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How Rooney Mara Became One of the Most Exciting Actresses Working Today

It’s the “A Ghost Story” scene critics can’t stop talking about. Still grieving from the loss of her husband, the widow M returns home and consumes an entire vegan chocolate pie in one sitting. David Lowery captures the moment in a nearly four-minute long take, but the stillness of the camera makes it feel like an eternity. It’s up to Rooney Mara to fill the frame with a sense of hopelessness that anyone who’s been through the grieving process can relate to. She does so with the commitment and the sensitive gusto that has defined a majority of her 12 years as an actress.

Mara first began acting as an extra in movies starring her sister, Kate, before landing television supporting roles on shows like “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” “Women’s Murder Club” and “ER.” Now she’s one of the most exciting film stars in the business, with one of the year’s best films in select theaters (read IndieWire’s A review here) and a potential Oscar contender hitting awards season on November 24 (“Mary Magdalene”). Her ascension to becoming an indie film darling has been marked by careful decision-making, and it all started with a shot from Hollywood’s most demanding auteur.

With “A Ghost Story” now playing, it’s become increasingly clear Rooney Mara will never stop surprising when it comes to her performances. Here’s how she made it happen.

A David Fincher Breakout

“The Social Network” was hardly the first movie Rooney Mara made. She started acting in features two years prior with small roles in indie films like James C. Strouse’s “The Winning Season” and Adam Salky’s “Dare,” among others, but it wasn’t until she showed up in the pivotal first scene of David Fincher’s Facebook origin story that she announced herself as a talent to watch.

In a matter of five minutes, Mara made the exhaustion and exasperation of being Mark Zuckerberg’s college girlfriend feel painfully real. She makes the long-suffering Erica Albright a memorable first look at what happens to others when they become the victim of Zuckerberg’s inflated ego, and she left everyone wondering the same thing: “Who is this actress?”

Fincher would allow Mara to answer that question with a star-making turn as Lisbeth Salander in his 2011 adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” It was a casting choice Sony fought hard against. The studio wanted an A-list actress to headline the movie in order to guarantee strong box office returns. While names like Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson floated around in the early days of casting, Fincher was adamant about hiring the mostly-unknown Mara. That Fincher wanted to rest a $90 million studio adaptation of an internationally beloved book series in the hands of Mara was the first indication she’d be sticking around for quite some time. It was a massive sign of confidence on Fincher’s part, and one that Hollywood rarely gives the greenlight to.

“Dragon Tattoo” ended up underperforming at the box office, but it wasn’t because of Mara. The actress earned universal acclaim for her turn as Salander, and she made the rough-edged character feel more wounded and introverted than Noomi Rapace’s interpretation in the Swedish original. The result was a character less intimidating and more hypnotic, a feral-like punk whose code was impossible to try and not crack. Mara proved she’d be willing to commit to whatever is necessary for a role, and she earned her first Oscar nomination for Best Actress because of it.

Pivotal Post-Oscar Nomination Roles

Fincher made her a star, but it was Mara’s choices on what to do after she landed her first Oscar nomination that cemented her legacy. Young actors often ride the success of their breakthrough role to Hollywood stardom.

Margot Robbie spun the acclaim of “The Wolf of Wall Street” into bigger budget star vehicles like “Focus,” “The Legend of Tarzan” and “Suicide Squad.” Alicia Vikander signed up to reboot “Tomb Raider” after her 2015 breakout year. Brie Larson won her Oscar for “Room” in 2016 and signed on for “Kong: Skull Island” and “Captain Marvel.” Lupita Nyong’o followed “12 Years A Slave” by joining the “Star Wars” franchise and will next be seen in “Black Panther.”

Mara is an anomaly to this trend. Instead of parlaying her Oscar-nominated breakthrough into tentpoles, she wisely put her career in the hands of established auteurs like Steven Soderbergh and Spike Jonze. She replaced Blake Lively as the star of “Side Effects,” turning in a performance of such layered duplicity it takes at least two viewings to understand its genius. Jonze, meanwhile, cast Mara in “Her” after Carey Mulligan pulled out over scheduling conflicts. These two roles proved Mara was more interested in collaborating with singular filmmaking voices than achieving a certain kind of mainstream stardom.

Her decision to star in “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” confirmed this sentiment tenfold. Most newly-minted Oscar nominees these days don’t scale all the way back to make an indie from a first-time filmmaker, but Mara is the kind of actress that takes a chance on a director like David Lowery. The movie, a lyrical spin on the Bonnie and Clyde story, flopped at the box office, but it sparked a collaboration among Lowery, Mara and Casey Affleck that would pay off big time with this month’s “A Ghosty Story.” Forming these kinds of filmmaking relationships is key for Mara, as she has also worked with Fincher and Garth Davis (“Lion,” this fall’s “Mary Magdalene”) multiple times.
Settling In For the Long Run

Those three crucial roles following her Oscar nomination have informed almost the entirety of Mara’s decision-making in the years since. She’s one of the most exciting actresses working today because she makes the most exciting choices, both in terms of the roles she takes on and the filmmakers she chooses to work with.

Mara has only gone blockbuster once for the misguided Peter Pan origin story “Pan,” and her role as Tiger Lily was met with a storm of whitewashing controversy. Mara later regretted taking the part, and you can certainly criticize her for taking on a character of Native American descent. But you can’t really bash her for taking an interest in “Pan” in the first place. If Mara was ever going to do a blockbuster, it was probably going to be an Oscar-nominated director’s bizarre reimagining of Peter Pan and not a run-of-the-mill superhero movie. Mara wouldn’t be mistaken for thinking Joe Wright would bring the kind of visionary brushstrokes to studio filmmaking that defined so much of her indie projects. “Pan” was a flop, but on some level it rang true to the projects Mara is most interested in.

Mara hasn’t made a blockbuster since, and that probably has less to do with the bad reaction of “Pan” and more to do with the fact most studio tentpoles don’t have a drop of filmmaking voice in them. She’s remained true to her commitment to auteurs and directorial vision in every career move since. She’s worked with pros like Stephen Daldry (“Trash”), Todd Haynes (“Carol”), Terrence Malick (“Song to Song”), Jim Sheridan (“The Secret Scripture”) and Gus Van Sant (the upcoming “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot”), while continuing to take chances on emerging voices like Evans, Charlie McDowell (“The Discovery”) and Benedict Andrews (“Una”).

Ever since working with David Fincher on “The Social Network,” Mara has let filmmaking vision guide her career to extraordinary highs. She’s managed to remain true to her gut and has refused to play the Hollywood game like many of her contemporaries. Her choices have led her to the thought-provoking “A Ghost Story” and will continue to encourage her to take risks and remain bold. Rooney Mara’s past makes her future beyond exciting, and it’s really no wonder every cinephile is now paying attention.