She wowed audiences with her brief but memorable performance as the ex-girlfriend of Mark Zuckerberg, in the opening scene of 2010’s “The Social Network.” Now, fast-rising star Rooney Mara breaks away from the pack with her riveting portrayal of the titular role in Columbia Pictures’ harrowing thriller “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” She’s nominated for Best Actress at the Golden Globes, and considered a shoo-in for the same honor at the Academy Awards.
Director David Fincher’s “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” kicks off the screen adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s blockbuster Millennium Trilogy, the epic series of thrillers that have sold 65 million copies in 46 countries. First published in 2005, shortly after Larsson’s own death, the first novel in the series, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo introduced readers to financial journalist Mikael Blomkvist and avenging hacker Lisbeth Salander (played in the film by Daniel Craig and Mara, respectively).
As soon as production was in motion for “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” the search was on for the title character of Lisbeth Salander. The danger was that everyone who had read the book had already formed a personal picture of her in their minds. Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times described Lisbeth thus in her review:
“Lisbeth Salander, Stieg Larsson’s fierce pixie of a heroine, is one of the most original characters to come along in a while: a gamin, Audrey Hepburn look-alike with tattoos and piercings, the take-no-prisoners attitude of Lara Croft and the cool, unsentimental intellect of Mr. Spock. She is the vulnerable victim turned vigilante; a willfully antisocial girl, once labeled mentally incompetent by the state’s social services, who has proved herself as incandescently proficient as any video game warrior.”
In adapting the character, Steven Zaillian aimed to capture all those contrasting shades of Salander’s persona, one that is heavily armored, yet vulnerable if any one dares to get that close. “She’s the kind of character who is the most fun to write,” Zaillian says. “There’s a kind of wish fulfillment to her in the way that she takes care of things, the way she will only put up with so much, but there are other sides to her as well. A big part of the power of the movie is Lisbeth Salander.”
Fincher now wanted to find all that in an actress, but more than anything he wanted someone who would be willing to walk to the edge of an already risky character and take a leap. That’s what he found in Rooney Mara, but it wasn’t straightforward.
The filmmakers conducted an exhaustive search for the role of Lisbeth. Fincher put her through a seemingly unending series of intensive auditions – in which he asked her to do everything from recite Swedish poetry to pose with motorcycles – to prove what she could do in the role.
“What endeared me to her during the audition process was exactly what I wanted from Lisbeth: she doesn’t quit. I wanted that person who was indomitable,” he says. “By the end of our casting process, I knew this was someone worth falling on the grenade for.”
He continues: “She started with so much of what we were looking for, what we needed. She’s a bit of a fringe-dweller in her real life. But more than that she was willing to do the work to understand this character. I said, ‘I don’t know if she can do it, but I know she will try like hell if we can just inspire her and support her and then cut her loose.’ And that’s what happened. She chopped her hair off, she learned to ride a motorcycle, she went to Sweden on her own and disappeared off the grid. And if you have someone willing to do all that, that’s everything. Piercings are piercings, but anyone could pull that part off.”
For Mara, the chain of auditions kept her on edge, helping to fuel the character even more. “I was ready and willing to do and show them anything to get the part,” she states. “But as it got closer, I was like, ‘What else do I have to show you guys? I’ve shown you everything. I need to either move on with my life, or let’s do this. I’m ready to just throw down, but make up your minds.’”
The months of performing and waiting culminated in an ultimatum. “David brought me into his office and started rambling about the part, going on and on about all the reasons someone shouldn’t want it – how it might change my life, and not necessarily for the better. Then he hands me his iPad and it has a press release on it saying I’ve been cast in the part. He told me that they planned to send it out that day and I had a half an hour to decide if I wanted them to or not.”
Mara didn’t hesitate. The character was already under her skin. “There’s never been a female character like Lisbeth, this sort of tiny, androgynous person who has so many different facets to her,” she says. “You’re so with her – and yet, at the same time, you question her because she’s not someone who always does things you agree with. To me, that was really interesting.”
She adds: “I think a lot of people relate to her, even if she is also strange to them, because most people at some point have felt like an outsider or like they are being held back by the powers that be.”
As soon as she accepted the role, Mara was in the gauntlet. “An hour after I told David yes, I was disassembling a computer, getting on a motorcycle and starting skateboard lessons. And literally five days later, I was in Stockholm,” she recalls. “There wasn’t really time to think about what it meant that I got the part, or how I felt about it. I just literally went into laser-focus mode.”
But she definitely wasn’t scared away by Fincher’s warnings. “He told me, ‘You’re going to have to go to Sweden and be alone and experience this girl’s life.’ He told me, ‘The movie is going to consume you. You’ll have to say goodbye for a time to your family and friends.’ But he didn’t really know me yet, then,” she explains. “He didn’t know that I’m actually a loner and that what he wanted didn’t scare me. It might have scared someone else, but not me.”
Eventually, she also radically transformed her entire appearance, cutting her long hair, undertaking numerous body piercings, and bleaching her eyebrows, which she says was the most shocking. Not only was it a hauntingly transgressive look, but also it opened up Lisbeth’s face, allowing the character’s mix of unsentimental intelligence and buried rage room to play out.
“Right before we did the bleaching, I was really together, I was ready for it, I was excited,” Mara recalls. “Then I looked in the mirror and I really freaked out. But I think the bleaching was one of the best things we did for the look of the character. It really put our own stamp on it.”
Another part of Mara’s stamp on Lisbeth was finding just the right way to reveal all her self-imposed emotional blockades. “David and I talked about the idea that there is no open wound with Lisbeth. She’s all scar tissue. She doesn’t cry, she rarely allows herself to really feel, but beneath the scars, the audience has to know the wounds are there,” she describes.
In the end, Mara says the experience of playing Lisbeth was everything she fought for in those months of trying to nab the role. “It’s the kind of part that comes around once in a lifetime,” she concludes. “But apart from that, the thing I’m most excited to take from the experience is that I feel more capable. I’ve learned so much and done so many things I never thought I could do.”
She concludes: “That’s my favorite thing about David, that he challenges everyone. That’s why his movies are so great. Because they challenge you and make you think about things you wouldn’t have – and I think people like to be challenged.”
Opening across the Philippines on Feb. 01, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is distributed by Columbia Pictures, local office of Sony Pictures Releasing International. Visit http://www.columbiapictures.