There have been few occasions when a casting decision has been as closely scrutinized as the choice to hire Rooney Mara for the role of Lisbeth Salander in the film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The novel’s compelling anti-heroine, an androgynous punk computer hacker, helped push Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy to sales of more than 65 million copies worldwide. And a lot of actresses – including Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson and Jennifer Lawrence (an Oscar-nominee, for Winter’s Bone) – were after the part.
Many fans of the book were dubious: An early, bare-breasted poster of the star was criticized for showing a Lisbeth that looked vulnerable and sexualized. Champions of the Swedish film adaptations also compared her unfavorably to their brooding lead, Noomi Rapace. When Vogue put the gamine Mara on its cover, the accompanying article made her sound like a schoolgirl in thrall to her director, David Fincher, in a relationship “charged with the electric current of a mentor-protégé crush.”
That’s a very different impression from the assured young woman with an educated East Coast accent speaking over the phone from Los Angeles. Mara seems to be sitting pretty calmly on the cusp of a life-changing wave of publicity, and it soon becomes clear that the 26-year-old is no typical ingénue. Nor is there anything breathless about the way she speaks of her director, who first cast her in a small part as a preppie college girl in his film The Social Network.
“He’s always the smartest guy in the room,” she says, “but there were definitely moments when we disagreed over choices. As well as usually being right, he’s really collaborative, and makes you feel incredibly safe as an actor.”
The simple truth is that Mara is considerably more worldly than your average ingénue. Raised in the wealthy New York satellite town of Bedford in Westchester Country, she comes from two professional sports dynasties: Her great-grandfather on one side is New York Giants’ founder Tim Mara; on the other it’s Art Rooney, founder of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
While taking her independent-studies program at New York University, she founded a charity for AIDS orphans, Faces of Kibera, raising money partly by auctioning off football memorabilia. It isn’t something she makes a fuss about: “It’s very helpful to an actor to get outside your comfort zone, to make sure quote-unquote ‘real life’ informs what you do.”
Following her older sister Kate Mara ( We Are Marshall, 127 Hours), Rooney first attended auditions at 19, landing roles on Law & Order (as a teen who hates fat people, because she was once overweight herself) and ER, as well as parts in such indie films as Youth in Revolt and The Winning Season. But it wasn’t until last year that Mara got her first lead role, in a remake of the eighties horror film A Nightmare on Elm Street – which, it turns out, almost made her quit the business. “All I can say is that it wasn’t a good experience,” she says, “and I thought that if this is what acting is like, I don’t really want to spend my time doing it.”
Fortunately, she had another role that same year: as Erica Albright, the girl who dumps Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) in the first five minutes of The Social Network. Fincher told Vogue: “I remember the feeling that I needed a foil for Jesse and his intense inability to see other people. I needed somebody about whom the audience could go, ‘Dude! She’s right there!’ ”
On a hunch, he also invited Mara to audition for the starring role in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. She hadn’t read the book – although her mother had previously told her she’d be perfect for the part. “She reads a lot of books and always tells me the same thing, so I didn’t pay much attention,” says Mara, dryly. “I read the three books in a week. I’m honestly not sure how I would have judged them if I hadn’t already been thinking of them as David Fincher movies, but I could tell this was a great character.”
Rooney auditioned repeatedly for the next two and a half months. Fincher shot footage of her in character on the Los Angeles subway system. He told her to go out and get drunk before a screen test, to convince the studio she had the grit for the role.