It’s the “A Ghost Story” scene critics can’t stop talking about. Still grieving from the loss of her husband, the widow M returns home and consumes an entire vegan chocolate pie in one sitting. David Lowery captures the moment in a nearly four-minute long take, but the stillness of the camera makes it feel like an eternity. It’s up to Rooney Mara to fill the frame with a sense of hopelessness that anyone who’s been through the grieving process can relate to. She does so with the commitment and the sensitive gusto that has defined a majority of her 12 years as an actress.
Mara first began acting as an extra in movies starring her sister, Kate, before landing television supporting roles on shows like “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” “Women’s Murder Club” and “ER.” Now she’s one of the most exciting film stars in the business, with one of the year’s best films in select theaters (read IndieWire’s A review here) and a potential Oscar contender hitting awards season on November 24 (“Mary Magdalene”). Her ascension to becoming an indie film darling has been marked by careful decision-making, and it all started with a shot from Hollywood’s most demanding auteur.
With “A Ghost Story” now playing, it’s become increasingly clear Rooney Mara will never stop surprising when it comes to her performances. Here’s how she made it happen.
A David Fincher Breakout
“The Social Network” was hardly the first movie Rooney Mara made. She started acting in features two years prior with small roles in indie films like James C. Strouse’s “The Winning Season” and Adam Salky’s “Dare,” among others, but it wasn’t until she showed up in the pivotal first scene of David Fincher’s Facebook origin story that she announced herself as a talent to watch.
In a matter of five minutes, Mara made the exhaustion and exasperation of being Mark Zuckerberg’s college girlfriend feel painfully real. She makes the long-suffering Erica Albright a memorable first look at what happens to others when they become the victim of Zuckerberg’s inflated ego, and she left everyone wondering the same thing: “Who is this actress?”
Fincher would allow Mara to answer that question with a star-making turn as Lisbeth Salander in his 2011 adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” It was a casting choice Sony fought hard against. The studio wanted an A-list actress to headline the movie in order to guarantee strong box office returns. While names like Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson floated around in the early days of casting, Fincher was adamant about hiring the mostly-unknown Mara. That Fincher wanted to rest a $90 million studio adaptation of an internationally beloved book series in the hands of Mara was the first indication she’d be sticking around for quite some time. It was a massive sign of confidence on Fincher’s part, and one that Hollywood rarely gives the greenlight to.
“Dragon Tattoo” ended up underperforming at the box office, but it wasn’t because of Mara. The actress earned universal acclaim for her turn as Salander, and she made the rough-edged character feel more wounded and introverted than Noomi Rapace’s interpretation in the Swedish original. The result was a character less intimidating and more hypnotic, a feral-like punk whose code was impossible to try and not crack. Mara proved she’d be willing to commit to whatever is necessary for a role, and she earned her first Oscar nomination for Best Actress because of it.