Oscar Actors: Mara, Rooney (Supporting Actress, Carol)

Whether one considers her part to be a lead or supporting, there is no doubt that Rooney Mara’s astonishing performance in Todd Haynes’ highly acclaimed Carol is a major element in the film’s success and overall emotional impact.

We–the HFPA member –regard it a leading role and thus nominated her for the Best Actress (Drama), alongside her co-star, Cate Blanchett, who also earned a nod in this category.

Mara, who is only 30, has already teamed with the best directors working in Hollywood today, David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh, Spike Jonze, Terrence Malick. When she received a career tribute at the 2015 Telluride Film Festival, observers were surprised to find out how extensive her resume is and how prolific she has been.  Over the past decade, Mara has made about 20 pictures, in which she  navigated smoothly between mainstream big-budget studio movies and original and daring low-budget independent films.


It was during her college years at New York University that Mara decided to explore her interest in acting, landing small parts in independent films and eventually moving to Los Angeles to pursue a full-time career.  On the small screen, Mara’s credits include memorable guest starring roles on “ER,” “The Cleaner,” “Women’s Murder Club,” and “Law & Order: SVU.”


The turning point in Mara’s already illustrious career was five years ago, when she played the ex-girlfriend of Mark Zuckerberg, in David Fincher’s The Social Network. That Sony film, written by Aaron Sorkin, and starring Jesse Eisenberg, told the story of the founders of the worldwide internet interface, Facebook.


Mara mesmerized audiences and critics alike in the Fincher- directed, U.S. adaptation of the popular Stieg Larsson book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, released in 2011.  (It is not clear at this point whether the other books in the trilogy, “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,” will be made, but Mara is attached). Mara portrayed the complex female lead, “Lisbeth Salander,” opposite Daniel Craig and Robin Wright, for which she was recognized by the National Board of Review for Breakthrough Performance, as well as earning a Golden Globe and Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.


Mara tends to choose complex and ambiguous, often “dark” screen roles.  In 2013, for example, she appeared in Side Effects, directed by Soderbergh and starring opposite Channing Tatum, as a woman who turns to prescription medication as a way of handling her anxiety and depression.


And this season Mara again shines in Haynes’s exquisitely made 1950s lesbian melodrama, Carol, one of the artistic highlights of the 2015 Cannes Film Fest, where she won the Best Actress kudo against tough competition. The script, based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 scandalous novel “The Price of Salt,” is the rare lesbian love story to be seen on the big screen. Scribe Phyllis Nagy spent 15 years working on the script, as various directors came and went during that time.  “Nothing has changed and everything has changed,” Nagy said. “We can have this movie now.” Carol is based on the only book that the prolific writer Highsmith (Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train), wrote outside of the crime milieu, yet it is locked into the same singular point of view as most of her other criminal subjects.

Haynes recalled that when he came into the project, that role of Therese still had to be cast: “I’ve been so impressed with Rooney in everything I’ve seen her do. I spoke with some directors who have worked with her, and they were bowled over by her abilities, her instincts, and her intelligence. And I had that exact experience with her.  Carol is not like anything you’ve seen Rooney in before, and I really love that about her. I think she’s a really transformative actor.”


Carol depicts the interiors of the mind and feelings of a young, middle-class, rather confused and unshaped girl named Therese, who works in a toys store.  In the book, she was an aspiring theater designer, but in the movie she became a photographer.   For Mara, Therese’s “only crime is that she’s falling in love and doesn’t even know she is, because this kind of love has so little example in the real world, and it conflicts with what she thinks about herself and her relationship with her boyfriend.”

In this case, the almost pathological paranoia that is usually defined as criminal is romantic.  Even before it became a story about lesbian love — which was criminal, as defined at that time–it was just about love itself as something criminal. Her love grows and goes through all these shards of discontinuity and conflicting emotions. Her mind as a lover is overactive and overheated, conjuring all kinds of scenarios and run-ins.

Mara surprised journalists when she noted that she wasn’t shy about pushing the envelope with the film’s steamy love scene. While the film contains several embraces and kisses, there is only one scene that depicts graphically the two women in bed, consummating what was up to that a very subdued and subtle attraction, largely conveyed through looks and other gestures. “I’m nude quite often, so it wasn’t a big deal for me,” Mara said in Cannes, and, indeed, you may recall that she was also full-frontal in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.


Mara most recently completed production alongside Ryan Gosling, Michael Fassbender and Natalie Portman in the upcoming Terrence Malick film, Weightless (the project was previously known as Lawless)  Veiled in secrecy, all that is known is that it’s a drama about two intersecting love triangles, sexual obsession and betrayal, set against the music scene in Austin, Texas.

Despite an extremely busy career, Mara devotes time to all kinds of humanitarian causes: She is the Founder of the non-profit organization Uweze, which provides care and assistance to poverty-stricken orphans in Africa’s largest slum in Kibera, Kenya.