He’s known this ever since he cast the young actress in his 2010 movie The Social Network. “Finding somebody who can go toe to toe with Jesse Eisenberg, with a script by Aaron Sorkin, is not an easy thing to do,” he says.
In The Social Network, however, Mara did just that, more than matching Eisenberg’s quick-fire patois, line for line, in a sparkling dialogue sequence. “So when we were casting for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” continues Fincher, “just from that one small scene in The Social Network, I thought that Rooney could be just right.”
Fincher’s instincts proved correct, and he cast Mara in the highly coveted role of Lisbeth Salander, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s spiky and unconventional heroine. Mara has already earned a Golden Globe nomination. The first book in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy (which has sold more than 20 million editions worldwide and has already inspired a Swedish-language film trilogy) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo sets up Salander as an icon of popular 21st century literature.
“I really related to the character of Lisbeth and understood her as a person,” begins Mara. “And I think the reason that she resonates with so many people is the fact that most people at some point in their lives relate to the feeling of being held down by the powers that be, being an outsider, being oppressed. People can relate to that. They see it happening to her and they want to root for her. They want to see her succeed.”
Born into sporting royalty in New York City a little over 26 years ago, Mara is currently enjoying her own taste of major success, her casting in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo catapulting the young American onto the Hollywood A-list. It stands as the culmination of a remarkable journey for an actress whose biggest film before her brace of Fincher movies was the critically reviled 2010 remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street.
Mara’s interest in film was forged when she was young, courtesy of a mother with a penchant for classic cinema. “I wouldn’t call my mum a film buff, but she loved old movies,” begins Mara, remembering their long afternoons together, “and we were always watching movies like Gone with the Wind and Bringing up Baby”.
Her father, meanwhile, put more emphasis on sports — Mara’s family is a powerhouse of a sporting dynasty that runs back to her great-grandfathers Art Rooney Sr and Tim Mara, founders of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New York Giants, respectively, while her grandfather, Tim Rooney, ran Yonkers Raceway. Her great-uncle, meanwhile, is Dan Rooney, the US ambassador to Ireland and the co-founder of The Ireland Funds charity.
When first we meet, in the summer of this year, the Giants and the Steelers are about to face off in the Super Bowl playoffs (the Steelers won). “I can’t really say who I want to win,” she tells me at the time. “I wouldn’t want to spark a family feud, or anything like that!”
With sport very much a second division activity for Mara, she concentrated on acting as she approached the end of her high school years, making her on-camera debut in 2005 with a bit part in the direct-to-video horror film Urban Legends: Bloody Mary, starring her older sister, Kate. Oscillating between film and TV, including a couple of episodes of ER, she eventually landed her first major lead in the 2010 reboot of the slasher classic A Nightmare on Elm Street, before convincing Fincher that she was the right girl for the opening scenes in his Facebook movie, The Social Network.
“Looking back, the auditions for The Social Network were pretty straight-forward,” she says, “and certainly nothing like what I had to go through to be cast in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”. Despite her brilliance in the former, the film studio funding the latter were unsure of her potential as the film’s leading lady, troubled but brilliant computer hacker Salander. They had already secured Daniel Craig as the journalist Mikael Blomkvist, and they wanted someone with equal star power to play alongside him.
To convince the studio that she was the right girl, Fincher put Mara through a rigorous auditioning process that lasted almost three months. “The whole process was quite frustrating towards the end,” she adds. “I felt like, ‘You either think I have proved I can do this, or I haven’t, but at some point I have to move on with my life.’ It was a really long, hard process.”
Filming was no picnic, either. Much of the film was shot in Sweden, and Mara experienced extreme weather conditions; her character’s choice of clothing, and wafer-thin body, didn’t provide much insulation. “Rooney was about eight-stone soaking wet,” says her co-star Daniel Craig. “I’ve never seen someone put through so much.”
Mara smiles at the memory. “It was colder than anything I had ever experienced before,” she says. “The weather conditions were really tough. In the winter it was freezing and it was like pitch-black at 3.30pm so there wasn’t a lot of daylight. And then when we went back for the summer part there was no night time, so it was definitely hard to work around that! But it was definitely worth any hardship to be able to shoot there.”
And the material, too, is far from frothy. Fincher has a reputation for dabbling in the darker side of human nature and he’s not shied away from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s more bruising scenes. “I think I had prepared myself to a degree, and I knew how emotionally and physically challenging making this film would be,” concedes Mara, “but the whole project was an incredible challenge. The physical challenge was the more shocking because there were lots of days that we were doing stunts, with many takes, over and over.
“There is this scene that takes place in the subway on the escalator and I was in pretty good physical shape,” continues the actress, “but even so I was unprepared physically to do that many takes. It was really tough, beating people up, and there is a lot of running and pivoting over. It was pretty hard and the next day I felt a bit rough.”
She is currently hard at work on Lawless, with acclaimed filmmaker Terrence Malick, and hopes that she gets the chance to reprise the character of Salander in the second part of Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, The Girl who Played with Fire.
“Hopefully we’ll get to do that,” Mara says. “We will have to see how the first movie is received. I must say that it would be very sad if this were the end of the character for me. I would love to be able flesh her out. I really hope that people like the movie.”
WALKING through the arrivals gate at Arlanda airport in Stockholm, visitors are greeted by posters bearing the faces of the country’s most famous residents. There’s King Carl Gustaf (who bears an uncanny resemblance to actor Jim Broadbent), filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, and, of course, ABBA.
Hanging practically next to one another are images of another two well-known Swedes whose careers have now intertwined: the late crime author Stieg Larsson, author of the 50m-selling Millenium trilogy, and actor Stellan Skarsgård.
The 60-year-old star of such diverse international movies as Breaking the Waves, Good Will Hunting, Mamma Mia and Thor stars alongside Daniel Craig and newcomer Rooney Mara in David Fincher’s eagerly-awaited American adaptation of Larsson’s book, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
Given his unofficial role as Swedish ambassador to the world, Skarsgård tells the Irish Examiner of his pride at how the books and films from the series have put his country firmly on the pop-cultural map.
“I think [Swedish] people are very flattered,” he says. “It’s a boost for a little country. We’re actually pretty cool, us Swedes. We have some really good clothes designers and chefs. We make a lot of good music here. We’re a bit edgy.”
But Skarsgård says that he’s ambivalent about the influx of Larsson-obsessed tourists to Stockholm for a specific reason. “Most lunchtimes, my mother, who is in a wheelchair, goes to a bar called Kvarnen, where everyone can meet her for a beer or lunch. But that place features in Larsson’s work, so now there are always a lot of tourists sitting there reading the books,” he says.
Surprisingly, Skarsgård himself hasn’t read the books. “I don’t read that many crime novels,” he says. “I’m still behind on a lot of other literature.
“Also, I did a film based on a crime story a few years ago, and I read that book. Then, I got into trouble during the press junket because people asked me what I thought about the book, and I told them I hated it. The next day that story was on the front of the LA Times.”
An in-demand actor for 40 years, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Skarsgård’s children have followed him into the business. His three adult sons are all actors, most notably Alexander, who has a leading role in the raunchy vampire TV series, True Blood.
“It’s ironic and well-written, and you can see they’re having fun doing it,” he says of True Blood.
Skarsgård says that he never discouraged his boys from pursuing careers in showbusiness. “I’ve never done anything to encourage them, basically, except maybe sometimes to do their homework,” he says, smiling.
“But all the decisions they’ve made about their lives are theirs, and as a parent you shouldn’t interfere. Because if you say, ‘I want you to do this’ to a kid, and he doesn’t do it, he’ll feel that he’s let you down. And if he does do it, he will regret that he didn’t go his own way, and all his success will be because of you. You don’t need that from your parents. You need a solid foundation, and then it’s up to them,” he says.
Instead, he found subtler ways to show them the possibilities, as well as the challenges inherent in thespian life.
“They’ve seen that I’m having a lot of fun in my life. But they also know that it’s hard work. They have no illusions about what it means to be an actor. I think what I’m really proud of is their attitude to the job, and how they treat other people. That’s more important than anything,” he says.
* Declan Cashin