We’re in a New York City hotel room and there’s an abstract painting on the wall. It looks almost like a Rorschach test: a black circle with two vertical black lines pressed up against each side of the circle.
Rooney Mara cocks her head towards the painting. “What do you see?” she asks Ben Mendelsohn, sitting to her right on a small sofa.
Mendelsohn, the Emmy-winning Australian actor from Bloodline who also played the villain in last year’s Rogue One, answers her immediately. “It’s a f—ing TIE Fighter,” he says. “Although I did see other paintings in that same style upstairs and they didn’t appear to have any Star Wars leanings.”
“Hmm, ohh,” Mara says to him. “Yeah, I see it too now, but that’s not what I was thinking.”
“Do you see the letter H?” I ask.
“Oh,” she says, “Yeah, I do now, but that’s also not what I was thinking.”
Mara, who’s been twice Oscar-nominated for her internalized, spellbinding performances in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Carol, might see something else in the painting. Likely she does. But in a move not surprising for one of the most enigmatic actresses since the days of Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, she keeps it to herself.
Mara and Mendelsohn’s new movie Una (in theaters now) is something of a Rorschach test as well. Based on the acclaimed play Blackbird by David Harrower, the drama focuses on a raw, soul-bearing confrontation between a 28-year-old woman named Una (Mara) and the man Ray (Mendelsohn) who, 15 years earlier, carried on an illegal sexual relationship with her. The material takes many dark, daring turns as it examines issues of guilt, consent, trust, revenge, and forgiveness.
And neither Mara nor Mendelsohn is unaware of the fact that this is challenging, tough material. As they explained during a conversation with EW, that’s exactly why they were both drawn to do it.
For both of you, what was your first connection to this project?
MARA: I saw the play with Alison Pill and Jeff Daniels back in 2007. I saw a matinée with my mom and I didn’t really have any expectations. And I was shocked and exhilarated and blown away by it.
MENDELSOHN: I read it first as a screenplay. So that’s how I got it. I read it and I thought it was really thrilling and as soon as I finished it, there was a very excited, “Yes, can I please do this?” from me.
The play takes place in real-time and all in one room. The playwright David Harrower wrote the script and he added characters and multiple locations. Rooney, were you okay with that, given how much you loved Blackbird?
MARA: Well, I was the person on the set who was the play purist. I was always like, “Well, in the play they do this so we have to go back to the play.” So it was actually great for me that there were other people around to say, “No, we’re making a movie.” I mean, thank God for them.
Were there any scenes that you wanted to add?
MARA: There were certain things, like the scene at the beginning in the nightclub [where Una has a joyless, anonymous sexual encounter]. That was something that I asked to have included. It seemed important to me because in the play you hear about that, about all the people she’s slept with. None of that was in the script but I thought it was important to know. To know how this all has affected her and her sexuality.
And David Harrower signed off that add?
MENDELSOHN: [Laughs] Oh yeah. David signed off so that the purists among us [nods to Mara] would be pleased.
Did you have a copy of the play physically with you or was the text just baked into your brain.
MARA: I had it with me.
MENDELSOHN: She had both of those things. She had the damn copy with her all the time and she f—ing knew that thing inside and out. Rooney is likely the most significant authority in the world on this play.
MARA: [Laughing] No, of course I’m not. And let me just say that often the play would be there but I wouldn’t be looking at it. Well, there was one day when I brought it out. That was the horrible day in the bathroom.
MENDELSOHN: Oh yeah, that day! I’ve almost blanked that out. That was an awful day, wasn’t it? There were some technical difficulties and it was a very, very hot day and the heat had permeated into the set. A lot was wrong on that one day.
Rooney, is there a Cate Blanchett connection to how this project came together for you?
MARA: When we were shooting Carol, Cate and I were talking about theater. And I brought up Blackbird and was telling her about how I really wanted to do it. And she said, “Oh my God, my friend Benedict [Andrews] is directing it.” I didn’t know she meant a movie. But it turned out that Benedict and I then met up a few months after that. And that was it.
And then how did you think of Ben Mendelsohn to play Ray?
MENDELSOHN: I think they had looked at a couple of possibilities and variations.
MARA: We were looking at much older actors to play Ray. And it just seemed like nobody was exactly right. And then Benedict emailed me and said, “What about Ben Mendelsohn?” And I was like, “Wow, yes!” I’d seen a bunch of things with him, of course, but literally right before I’d gotten that email, I was in Ireland and I’d seen Starred Up.
MENDELSOHN: Oh, seriously? That movie’s the secret weapon for me. That f—ing thing has been better to me than just about anything in my career.
Ben, were you a fan of Rooney’s work?
MENDELSOHN: Are you kidding? I’ve had a big [makes mumbling, drooling sound] for Rooney forever. So as soon as I got aligned with the project’s pedigree, I was in like Flynn, to extend the Irish metaphor. And Rooney and I have a good friend in common.
Who is that?
MENDELSOHN: Yorick van Wageningen. He plays the guardian guy in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
MARA: He’s the one who rapes my character.
MENDELSOHN: And then later is raped back. He’s actually the sweetest guy.
MARA: Oh my God, he’s such a sweetheart. He’s a big beautiful soft baby.
MENDELSOHN: I know him from just sitting around Los Angeles as two actors, waiting to work. So he was at least a connection that Rooney and I had. He was a touchstone for us.
Ben, your character’s reliability comes into question in Una. We don’t know if he’s telling the truth. I’ve heard you say that when you’re playing a character who’s lying, you always play him as if he’s telling the truth.
MENDELSOHN: Yeah, exactly. Look, people, when they are lying, are usually pretty f—ing convincing. If you’re playing a liar, you want to play everything as if it’s true.
MARA: And isn’t that how you tell a lie? By convincing yourself that it’s true? I’m a terrible liar if I have to lie. But if I can make myself believe it, then I will.
MENDELSOHN: There’s a type of lying where you are hoping that the other person is going to see through it, especially when you’re vulnerable. But then there’s that other type, where the shit’s bad and you really need to sell that lie. I think that could be a part of this character I play in Una.
How great is it that Riz Ahmed is in this movie? He plays a work colleague of Ben’s character who also gets dragged into the drama involving Una.
MENDELSOHN: Boy, we got lucky, huh? Could we have gotten him now? We got in close to the ground floor, as you might say in American terms. Oh, man, how lucky were we.
MARA: Definitely. But poor Riz. I mean, it was hard for any actor to come in between the two of us, once we’d created our own little bubble. We shot almost in sequence, so anyone coming in and invading that space, we were just a bit different towards.
Well, what was the working atmosphere like? It’s such heavy material but I would think it’s important for both of you to enjoy a laugh occasionally.
MARA: It’s impossible not to laugh when Ben’s around. He’s hilarious. But I will say there were days where nothing was funny.
The material touches on the links between attraction and trauma. That’s very challenging, to admit that so much of what we’re attracted to is formed by some unhealthy experiences.
MARA: I would say most things. Well, not most. But to me what’s so interesting is that it’s not just black or white or gray — it’s all of them. While I was shooting it, since I was only seeing it from Una’s perspective, the situation was every shade of gray. But for the audience, of course, it’s black and white. It’s abuse, absolutely. And it was more, for one or both of them. To me that’s what’s so fascinating about it.
Have you spoken to the other Unas: Alison Pill played her on stage in 2007, Michelle Williams did the play on Broadway last year, both with Jeff Daniels as Ray.
MARA: I’ve met them but we haven’t had any deep conversations about it.
MENDELSOHN: Yeah, and you probably don’t want to do that, right? When you have your own personal love affair with a character, you don’t want to deconstruct it with someone else who’s had their love affair with the character as well.
But nothing really compares to a movie, in terms of the numbers of people in the audience. So many more people will see the movie than ever saw the play.
MENDELSOHN: Damn straight, mate!
MARA: [Laughing] Well, I mean, that depends. Yes, once its movie theater run is over, you’re absolutely correct. It’s available forever. But in its movie theater life, I don’t always know, at least in this day and age.
What’s been both of your experiences watching the film? Ben, I’ve heard that you really don’t like watching yourself onscreen.
MENDELSOHN: Yeah. Well, no. I’ve seen some stuff more recently and I’ve been a little bit more okay. Look, I’m okay with it, yeah, more or less, maybe, kind of [stuttering]. I’m okay watching myself. I’m okay.
MENDELSOHN: I’m okay. Ish.
MARA: For me, I always watch every film I’ve made at least once, out of respect – for the director, for the experience I had. But it’s never really enjoyable. There’s only one film that I’ve been in which I enjoyed watching.
And that was?
MARA: I’m not going to tell you.
MENDELSOHN: Yeah! ‘Atta girl!