Last time we talked you hadn’t seen the movie yet. I assume you have now?
I still haven’t. They kept offering to screen it for me, but I don’t want to watch it alone in a room, you know? I want to watch it with an audience. And I don’t want to watch it in some uncomfortable dress [at a premiere]. I think I’m going to sneak in and see it when it comes out.
Has your family seen it?
They have. We had a screening for them last week. They loved it. They were really proud. They were really nervous to see it. My dad said he was more nervous than he has ever been for a Super Bowl. But at the end of the day it was not as hard to watch as they maybe had thought, because she doesn’t look like me, she doesn’t walk or talk like me, so I think it was easier to forget that it’s me.
Your grandfather Wellington Mara co-owned the New York Giants; your great-grandfather Art Rooney founded the Pittsburgh Steelers; and your dad works for the Giants. How big of a part of your childhood was football?
It really didn’t play into my childhood that much. I had to go to football games on Sundays, and I always found that to be quite annoying. We would come from church, I’d have tights on and an uncomfortable dress. I was just like, This is not how I want to spend my Sunday. I want to play outside. But when my grandfather was passing away, I realized how important [football] was and how special it was to my family. It really brought us all together.
What were you like in high school?
I’m very shy and aloof and quiet. I didn’t have a large group of friends. I’m very slow to warm. Most people who know me are like, ”You are the wrong person for all of this to be happening to. I don’t know how you’re going to get through it.” I’ve spent so much time the last few weeks talking about myself, and it’s weird for someone who doesn’t like to do that. My jaw literally hurts from talking so much. I’m much more of a wallflower. I like to observe people much more than I like to be observed.
So how in the world did you get into acting, of all things?
I played Juliet in Romeo and Juliet in high school. My friend really wanted me to try out for it. He signed my name up. It was a really amazing, fun experience. But I remember after the play one kid in my school came up to me and was like, ”I didn’t even know you could talk.”
As a shy kid, what made you want to actually get up there and act?
I took silly little acting classes on and off my whole life. I grew up going to the theater. My mom would always play old movies like Gone With the Wind and Bringing Up Baby. I was really into Broadway musicals. I’ve seen Les Misérables, like, six times. And I was obsessed with Rent. I knew all the words. That’s where I got my sex ed from, listening to those songs. I’d be like, ”What does that mean? What’s S&M?”
It seems like you come from a pretty, I don’t want to say sheltered, but a comfortable world. And yet you seem drawn to darker roles.
You can’t assume that because someone has grown up comfortably they don’t have darkness inside of them. I’ve always sort of been that way since I was little. I don’t know where it came from. And certainly I had a very comfortable life, but it was also very normal. I didn’t grow up in this dynasty that people kind of think that I did. We went to T.J. Maxx. I never had to want for anything, but I was not a spoiled child by any means. I was always taught that I had to work hard at what I wanted in life.
Your first role was on Law & Order: SVU?
Yeah, that was the first thing I got paid to do. I was a girl who gets sodomized — it’s a full circle of a career. [Laughs] Then you find out it’s because me and my boyfriend beat up these fat people and it was a hate crime because I myself used to be obese. Looking back I’m really embarrassed and I think I’m terrible in it. I’m really lucky to be here right now. [Laughs]
How long did you chase those small parts in TV shows?
I did it as long as I had to. You kind of learn to self-sabotage with things you don’t want to get. Sometimes you don’t want to get something but you do a really good job and you get it anyway. That was kind of [what happened with] A Nightmare on Elm Street — I didn’t really even want it. And then I went in [to audition] and I was like, [whispering] ”F—. I definitely got that.”
Then you moved to L.A. and moved in with your sister, Kate, who’s also an actress. Have you been watching her on American Horror Story?
I have. I think she’s so crazy in it. She scares me every week. For you to be able to be scared by your own sister…I think she’s brilliant in the show. She’s f—ing scary. She’s really good at playing a crazy person. I had no idea.
What happened after Nightmare on Elm Street?
I didn’t want to act anymore. I was like, This isn’t what I signed up for. If this is what my opportunities are going to be like, then I’m not that interested in acting. So I was very discouraged and disheartened. And then I got the Social Network script. That kind of reinspired me.
What would it be like now if you hadn’t gotten Dragon Tattoo and you were watching all of this hoopla with somebody else in the role?
I would be devastated. During that audition process I was really dedicated and focused. It’s really all I did or thought about. I told people, ”Don’t call me, don’t talk to me.” I kind of went into a little hole and didn’t come out of it until…a few months ago. [Laughs]
Have you ever talked to Noomi Rapace, who played Lisbeth in the Swedish films? She’s now watching somebody take over a role that she had been deeply immersed in.
No, I haven’t. I would like to meet her, but even though we’ve both gone through a similar journey, I feel like we’re probably pretty similar in that we probably wouldn’t want to sit down and compare notes. Our performances are incredibly different. I think there’s room for both. I think she probably feels completion with what she did. I mean, she’s incredible.
How did you envision Lisbeth?
We wanted her to have innocence and at the same time be very brutal. She’s brilliant, but she’s also very naïve. She’s frail, but she’s also very strong. We wanted to have a very childlike quality to her, because I think she is someone who’s been emotionally stunted at 12 or 13. We wanted that, because I think that innocence and that childlike quality only makes the parts when she lashes out that much more shocking.
In Dragon Tattoo interviews you’ve seemed totally comfortable talking about nudity and piercings of sensitive areas and other stuff that most people would find awkward.
I think it’s strange how people are so uptight about nudity and it’s so easy to watch violence. I can’t watch violence. I close my eyes. I was watching Drive the other day on the plane, and I had to keep closing the computer. But most people are so uptight about nudity. To me it’s so backwards. Her sexuality is such an important part of the character and she’s very comfortable with it, so I didn’t have time or room to be uncomfortable. I know it’s me naked up there, but I don’t feel like it’s me. I’m covered in tattoos and I’m pierced. I just don’t feel exposed or exploited in any way.
You’ve already been asked about filming the rape scenes many, many times. Why do you think there’s so much interest in them?
I don’t know. Most people would probably avoid that in their life, having to even act out a scene like that. But that scene is a really integral part to the trilogy. We were aware of how important it was. We talked ad nauseam about it. We really wanted to get that scene right.
What was it like after shooting those parts? Was it hard to come down?
It was. We shot that rape scene over two days. We spent the first day, which was Valentine’s Day, doing the opening where he chokes me out. I was literally getting choked out over and over again. I came in the next day with my neck swollen out to here. I was just all f—ed up. I had bruises on my wrists from the handcuffs — I was really beat up, physically. And then we had to do the actual rape. I had all these scars from where he rips my underwear off over and over. It was really brutal.
How many times did you shoot it?
You know, I don’t know. David was conscientious about getting the takes that he needed but not overdoing it.
So, like, 10 takes? 20 takes?
Oh, much more than that. We shot it for probably 16 hours. Then I went home and went to sleep, and I got up the next day and raped him. [Laughs] It was a really weird week.
You do a lot of acting with your eyes in the movie. There’s this devastating stare that you have…
Actually, on Nightmare on Elm Street they used to always say that. They’d call it the Rooney Stare. It always scared them. They’d say, ”You need to do a movie where you’re, like, a superhero and you blow people up with your stare.”
That stare just helped get you a Golden Globe nomination. How did that feel?
My mom came running in, sort of jumping up and down. I was like, ”What is wrong with you?” I didn’t know what she was doing. [Laughs] I’m really grateful for the recognition, but it’s not the end-all be-all to me. I think there are a lot of other great, great films and performances. Just because they’re not nominated doesn’t mean they’re not also great.
This, of course, raises the possibility of an Oscar nomination.
I guess I kind of have to think about that now, but I don’t really want to. I just hope the audiences like the movie. That would mean the most to me.
Looking forward, where do you want to go from here?
I want to do something really different. I want to continue doing things where I can transform myself, where it’s really different from me. I’d like to have a career where I’m always unrecognizable in the parts I choose. I’d like to do a period piece.
Based on the books, what will making the next Dragon Tattoo film be like?
I think the first one is sort of the richest for an actor. There’s the most meat. I loved the second book. I read it the fastest. But they’re much harder to film. This is speculation, of course, but I think a lot of changes are going to have to be made. That might upset a lot of people, but at the end of the day I think it will make for better movies.