Two-time Oscar nominee and Cannes Best Actress winner Patricia Rooney Mara is a girl with a certain air of mystery about her, and with a very bright future in Hollywood. She is also a producer and philanthropist.
Known for her trademarks – petite figure, pale skin, light green eyes, dimples that appear when she smiles, awkward shyness on the red carpet and (usually) goth fashion style – Mara is an indisputable acting talent with great chameleonic ability.
Whether she plays an anti-hero or villain in dark psychological thrillers, a charming and lovely presence in lyrical or weird love stories, or a vulnerable coming-of-age heroine in poignant period dramas, she is never afraid to take risky, challenging roles with serious depth. As she chooses to work with very talented directors, she is quickly becoming one of the leading actresses of her generation.
She began her acting career taking minor parts on popular TV shows (“Law & Order, “ER”) and small independent films. In 2010, she was discovered by David Fincher, who gave her a key cameo role in “The Social Network”, his film about the origins of Facebook.
A year later, she was the lead in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”, another film directed by Fincher, and the Hollywood film adaptation of the crime bestseller by Stieg Larsson. Both films were critical and commercial successes, and they paved the way for Mara’s stardom.
In the next five years, she collaborated with respected directors such as Terrence Malick, Todd Haynes, Steven Soderbergh, Spike Jonze, Stephen Daldry, Jim Sheridan, and Joe Wright. At the same time, she continued to work with indie filmmakers (David Lowery) and first-time directors (Benedict Andrews and Garth Davis).
Currently, Mara has three new films – “Una”, “Lion”, “The Secret Scripture” – coming out during the 2016 film festival season, and the timing is right to remind ourselves of her top eight movie performances.
8. Tanner Hall (2009)
Though this coming-of-age indie flick can hardly be called a great movie, this is a kind of little gem that has the potential to eventually become something of a mini-classic in the future, for one simple reason: to see famous, award-winning actresses in a small, independent piece at the very beginning of their careers.
“Tanner Hall” focuses on a four teenage girls from a New England private boarding school – serious and calm but richly sensual Fernanda (Mara in her first leading role in a film), sexy siren Kate (Brie Larson), shy Lucasta (Amy Ferguson, known to P.T. Anderson fans from her small part as the girl from the department store in “The Master”), and insecure troublemaker Victoria (Georgia King) – and it deals with falling in love, secret relationships, decisions about sexuality, estrangement, and teenage rebelliousness.
Mara originally auditioned for the supporting role of Lucasta, but co-director/writer Tatiana von Furstenberg was so impressed by the young actress that she had her return to audition for the lead role of Fernanda, which she easily won. In the end, she was delighted with her nuanced performance.
Fernanda is the most interesting character of the four and Mara brought her to life with discreet grace and a lovely, innocent charm. She is perfectly expressed in a subtle and effective way in the role, and her acting has an ephemeral quality that transforms ordinary scenes into something special, whether it is her role of a mediator between her friends, or dealing with her secret affair with an older married man.
The opening sequence with a voiceover, when Fernanda is driven to school by her mother while chewing a piece of gum behind the car window, truly shows Mara in all her cute and innocent pre-“Dragon Tattoo” beauty.
Mara won the Rising Star award at the Hamptons International Film Festival for this performance. If you decide to have a Rooney Mara marathon in chronological order one weekend, “Tanner Hall” is definitely a good start.
7. Trash (2014)
This largely under-seen and little-known “younger brother” of “City of God” and “cousin” of “Slumdog Millionaire” is set in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. Directed by Stephen Daldry and adapted from Andy Mulligan’s young adult fiction novel, it has a story that seems almost like a fairytale, but at the same time it has a realistic, almost documentary-like feel with sharp editing and first-rate cinematography by Adriano Goldman.
“Trash” shows what life is like for a large portion of Brazil’s population. It shows Brazilian society with all its hierarchies, elitism, and various social classes. This is not the Brazil of football, Carnival, and the beaches but instead the gloomy world of favelas and tightly packed ghettos full of people ignored by society.
It’s a nice little story about hope and friendship that follows three boys from the slums who one day, while searching through trash, find something that can change the path of an entire country. Soon, they are on the run from those who want to get that thing back, while trying to solve a puzzle of what did they find.
Mara has a nice supporting part as Olivia, a United Nations humanitarian worker who, together with alcoholic priest Father Juilliard (Martin Sheen), is trying to help the boys. Even with limited screen time, she radiates honesty, intelligence, calm confidence, and humility. This is not a typical “white man saves the day” movie; the three boys are the absolute stars of the show and they carry the film exceptionally.
Mara and Sheen are a nice support for them; they are never in the way to steal the spotlight from the real heroes. Mara recently said in interview that of the characters she’s portrayed, Olivia is probably the character closest to her real-life persona.
6. Her (2013)
Even though she is mostly in the shadow of Joaquin Phoenix’s moving performance and Scarlett Johansson’s charmingly sexy voice in this marvelous meditation on love, relationships, and humanity in a high-tech world directed by Spike Jonze, Mara gets her “five minutes of fame” and, of course, steals the entire scene.
Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is an awkward, sympathetic, middle-aged man whose job is to pen deeply personal and heartfelt letters to complete strangers, based on details provided by the clients of the company he works for, and he has a natural skill for finding just the right words for every occasion.
Meanwhile, he’s is still in disbelief that his estranged wife Catherine (Mara) is divorcing him. In mostly voiceless, warm, and Polaroid-like flashbacks, she seems angelic, almost like a mythical figure; everything was alive and awash in the great highs of love when they were together. But the once-glorious marriage has disintegrated to the point that she keeps pushing him to sign the divorce papers.
As the film goes on and Theodore deepens his relationship with his OS, Samantha, we see from his past relationship with Catherine why he is probably drawn to her in the first place. But when she actually makes an appearance in the present, she accuses him of neglecting her needs, telling him that he doesn’t know how to be in a real relationship because he doesn’t know how to collaborate.
We suspect that the key reason their marriage failed is that as an individual, Catherine had her own needs and perhaps couldn’t help Theodore enough to make him feel secure about himself. Through Catherine, we find out that Theodore has not always been the melancholic, depressed person he is today. He used to be vibrant, able to live in the moment, at least according to flashbacks.
While Mara isn’t in “Her” much, her appearances are of crucial importance. As in “The Social Network”, she is the similar voice of reason that critiques the protagonist in a way that really gets to him, because he knows she is likely right.
Even though the key action is between Theodore and Samantha, supporting players Amy Adams and Mara (with her sophisticated composure and mesmerizing beauty) hold the film together in a substantial way. With the help of one of the most original screenplays in the past 10 years, Mara and Phoenix have very believable chemistry in their short scenes as a pair in this smart, highly entertaining, and very touching movie.
5. The Social Network (2010)
No other movie captured the zeitgeist and the spirit of millennials better than David Fincher’s fascinating, stylish story about the origin of Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg’s meteoric rise to become the youngest billionaire in the world. This classic American tale about success also has much darker elements – greed, jealousy, friendship betrayals, and loneliness, to name a few – and instead of bankable Hollywood stars, Fincher chose a series of lesser-known young actors to deliver some truly phenomenal work.
Mara plays Erica Albright, a no-nonsense Boston University student and girlfriend of Zuckerberg. Fincher said he cast her because she reminded him of Katharine Ross in “The Graduate”, and she delivers her impact in just two small but effective scenes.
The film’s crucial, killer opening scene contains witty, quick dialogue, reminiscent of banter in 1930s Hollywood movies, between Mark and Erica, and while Mark’s facial expressions and tone make him seem self-centered and egoistic, Erica always seems sincere and open, moving her eyebrows vivaciously, smiling a lot until the moment when she decides to take the offensive.
She is tired of his games and pushes against his ego, telling him what she really “from the bottom of her heart” thinks about him. In a purely verbal sense, this is the most energetic performance from Mara.
Erica’s character is singularly important for the composition of the film; for Mark, she personifies the same symbol as Charles Foster Kane’s famous “Rosebud”; she is the trigger point and driving force behind Mark’s actions. It is only when he notices that Erica still thinks about Facebook as a “video game” that he decides to expand it further.
Facebook may have made him rich and famous, but Erica’s friendship is the only thing he could never have; something he forever lost a long time ago. When Mark is sitting alone at the end of the movie in front of Erica’s Facebook page – as he reluctantly clicks on the “add friend” button, refreshing the page every few seconds looking for some sign from her – only at this point do we feel some degree of pity for him. Ironically, he is the man who changed the meaning of the word “friendship” forever.
Mara’s work in this modern classic was only a prelude to her next collaboration with Fincher, which was also her breakthrough performance.