How unknown actress Rooney Mara landed the role of Lisbeth Salander in the movie version of Steig Larsson's best-seller

By Adam Markovitz
August 27, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

When Sony confirmed on Aug. 16 that Rooney Mara had won the coveted role of Lisbeth Salander in the Hollywood adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (and its two inevitable sequels), fans of Stieg Larsson’s blockbuster books had a nearly unanimous reaction: Who? The 25-year-old actress had been a virtual unknown, with just a few little-seen movies on her résumé, including last April’s A Nightmare on Elm Street and the 2009 Michael Cera comedy Youth in Revolt. But within hours of the announcement, Mara’s name was the talk of the film industry — not to mention the Web, where it shot into Google’s top 10 searches. ”It’s the same thing that happened to the Twilight kids,” says PR consultant Vivian Mayer-Siskind, who helped guide Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner onto the A list. ”The book has a built-in audience. When you attach an actor’s name to it, it’s instant fame.” (Sony is currently keeping Mara, and the entire production, under wraps, declining requests for interviews.)

The news put an end to one of the most talked-about casting searches in recent history. Early rumors claimed that Ellen Page, Natalie Portman, and Scarlett Johansson were front-runners, sparking debate over whether a known commodity could disappear into the role of the pierced Swedish hacker who helps a reporter (Daniel Craig) solve horrific crimes. According to reports, Mara won the part thanks to pure talent: Director David Fincher fought to cast her after being wowed by her work in The Social Network (out Oct. 1), in which she plays an ex-girlfriend of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (see sidebar).

So who exactly is Rooney Mara? Born Patricia Rooney Mara, the Bedford, N.Y., native grew up in a family more likely to go to a football game than to the movies: One of her great-grandfathers, Art Rooney, founded the Pittsburgh Steelers, and another, Tim Mara, started the New York Giants, where her father serves as the VP of player evaluation. ”I always wanted to be an actor, but I was always fighting it,” she told a local New York newspaper in 2009. ”It never seemed that honorable to me, and I guess I was always afraid that I might fail.” But following in the footsteps of her big sister, Kate (who has appeared in Brokeback Mountain and Iron Man 2), Rooney moved to L.A. in 2007. Starting with bit parts on TV, she built up credits in indie movies before landing the lead in the revamped A Nightmare on Elm Street.

Scoring the Salander part won’t be the last of Mara’s challenges. Now she has to bear the burden of fans’ expectations for a physically and emotionally demanding role — all while navigating overnight stardom. (”She can expect a lot of opportunistic people trying to become her best friend,” says Mayer-Siskind.) According to Elm Street director Samuel Bayer, Mara is ready. ”Rooney’s no sissy. The last shot I did with her, we dipped her in 10,000 gallons of fake blood at 7 o’clock in the morning, and she just went for it, man,” he says. ”She’s a tough cookie.”

She’s in the Hot Social Network Cast, Too
In October, you can see Mara in the movie about Facebook. The cast is already generating a lot of buzz.

Rooney Mara, 25
In The Social Network‘s reportedly searing first scene, Mara (as Mark Zuckerberg’s girlfriend) dumps the Facebook founder.

Andrew Garfield, 27
The Brit actor (who plays Facebook co-creator Eduardo Saverin) was recently cast as Peter Parker in the Spider-Man reboot.

Armie Hammer, 24
An alum of Gossip Girl and Reaper, Hammer teams up with model Josh Pence to play The Social Network‘s elite Winklevoss twins.

Justin Timberlake, 29
The pop star — who plays Napster cofounder Sean Parker — is concentrating on movies. Next up: the adult comedy Bad Teacher.

Jesse Eisenberg, 26
His portrayal of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg should push this indie mainstay (Zombieland, Solitary Man) into the big leagues.

Max Minghella, 24
Son of the late director Anthony Minghella (The English Patient), Max plays a business partner left behind by Zuckerberg.