‘Love is Hard’,sighs Rooney Mara. She should know: the 30-year-old actress spent a long time thinking about the L-word to prep for her new filmCarol. Mara plays Therese, a shy shop girl who dreams of becoming a photographer but can’t see herself well enough to know what she wants to capture in others. That changes with a single glance from flirtatious housewife Carol (Cate Blanchett), who saunters up to Therese’s counter in the department store where she works. It’s a few days before Christmas in 1950, and being gay is still considered a mental illness. Therese doesn’t even have the words to describe her feelings.
I meet Mara on a crisp morning in early October, in the basement of a New York hotel with floral wallpaper so loud it looks like someone glued potpourri to the walls. It hardly seems like the proper place to sit for a chat with the star who played hacker Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – so convincingly that her performance earned her both an Oscar nomination and a reputation for being icy and impenetrable. But to my (pleasant) surprise, Mara is neither cold nor distant.
I’ve never seen a movie that so accurately conveys what it feels like to fall in love. Why is Carolso universal?
“I think one reason is because so much of it is unspoken. So much of it is just in the way they look at each other. Falling in love is such an interesting thing. So much of it is projection. It’s in your mind and what you imagine the other person to be. It’s this rollercoaster, and then you’re with them and their real self.”
Is that terrifying as an actor, when so much is unspoken? It’s all about what’s going on behind your eyes.
“Not really. For me, that is kind of what acting is. And I’m much more of an internal person anyway. I’m someone where you can tell a lot more about me from my body language and what I don’t say than from what I am saying.”
You have this incredible dynamic with Cate Blanchett, who plays Carol. Did that come very naturally to you?
“Yes. People keep asking me what we did to work on our chemistry. But you can’t force chemistry. Either it’s there or it’s not. Actually, for most of our relationship in the film there is this tension between our characters. There isn’t closeness. We’re sort of figuring each other out. Therese is just in awe of this creature Carol, and I was very much in awe of Cate.”
In awe of her how?
“Well I remember the day we did the screen test for costumes and makeup. I walked out and Cate had on her blonde, beautiful Carol wig and her mink coat. I just remember seeing her and being, ‘Oh my God.’ I felt the same way Therese must have felt the first time she saw Carol: ‘Who is this woman, and how can I be a little bit more like her?’”
The film is based on a book by Patricia Highsmith. Did you refer back to it a lot?
“Definitely. I had a copy in my trailer. It’s written from my character’s point of view, so you get to be in her head for the entire book. That’s a gift for an actor. Therese doesn’t fit into this cookie-cutter world that she’s in, and she’s not really sure why.”
The director Todd Haynes also made Far from Heaven and Mildred Pierce. How does he make such beautiful stories about women?
“A woman couldn’t have made this movie any more beautifully than Todd did. He just has this way into female stories and characters. I think he deeply loves and respects women, and he’s not afraid of them. There’s no gap between men and women with him. I know a lot of writers who are terrified of writing female dialogue. Why? We’re all humans. And I felt very safe with Todd. The character is super-vulnerable and naïve. I have those qualities in myself. They’re not qualities that I let out easily or often, and it felt very safe to do it around Todd.”
Do you have a favorite film about love?
“So many! But I can find a love story in pretty much any film – between a father and son, sister and sister, friends. I think all of life is a love story. But maybe A Woman Under the Influence.”
Your most high-profile role was Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. But you were unrecognizable in that film. Do you prefer not to be a celebrity, to live your life?
“Yes. Thank God. If you don’t have life experience then how can you pretend? How can you make believe? Even now, if I work too much I have to take time off because I feel like I have to fill myself back up with life.”
You’ve talked about being obsessed with directors. Whom would you like to work with?
“Do I say? What if they don’t want to work with me, it’ll be embarrassing! There are so many. But I’d love to work with Paul Thomas Anderson and Michael Haneke.”
Do you watch your films?
“No. I’m so brutally hard on myself. Not only is it horribly painful and torturous to watch yourself and hear the sound of your own voice, but a lot of the time you can’t lose yourself and enjoy it. I see the work behind it. And I don’t want to see that. I want to just remember it how it was and feel what the experience felt like.”
Speaking of the directors you’ve worked with, David Lowery, who made Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, described you as “flawless and incapable of embarrassment.” Agree?
“No! I basically live my life in order to avoid embarrassment. I hate being embarrassed. That’s why I’m so hard on myself, there’s nothing worse than being embarrassed. I’ve definitely embarrassed myself many times.”
Carol opened on Feb 5.