The sky is bleak and grey, the air is cold and inside a small room in a building overlooking a backstreet sits a 20-something woman, awaiting interrogation. She has short black hair, wears a brown military-style jacket and black leather boots and, above all else, radiates a quiet and fierce intelligence. Rooney Mara is in New York promoting her new film, "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo," but this scene in the Crosby Street Hotel could easily be mistaken for a moment in the film itself.
Mara, who was plucked out of relative anonymity and radically transformed to play the outcast hacker-heroine from the late Stieg Larsson's massively popular "Millennium Trilogy" book series, understands that there's a chance that the public, even after leaving the theater, will see her and Lisbeth Salander as one in the same. In fact, she'd love for that to happen.
"I think she's the one who should be famous. She's certainly much more interesting than I am," Mara says, smiling at the thought of avoiding the tabloid spotlight that so often follows young women suddenly launched into fame. "This character is such a question mark, an enigma, and they needed someone who people don't know a lot about because it makes it easier to believe this person really exists."
Director David Fincher, who directed Mara in the opening scene of last year's "The Social Network," put her through a wringer of audition tests for nearly three months, proving to cautious Sony executives that a 26-year-old with virtually zero name recognition could carry a potentially massive film franchise. The concern from the studio was understandable, given the unusual challenges the role presents.
Salander is the opposite of a Hollywood archetype. She is disfigured both emotionally and (if you count the tattoos and piercings that cover her body) physically, but she is also a mathematical genius -- one who can hack into any computer, yes, but also protect and avenge herself with cold, calculating precision.
"The thing that I found most interesting was that she could be as off-putting as she is, but at the same time she's also quite innocent and childlike," Mara says. "She's this genius and she's brilliant, but at the same time she's kind of naive and emotionally stunted at 11 or 12 years old. So I think that sort of makes her very unpredictable; you don't really know what you're going to get, what's going to pop out of her."
Unpredictable is putting it lightly, for Salander veers widely from vulnerable victim to agent of retribution. She is capable of exacting brutal revenge with a metal probe, but Lisbeth also shows great tenderness to her infirm former legal guardian, visiting him in the hospital and taking care of him in an effort to maintain a relationship with the one man in her life who hasn't hurt or violated her.
"She's not a badass, she's not a punk," Mara says. "I hate it when people call her a punk or goth, because to me that's just the antithesis of what she is." While Salander may go to extremes, the actress adds, it's always in self-defense, and she always acts alone. "I think in order to be punk or goth, you have to be part of a group or part of a subculture, and her whole thing is that she never wants to draw attention to herself. She dresses the way she does because society has constantly, throughout her entire life, told her that she's worthless."
If Mara seems defensive, it's because Salander represents more than just a fictional character to her. "It would probably be smarter of me as an actor to pretend that I don't relate to her and that I'm completely different than her, but that's just not true. I would certainly come off as a much better actor if I did that, but the truth is that I do really relate to her," Mara says.
Like Salander, Mara is naturally shy. After attending NYU and appearing as an extra in some of her sister Kate's projects, she got her start doing TV guest appearances in 2006, including her first role, a spot on "Law & Order: SVU." Aside from "The Social Network," her main film credits include supporting roles in the indie-film high school basketball comedy "The Winning Season" and the Michael Cera comedy "Youth In Revolt," as well as the lead in the 2010 remake of "A Nightmare on Elm Street."
And like Salander, Mara is not immune to feeling wronged by the world. Last week, The New York Post excerpted a series of quotes from Mara's cover interview with Allure magazine, in which the actress appeared to bash "SVU," appearing to call the series "awful" and "so stupid." As the quotes made the virtual rounds, Mara came under fire. Now she wants to set the record straight.
"The 'SVU' thing, that's just not true," she says. "That was my first job, it couldn't have been more exciting for me. It's an experience I hold very dear to my heart. It's hard to have to talk about yourself all the time, and things are out of context, and whatever that quote was, I don't know, but it's certainly not what I meant. If anything, I didn't mean that the storyline was ridiculous, I meant that humanity is ridiculous. I know that 'Law & Order' makes their episodes out of real things that are happening in the city, so to me, by 'ridiculous' I meant that humanity is ridiculous. People are awful to one another and, to me, I find it ridiculous."
In the end, Mara says she did enjoy her time on the set of "Dragon Tattoo," despite the brutal tasks she had to perform. "Honestly, this film was so much fun to make. I know that sounds insane, and it was really hard work, but we laughed so much," she remembers. "I don't know how that was possible, but I think you kind of have to. To get through some of those scenes, you have to laugh."