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Rooney Mara Discusses Preparing For ‘Dragon Tattoo’

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
December 15, 2011

It’s marketed as the feel-bad movie of Christmas: David Fincher’s version of the Swedish thriller “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” opens next week.

Rooney Mara, 26, stars as the fierce, tiny punk investigator Lisbeth Salander. Mara’s a relative unknown, despite the deep football bloodlines on both sides of her family. Her great-grandfathers Art Rooney and Tim Mara founded the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New York Giants.

Mara had a couple of brief, crackling scenes in “The Social Network,” also directed by David Fincher. But this part, Lisbeth Salander, was huge. Some of the biggest names in Hollywood were eyeing it — like Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman.

“I couldn’t imagine my life without playing her”

Mara says at first, Fincher didn’t even consider her for the part. Then he came to her with a list of requirements.

“He was like, ‘You’re going to have to learn how to smoke,’” she tells NPR’s Melissa Block. “‘You’re going to have to ride a motorcycle. You’re going to have to be naked. You’re going to have to, you know, do these horrible rape scenes. You’re going to have to perfect the accent. You’re going to have to go off and really sort of be alone for an entire year.’”

Before Mara auditioned, she hadn’t even read the books yet. She only began to get excited about the role after Fincher approached her.

“I knew I had a really good chance at it,” Mara says. “I read all three books and just became obsessed with the character. And I couldn’t imagine my life without playing her.”

It was helpful for Mara to be an unknown quantity of sorts for this part, as opposed to some of the familiar names that were being considered. She was more of a blank canvas for the audience.

“I’m nowhere in the same league as those girls,” she says. “When those names started flying around, I always knew that it was either going to be someone from that camp or someone who is unknown … I never felt like I was up against those people.”

Mara says the character needed to be played by someone unknown because she’s such an enigma, a question mark. If they had cast someone who the audience already had a relationship with, she says it would have done a disservice to the character.

“I never felt at a loss”

Despite the tattoos, brutal extended rape scene and piercings in sensitive spots that Fincher told her the role required, the only part that genuinely scared her was the motorcycle.

“That seems like the most dangerous thing to me,” she says. “The rest is sort of emotional, intellectual work that I was really excited for.”

In the book, Lisbeth Salander rides a very small Kawasaki bike, but the one that Mara rides in the movie looks like a monster.

“I was like, ‘Hello, did you read the book?’” she says, laughing. “[It was] like three times my size. We wanted her to have a really old, kind of cool-looking bike that she kind of pieced together from different parts. I don’t know why it had to be so heavy, but the older bikes are heavy, so we didn’t really have a choice.”

For Mara, the key to understanding Lisbeth Salander’s motivations and damaged persona was the three books, which had an endless well of information.

“It was very spelled out for me,” she says. “I never felt at a loss.”

Despite the difference in their lives, Mara says she found personality traits at Lisbeth Salander’s core as a character that she relates to — being a quiet loner and avoiding group sports or activites.

“I think I’m pretty slow to warm, like she is,” Mara says. “Slow to trust people. She likes to investigate every facet of something completely before she engages with it, before she’s ready to reveal herself to the world. And I definitely have that trait to a fault.”

“Going into it was really easy for me”

Noomi Rapace, the Swedish actress who plays Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish movies, became physically ill at the end of the series. When the producers came out with champagne to celebrate after the last scene was filmed, Rapace excused herself and ran to the bathroom.

“I just started to throw up, and it was like my body was physically just throwing Lisbeth out of my whole element,” Rapace told Melissa Block in an interview last year.

While Mara thinks it is possible to sustain the kind of intensity required for the role, she says it was difficult.

“It’s certainly hard to sort of embody such a dark place for that amount of time,” she says. “I felt as though it was much harder to come out of it than it was to go into it. Going into it was really easy for me.”

The transition for Mara from shooting the film to living her normal life again wasn’t a clean break, either.

“We would finish and come back and have a week off, and then we’d have to reshoot one of the rape scenes,” she says. “Then I had photo shoots and press dates. So I didn’t have a last day of shooting and then I was free … I had to stay in the hair and piercings for a few weeks.”

When her parents saw the movie, Mara says her dad was more nervous to see it than he was for any of the Super Bowls he’s been to. Despite the horrible things that happen to her character, Mara says she’s lucky.

“You kind of forget that it’s me,” she says. “It doesn’t look like me. It doesn’t walk like me or talk like me. And so I think it was easier for them to get lost in it than maybe any other part.” [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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