been stressful, but none of those decisions are mine…it’s above my pay grade, and I leave it up to the people whose job it is to talk about that and worry about that. Obviously, that kind of talk is great because it means more people will see the movie at the end of the day. Those kind of awards things can be a great platform for a small movie like this, and it’s a movie I really want people to see.

How is this experience different than from when you were nominated for “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”?

That was very different, because the film came out in December so it was obviously a massive press tour. It was different, but I don’t really know how yet. I had never done a press tour like that so that alone was different.

I spoke to Cate about a month ago, and she talked about how, for her, the film is more about falling in love and that the sexuality and gender issues are very secondary. Is that how you felt?

I think that’s how we all felt. At the core of this film, it’s a love story between two humans. Yes, they are women, but there’s also a lot of other elements working against them besides the fact that they are two women. I don’t think the film is a political film in any way. I don’t think it’s a film that has an agenda or that’s preaching to the audience. I think because of that, it really allows the audience to go into it without any defenses up and they can experience these two people falling in love.

Do you think the film has the power to change the perspective of viewers who aren’t especially progressive when it comes to same-sex relationships?

I think that it has a shot because it’s not a film with a political message. People who aren’t as open-minded or open-hearted aren’t going to feel defensive, because we’re not telling them what’s right or what’s wrong. I think that there’s a chance for people to watch it and to see these people as humans that they can relate to.

There’s so much about Therese that girls that age will be able to relate to and there’s so many things about Carol that women that age will be able to relate to about being a mother, going through divorce. There’s a lot there for people to see a part of themselves in.

Therese is going through a huge romantic change, but she’s also finding herself in terms of her professional passions. That much is still relevant.

It’s really hard coming of age in today’s society, where society wants you to make the decision of what you want to do with your life by the time you’re 16 years old. Most kids don’t know what they want to do. How could they? They haven’t lived in the real world yet.

I think what’s happening with Therese is she’s living the life that society wants her to live. She has this boyfriend who, on paper, seems perfect and it’s all heading in the right direction and she has this group of friends and she has this sort of run-of-the-mill job, and she’s not fulfilled by her life. She feels very lonely. I think it’s difficult for her to understand because on paper she does have the life she’s supposed to, but she’s still not happy.

In terms of your own professional fulfillment, I read a recent interview that said you considered quitting Hollywood early in your career.

When I said that, I was referring not so much to leaving Hollywood, but it was because I didn’t feel fulfilled by the work that I was lucky enough to be getting. I would rather have done something else. If I want to do this, I only want to do stuff I’m inspired by and that fulfills me, and that wasn’t the case for me at that time. I thought, “If I’m not lucky enough to do the things that I really want to do, I’m just going to find something else because I don’t feel happy doing this.”

Now, I’m just so lucky I get to work with the people that I have been working with. I feel really grateful. It’s too good to be true. Most of the stuff I do is smaller. Those are just the things I’m attracted to. I just like to keep changing it up.

Is there anyone currently working in Hollywood who has a career you really admire?

Cate. I think Cate is kind of everybody’s benchmark with everything she does. She does incredible work and always has. Definitely her. There’s a lot of people. Daniel Day-Lewis — he’s a man obviously, but I really admire his work. Marion Cotillard is one of my favorite actresses.

The film looks gorgeous on screen. Did you feel that level of artistry when you were shooting?

Just knowing Todd’s work, I knew it would be. He made this beautiful visual book of what he wanted the film to look like, so I knew very much what he was going for. Ed Lachman, our director of photography, is just brilliant, so I had no doubt that what they were doing together was going to be beautiful. I don’t think I could have imagined just how beautiful. Every image is just extraordinary.

What was in Todd’s visual book? Did he have stills from other movies?

Nope, it was all still photography from the fifties. There was a lot of Ruth Orkin, Saul Leiter, Esther Bubley. A lot of it, other than the Saul Leiter, was by female photographers and there were a lot of images of reflections and looking at people through glass. All of it had a dirtier, grittier quality to it.

The sets in the film are also incredible — the department store where Therese works is particularly impressive.

That was my favorite set, it was so cool. It was beautiful. It was such an amazing set to walk on to. It felt so authentic and the toys and everything in there were all so beautiful. There was so much care that went into everything back then. You go into a toy store now and it does not look like that.

You go into a department store now and it’s just depressing.

Everything breaks, nothing’s meant to last.

Were the toys vintage?

Everything was vintage. Even the display cabinets. Because it was a small budget, they wouldn’t have been able to build any of that, they had to find vintage stuff.

Does that apply to the costumes as well?

All of my costumes were vintage. The costume that I wear later on in the movie in the scene that bookends the film was custom-made, but it was based off of a vintage dress that they had found. They just had it remade. Most of Cate’s clothes were remakes of actual existing pieces. Her clothes were so refined, you wouldn’t have been able to find clothes in that condition. My stuff was allowed to be lived-in, but her stuff was meant to be more preserved and it would have been hard to find that.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about a possible “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” sequel. How can you even worry about that when you’ve got this going on?

I don’t worry, but people ask me about it pretty much every day. We’ll see. They hired a writer and I don’t really know much more than that but as far as I know, I’m doing it and will do it unless somebody tells me otherwise.

Is that the project you get asked about the most?

Yeah, definitely [laughs].