Rooney Mara On 'Strong Female Characters' And The Embarrassing Movies She Hasn't Seen

By now you probably know Rooney Mara's face… but if she had her way, you wouldn't know her at all. The actress who broke out big time as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo clearly had no problem transforming herself into a punked-out Swedish hacker, in a performance that earned her an Oscar nomination and offers of roles anyone would dream of. But Mara, who has gone on to work with huge names like Steven Soderbergh, Terrence Malick and Spike Jonze, says that all that work became too much, and when I spoke to her in Manhattan last week she was gearing up for her first screen role-- in Stephen Daldry's Trash-- in nearly a year.

Many of the roles that Mara filmed in that time, including in Spike Jonze's Her and Terrence Malick's still-untitled film, have yet to see theaters, but you can catch her now in theaters and on VOD in Ain't Them Bodies Saints from a director who isn't yet a big name but seems destined to become one, David Lowery. Mara saw Lowery's previous short film and says she immediately fell for the script, in which she plays Ruth, one half of a criminal couple (opposite Casey Affleck) who are separated when he goes to jail, and she retreats home to raise their child. Five years later he's escaped and makes his way back to her, and though Ruth is a tough outlaw at heart and a devoted mom, she's not nearly the simple "tough female character" that Mara admits can be too limiting (when it's not Lisbeth, that is).

Check out my conversation with Mara-- and her confession about which movie classics she's catching up on this summer-- and see Ain't Them Bodies Saints in theaters or on VOD now.

This is a really general question, but you were talking about how when you got the script it some to you. But the movie is so visual and the music is such an important part of it, and its so hard for me to imagine seeing a script and seeing that in there. What was it that you saw?

Well, the music was, I couldn’t have imagined the music, but certainly, the look of it. I mean, I knew what David wanted it to look like because he sent such good reference photos. You know, he sent me a picture of a little girl sitting on, you know, the floor, in her house, with like a cat, playing with toys and he was like. “This is what I want Ruth’s house to feel like,” and it’s exactly what the house felt like.

Not looks like, but feels like?

Yeah. And he sent tons of photos like that of, you know, of what he wanted the movie to feel like, and so I know what it would look like and feel like.

And you had seen his short?

I’d seen his short, yes, but also, you know, the script, it is written in a way that it, you could-- it does have a very special, unique voice to it, and you could kind of tell the look the movie was going to be.

Yeah, the letters are really poetic.

And a lot of that was written later. It wasn’t in the first script that I read, but there was enough of that that I knew that it was special.

He says that you were the only person he wanted for this and you’ve said that you don’t know why. I don’t know if now you do know why, if he’s told you…

Well, I don’t know why, but then I found out later that he used to be, David used to be goth. So, I feel like he only wanted me because I was Lisbeth and I was like... From his goth days, he was like I need Lisbeth Salander. [Laughs]

That’s funny.

I know, right, but no, that’s not why.

In naturalistic parts like this, there’s not a lot of bigness to it, like with Lisbeth Salander, where you’re changing your entire appearance…

It’s very quiet.

And you’re not Southern and you’re not from a rural area. Your background isn’t really anything like that. It doesn’t seem like you put a lot of stock in that, but is that something that you have to convince other people to get over or have to talk to yourself about?

No, I don’t have to convince other people to get over it. I mean, I would choose to play a part, you know, that has an accent and that’s from a place that I’m not from any day of the week over something that doesn’t.

So, you’d rather do that.

Oh my God, yeah. I would rather never do a movie in my own voice, ever, but I mean, I have and I will, but I would much rather do anything in an accent or, you know, someone who is from a place that’s not my own.

So, is something like Side Effects more like naked, almost, because it’s more similar to you.

Yeah. So, you like the part of acting that’s like the hiding of yourself a little bit.


How hard is that as you go forward though. When you become more famous, people know your face more, it is harder to disappear in stuff.

Yeah, it’s horrible. I haven’t worked since Thanksgiving.

Yeah, at Cannes, I was reading the interview you did on Grantland and you’re like, “I’m sick of myself. I’m still trying to figure out what to do.” Do you still feel that way?

Well, I did four movies in a row. I did Side Effects. Then I did Spike’s movie [Her]. Then I did this. Then I did Terrence Malick’s movie [still untitled]. Then I was like, “Oh my God. I’m never working again,” and that’s a long, that was a long time to take off for me. Now, I’m working in September, but I only just now feel ready to work.

What was it about yourself that you felt like you were trying to get away from? Do you feel like you did get away from that thing?

Well, like you said, I just don’t want to work too much. I don’t want to get too comfortable. I don’t want to like, I don’t know. I don’t want to have too many habits or like, things that I fall back on. I want to be, you know, I want to continue to be challenged and four in a row is too many.

Do you take time to look back at what you’ve done and kind of pick it apart?

I do a little bit, but I mean, I cant do that too much or I would drive myself crazy, because it’s not just me, it’s everyone. And it’s not just acting, it’s anything you do. You look back and you, of course could do it better. It’s like life, you get out of, you come out of something and you’re like, now I know how to get through that situation with that friend, or I would do it differently, you know. It’s like anything in life.

I mean, I know the Dragon Tattoo sequels are so up in the air, and not really up to you, but is the idea of playing the same character again… does the idea of like going back and fixing it appeal to you?

Well, someone asked me that, I would love to go back and play that character, but I wouldn’t think of it as I could go back and fix it, because the second one is so different than the first one and I’m sure by the time we finish it, I’d be like, “Oh, now I know how to do it.” You know, it would be the same thing. I would feel the same way after.

You've kind of rejected the idea of comparisons between David Lowery and Terrence Malick in other movies, but do you see the similarities in the way their work turns out and does it make sense to you that they work so different?

Maybe in Malick’s earlier work, a little bit. think they’re both very poetic and they’re both romantics and they have a similar aesthetic, but, you know, Malick’s work has changed and evolved so much from his earlier stuff. I don’t think the Malick of today has very many similarities to David’s work.

When you’re working with someone like David Lowery, who’s completely taking influences of Terrence Malick or whatever else, do you see the way he’s filtering those influences, compared to someone like David Fincher who doesn’t seen like he’s been making movies that are inspired by anybody else, necessarily.

Oh, yes he is. David is like, he knows everything about every movie and he’s seen everything and he I mean, I don’t think there’s a filmmaker out there that isn’t taking something from someone else.

That’s totally true.

I think the difference is that David is so--David Fincher is so knowledgeable that, you know, he's not copying, but he sees something and he knows how he wants to make it his own or make it better. He just is so smart about everything, about storytelling, but also about like the camera and like electronics and like, I can’t even talk about it, because I have no idea.

Yeah, he’s got that crazy brain, like he and James Cameron seem to be ones who are like, I know every single thing that happens on this set and I will do all of it.

Yeah, he does, but certainly, I think he totally takes things from other movies.

Between him and Steven Soderbergh who both seem to know absolutely everything in the world, are they handing you down things and being like, “Learn this.” Are you getting a film education from directors like that?

I mean, I am. Unfortunately, I’m so bad. I won’t even tell you the movies that I haven’t seen.

Oh God. I don’t shame anybody for that. There’s too many. You can’t see everything.

I saw The Godfather for the first time, a week ago.

That’s really exciting. Did you like it?

I loved it and it was so exciting. It also just made me really depressed though. I also watched Annie Hall for the first time last weekend and it was like, why don’t people make movies anymore, like actual movies. And so it was really depressing, but it is so exciting, I have so many amazing movies like that to watch.

So, is that what you’re using your time off from acting, to kind of do the research?

Yeah, I’ve been watching a lot of movie and also, you know, catching up with life and spending time with family and I’ve had a lot of work stuff to do, just not acting.

Are you playing Joaquin Phoenix’s ex-wife in Her?


I feel like you’ve done a couple of roles, this too, playing older than you are, or someone who feels older than you are.

Well, I guess maybe, I look younger than I am, but I feel older than my age, which is kind of a weird place to be. But, the Spike Jonze film takes place kind of in the future, so I don’t know. It didn’t seem, playing his ex, they were worried about my age. They thought I was too young for it, but because I kind of play this genius scientist and it takes place in the future, so being younger than him, I don’t know, just didn’t feel weird. Kind of how in a period piece, it wouldn’t feel weird for me to be married to someone that age, you know.

The idea of strong women in movies is something that gets talked about , but a lot of films will claim they have a strong female character who is also really limited in what she can actually do. Then I was thinking about your sister on “House of Cards”, which is such an interesting female role in the way that it plays with sexuality and strength and the way that those two things can exist at the same time, and they’re very rarely shown that way. Do you feel like there is like a strong female trap, like here are the two different ways that we can be strong in movies and that’s all that you get out there?

Yeah, it’s really frustrating the way that females are depicted in film and what’s available. You just think about the roles that are out there for men. They’re so interesting and I’m sorry, but females are the more complicated, interesting sex. We are. And we’re just not depicted that way and that’s one of the things I loved about this is that she’s a mom. But I’ve read so many scripts where it’s like, the protective mom and she just will do anything to protect her child and it’s so, it’s just not real life. No one is that, most people are not that, you know, good. And here was a mother and it was just, to me, so much more interesting the way she was a mother and how complicated it was and it wasn’t, I don’t know. It’s definitely frustrating that females are, they’re not portrayed as complicated or as interesting as they really are.

Katey Rich

Staff Writer at CinemaBlend