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Rooney Mara in Stockholm, Nov. 21, 2011.

Claudio Bresciani / AP

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.

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"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.

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Finally, he called her into his office and started talking to her about actresses whose careers were defined by one role: Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind, Tina Louise in Gilligan's Island. At the end of the discussion, he showed her the iPad where he had written the press release announcing her as the new Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

"Everything he was saying, I'd already been weighing all these things in my mind," says Mara. "I knew it was an amazing opportunity, whatever doubts I had about the downside. What I respected a lot was that he presented it to me as a choice, and wanted me to make the right decision for myself. That was really fair of him."

After that, she says, she entered "a year of living at 100 miles an hour in this little bubble." There were days of experimenting with the character's look, de-prettifying the actress by bleaching her eyebrows, chopping her hair, piercing both her face and body. She trained in skateboarding and kickboxing to help achieve Lisbeth's boyish slouch. A brutal rape scene, shot last February, took 10 days.

Throughout, while filming in both Sweden and Los Angeles (where most of the interiors are set), Mara wore Lisbeth's clothes.

In hindsight, the casting of Rooney seems more savvy than risky. This week, she was nominated for a Golden Globe; early reviews have singled out the intensity of her performance. ("She cuts through scene after scene like a swift, dark blade," wrote The New Yorker's David Denby.)

What did Fincher see in the four days on the set of The Social Network, shooting Mara, as crisp co-ed Albright, that translated into a vision of the actress as a street lizard like Lisbeth? Their intelligence and independence are obvious common ground, but maybe it was just his instinct that, as he put it, "she's a great weirdo."

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So is Mara an outsider who's good at playing an insider? Or is she a privileged insider whose just really good at playing an outsider? She answers without hesitation: "Erica Albright is a lot more foreign to me than Lisbeth Salander is."

Sidebar

Fame, as stars well know, is fickle. Achieving sudden "It" girl or boy status makes for high expectations – which are sometimes just as quickly dashed. Relative newcomer Rooney Mara made a considered choice taking on the role of Lisbeth Salander in the sure-to-be-blockbuster American film adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Here's how a few other instant stars have fared in the spotlight.

Vivien Leigh

No casting call was ever grander or more publicized than that for Gone with the Wind, based on Margaret Mitchell's 1936 novel of the U.S. Civil War. Auditions were held for more than 30 major stars (Tallulah Bankhead, Paulette Goddard, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Jean Arthur and Lucille Ball) and hundreds of unknowns. The role, however, went to a little-known English star, Vivien Leigh. Gone With the Wind was already being filmed – still with no Scarlett cast – when Leigh, on the arm of her boyfriend, Laurence Olivier, met producer David O. Selznick at a party celebrating the film's burning-of-Atlanta scene. Leigh went on to win an Oscar for best actress in 1940, (and would again in 1952, as Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire).

Matt Damon and Ben Affleck

The childhood friends from Boston co-wrote 1997's Good Will Hunting. When they won best original screenplay at the Oscars, they went from nobodies to stars. Surprisingly, though, they never achieved fame again as writers. Damon (Saving Private Ryan, The Bourne Identity) has risen to megastar status. Affleck gave us such doozies as Daredevil and Gigli, before his more recent turn as the respected director of such films as Gone Baby Gone and The Town.

Gretchen Moll

In 1998, Vanity Fair declared the actress the "It girl of the nineties." But her films that year – Woody Allen's Celebrity; and Rounders, with Matt Damon – bombed. Since then, though, she's been praised on Broadway and excelled in Mary Harron's biopic, The Notorious Bettie Page. She's also enjoyed a comeback in the current Martin Scorsese-produced TV series Boardwalk Empire, in which she plays a former prostitute and manipulative mob mother.

Daniel Radcliffe

He was first noticed as a 10-year-old for his part in a BBC adaptation of David Copperfield. Then, J.K. Rowling endorsed the decision to cast him as the boy wizard in the adaptation of her bestselling series – although Radcliffe's parents were reluctant to turn their son into the eternal Harry Potter. While he has done one other movie (December Boys) and stage plays including Equus and How to Succeed in Business, it remains to be seen if Radcliffe will transcend his most famous role.

Liam Lacey

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