— In a pleated white dress, her jet-black bangs neatly trimmed, Golden Globe nominee Rooney Mara looks nothing like Lisbeth Salander as she relaxes in the drawing room of New York’s Crosby Street Hotel. But it doesn’t take long for the 26-year-old to show the resolve that helped land her the coveted lead role in the U.S. version of Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” vaulting over a scrum of top Hollywood actresses. Mara previously was best known for her opening tête-à-tête with Jesse Eisenberg in “The Social Network.” Now, her multiply-pierced face as the fierce hacker is everywhere. The piercings in her eyebrow and ears are gone now — though she has said one other, seen in a topless teaser poster released earlier this year, is still in place — but there’s plenty of steel still in her even and unflinching gaze.
There’s a debate about whether Lisbeth has Asperger’s syndrome. What do you think?
People ask me, “What did you decide?” As the character, she doesn’t know, so I didn’t make a decision either way. It’s clear from the book that everyone is diagnosing her with that, and on paper it sounds like she does. I went to a school in Sherman Oaks called the Help Group for kids with autism and Asperger’s, just to see. I got to talk to one girl in particularly who was around the same age and who people said reminded them of the character. It was incredible talking to her. When she was done talking to you, she was done. There was no sign of it; I just wasn’t there anymore. I think Lisbeth does that a lot.
One aspect of the story that can be hard to swallow is when Lisbeth decides to sleep with Daniel Craig’s character shortly after she’s been raped. How do you understand her actions?
There’s certainly a lot of discussion about that. People were horrified by the teaser poster, like, “How can you show her in that way? This is a rape victim.” I think Salander is a character who’s incredibly comfortable with her sexuality. Most of the time, it’s on her terms. This horrible thing happens to her, but I think she has a hard time with intimacy, period. Every once in a while, she needs a fix, friction and human contact. That’s why she goes to the club and meets Miriam and ends up in bed with her. When Mikael comes into her life, he’s one of the first people to just appreciate her for her. He’s honest and straightforward, and he does what he says he’s going to do. She sees someone that she can trust in him. It’s on her terms. It’s not like he gets her into bed.
You got pierced in a number of places to play the part. Did going through that painful process teach you anything about Lisbeth?
Not really. The piercings were one afternoon. It hurts for a second, and then it’s over. It didn’t really faze me. I did a lot of kickboxing and, early on, I would make a face that I was in pain. My trainer would say, “Now do it to me, and try and hurt me.” I would try and try and try, and he wouldn’t show anything, and it was so frustrating. He was like, “You’ve never really experienced pain. If you’re someone who is used to that, you don’t show it, because if you show someone that you’re in pain, it gives them a sense of pleasure.”
As I was working with him more and more, he’d be like, “Does this hurt? Am I working you hard enough? Because I can’t tell anymore.” I’ve kept that, not on purpose. I went on a haunted hayride over Halloween, and people would come up and scare me, and I wouldn’t even flinch. My sister and my friends would be, like, “What is wrong with you?” When you’re used to people being abusive, you find a way to turn it off. It’s not like [Lisbeth] was born not asking for help. She tried to go through channels, and no one helped her. After a while, you stop screaming.
David Fincher said your four-day shoot on “The Social Network” involved 2,400 takes, which was a joke, but he is famously meticulous, which is not something every actor warms to. How did you get along?
I love the way Fincher works. That’s not to say I wouldn’t want to work with someone who does two takes. But I really respond to it. We really work well together.
Why is that?
I think we’re very similar in a lot of different ways. We’re both obsessive and perfectionists. We’re both contrarians. Neither of us likes to be controlled. I’m someone who overthinks everything and really needs to investigate every part of something before I’m ready to do it in front of other people, and he really allows for that. That’s the part of me I think is very similar to Salander.
“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” has already had a profound effect on your career. What effect did shooting the film have on you personally?
I think it’s had quite an effect on me. I’ve grown and changed in a lot of ways. Certainly, I feel much more capable after this year. One of the things that David instilled in me is to not really compromise myself and to always have a choice. It’s hard to be a young actress. People feel a sort of ownership over you. It’s easy to let people walk all over you as a young girl, because you don’t want to be difficult. David never made me feel that way. He was constantly wanting my opinion. Just from getting to work with him, I think I’m going to be less likely to compromise throughout my career.