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Dark Star

The role of a steely Scandi avenger, which Mara would subsequently pursue and win, didn’t seem like an obvious match for the actor, given her most high-profile screen appearance up to that point was getting dumped by Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. But this friend had known her since she was two and knew her nature. Mara is tenacious. Always targeting the tricky and challenging.

Amid her upcoming releases this year, A Ghost Story is a lo-fi lament in which co-star Casey Affleck spends most of the film with a sheet over his head — and Mara eats an entire pie in a single take that lasts for more than five, unforgiving minutes, trying to digest her grief.

Mary Magdalene sees her reunite with Lion director Garth Davis, smashing the conventional view of one of Jesus’ closest friends. But the focus of discussion today is Una, a profoundly troubling story of child abuse and its aftermath. Mara rarely does anything easy.

In this adaptation of David Harrower’s play Blackbird (directed by theatre veteran but first-time filmmaker Benedict Andrews), the title character turns up at a factory run by Ray (Ben Mendelsohn), trying to reconnect with the man who went to prison for sexually abusing her when she was 13. He has a new life, while she is stumbling through hers, unable to recover. Their reunion is complicated, difficult, upsetting. Una is a film that gets under the skin.

I met Mara for the first time in 2010, having a drink with Dragon Tattoo director David Fincher at a Soho hotel. Back then she was initially a little quiet, perhaps wary of my being a journalist, until it became clear we were off the record. During a formal interview on the Dragon Tattoo set she was thoughtful and honest, if a little tentative. Seven years later she’s more confident — her answers are more concise, more direct — but still inquisitive and considered. She may be quicksilver on screen; off screen she’s fundamentally the same. And not as scary as she is so often portrayed to be.

The last few years, from the outside, feel like a dizzying ascent. How’s it felt from the inside?
Just like life. I mean, it’s been how many years now?

Six since Dragon Tattoo’s release.
In a lot of ways it feels much longer than that. And then it also just feels like yesterday. I’ve worked a lot in that time. I’ve also probably grown up quite a bit. [I’m] 32 now.

It’s all downhill from here.
Not quite yet. Six more years! I’ve been so lucky with the people I’ve been able to work with, but a lot of that’s also because of the choices I’ve made and things that I didn’t do. It could have gone a number of different ways. It still could.

There could have been big pay cheques in massive movies, but the experience might not have been that enjoyable.
I’m all about the experience.

Would you make a film knowing it would be a masterpiece but would be hard to make?
Yeah, because there’s something to be said about having an awful experience. You learn so much about yourself when you have a challenging experience. But I guess it depends in what kind of way it would be a bad experience. There are certain things I don’t want to compromise on. But I’m not against suffering for your art!

Una is… tough. How did it first come to you?
Una was something I saw [as the play Blackbird] in 2006 or 2007, whenever it first was in New York. My mom dragged me to it. I didn’t know what it was about and I was just blown away. And I’ve been kind of obsessed with it ever since. I was working on Carol and me and Cate [Blanchett] were talking about theatre and I was like, “Oh, I’m dying to do Blackbird.” And she was like, “Oh my God, my friend Benedict [Andrews] is directing it and he’s actually desperate to meet you for it.” I got in touch with him through my agents. I thought he was doing a play, but he was making the movie, and we did it a year later.

It’s fortunate how it worked out with the connection between Benedict and Cate…
Yeah, but even if that hadn’t happened, I would have met with him because I wanted to do it so badly. Of course, the fact Cate had worked with him and really respected and liked him gave me that much more confidence about him, but I probably would have done it regardless. I’ve worked with a lot of first-time directors. That doesn’t scare me so much.

You haven’t seen the film yet. Is that a conscious choice or just the way it’s worked out?
Last year, in Telluride [Colorado, at the film festival], was where I could have seen it. And I was going through a lot personally and was right about to do Mary Magdalene. So I just didn’t wanna see it before then, because if I hated it — like, thought I was crap in it — I didn’t want it in my head.

It’s a profoundly upsetting film. How did it affect you during filming?
It was a really intense shoot. Not a lot of time. Had so much to do every day, and so much dialogue. So yeah, I was wrecked. It was an all-encompassing experience, but one of my best experiences. Ben was just amazing and we really were such a team. I felt so safe with him. We really looked out for each other. And most of the movie is just us. Anytime anyone else had to come in, other actors, we didn’t want anyone penetrating our bubble — which would have been very much the way [our characters] would have been in life.

What was it about the story on stage that made you go after it?
I really don’t know. I was so conflicted when I saw it, because it’s obviously about this horrific thing that happens, but there’s this tiny little part of you — maybe it’s just me, ’cause I’m like a twisted romantic — that kind of wanted them to be together. Not when she was a child, but in the present moment. And you feel so weird about that. I loved that it was so complex. There were so many grey areas and you just didn’t know what to think.

You don’t hate him, but you feel sorry for her… It’s not black-and-white.
Yeah, because there’s also parts where you’re like, “This bitch is crazy!” Especially in the play: when she first comes in, you don’t know what’s happened. You think she’s a crazy ex-girlfriend. At least, I did when I saw it. You think like, “Oh, they’re exes and she’s mad,” and you don’t realise it was when she was a child. And then that changes everything.

Do you tend to do a lot of research for roles?
It depends. For this I didn’t have to. I already knew a lot about it.

You’ve played an abuse survivor before.
You’re referring to Lisbeth? That’s very different. David [Fincher] always used to describe Lisbeth by saying, “She’s all scar tissue.” And Una is very different in that she’s still an open wound.

What do you think governs your choices?
It’s really just a feeling. I mean, I’m very filmmaker-driven. The director to me is so vital. I’ve done things where I’m not super drawn to the part, but I really wanna work with the director. So it’s just different. Usually it’s just a feeling I have when I read something.

You said in one interview, “I feel like an artist without an art form”…
Yeah, I do feel like that. Oh, but I hate it when actors call themselves artists! I don’t like calling myself that. But as an actor you are so beholden to the people making it. You don’t really have control over it.

You can’t necessarily control the stories, but you can control the choice of subject — whether it’s grief with A Ghost Story, or family with Lion [where Mara’s character encourages Dev Patel’s Indian-australian adoptee to find his birth mother]…
That’s how I felt about Lion. I mean, I wasn’t like, “Oh my God, I have to play the supportive girlfriend.” But I was like, “This is a beautiful story that should be out in the world.” There’s so few movies where it’s a story that makes you feel like that: hopeful and good about humanity. On top of that, I spoke to Garth [Davis] and just had a feeling that I wanted to work with him. But it’s different for everything. With A Ghost Story, I thought the script was beautiful. David [Lowery] is such a good writer. And it just sounded like a lot of fun, making something with your friends that no-one else really knows about.

Was it a secret shoot, then?
Yeah. He emailed me: “I’m doing this thing. No-one knows about it, not even my agent. I just wanna make something again.” It was really fun, five to six days of shooting for me. Such a small crew. So unofficial. And that pie scene was really…

You must have thought, “I get to eat pie!”
No, I hate pie! I just thought that was such an interesting display of grief, that scene.

You worked with Garth again on Mary Magdalene — how did that come about?
We were talking about doing this other thing I had been developing for a while, then he emailed me: “How do you feel about Mary Magdalene?” And I was like, “Oh, fuck.” I said, “Garth, don’t make me do this.”

Your family is Catholic, right?
Uh-huh. And I really did not want to make a religious film at all. I was really hesitant. But I knew I was gonna do it. I was pissed off at him. Like, “Fuck you, don’t make me do this!”

Does the film focus on her relationship with Jesus?
[It takes place] just before she meets Jesus to a little bit after his death. But it’s her story. Most people think she was a prostitute. That’s what I thought. Not true at all. Not even slightly true. And I was fascinated by that. I was like, “This is shocking, that everyone thinks that.” She was his first female disciple. She was chosen by him to be witness to his death. And [yet] she’s known as a prostitute and all those other guys have churches all over the world in their name.

It’s subject matter that some actors would avoid, but you didn’t. Do you think, “That seems dangerous. I’m going to go after that”?
Yeah. I’m a contrarian person. I like to stir the pot a little bit.

You’ve said before that as a teenager people thought you were stuck-up, because you were reserved. Did you always have a strong sense of who you were?
I think I’ve always been very self-possessed, yes, but when I was younger I think I was afraid of it. I was more aware of what other people thought of me. I think I was also pretty aware that I was different than a lot of the other kids and even adults I was surrounded by. I grew up Irish-catholic, in a more conservative town. I was just always kind of a little different. Or at least, I felt that way. Maybe I wasn’t.

Maybe everyone thinks they’re special…
I don’t think it’s that I thought I was special. I always felt a little bit like an alien. I’m sure people now think… I don’t know what the word is. What’s the word now? That I’m like kind of icy or a little cold? I think people are a little scared of me sometimes.

Profile pieces often say you seem aloof.
When I hear that I’m like, “Oh my God, but I’m the one who’s scared!” Part of me wants to try and make other people not feel that way, but then part of me is also like, “So what if people don’t understand me?” There’s a lot of great people in history who were misunderstood. I’m not saying I’m one of them, but I don’t really know that it’s my job to be understood.

Is there a film of yours that’s particularly unappreciated? Apart from, obviously, Urban Legends: Bloody Mary…
[Laughs] Oh my God! That’s a good question. I don’t know. I guess we’ll see. I mean, I haven’t seen Una yet, but I was there for the experience. It hasn’t come out yet, so I don’t know what the reception will be. But I think that’s a movie that deserves to be seen.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
Kind of going back to what we were talking about [in terms of] being misunderstood. It was probably advice that somebody gave me about that. They basically said, “Being liked is the booby prize of life.” Like, that’s not what it’s about. That’s not what’s important. I think that’s a hard pill for people to swallow, ’cause most people’s inclination is to want to be liked and want to be understood. Everyone wants to be liked, but… Fincher doesn’t care about being liked. I’d like to be a little bit more like that.

Next time we interview you, your first words need to be, “Fuck you!”
I hope so!