Monday 24 October 2016

'I have a lot to say about diversity and I have very strong opinions'

Oscar-nominee Rooney Mara has been on the wrong side of the diversity debate that has seen some high-profile directors and actors boycotting tomorrow's Academy Awards ceremony. So, will she pull on a glittering gown and walk the red carpet? India Sturgis tries to find out

Rooney Mara at the Baftas in London (PA)
Rooney Mara at the Baftas in London (PA)

Rooney Mara is no fan of interviews. Those trying to chip away at the chilly front she has presented in the past have described her as "glacier-eyed", "aloof" and "impenetrable". Given that I have limited time with her down a scratchy phone line, I am braced for the worst yet pleasantly surprised by the buoyant mood the 30-year-old actress sounds to be in. To begin with.

The world is baying for more glimpses of Mara, who has been weathering her own maelstrom of publicity, interviews and turns on the red carpet of late.

Although Kate Winslet beat her to the Best Supporting Actress gong at the Baftas, she may yet walk away with this weekend's greater prize: an Oscar for her role in Carol, the sumptuous tale of two women who fall in love in New York in the 1950s.


Mara plays Therese Belivet, who does a lot of staring and thinking. However, still waters run deep, and hers is an unsettlingly bewitching performance, beautifully offsetting Cate Blanchett's firecracker of a role for which she too was Bafta and Oscar-nominated.

Although Mara cut a striking figure in her Givenchy gown at the Baftas, the obvious question is, will she even attend the 69th Academy Awards tomorrow? The event has been engulfed in a ferocious diversity row since an all-white line-up of nominees for best acting awards was announced last month, for the second year in a row.

Directors Spike Lee and Michael Moore and actors Will Smith and his wife Jada Pinkett Smith have said they will boycott the ceremony. #OscarsSoWhite has been trending (again) on Twitter, with viewers threatening to tune out al- together. British actor David Harewood, star of Homeland, has joined calls for those who attend to do so in "black face".

"Yeah, yeah, I'll be there," says Mara, hesitantly, evidently unwilling to fully alight on such a hot topic. In this, she seems wiser than Charlotte Rampling, who caused a fresh furore by declaring the calls for diversity to be "racist to white people".

But it would be unfair to imply Mara is maintaining a dignified silence in the hope it will prove as golden as an Oscar statuette.

"I have a lot to say and I have very strong opinions about it, but diversity is such a sensitive issue that I don't want to reduce it to a soundbite," she says.

Mara has experience of such tricky conversations about Hollywood whitewashing.

Last year, she was criticised for taking the role of Tiger Lily in Joe Wright's Pan - the character is Native American in JM Barrie's 1911 novel Peter and Wendy and Walt Disney's 1953 animated film Peter Pan. A peti- tion to Warner Bros, objecting to her casting, garnered 96,000 signatures.

It was, she admits, a tricky thing to deal with.

"There were two different periods: right after I was initially cast and the reaction to that, and then the reaction again when the film came out," she says.

"I really hate, hate, hate that I am on that side of the whitewashing conversation. I don't ever want to be on that side of it again. I can understand why people were upset."

Speaking candidly does not come naturally to the emerald-eyed brunette, who played the fierce, pierced cyber-hacker Lisbeth Salander in the American film of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (2011), which earned her first Oscar nod, and the girlfriend who sassily dumped Mark Zuckerberg at the beginning of The Social Network (2010).

Nor do red carpets. "I don't think it is ever something you look forward to," she says. "For me, it is an irritating part of the job. I try to make the most of it and have fun, but it's like this weird other thing. It has no-thing to do with movies. It has become this thing unto itself."

The relentless promotional tours must feel like a whole other job altogether.

"Yes!" she says. "When does that happen - that being an actor makes you a politician and sales person? I'm not good at either of those things. It's not really what you sign up for. You have to learn how to be, not good at them exactly, but how to get through them."

Much like interviews, it seems. As we swing to more personal matters, the shutters slowly but steadily close.

The facts, at least, are these. Born and raised in New York, the third of four children, Mara was inspired by the Broadway musicals and classic movies such as Gone With The Wind and Rebecca that her mother, Kathleen, took her to from an early age.

Her older sister, Kate Mara, is also an actress (House of Cards, The Martian and 127 Hours), who she credits with encouraging her into the profession.


Mara went to George Washington University before transferring to New York to study social policy and psychology.

"I wasn't sure if acting would work out," she says.

She has a history of being level- headed, and at university founded a charity now known as Uweza Foundation, which aims to lift street children out of poverty in Kibera, Kenya.

Her family tree can be traced to Co Down, and bears genuine sporting giants: her father's side co-founded the New York Giants and her mother's side the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Asking about her love life is even less fruitful - she audibly winces at questions about her boyfriend, director Charlie McDowell, and previous relationships.

Before the hatches can be completely battened down, I chance my arm and bring up Poldark star Aidan Turner: last year she and the Dubliner filmed The Secret Scripture together in Ireland.

"He's fantastic," she says. "When we shot the film, it was right before this obsession grew out of control. I really enjoyed working with him. You can see why all the ladies love him."

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