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The indie queen Rooney Mara on breaking taboos in her new film, Una

It’s one of the creepiest, most unsettling, movies of the year. Yet it doesn’t feature haunted houses, devil dolls or killer clowns. It’s called Una, it stars the twice Oscar-nominated actress Rooney Mara (of Carol and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and it’s about a girl and a guy trapped in a warehouse. They are looking back, far back, on their brief, formative relationship and trying to grasp the essential truth about a liaison that occurred 15 years earlier. There’s just one snag. Back then he was a middle-aged man and she was a 13-year-old girl.

Adapted from the Scottish writer David Harrower’s 2005 stage play Blackbird, about a sex offender meeting his victim in later life, the film is a passion project for Mara who says she has been obsessed by the play since she saw it in 2007. As a complex character, the grown-up Una is a goldmine for an actress, especially one with Mara’s leftfield instincts. She excels at suggesting a slightly alien, discomfited otherness, seen in the seemingly drug-addled femme fatale she plays in Side Effects or the institutionalised teenager in The Secret Scripture.

Yet Una repeatedly bounces between bold storytelling, obvious truth-telling and questions of relative morality. For instance, it intercuts flashbacks of the 13-year-old Una (Ruby Stokes) being groomed by middle-aged Ray (Ben Mendelsohn) with Ray’s passionate contemporary defence of his actions, in which he claims, “I was never one of them, those sick bastards [paedophiles]. You were my neighbour’s daughter. Not a target.”

I tell Mara today, in the library of a London hotel, that the movie’s refusal to come down definitively on Ray and his actions made me feel wildly uncomfortable. “But that’s the great thing about it!” says the 32-year-old, her eyes widening with excitement. “It’s not this black-and-white thing where there’s a villain and a victim. It’s more complex. Was there a connection or is he a sick man? I think that’s Una’s question too. And I think that’s part of what drew me to the play. But also there was this weird, small part of me that kind of wanted them to be together as adults. And when I realised that I was like, ‘Oh my god! This is so f***ed up!’ ”

Mara giggles at that. She is chugging back tea, no milk, and dressed in a black faux biker jacket and black jeans. The wide, green alien eyes are there yet in person, thankfully, she’s far less inscrutable than her screen personae. She dismisses her awards season kudos, for instance, and questions her skills as a performer, saying, “I still don’t think I’m good at it. I certainly don’t think [adopts a ‘cool dude’ voice], ‘I got this, everyone. I’m really good.'”

She talks about the issues in the movie and how victims of sexual abuse are re-victimised after the abuse. (Una says she was ostracised by her community and attacked by Ray’s girlfriend.) Mara says that in general people are often uncomfortable with the idea of sexual abuse victims having sexually active adult lives. When she played the ace Swedish hacker Lisbeth Salander in 2011’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, for instance, she came under fire for the film’s provocative poster, in which she appears topless with a nipple piercing (inspiring the tabloid headline, ‘The Girl with the Pierced Nipple’).

“There was a lot of controversy over that poster,” she says. “The argument was that Lisbeth was sexually abused and so she can’t be shown like that. But, yes, she was abused and raped, but later in her life she was very much in charge of her own sexuality. And that’s a great thing.”

We get sidetracked, briefly, into the Dragon Tattoo franchise (or would-be franchise) and how the director David Fincher had to put Mara through two and half months of auditions to convince a sceptical studio (Columbia) to cast her. “I don’t think they were ever really convinced,” she adds of the role for which she snagged her first Academy Award nomination. “I think something about it just didn’t work for them. I don’t know if it was about me, but it’s been however many years and they still haven’t made the sequel.”

There’s a pause. I tell her that I can’t go on until I get closure on Una. Specifically, on the ambiguity around Ray. To me he’s a paedophile and I worry about the way the movie dances around his relationship with Una. Can we have some unblinking morality on this? “If you’re asking me if what he did was wrong, the answer is yes, of course,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean that he’s an evil person. Do I think it’s possible for people of wildly different ages to have feelings for each other? Yes. But as an adult you don’t let that go anywhere with a 13-year-old. Of course not. But that doesn’t mean he’s evil. I just don’t think the world is that simple. That black and white.”

Mara’s performance in Una, typically, is another barnstormer. She claims to be an inveterate line-cutter, preferring to convey meaning through looks and gestures. Her Side Effects director, Steven Soderbergh, praised her expressive abilities, saying that she had “a very classical, almost silent-movie face”. Indeed, her best performances tend to live in the gaps between dialogue. Think of the climax of Carol, a three-minute shot almost entirely on her face, wordless but determined, as she finds her former lover (Cate Blanchett) in a crowded restaurant. Gong! That’s another Oscar nomination. Not bad for an actress who started working at 19 and had spent her childhood dismissing acting as trivial.

“I wanted to do things that were serious,” she says. “I wanted to be taken seriously.” Context, of course, is everything, and she explains that, at the time, she was watching her big sister Kate Mara (House of Cards) work as a child actor, which she had done since the age of ten. “When she starting doing it professionally I think there was probably a part of me that went [mean-girl voice], ‘I’m not going to do what she’s doing!’ Although, really, I knew it was something that I wanted.

The sisters grew up in upstate New York as part of a wealthy family known as footballing royalty. Mara’s father and his siblings own the New York Giants (said to be worth more than $2 billion), while her mother’s side of the family own the Pittsburgh Steelers (said to be worth roughly $1 billion). Mara claims to hate the whole footballing-royalty thing, rarely discusses it and allegedly shuts down at the mere mention of it. Why? “Because people have this picture in their minds about my childhood that is very different to how it really was,” she says, wincing. “Because, yes, I grew up in a really nice town and there was a lot of affluence there. But I didn’t grow up in a mansion. I grew up in a really, really, nice house, but it wasn’t like we had a driver or staff. I felt like I grew up pretty grounded and aware of the world around me.”

She was introduced to acting by her mother, she says, through regular Broadway visits and a diet of classical cinema. A pivotal difference between Kate and her, she says, is that Kate can sing and she can’t (hence why the young Rooney ruled herself out of traditional school musicals and saw instead a more serious performing path). She says that she owes Fincher “so much” for kick-starting her mainstream career with Dragon Tattoo, which came after some supporting TV roles and a memorable appearance in The Social Network (also a Fincher film) as Erica Albright, the girl who dumps Mark Zuckerberg.

She says that now she’s in the big league she’s interested in the equal-pay debate, even though it is never, apparently, as clear-cut as it seems. “I’ve been on films where I’ve been paid half of what my male co-stars are getting paid, even though we’re doing the same amount of work and we’re at the same level,” she says. “But I’ve also been on films where I’ve gotten double of what my male co-stars have been paid when their part was much bigger. And that was weird. And I did think it was unfair. So it is a huge problem, but with acting it’s often about what your international worth is. It’s not just about male or female. It’s about how powerful you are as a draw.”

In her next movie she is playing the title role of Mary Magdalene for the director of Lion, Garth Davis, opposite Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus. It’s a reimagined Magdalene for a feminist age (prostitution is out, radical reading of the message of Jesus is in). The subject of Phoenix, nonetheless, is complicated. The pair have worked together on three films (she played his ex-girlfriend in Her and will be appearing opposite him in Gus Van Sant’s art biopic Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot). They are also allegedly a romantic item and were photographed canoodling in Cannes this summer (where Phoenix referred to her, in public, as his girlfriend).

Yet when I mention his name in this context, Mara giggles coyly, half clears her throat and announces, still giggling, “I am happy to talk about Joaquin Phoenix as someone I’ve worked with three times now and someone for whom I have great admiration. But I guess I’ve always made a point of not talking about my personal life in that way.” She does add, however, that Phoenix is a big Life of Brian fan, and repeatedly, on Mary Magdalene’s Italian set, would announce, in Jesus costume, quoting Python, “He’s a very naughty boy!”

She finishes by talking about the future, how she can’t imagine herself in a Marvel movie and is trying to take time off. She says, with some conviction, that she just wants to be normal and do normal things. Like? “I don’t know. Go to the post office?” She nods seriously, pauses, then her face cracks and she bursts out laughing. At the very idea, it seems, of Rooney Mara being normal. “I don’t know why I said that,” she says. “I hate going to the post office.”

Una is released on September 1.