Until now, Rooney Mara’s on-screen presence could almost always have been described as steely, thanks to tough turns in The Social Network, Side Effects, and, of course, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the movie that rocketed her to the A-list and netted her an Oscar nod. But that’s all changing with the indie Western Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, which allows Mara to bare a bit of her soul as young mother Ruth, one half of an outlaw couple in 1970s Texas. Ruth’s husband, Bob (Casey Affleck)—the Clyde to her Bonnie—takes the fall for her cop shooting, only to spring from the joint and fight to reunite with his family.
The tender, morally complex role is refreshingly new territory for Mara, whose subtly heartbreaking performance begs the question: Is this the real Rooney? Famously cagey about her personal life, the raven-haired 28-year-old is an enigma among starlets, and when she sat down with DETAILS, she faithfully maintained much of her trademark mystique. But she did share her thoughts on the unique playlists she creates for her roles, the Kenyan charity she started when she was 21, working with Anna Wintour, and how, in the end, none of us ever truly knows the “real” anyone.
DETAILS: Your role in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints allows for a lot of the tough resolve viewers have come to expect from you, but it also features more vulnerability than we’ve seen you express before, and Spike Jonze’s Her (slated for release in January) seems like it might do that as well. Is that a part of yourself you want viewers to see more of?
ROONEY MARA: I never think of it like, “What do I want people to see?” Certainly, the character does have a lot more vulnerability. I don’t know, I think that’s just where I was when I chose those roles. Maybe I was feeling more vulnerable, and that’s what I responded to.
DETAILS: What drew you most to this particular material?
ROONEY MARA: [Director] David Lowery just has a really special, unique voice, and the script was so beautifully written. In the first draft that I read, Ruth was actually not that well developed, but I could still see all the potential there. And her relationship with Bob I found to be beautiful and interesting, and I also really loved the love story between her and her child. I read a lot of scripts where it’s just, “the mom.” I found the way that she was a mother and her relationship with her child to be very different. It was much more complicated than simply, “the protective mother.”
DETAILS: Ain’t Them Bodies Saints has been compared to the work of Terrence Malick, and you’ve recently worked on an upcoming project with him. Do you find a lot of similarities between David and Terrence as directors?
ROONEY MARA: People make that comparison a lot. Their directing styles could not be more different, but I would say that the similarities between them are that they’re both very romantic, and they both see the world in a sort of poetic way.
DETAILS: I was told that your charity, the Uweza Foundation, which supports families in Kenyan slums, was something you first got rolling when you were only 21. If you weren’t an actress, do you think you’d be doing more of that kind of work?
ROONEY MARA: I can’t imagine my life without having some sort of creative outlet like [acting]. But what I do for Uweza and for Oxfam America is what grounds me.
DETAILS: David reportedly sent you a number of songs to help you get into the character of Ruth—songs by artists like Joanna Newsom that helped to inspire the movie. Did you like his playlist? Was it helpful in building the character?
ROONEY MARA: I liked them, but…[Laughs]…I had my own songs that made me feel like the character, so I appreciated his songs, and I listened to them, but then I just, kind of…never listened to them again.
DETAILS: What were your songs?
ROONEY MARA: God, I don’t know, I had such a long playlist that I would listen to. There was a lot of Loretta Lynn on there, and a lot of sad songs. I’m constantly listening to music when I’m working, and I have different playlists for each character.
DETAILS: What was on your playlist for [Dragon Tattoo‘s] Lisbeth Salander?
ROONEY MARA: There was a lot of angry music, like Nico Vega, and a lot of stuff that [director] David [Fincher] and Trish Summerville, the costume designer, had sent me, like the Karen O cover [of “Immigrant Song”] was on there.
DETAILS: In the midst of the release of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, you were also seemingly being groomed as the unofficial new face of Vogue. You’ve been on two covers now, as well as the cover of the magazine’s latest book, The Editor’s Eye. Who would you say was the more intimidating woman: Anna Wintour or your character Lisbeth?
ROONEY MARA: Lisbeth is much more intimidating. Anna’s a wonderfully intelligent, wildly successful woman. A powerful woman. I guess I can see why she’s intimidating to people, but I think people view that differently than they view men in a position of that kind of power.
DETAILS: Do you feel like people view you as intimidating?
ROONEY MARA: I don’t know, do they?
DETAILS: I think you’re generally perceived as having a fairly intimidating persona.
ROONEY MARA: That’s okay. [Laughs]
DETAILS: There’s a moment in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints in which Casey Affleck’s character says, “People don’t know things the way that they think they know them.” In your experience, is there something the public, or maybe even your peers, may seem to think that they know about you that’s not accurate?
ROONEY MARA: Probably most everything the general public thinks they know about me is not accurate. There are very few people that you truly know in your life. It’s hard to really know someone. People are very complicated. I think we try to simplify people and put them in little categories of being this person, or that person, and it’s just simply not true. I’m sure that most people who don’t know me, probably most of the things they think about me aren’t true. And the same goes for me, with other people that I don’t know. I probably don’t really know anything about them.