It’s hard to imagine any one better suited to bring Patricia Highsmith’s densely meditative novel The Price of Salt to the screen than Rooney Mara. Who but the girl formerly with the dragon tattoo could make so alluring the intense interiority of Highsmith’s protagonist, Therese? Even when Mara presents a frosty and furrowed façade, as she did in the incest-rotten arctic of Stieg Larsson’s Sweden, and does here in an Audrey Hepburn-y New York of the 1950s, she doesn’t reject the camera’s attention, but lets us see the horror or awkwardness or drama of the moment through her eyes. Guarded though her characters may be, Mara the actress allows us in, to be as flooded with the feeling as she is. It’s an engrossing thing to watch, and Mara’s performance in Todd Haynes’s film from the Highsmith novel, titled Carol, shared the award for best actress at Cannes, and it may be her best to date—candid and deep, but with a sort of lightness.
In fact, when the titular character, an enchanting woman and object of Therese’s interest and affection, played by Cate Blanchett, tells young Therese that she has bloomed and come into her own, you feel yourself nodding in agreement. This is a fuller and more buoyant, more affecting kind of performance. Not that any of Mara’s intensity is gone. But where she played Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011) as a spiky land mine of rage and brilliance—sharp and thorny—her Therese is like an ice cube beginning to thaw with the febrile awakening of her appetites and carnality. She is the still, deep water coming to a boil. And she is beginning to make a habit of it: Witness the graceful ebullience she gives her Tiger Lily, gliding around Neverland in Joe Wright’s Pan, out last month; see too the vigor of her Olivia in Stephen Daldry’s adventure-thriller Trash—Mara is bubbling.
But the young actress, 30, from a Bedford, New York, football family, who broke out in 2010 with her part in David Fincher’s The Social Network and was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for her performance in Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo, has been one of our most compelling performers for a few years now. So what is behind this new, most recent surge, which will include forthcoming films by Terrence Malick and Jim Sheridan? How deep do those waters run? As Mara tells her pal Annie Clark, a.k.a. the rock goddess St. Vincent, she’s trying to find out, diving as deep as she can.
ANNIE CLARK: Hey, Roon-dog. It’s a pleasure. You’re going to regret every moment of this.
ROONEY MARA: No, I’m not!
CLARK: Don’t look at my notes. I prepped for this for a long time. I’ve been prepping for this for three years.
MARA: Which is when we first met.
CLARK: It was 2012. The first time I met you I was supposed to give you a GUITAR LESSON .
MARA: What was that place called?
CLARK: Electric Lady Studios. Patti Smith was recently there doing a private show of Horses.
MARA: She was on the Terrence Malick movie I did. She shot, like, three days. I don’t know if she’ll end up in the cut, but her first day, she knocked on my trailer door—I hadn’t met her yet—and she introduced herself, because she was a huge fan of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. I was like [screams]. We had scenes together where she’s showing me stuff on the guitar, and then she does a show in Austin. They really wanted me to go out on stage and play with her, which I refused to do. But she put a chair on stage for me to sit and played a song to me. It was amazing. She was playing herself but giving my character all this advice. And it was actually really good advice, all about relationships.
CLARK: So in the movie she’s “Patti Smith.”
MARA: She’s playing herself. My character idolized her.
CLARK: Who is your character in the movie?
MARA: I have no idea.
CLARK: That must have been a challenge for you as an actor. [laughs]
MARA: The day I first met you, at Electric Lady, was my second GUITAR LESSON. I wanted to learn on the acoustic, and I had no idea who you were. You probably had no idea who I was. And I had no idea what we were supposed to be doing.
CLARK: Me neither. And when I got there, the dude was like, “Oh, you didn’t bring your effects pedals.” I was like, “My pedals?” I’d walked from my East Village apartment with a limp because I’d broken my foot.
MARA: I was mortified. And then I went home and googled you and YouTubed you and I was even more mortified.
CLARK: Oh, no, because you were actually good. You claimed that you didn’t do this, but you did play “Hey Jude.” In the movie your character is a singer-songwriter trying to get her start?
MARA: Yeah. And I played with the Black Lips at one of the Austin music festivals. Oh my God, I got really drunk to do it. I was learning on the acoustic guitar. I don’t know how to play electric guitar. So I had to kind of learn it, just so I knew where my hands should be, but there was no way I was going to actually play.
CLARK: So did you just mime the guitar?
MARA: Yeah. Well, it was unplugged.
CLARK: Did you make the decision to keep yourself unplugged?
MARA: Yes, definitely.
CLARK: But the Black Lips, they’re fun—punk rock, dicks out …
MARA: Yeah, I think one of them made themselves throw up onstage during the performance. And one of them whipped his dick out. It was quite the experience. I should have come up with something a little more exciting, but I was just drinking whiskey and got really drunk. I have stage fright. It’s terrifying.
CLARK: If you have stage fright, how do you do movies?
MARA: Because there’s no stage.
MARA: On film, yes, the camera is watching you, but it’s so intimate. But it’s just you and the other actor—and then there’s some people watching the monitor. I would like to do theater, but I’m terrified. I have such bad stage fright.
CLARK: What are you afraid is going to happen?
MARA: I hate being on display like that. On stage, there are hundreds of people watching you. It’s so much energy directed at you. I pick up energy really easily. Even if I go to the grocery store and no one is paying attention to me, I can pick up other people’s moods and it’s really intense. I would not be able to perform on stage the way you do, but I’m sure it’s exhilarating.
CLARK: Well, I don’t pick up energy at all, so I’m sure that’s how I do it. [laughs]
MARA: You’re just like flatlining? No, I’m sure you get energy from your audience; it’s a high.
CLARK: I get energy, but it’s not, “Oh, so and so had bad pizza.” It’s not like that.
MARA: No, I don’t know if I could be picking up on that in such a large audience. But it would be a lot of energy. It’s also scary; everyone’s judging you live. I don’t know HOW TO PLAY THE GUITAR, so having to be on stage in front of people doing something you don’t really know how to do, it’s terrifying.