Four years ago Rooney Mara found herself at the Oscars, nominated for her epic metamorphosis into punk nihilist hacker Lisbeth Salander in Sony’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. This Sunday, the actress returns to The Dolby Theater, this time being recognized for her portrayal of Therese Belivet, a young department-store clerk who becomes the object of a middle-aged woman’s affection in Carol, the feature adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 lesbian romance novel The Price of Salt.
In Carol, Mara continues to reveal her finesse for accessing other atmospheres. If Lisbeth was a notorious extrovert, Therese is the absolute introvert: nuanced, poised and quiet in her emotions. That persona in the hands of the wrong actress could come off showing a great deal of strain or insincerity. Indeed, Mara passed on Therese initially as the actress was coming off of Dragon Tattoo. “I was exhausted and felt like I couldn’t act. I didn’t think I could be any good in it. I felt like I gave so much in Dragon, I didn’t have anything else to give,” she told us at Cannes. Once director Todd Haynes boarded Carol alongside Cate Blanchett, Mara couldn’t refuse.
On the surface, Therese comes across an an innocent, impressionable young woman trying to fill a void in her life as she hangs in a twenty-something purgatory of indecision between boys and her yearning to become a photographer. As the strong-willed, upper middle class Carol Aird — a woman confident in her lesbian identity in an intolerant, button-down era — enters Therese’s life, we’re left wondering if the young girl is truly the ingénue. Mara plays this dramatic intrigue effortlessly.
Going forward, Mara continues to create an arsenal of bold screen heroines: She’s in talk to play the most controversial woman in the New Testament, Mary Magdalene, which would reteam her with director Garth Davis. And as far as reprising her role as Salander in Sony’s adaptation of The Girl in the Spider’s Web, don’t count Mara out.
Oscar pundits are predicting that Academy voters will go the way of the SAGs in selecting The Danish Girl‘s Alicia Vikander as best supporting actress. But as Yogi Berra use to say, “It ain’t over till it’s over.”
Having already played such an iconic character as Lisbeth Salander, do you find that when it comes to choosing your next role, that you’re always chasing a dragon? That you’re trying to find that next great high?
Like am I trying to get that high back? I think I was. Well, I think after I finished it I sort of quickly realized that most things will not be able to live up to that experience so there’s no point in trying to, and even if we were ever to go on to make more, it would never be that. It was such a unique, singular experience that will never be able to be replicated, and because of that, I’m just so lucky that I have it. It’s always going to be a part of me and I’ll always have it. I can always look back on it, but I’ll never be able to replicate it. Ever.
What’s the status of your role as Lisbeth in Sony’s next installment of Dragon Tattoo?
I think it’s their intention to resurrect it. They just hired Steve Knight to adapt the fourth book (The Girl In The Spider’s Web). That’s really as much as I know about their plan. As far as I know, the part is mine and I’ll be playing it until someone calls me up and tells me otherwise.
Have you read the fourth novel?
I have it, but I just haven’t read it yet because I didn’t want to read it unless I know they are going to do it.
You bring such an intensity to your roles, I have to think you’re exhausted after each film you complete. Or was Dragon Tattoo just three times the amount of emotion?
Oh, way more than that. We shot Carol for two months. We shot Girl With The Dragon Tattoo for a year.
Which scene from Carol lives with you the most?
There’s two scenes. Both of them were with Cate. The first one is where Carol and Therese have lunch together for the first time. That was the first scene we got to do together where we really had a back-and-forth. We had the whole day to shoot, which was a luxury given our schedule and we did the scene in its entirety. Someone [on set] observed, “That was like playing tennis with someone really good.” Yeah, it’s like playing tennis with the best tennis player. It was like being in a play. The second scene is the one that bookends the film when we’re having tea. That was another scene we got to do in long takes. There was so much subtlety and nuance going on.
Patricia Highsmith loosely based the novel on a customer she observed during her stint as a department store clerk. Was your performance inspired by the late author?
She wasn’t, but it’s funny though, because [the screenwriter] Phyllis Nagy told me that she was observing me during the first week on set and remarked to me that I had Pat’s cadence down as well as her movement and essence. In preparing for the dialect, there were some interviews with Highsmith that I listened to, but I wasn’t trying to match her voice. I was just trying to find women from that period to listen to and she happened to be one of them.
In the end, Therese and Carol go their separate ways. It’s as though Carol accepts the fact that Therese is enjoying her youth. What’s your take on the ending?
I think it’s open for interpretation. That’s one of the great things about the film is that it really does allow for people to project whatever they want onto it and to sort of imbue it with their own personal experience and their own personal references. I don’t really know what the future holds for those two characters. I think maybe there is a hope for them, but love and relationships are really hard and they have a lot stacked against them, aside from the fact that they’re two women. I mean there’s a lot that should be keeping them apart. For me,the ending is not a happy ending. It’s more hopeful. I think that there is hope that they could have a relationship.
You’ve worked with a number of first-time independent film directors. What enables you to trust yourself to them?
For me, directors are everything. I love directors. I worship them. It’s why I love what I do and so to me that is sort of the biggest factor in any decision I make. With Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, I read the script and loved it so much that I said, ‘I want to meet this guy who wrote it and who’s going to direct it?’ and I just instantly felt a connection with David Lowery and I knew I wanted to be a part of it, just sitting down with him. I don’t know what it is. I guess it’s just intuition.
I also recently worked with Garth Davis (on Lion). He’s not a first-time director but that was his first feature film. He co-directed Top of the Lake with Jane Campion, and that was sort of a similar situation. I read it and it was small part but I thought the script was just so powerful, moving and beautiful that I was like ‘This is really supposed to be my time off but I want to talk to this guy.’ And within talking to him for two minutes, I knew I was going to work with him. And then I worked with Benedict Andrews last summer who’s a theater director but he made his first feature with Una. I went and watched one of his plays and met with him, and you know, you can only really go off your gut in a situation like that.
It was reported that you were considered for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
I didn’t read for it. I met with the director (Gareth Edwards) and I really liked him but then I didn’t end up reading for it. I was working and it wasn’t the right thing for me, so I decided not to read for it. I was on a film. I was working six day weeks and it was just like it wasn’t going to be possible.
Are you ever tugged in the direction of doing a young-adult franchise film or a comic-book movie?
I don’t really get offered those parts, or maybe I do. I don’t even know. Maybe I do and I just don’t even realize it and just say ‘No’ to them. For me it’s just all about the director and it’s all about the script and the story.
In regards to the whole Pan backlash which dominated the early fall with your turn as Tiger Lily — in moving the conversation forward: When we start casting actors according to their ethnic background, doesn’t that start curbing creativity and art?
I think that there are two sides to it. Yes, I do think it curbs art and creativity, and I also think that if you’re going to go by that, you have to be able to…it has to go both ways. It can’t just be that you don’t want a white girl to play a certain part. It has to be both sides. And I do think it can curb art and creativity. That being said, is there whitewashing in Hollywood? Absolutely, and I feel really bad and embarrassed to be a part of that. In J.M. Barrie’s book, the natives were not Native American. That was something later attributed and there’s probably racism behind even that attribution. In the book, they’re called the Pickaninny tribe, which is wrought with racism. But it was never my intention to play a Native American girl. That was never an option to me. It was Joe (Wright’s) pure desire to make the natives a conglomeration of many different cultures and indigenous people. To make them people of the world. He wanted them to be natives of planet Earth. I thought that was a really beautiful intention of his. That being said, I understand the anger about whitewashing. I completely do, and I agree with it.
Another issue during awards season has been the gender pay gap among actresses in Hollywood as broached by Jennifer Lawrence.
Listen, I think that we’re having the wrong conversation (about that topic). The conversation isn’t we’re not getting paid as much as men. The conversation should be why and where does that come from because it’s just a side effect of something much greater, which is that women…there is a certain language that we use or that people use to talk about women and certain types of women in our industry and in lots of different industries, that we would never use to describe men. And I think when you’re getting paid less, there’s sort of this sense that ‘Well you don’t really respect me or feel like you need me as much you need these other people.’
If you’re a female who is sort of opinionated or has a point of view or is self-possessed in a way, you get described with this language in way that others would never talk about men. When I did Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, did Daniel Craig get paid more than me? Of course. He got paid a ton more than me, but he’s Daniel Craig and no one knew who I was so I don’t deserve to be getting paid what he’s getting. He’s the one putting asses in the seats, not me. I had never done anything, so that’s just sort of the way that went.
I’ve only experienced one incident on a studio film where I got paid significantly less than the men, and there wasn’t really a reason for it. That was my only real experience with gender gap but I’ve been paid more than guys in movies before, and most of the films that I do, because they are smaller films, we’re all getting paid equal. We all take equal pay. So that is my experience, is that generally I am getting paid equal. But I know that’s not the case for a lot of people.