Hauntingly beautiful and more than a little mysterious, Rooney Mara is Hollywood’s most enigmatic leading lady.
“I feel a little, like . . . schizophrenic,” confides Rooney Mara of the quartet of radically different roles that she has taken on in the intense, whirlwind working year since David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo garnered her Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations and launched her into the starry firmament. Mara has just flown in for Vogue’s cover shoot on the red eye from Mérida, Mexico, where she wrapped Terrence Malick’s latest film. The idiosyncratic director was particularly demanding. “He’s a genius,” says Mara, who is protective of Malick’s methodology, although she admits that “it was definitely the most challenging experience, just because every day is different. So even if one day you got into your groove or got the hang of it, the next day would be something else.”
Earlier in the year she worked with the antic Spike Jonze on the science-fiction romance Her,and with writer-director David Lowery on the independent Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, a love story set in the seventies in the hills of Texas. Meanwhile, her fourth project of 2012, Steven Soderbergh’s suspenseful thriller Side Effects, is released this month.a
“It’s been very strange, jumping from one character to the next,” says the chameleon Mara. “All four of them were very intense experiences. . . . I really feel sometimes like those things are happening to me. Obviously they’re not. But it’s hard going from one to the next.
“And I’m hypercritical of myself,” she adds in a masterpiece of understatement. “Anytime I see anything I’ve done, I wish that it had gone differently because you figure it out as you go along, and you’re always discovering new things. I’d probably feel that way about anything that I did.”
She couldn’t bear to see herself on-screen in Dragon Tattoo and famously resisted until she went to a theater near Manhattan’s Union Square and bought a ticket with the general public. “I really wanted to go alone,” she says, but her boyfriend, writer-director Charlie McDowell (the son of actors Malcolm McDowell and Mary Steenburgen), insisted on accompanying her. “He was wise to come with me because if anyone had recognized me, I would have been so embarrassed.”
For Soderbergh, Mara has “the X factor that you can’t really teach, that watchability that an actor needs. My job was to make sure my camera was in the right place to capture it, to get what she was putting across.”
“It’s all intuition for me,” Mara confesses. “I never really studied-studied.” Instead, she works privately with the acting coach Bob Krakower (“I didn’t love being in a class—that’s very hard for me”) and otherwise learns by doing. “I think every job I do, I learn something new and get better,” she says. “I hope, anyway, that I keep evolving. . . . I wouldn’t want just one technique, because I don’t think it would work for every job.”
In Side Effects, Mara takes on the role of the wife of a hapless insider trader, played by Channing Tatum. When he is released from prison, brimming with plans to rebuild their once-golden life together, Mara’s character descends into bleak depression, apparently fueled by an unscrupulous doctor’s careless administration of prescription drugs. Mara’s nuanced performance illuminates a movie whose unexpected twists and revelations owe a debt to Hitchcock at his sliest.
For her role, Mara spoke to psychologists, met with sufferers of depression, studied online video diaries—even visited the psych ward at Manhattan’s Bellevue Hospital. “I think everyone has at some point in their lives been depressed, or at least sad,” she says. “I had a lot of anxiety growing up because I was so shy, so I could relate to that part of it. But severe clinical depression is a whole other thing, and I guess I never really knew how bad it can get.”
Soderbergh says he was taken by Mara’s ability to “shape-shift” when he saw his friend David Fincher’s The Social Network in its unfinished early stages. Mara plays Mark Zuckerberg’s arch and increasingly exasperated girlfriend in the masterly pre-credits opening—a sequence that threatens to steal the movie. “Wow, who’s that girl?” he asked himself. “She just really registers strongly.” And yet, a surprising degree of personal shyness has clung to the actress since early childhood. “I think that’s part of the reason I like acting,” Mara explains. “I can be someone else. I get to express a lot of things that maybe are hard for me to express in my normal life.” She relishes a role with an accent for this reason: “I just find it easier to lose yourself. I’d really rather hide behind the character. It’s like a party trick! Not that I go to parties.”
But A-list parties are indeed part of the job, and she credits an intense complicity with her friend and stylist, the self-effacing Ryan Hastings, for the creation of the intimidatingly chic Mara look. “I love him,” says Mara. “He’s very quiet and thoughtful, and we just instantly got along.” Together, they devised a red-carpet image of relentless monochrome—a balletic chignon and Louise Brooks ebony bangs framing a pale Irish face with statement lip color, and black or white gowns of sophisticated cut and embellishment by designers such as Nina Ricci, Calvin Klein, Prabal Gurung, and Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci, for whom she is something of a poster girl, and with whom she will cochair the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute’s gala benefit for “PUNK: Chaos to Couture” this spring.
“For Dragon Tattoo, I had eight different premieres, this many different photo calls. It’s a lot to plan for. It’s not like you can just show up.” She flashes a dimpled elfin grin. “The thing is, it’s kind of an annoying part of the job—because I’m not a model, and I don’t want to be. I didn’t try to be a style icon. I’m just not that interested in that world. But it does matter, and either I can fight that or I just have to accept that it is a part of my job, and I may as well wear things that I like and that represent me.”
In fact, she finds the whole red-carpet experience “a nightmare! It’s a panic attack waiting to happen. I don’t even like people to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to me. When we wrap a film and everyone claps and cheers, I turn red. And then I have to walk out onto the middle of this carpet and there are all these photographers, and they’re all screaming at you. And usually there’s a party at the other end of it, so it’s not even like I have solace at the end of the carpet! It’s like then I have to walk into my other nightmare!”
Passing unnoticed through the Ides bar of the Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg—thronged with pierced and dragon-tattooed hipsters—Mara, shrouded in a knit beanie and a voluminous reefer jacket, tells me, laughing, “I don’t think I’m cool enough to hang out here.” We take a moment to enjoy the Manhattan skyline, and Mara insists on treating me to her favorite cocktail—a hot toddy (although she took a bartending course, she lasted only a day on the job: “I was horrible,” she remembers. “It’s too social!”).
She shrugs off my suggestion of a dinner date at the very latest fashionable establishment in favor of vegetarian Korean in anonymous midtown, where we slip off our shoes and feast on delicious kale pancakes and mushroom sizzlers, and she can favorably compare the quality of life in Los Angeles to that of New York because, for the price of her spacious home in L.A.’s Silver Lake neighborhood, she would find herself here “literally living in a dungeon, in a basement, with no closet.”
On the other hand, her roots are in New York. She was raised in Westchester and went to college in the city—and she plans to return east one day. “For me, the seasons are so powerful. The smell of the fall or the spring, it brings back so much.” And “for someone who loves to eavesdrop and people-watch,” she adds, “I feel like in the city you can be very alone and disappear. And so I love that because I like to be alone a lot. I think part of the reason is I’m like a sponge. If I’m in a group, I get exhausted immediately picking up everyone’s feelings. If they’re sad, I take it all on, and I can feel it.” Although it’s useful for her craft, “it’s just not that useful for life!” she says. “I’ll go to the grocery store or something, and come home and be exhausted because I’ve really picked up someone else’s sadness or shame . . . anything. It really affects me. I’ve had to figure out a way to turn that off, and that makes me a little bit more guarded.”
Mara describes a bucolic Bedford childhood with a close-knit family (her father was one of eleven siblings, and she has 50 cousins on his side alone). Her hometown was then, as she remembers, “this one teeny little street with a general store and a movie theater. It was really small, really peaceful. We would have block parties, and lemonade stands at the end of the driveway.” Her mom, who was a real estate agent, used to take her to the sprawling open-air antiques fairs in Brimfield, Massachusetts, and Stormville, New York (“My entire apartment is furnished with stuff from thrift markets,” Mara says), and on house-hunting expeditions—an activity she still relishes for its ripe observational possibilities.
The highlight of her childhood entertainment was musical theater. She saw Les Misérables at least half a dozen times, and Rent even more. For a girl in sequestered suburbia, the latter’s lyrics and themes taught her about adult issues—and gave her a frisson of excitement about all that Manhattan could offer. But Mara says that she never considered her singing voice good enough for an audience. “That’s actually why I started acting,” she explains, “just because I can’t really sing, so that was like my only way into that world that I love.”
Meanwhile, Mara’s mother “was always playing old black-and-white movies for us,” she remembers, and the memorable female characters in films such as Bringing Up Baby andRebecca inspired her to stick with her acting classes. But when she was cast as a crow in a community production of The Wizard of Oz (her elder sister, Kate, whose acting career was also blossoming, played the Scarecrow), “I was so horrified to be out in front of everyone that I couldn’t remember my one little line . . . and that was the end of my thespian career.”
Mara claims that she has not yet overcome her fear of performing. “I would like to do a play someday,” she says, “but I find it really scary. I hate being onstage.” For her, a first day on set “is like the first week of school: all these new people. I always get nervous in the beginning. But you know, it’s so intimate [that] you get used to it.”
One of Richard Avedon’s haunting portraits of a young Rudolf Nureyev is pinned to the inspiration board in the studio where David Sims is photographing Mara for Vogue. The dramatic Slavic contours of the dancer’s face—the high cheekbones and almond eyes—find an uncanny echo in Mara’s own intelligent and exquisite features. “The camera likes her a lot,” avers Soderbergh. “She’s got a great face, a very classical, almost silent-movie face: very ‘shootable.’ ”
Though she fast establishes complicity with Sims, Mara generally loathes having her picture taken, and don’t even try to get her to reveal the enchanting dimples that form when she smiles. “Why should I ‘fake smile’?” she asks. “It feels disingenuous to me. I want to smile when something happy happens, so if I do smile, you know it’s real.” Her father has been attempting to capture those dimples on film since his daughter was a scowling four-year-old, a “weird, dark kid,” as she confesses, who wanted to dress up as the iconic Swiss girl Heidi’s crippled friend Klara for Halloween and later was a teenage loner—“very doom-and-gloom”—who sat on her own on the windowsill in the middle school cafeteria.
After high school, Mara’s horizons were enriched when she enrolled in the Traveling School and headed to South America for four months, trekking and backpacking through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and the Galapagos. “It really changed my life,” she remembers. “The science was everything that was around us. We would read books by local authors. For history we were learning about the history of where we were. It was amazing. After that, I didn’t want to go to university. What am I going to do—join a sorority and go to frat parties?” But there was parental pressure to continue her education, so she enrolled at George Washington University before transferring to NYU, where she shared an apartment with her very tight-knit group of girlfriends from high school, all transferees to New York City colleges who had hated the respective institutions they’d started out at. “Because of that, and because I wasn’t that interested in college, I didn’t meet one new person—I’m not even exaggerating!”
Eventually Mara found a place at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, where she was able to create her own major. “I was just so uninspired in a regular classroom,” she remembers. She took a course called Writing About Africa and did a research paper on child soldiers that inspired her to travel to the continent to volunteer. She ended up working in an orphanage in Nairobi’s Kibera, an enormous slum, where it is believed a million people live in one square mile of squalor. “It was very . . . surreal,” she remembers of her first few days. “I just felt so overwhelmed, hopeless. But it was an incredible experience, and I formed this amazing bond with a lot of the kids there.” Back at NYU, she organized her curriculum around creating a nonprofit, now the Uweza Aid Foundation.
“I knew I wasn’t going to be able to change the way things were there,” she says, “but at least I could help the few kids that I grew to love and care about.” Mara’s foundation has created a boys’ and girls’ community center in Kibera. “We have a soccer league and a journalism program, an art program, and tutoring. It’s not reinventing the wheel, it’s not changing hundreds of thousands of lives, but it’s something. And for those kids that go there and get to go to soccer every week, it means a lot to them.
“You’re kind of a gypsy,” adds Mara of the actor’s life. “The crew, everyone—we’re all just a traveling circus. It’s not a normal life for anyone, because you work such crazy hours, and you’re in this intense little bubble, and then it’s over and you move to the next circus location. So I get very restless if I stay in the same place for too long.”
But for the moment there are no acting projects on the immediate horizon, and Mara is setting off for Africa and her foundation. “I’m a workaholic,” she says. “I really don’t know how to be relaxed. But it’s kind of a great feeling to not know what I’m doing. I also just want to take a break and not think about it at all. I think it’s good for actors to have other things that they’re interested in,” she says, and pauses to think. “So I’m trying to figure out what those things are.”