Those eyes, those lips, those piercings. Lisbeth Salander is the series' inscrutable, androgynous, and explosive heroine -- and we can't stop thinking about her. Here's how David Fincher and actress Rooney Mara brought the character to life, and what's behind her incendiary appeal

By Mark Harris
December 30, 2011 at 05:00 AM EST

The office politics of Swedish magazines and the intricacies of European libel laws can be reasonably compelling. The sexual and professional exploits of a middle-aged journalist are not without interest. And everybody likes a good, sick multigenerational family scandal, especially one involving sex and Nazis. But, as the shrewd publisher who changed the title of the late novelist Stieg Larsson’s Men Who Hate Women figured out, it really all comes down to one thing: the girl with the dragon tattoo.

Three novels, three Scandinavian film adaptations, tens of millions of readers, and one big Hollywood gamble on a piece of uncompromisingly dark yuletide entertainment later, it’s still true. Lisbeth Salander, the sleek, spooky avatar of payback who attempts to exorcise her past and take one small step into civilized society while investigating a rotting family dynasty, is the first character from a grown-up novel to become a pop culture touchstone since Hannibal Lecter. And she’s never been more fascinating than in David Fincher’s new film. (Initial grosses were reasonable for a 158-minute R-rated movie whose own ads cheekily called it ”the feel bad movie of Christmas”; to become a bona fide hit, it will need the good word of mouth that its A CinemaScore seems to portend.)

Fincher and his screenwriter Steven Zaillian (the expert adapter whose credits range from Schindler’s List to Moneyball) have caught all of Lisbeth’s contradictions and frictions — she’s supercompetent but marginalized, strong but fragile, emotionally affectless but vulnerably self-protective, human and other, unmistakably female and yet a gender unto herself (notably, when she gets into drag at the movie’s climax, it’s as a woman — and nobody recognizes her). Even though many of us know how it all turns out, Salander remains the mystery to which we keep returning: Who is she? What is she? Why is she?

It was an issue that initially puzzled even Fincher himself. ”I knew what this should look like and feel like,” he says. ”But I didn’t know what an actress would have to do to make me feel about Lisbeth the way I should feel.” As played with commitment and conviction by 26-year-old Rooney Mara, whose breakout role has brought her to the edge of an Oscar nomination, Lisbeth may be a Hollywood movie heroine unlike any other. But although she’s an original, she didn’t emerge in a vacuum. By the time Larsson conceived her a decade ago, there were plenty of forerunners he could scavenge and strip for parts. In a way, Salander’s two godmothers are Sissy Spacek as the telekinetic wallflower-turned-destroyer in 1976’s Carrie and Daryl Hannah as Pris, the cartwheeling death doll in 1982’s Blade Runner. Like Lisbeth, Carrie is an outcast whose abusive treatment by both her family and her society (a.k.a. high school) triggers the surge of her special power into something dangerous. And like Lisbeth, she never seems more emotionally remote — removed even from herself — than when she’s unleashing hell.

Hannah’s Blade Runner character is the other side of Lisbeth: She’s an android made monstrous by men who use her as a receptacle for their pleasure, and although she’s extraordinarily physically adept, she’s also a shattered thing, someone who can never be a full human being. Judging by the black-mask eye makeup Lisbeth puts on just before turning the tables on her evil guardian in the centerpiece scene of Fincher’s movie, she appears to be a Blade Runner fan.

But Larsson was clearly influenced by the next generation of stone-cold female badasses as well. Tim Burton and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, early goth, and Neil Gaiman’s Death helped establish the S&M-dungeon look, and they all became representatives of that catchall that covers a multitude of sexist sins, ”empowerment.” The new model was the 1990 movie La Femme Nikita, which managed to spawn an American remake and two TV series. Its central idea — a lithe girl-woman transformed into a killing machine but largely robbed of her humanity in the process — has become the cultural stereotype that just keeps on giving.

You know the rules by now: There usually has to be an abusive, neglectful, or shortsighted man (stepfather, government agent, scientist) who made our antiheroine what she is — or isn’t. Recently, we’ve seen variations embodied by Angelina Jolie (Wanted), Chloë Grace Moretz (Kick-Ass), Saoirse Ronan (Hanna), and Eliza Dushku (Dollhouse). The story can tilt as far toward fanboy fantasy as the odious Sucker Punch (in which, with no room for subtlety, the character is actually named Babydoll), or it can be as network-friendly (and in sync with a female audience) as The Good Wife‘s Kalinda, who shares with Lisbeth a taste for formfitting black, bisexuality, unreadable facial expressions, a past she won’t discuss, and an occasional appetite for bone-crunching violence directed toward misbehaving men.

So Lisbeth has a lot of cousins — which makes it all the more impressive that in Fincher and Zaillian’s version, she seems completely unique. How did the director, writer, and actress manage to blast away the cliché and make her new again?

1. They created her look as an extension of her character
In some ways, Fincher’s Lisbeth is the vision of a young woman so scarred by brutality that she has attempted to turn herself into something inorganic — a vehicle, a weapon, a human flash drive. Right from the audacious credits sequence, a tech-industrial tribute to Maurice Binder’s James Bond openers, Fincher’s aim was to depict ”the primordial black ooze of the subconscious that relates to Lisbeth in a nightmare state. I said, ‘I want to see close-ups of leather, close-ups of skin with needles coming through it, the chrome of a motorcycle.”’ When we first glimpse Mara herself in the movie, she’s on that motorcycle, upholstered in black and metal, her head covered by a helmet, so genderless and impenetrable that she seems like an extension of the chassis she’s straddling.

And once she takes the helmet off, it’s not as if her appearance thaws. ”Trish Summerville, the costume designer, and I talked a lot about it. Trish has some of the most beautiful piercings and little studs in her nose, but that’s jewelry,” says Fincher. By contrast, Lisbeth’s piercings — brow, nose, lip, nipple — actually look painful and self-violating. ”We went back to that first idea of Sid Vicious with a safety pin through his cheek and what it meant,” he says. ”That was not a way of saying, ‘Look at me, I’m special, I’m different, I’m committed.’ It was a way of saying, ‘Get away or you’re going to get blood on you.”’

Designing that stay-away look demanded a good deal of cooperation from his very game star, certainly the only actress in a major movie this year to receive a warning from her director the day she got the part that ”there are going to be holes put in your body.” (Which, yes, actually happened.) ”Rooney’s a beautiful girl,” says Fincher. ”She can look like Audrey Hepburn — but she can also look like a boy. So we’d decide where we wanted to put the stud through her eyebrow by asking, ‘Where is it going to be most in the way? Where is the most distracting place?”’ When they were shooting her in bed, ”we had to be really sure that the nipple piercing was in the place where it was going to catch the light. We decided these things way in advance, to make sure that you got as much bang for your buck as possible. It should make you wince to look at her for too long.”

2. They kept her life-size
Because the powerful side of Lisbeth is so extraordinary — she’s a genius hacker, an intuitive researcher, a fighter of brutal precision, and someone capable of almost animal rage — it’s tempting to view her as both more and less than a person. In lesser hands she could come off as nothing other than an amalgam of instinct and otherworldly menace. That was something that Mara was determined to avoid. ”She has this ability to be incredibly violent, and she has a lot of anger and rage, but it’s something she works incredibly hard to keep at bay,” says the actress. ”I think that’s much more interesting than someone who’s just sort of walking around angry all the time.”

In other words, the most startling thing about this incarnation of Lisbeth may be that she’s human. ”She’s not an avenging angel,” Zaillian insists. ”We were never interested in that. We never felt this was Dirty Harry or Death Wish. She’s a person who has to deal with a lot of things. Even when she’s hacking or driving her motorcycle, I just don’t think I’m capable of pleasing myself if I’m writing a character as a superhero.”

That principle extended even to the unflinching retribution scene in which Lisbeth deals a cold round of punishment to the guardian who raped her. ”You don’t get a sense that she’s enjoying it — she’s just taking care of a problem,” says Zaillian. ”And when she’s done, she doesn’t gloat. She just leaves.”

Though the graphically animated opening sequence teases us with the notion that Lisbeth herself is part dragon, part demon, part molded-toxin product of a mad doctor’s lab, Fincher was also committed to keeping his title character tethered to reality. ”Psychologically, she has to work on two currents,” he says. ”One of them is saying, I don’t trust anyone, I don’t want to have anyone in my life, and I’m willing to put on this garb that says, ‘Stay the f— away from me.’ And at the same time, it’s almost as if she’s in agreement with what everyone has always said about her, which is that she’s trash. She’s perfectly willing to look like refuse in order to be left alone.”

3. They knew what to withhold
As readers of the second and third novels in Larsson’s trilogy know, Lisbeth isn’t a complete cipher. There are reasons for her shut-down demeanor, her self-imposed isolation, the damage she does and the damage she embodies. Those answers are intriguing enough that the makers of the 2009 Swedish adaptation of Dragon Tattoo even swiped a big reveal for the first movie in their series. But Fincher and Zaillian were less interested in traveling that road than in depicting the character as a haunted, hollowed-out young woman who helps solve a mystery while remaining one herself. ”I felt that was the task at hand,” says Fincher. ”In the book, as expansive as it is, somehow she remains enigmatic. And when Steve presented the script, it seemed very apparent that the beauty of her was going to be the impression that she makes, and not necessarily the questions that she answers.”

With that in mind, much of the material introducing Lisbeth was jettisoned. Larsson’s detailed account of her long-standing relationship with her previous, kindly guardian is distilled to a couple of shots, her connection to a benevolent employer is all but brushed away, and a hint of the backstory involving her father comes out only in the briefest of scenes after she and Mikael sleep together, when Lisbeth opens up but doesn’t exactly warm up. ”David and I talked about it,” says Zaillian. ”Do we reveal anything about it, and if so, how much? What I like about it is that she’s not exactly sure how to express herself — she hasn’t known how to do that since she was 12. And when she does, it’s in a very explicit, matter-of-fact way.”

4. They found an actress who got it
The director of The Social Network, Zodiac, and Se7en is known for both his comfort with the dark side (”My name and serial killers are so synonymous that there’s not going to be a big element of surprise there,” Fincher admits genially) and his willingness to work his actors until he gets what he wants. But, he says, ”casting Rooney wasn’t about finding someone who would comply. What I was smitten with, from about the third screen test of the five or six we did, was that this was a person I could turn this over to. I could say to her, ‘Here are the most annoying marbles that you need to keep rattling around in your skull. Now go — make it hurt, make it unfathomable, don’t articulate it, don’t use any of an actor’s greatest tricks or natural tools to build a bridge to the audience. Not even eye contact.’ And she’d do it.”

Now, he says, his only worry is that her indelible performance will be hard for her to shake. The day she was cast, Fincher says he warned her — among many things he warned her that she’d go through — that taking such an iconic role might be ”something that casts a shadow over a lot of accomplishments you may be hoping for.” Vivien Leigh gave a great performance in A Streetcar Named Desire, he told her, but she would always be remembered as Scarlett O’Hara first.

”I did say that,” Fincher says, ”but it’s sort of been spoken about as though it was one last little bit of torture for her. It wasn’t. It was just a reminder that sometimes a gift can also be a curse.” On that point Mara disagrees. She’s already looking ahead to The Girl Who Played With Fire. ”I don’t feel finished with the character,” she says. ”I’m not ready to go back there yet, but I think by the time we start, I will be.”

(Additional reporting by Rob Brunner.)

Salander’s Sisters
She’s fierce, shrewd, vulnerable — and part of a long, proud, badass tradition. A look at some of Lisbeth Salander’s close relatives.

Sissy Spacek, Carrie
Daryl Hannah, Blade Runner
Anne Parillaud, La Femme Nikita
Angelina Jolie, Wanted
Eliza Dushku, Dollhouse
Archie Panjabi, The Good Wife
Chloë Grace Moretz, Kick-Ass
Saoirse Ronan, Hanna