Side Effects: Interview with Star Rooney Mara

“Side Effects” is one of Rooney Mara’s first roles since her Oscar-nominated turn in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo catapulted her onto the Hollywood A-list. But Soderbergh first became aware of Mara when he saw an early cut of her previous film, The Social Network, directed by David Fincher.

“When David was casting “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” he asked what I thought of Rooney for the lead role,” says Soderbergh. “I was very supportive, in part because I felt that movie would be better served by someone not particularly well known. We became friendly because she heard that I had encouraged David to cast her. When this role became available, I got ahold of her.”

“She’s one of the great new actresses, and her range is just incredible,” Gregory Jacobs says. “We felt she was incredibly gifted and would be perfect for the part.”

Mara says she found both the story of Side Effects and the role of Emily riveting. “I had to read it more than once. It’s constructed so you often think things are one way, and realize later they’re something else. People don’t really make thrillers like this anymore. It definitely feels sort of like a throwback to classic movies.

“Plus Emily is such a complex and interesting character,” the actress continues. “I don’t read many parts written for women like this. Usually you’re playing a girlfriend or a wife, sort of second fiddle to a guy. When a part comes along that has this much meat to it, it’s really exciting.”

Emily left the Midwest for New York City hoping to study graphic design, but ended up bartending, Burns explains. “When she meets a really wealthy Wall Street guy, she makes a decision to jump on that train,” says Burns. “She does love Martin, but when you come from a place of that much insecurity and fear, love is experienced in a lot of different ways. Martin offers her security and safety. She is as seduced by that as he is by her beauty and mystery.”

That air of mystery seems to come naturally to Mara, according to the writer. “There’s something about her that makes you curious. From the first time we met with her, I wanted to know more. The way she plays Emily always has you leaning forward and listening. That can be as powerful as liking someone. You want to know what’s going on inside of them. Inscrutability can be very sexy and very dangerous.”

When Martin was sent to prison for insider trading, the rug was pulled out from under Emily, according to the actress. “They lived in a gorgeous house on the water with a boat. It was a lavish lifestyle. He swept her off her feet and took care of her. Now she is in small one-bedroom apartment, which is a huge step down from the way she lived. She has to go to work every day. She’s paying her own bills. She’s had to take care of herself.”

Having her husband back upends everything all over again. Emily makes a half-hearted suicide attempt and ends up under the care of a sympathetic psychiatrist. “She struggles with anxiety and depression,” says Mara. “I think it’s too much change for her.”

The actress, who is rapidly finding her footing in Hollywood, found the experience of working with Soderbergh to be a bracing change. “It was a very different experience,” says Mara. “It was such a small crew, with very little set-up time, very few takes. The days are much shorter than what I am used to. Steven controls every aspect of his movies. He has a complete vision for the film in his mind when he comes to the set.”

Mara and Soderbergh mapped out her character’s difficult and sometimes contradictory arc with great deliberation.

“I think Rooney was excited about playing two sides of a coin,” says the director. She has enough of a sense of humor to appreciate the darkly comedic aspects of what she was being asked to do. It’s a tricky balance to maintain and make it work as a whole, especially since, as is always the case, we were shooting out of sequence. Rooney did a great job of tracking where her character needed to be at every given point.”