It’s practically daybreak in Los Angeles when Rooney Mara answers my call. Known for being reserved, pensive and wildly intelligent, she’s the celebrated actress who politely refuses to follow the Hollywood rule book. Her red carpet appearances are rare and brief, the interviews she gives barely divulge anything personal, and in the age of social media being both a marketing tool and a way of sharing your daily life with adoring fans (there are lots), her unconventional silence on that front feels refreshing. Rooney Mara might be in love with making movies, but she doesn’t seem to be too fussed about the fame.
The secluded setting of her latest film, The Discovery, would seem like the perfect environment for a media-shy actress with a psychology degree to retreat to: a grey, mist-shrouded island off of the American coast; home to a respected scientist who has proven the impossible: the afterlife exists.
As the mysterious answer to the question ‘What happens when we die?’ becomes clearer, a widespread suicide epidemic unfolds. As a result, it forces Will, the scientist’s son, to question and confront the moral implications of his father’s revolutionary work.
We meet Isla – Mara’s character – almost a year after the monumental announcement. She’s trapped and defined by the strange discovery; a sardonic, well-humoured but emotionally wrought woman. Bonded by their fractured family histories, she and Will find solace in each other, creating an existential love tale that pays glimmers of homage to the work of Charlie Kaufman.
Mara has been involved in the film since its fruition thanks to another Charlie: Charlie McDowell, the film’s director and co-writer who also happens to be her long-term partner. McDowell, obviously aware of Mara’s brilliant knack for shaping characters, asked her to play a part in crafting Isla. “They had already started writing the character,” she tells me, as if to clarify that she’s not claiming any creative responsibilities out with her usual acting remit. “I just gave them a few examples of what [qualities] I thought she should have, or the things that I wanted to try.” So what was she looking to explore with Isla’s character? “I don’t want to say what those things are,” she responds, swiftly and with a little reticence, “because I don’t know if I [achieved] that!”
In 2013’s Side Effects, she played a woman who murders her husband after being prescribed a dangerous, experimental drug. A year later, she would play a supporting role in Spike Jonze’s Her as the ex-wife of a lonely writer who falls in love with a hyper-intelligent operating system. “Science fiction has always intrigued people,” she tells me, when I ask her about her relationship with these kinds of stories. “It’s always scared and fascinated [them], not just today but for decades.”
And what aspect does that element of love in such an obscure environment play? She pauses for a second, perhaps a little unsure. “I don’t know if it does,” she admits. “I think you can throw a love story into any situation and people will connect with it.”
During our brief conversation, a few of my questions are met with honest responses of “I’m not sure” or “I don’t think so”. Not once does Mara break into a pre-prepared spiel about her character and the reasons she wanted to get involved in the film. It’s a rare response from an actress that suggests a few things: not only that her personal life rarely seeps into her own work (and that she’s not overly willing to compromise on that), but that she may make films for reasons a little deeper than the ones she’d like to share with journalists.
It’s difficult to make a film about mental health that approaches the issue with equal measures of cinematic gusto and deep respect. The Discovery, however, manages to hit all of the right notes. It forms an story about senseless influence and self-destruction with relatable, finely crafted characters like Isla at its core.
I wondered if that respectful treatment of mental illness was something Mara considers when scripts like this land on her lap. “I guess so, but I didn’t really think of that,” she responds. “It’s just a character, and we’re not trying to make a statement about mental health.” Instead, she says, she was satisfied with “[playing] a character that’s truthful.”
The Discovery is the first film Rooney has starred in that will debut on Netflix, automatically reaching the kind of crowd that a film of this budget would never usually grab in theatres. As an actress used to playing subdued roles in niche, art house films, I wondered what she thought of the medium’s ongoing progression to the accessible small screen. “It’s exciting that a lot more people will get to see it,” she says. “I definitely consume a lot of my entertainment through Netflix. I use [it] all the time and like being able to watch things comfortably in my own home.”
“I have nostalgia for the way that people [used to] watch movies, though,” she adds, suggesting that she’s not quite ready to become a full convert quite yet, claiming that she still loves the romance of the original format. “There’s still something special about watching a movie in a theatre with an audience. It’s an experience.”
At this point of the conversation, I apologise to Rooney for delving into such grim subject matters – but would be hard to ignore the common theme of mortality that runs through the two films of hers that have debuted this year. Both The Discovery and her next feature, David Lowery’s muted, paranormal drama A Ghost Story, explore the different ways in which human beings contemplate life after death. “I didn’t really think of those two movies of having any similarities,” she says, claiming that it was only when the films played to audiences that the commonality became clearer. “Perhaps, subconsciously, there’s something about [mortality]; something that I was wanting to explore.” She thinks for a second, “… or maybe it’s because I’m getting older!”
There was a two month gap between the shooting of The Discovery and A Ghost Story, but even then, the experience of tackling such heavy issues would surely carry some sort of emotional burden. “You can be shooting a film that’s really dark and heavy and you don’t necessarily have to be in that headspace,” she says. “It all depends on the film, the cast and crew or the director. [It can depend on] where you’re shooting or where you are in your life, too.” Perhaps working alongside Jason Segel, an actor known for his comedic turns in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and How I Met Your Mother, would have made the experience lighter, I ask. “Yeah – it was such a great experience working with him,” she says, her smile audible through the phone line. “He’s such a nice guy and so hard-working.”
Before she goes, I ask Mara if she, like Isla, had ever pondered the concept of the afterlife. “I mean yeah, of course,” she says with a ‘matter-of-fact’ tone to her voice. “There’s probably not a person on the planet who hasn’t.”
And if Rooney Mara could see what comes next, would she? For the first time, you can hear her long contemplation. “That’s an interesting question. I don’t know what kind of ramifications that would have,” she admits. “But I think it would be pretty hard to pass that up!”