On Sunday night, at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association will present the Golden Globes to honor excellence in film and television. Among this year’s nominees for Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama is Rooney Mara for her portrayal of Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher’s film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Mara will face stiff competition from past winners Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs) and Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady), as well as from two other terrific performers: Viola Davis (The Help) and Tilda Swinton (We Need to Talk about Kevin).
So, on the eve of Mara’s coming out party as one of Hollywood’s major actresses, we at CT feel that it’s important that you get to know her better – to understand that she’s more than the girl with the dragon tattoo.
Mara is a scion of the two families that helped found two of the National Football League’s most respected and successful franchises – the New York Giants (through her uncle John Mara, the Giants’ longtime co-owner) and the Pittsburgh Steelers (through her great-grandfather Art Rooney, Sr., the Steelers’ founding owner, and her great-uncle Dan Rooney, who’s the current chairman of the Steelers and the United States Ambassador to Ireland). She attended New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, where she not only honed her acting skills by performing in a few student films but also studied nonprofit organizations and international social policy.
Mara’s acting studies at NYU led to guest spots on TV shows and to roles in the films Tanner Hall (2009), Youth in Revolt (2009), Dare (2009), The Winning Season (2009), and the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010). Dare and The Winning Season, in particular, demonstrated Mara’s budding talents as an actress – both films played at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival and earned her an accolade as one of the “25 New Faces of Independent Film of the Year.” More specifically, Mara’s performance in The Winning Season, in which she plays a teenage basketball player who has an affair with a much-older shoe salesman (Kevin Breznahan), showcased her ability to excel in movies with dark, complex, and challenging storylines.
At the age of twenty-six, Mara is the youngest of this year’s nominees for Best Actress – Motion Picture Drama. She’s also a relatively fresh face on the Hollywood scene. She made her big break last year in Fincher’s The Social Network, playing the smart and confident Boston University student Erica Albright, who dumps Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) at the beginning of the film, which inadvertently helps set the creation of Facebook into motion as something of a revenge plot that her ex-boyfriend concocts to punish her. Mara received her first award recognition for her portrayal of Albright, garnering two awards for her performance as a part of The Social Network’s ensemble cast: the Hollywood Springs Award for Ensemble of the Year and the Palm Springs International Award Film Festival Award for Ensemble Performance.
When casting The Social Network – and, eventually The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Fincher obviously saw something in Mara’s intelligence and charisma that made her the perfect choice for his films. Considering the graphic content of many of the scenes in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, in particular, he clearly noticed Mara’s willingness to take chances and, potentially, to put herself in uncomfortable situations in the interest of the film. A detailed exploration of some of Mara’s risky and powerful scenes in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is unnecessary here. But it’s important to note that, as Mara told Terri Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air in 2011, in the interest of the creating a Lisbeth Salander who holds true to the character in Stieg Larsson’s novel, Mara transformed her body – much in the same way that Robert De Niro did in Raging Bull (1980) through his extensive weight gain – by acquiring body piercings and tattoos. She also transformed herself into Lisbeth by acting in scenes of physical and sexual abuse (the harrowing forced fellatio and anal rape scenes with Nils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen)) as well as more tender sex scenes with Mikhael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), in which she begins to show Lisbeth’s metamorphosis into an individual with the potential for love and compassion.
Indeed, what makes Mara’s performance so profound and original is her ability to show true character development. And this development isn’t straightforward or linear in any way. Rather, as her facial expression shows at the end of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, when upon seeing her lover Mikhael embracing Erika Berger (Robin Wright), she dumps the leather jacket she bought for him in a dumpster, Mara conveys Lisbeth as a truly human individual – one who, like us all, can reach moments of selflessness and emotional vulnerability but can just as easily be hurt when something doesn’t go our way.
The word “compassion” is crucial to understanding Mara’s abilities as an actress and as a humanitarian. It, of course, takes a lot of compassion for her to play her character Lisbeth – a very scarred individual – with so much conviction and love. Take a minute to think about the love for her audience and abused women everywhere that Mara illustrated by throwing herself into the role of Lisbeth to the extent that she did. Then take these thoughts and reflect on something that you may not know about Mara – her position as overseer of the charity, Uweza Aid Foundation.
According to the organization’s website, the Uweza Aid Foundation, which began in 2007, “fights the cycle of poverty that persists in Kenya’s Kibera Slum . . . [and] . . . nuture[s] and build[s] upon the already existing capabilities and resourcefulness of Kenyans through community-based empowerment programs.” The Foundation includes “an after-school program, soccer club, school sponsorships, and a counseling initiative for at-risk and troubled youth.” The Foundation’s blog can be found here.
In 2007, perhaps deriving from her university interests in nonprofit and international social policy and the compassionate nature that she demonstrates in her acting, Mara formed Faces of Kibera to assist its orphaned and vulnerable children. In 2011, her organization combined with the Uweza Aid Foundation, and she became the president of the USA branch’s board of directors. Mara has raised money in the USA for Uweza, giving orphaned kids backpacks, paying teachers’ salaries, obtaining a water tank for the village that provides water and electricity, and designing jewelry, the proceeds of which go to Uweza.
So, when you sit down to watch the Golden Globes on Sunday night, please keep in mind that Rooney Mara, one of the actresses whom we’ll celebrate on Sunday, is a lot more than the Golden Globes and the girl with the dragon tattoo.