Rooney Mara on the challenges of 'Una,' the controversy of 'Pan,' and the bathroom-less 'Mary Magdalene' (plus exclusive 'Una' scene)

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment

With Lisbeth Salander officially in her rear-view mirror, Rooney Mara has been exploring a diverse range of roles and films. Earlier this year, the actress co-starred in the Sundance favorite A Ghost Story as the lover of the titular spirit (Casey Affleck) who expresses her grief at his loss in an epic, extended sequence of pie consumption. And Friday brings the release of Una, an adaptation of the acclaimed 2005 play Blackbird, which originally played the film festival circuit in 2016. As a self-professed fan of the play, Mara actively pursued the opportunity to headline the movie version as the title character — a childhood sexual abuse survivor who as an adult tracks down the man, Ray (Ben Mendelsohn), who took advantage of her … and who she still has feelings for. Watch an exclusive clip from Una above, and read Yahoo Entertainment’s interview with Mara about her experience navigating this difficult emotional terrain, why she still hasn’t seen the film, and being at the center of a whitewashing controversy over her role as Tiger Lily in Pan.

Yahoo Entertainment: What discussions did you have with Una director Benedict Andrews about how the play, and your performance, could look onscreen?
Rooney Mara: I was a huge fan of the play, and always wanted to do it as a play. But I’m also intrigued by ideas that seem like they could go horribly wrong, so when I heard Benedict was doing it as a film, I was like, “How is that possible?” [Laughs] I met with him, and he knew the material so well and he’s obviously such an accomplished theater director, I thought it would be safe with him. The play has an element of being stuck, and it’s very uncomfortable for everyone. You can’t look away, you can’t go anywhere, and you don’t get a break from it. The way Benedict set the film up, we didn’t shoot it in order, but it was Ben and us most of the time. It was very intense, very intimate, and that made it really hard when other people, like Riz [Ahmed, who has a supporting role in the film], came in. Ben and I were our own little thing, and it was great that we got to start in that really intense space.

One visual element I noticed onscreen is that certain settings — like the warehouse where much of the movie takes place — are almost treated as a stage, and the other characters in that environment take on the role of a theatrical audience, trying to observe the characters’ private drama.
That’s interesting; I never thought of it like that. Those were interesting days in that warehouse. I was definitely the person on set saying, “The play has it like this, and you cut that line out!” There’s one scene where Ben and I are in the bathroom together, and we didn’t like the way it was written. On the way to set, we read through that scene in the play and it was great to be like, “This is what it feels like to do [the play].” So we brought some of that into the scene, and rewrote it on the day. It was good to try and make the film its own thing.

Did you have any contact with Ruby Stokes, who plays the younger Una in flashbacks, to coordinate the character’s arc?
She was there for a few of the rehearsal days, and I saw tons of video of her. I also worked with the dialect coach to match her voice. We couldn’t have a kid change her voice to match whatever dialect I wanted to do! But we didn’t have that much interaction other than that; there just wasn’t the time on this film. She also recorded all of my lines, so I had her voice in my head and I spent all day listening to it. I felt very close to her.

Rooney Mara in Una. (Photo: Madman Entertainment)

Another recurring visual motif is the scene of young Una waiting for Ray to return. All these years later, as an adult, she’s never really left that room.
That’s the thing I felt most strongly about; this is someone who has let this thing define every aspect of her life, and she’s totally stuck. It’s informed every aspect of her life: her relationship with her mom feels very stunted; her relationship with sex and men and constantly seeking that out. Those were sort of the most important things to me. And I hope that at the end of the movie, she’s sort of had the realization that she’s a whole person — that she thinks, “This thing that happened is part of me, but it doesn’t have to define me.”

The movie explores this uncomfortable territory of a victim who insists she’s not a victim. Did you think of her as a victim in your portrayal?
Of course. She was 12 years old, so absolutely. But I think probably a lot of victims don’t consider themselves victims. That’s a huge part of it psychologically — you feel like it was your fault, and you take blame for it. That’s a huge part of it. I think most victims can relate to that feeling — that they’re not victims. The way I felt it, deep down, was that she thought it was love and all these people convinced her, “No, you were abused.” That’s why she has to go to Ray. She has to know for herself if it was love or if those people were right. So I didn’t ever come at it from Rooney’s judgment; I was always coming at it from Una’s perspective.

What’s been your experience when you’ve watched the film with audiences?
I haven’t had that much experience [with that], but I think people have very mixed reactions to it, as they should with such polarizing material. The thing that I took away from the play, anyway — I haven’t seen the film — was the conflict of watching it. There’s a part of me that wanted it to be love, and wanting Una and Ray, as adults, to be together, but then also feeling like: “No, this is wrong. He’s a horrible person.” I feel so conflicted about it, but I also felt for Ray. Maybe other people feel that too. I don’t know.

Do you plan to watch the film?
I would like to see it at some point, yeah. Last year, when I could have seen it, I wasn’t in the headspace where I wanted to. I was about to go off and work, and I just couldn’t handle seeing it. I haven’t had the opportunity since then.

Ed Skrein recently earned applause for dropping out of the Hellboy reboot after accusations of whitewashing. You had your own experience with that controversy after being cast as Tiger Lily in Pan, a character who has frequently been depicted as Native American in most adaptations.
I want to clarify, because people always say this: I wasn’t cast in a Native American role. I would never do that. In the original book, it’s the “Piccaninny tribe,” and what Joe [Wright, the director of Pan] was trying to do was make them native to Neverland. I was a fan of Joe’s and wanted to work with him, and when he talked about it to me, I was like, “Yeah, that sounds nice.” I totally agree that, whether or not she was Native American in the original book, that’s the way she been depicted, and people love [that version] of the character. So yes, they should have used a Native American for that role or one of the four leads should have been something other than blond-haired and blue-eyed. In retrospect, I don’t want to be on that side of the conversation, so I think it’s great that [Skrein] did that.

Is that something you can see yourself doing in the future if a similar situation availed itself to you? Yeah, definitely.

Watch the Pan trailer below:

You recently finished shooting Mary Magdalene with Garth Davis and Joaquin Phoenix. What was that experience like?
It was a long shoot — or felt like a long shoot, anyway. We were in a foreign country and out in the mountains all day — no bathrooms, no nothing — with Jesus and the disciples. You’re just like, “Where am I? What’s happening?” It was really challenging, and also really beautiful experience. I don’t know what the film will be. It’s very feminist, I hope. It felt like that when we were making it, so I hope that comes through. It also doesn’t feel like a religious film to me. It’s hopefully a spiritual film, but we didn’t make a religious film per se.

Do you anticipate any controversy when the film opens? It won’t be unlike Una in that way — both films are going to provoke a reaction.
Yeah, I am, but I’m not scared of it. That’s a debate that I’m happy to be a part of, as opposed to the other one we were just talking about. I don’t want to be on the wrong side of that debate, but I feel like with this it’s different. It’ll be good controversy. Especially a subject as controversial as religion that is so engrained in every part of society.

Una is now playing in limited theatrical release in New York, and opens in Los Angeles on Oct. 13. Mary Magdalene is slated to open on March 30, 2018.

Watch the Una trailer:

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