Rooney Mara isn’t known for playing nice.
The two-time Oscar-nominated actress has long portrayed characters that might be described as somber, spiky or subdued. She brilliantly dressed down Jesse Eisenberg’s haughty Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network,” and dispensed violent revenge as a mohawked hacker in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” (And let’s not forget when she tearfully inhaled an entire pie in “A Ghost Story.”)
Ona – Mara’s character in “Women Talking” (in theaters now) – still has a dark undercurrent, as she and other women in a Mennonite colony discuss how to move forward from pervasive sexual assault. But even with her bottled rage, Ona radiates patience and warmth. Instead of responding to their attackers with violence or forced forgiveness, she advocates leaving their community to create a better future.
Mara, 37, says she shares Ona’s hopeful worldview. (Well, “most days I do,” she quips.) But she was also drawn to the character after she welcomed her first child, River, in 2020 with partner Joaquin Phoenix. (Their son is named for Phoenix’s late brother, actor River Phoenix.)
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When she first read the script, “I had just had a baby, so I was in a new place in my life and (Ona) just felt like the frame of mind I was in,” Mara says. “I was in this very blissful, madly-in-love-with-my-child, much more hopeful and positive space. It was very easy to channel all of that love and empathy (into the character). It also does change everything, having a child. It was that much more painful to think about some of these situations and be able to relate to them in a different way.”
Ona serves as a mediator of sorts throughout much of the film, which got a major box-office boost following its best picture Oscar nomination last month. She tries to ease tensions between the heated Salome (Claire Foy) and skeptical Mariche (Jessie Buckley), who respectively wish to fight their aggressors or stay silent. She also advises a male schoolteacher (Ben Whishaw) on how to better nurture the colony’s young men once the women have gone, so their fathers’ heinous acts won’t be repeated.
Although Mara was considered for other roles in the movie, “I’m really grateful that I was able to play Ona, because it was a much nicer space to live in,” she says. “It would have been really hard to play Salome or Mariche and have a small child. I was alone in Toronto (during shooting) with my baby boy, and I think it would’ve been really hard to then go home every day and be a mom.”
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Mara says she frequently brought her son to the set with her. Sarah Polley, who directed and adapted “Women Talking” from Miriam Toews’ 2018 novel, also created a 9-to-5 schedule so parents could be home in time for dinner and to tuck their kids in most nights. Such shooting considerations are still highly unusual on a Hollywood film set, but they were necessary to Polley, a mom of three.
“I really didn’t think I’d come back to directing until my kids were much older, just because I don’t want to miss their childhoods,” Polley says. “My mom worked a ton and then she died when I was really little, so obviously it’s got deeply personal roots for me. So to be given this opportunity to work in a different way where I didn’t have to choose (between film or family) was really, really wonderful.”
It was also “an entirely new experience” for Mara, who has been acting professionally for nearly two decades.
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“This was the first job that I had done as a mom,” Mara says. “Not having a child, there’s something about, ‘Oh, I’m only working for these two months. Great, let’s do 16-hour days. This is my focus and that’s it.’ But really, you cannot do that and have a child and be a good parent. So it’s going to be really hard moving forward, finding (other) people who are willing to work those reasonable hours.
“And actors are lucky: We work on something for three months and then we take a long break, but a lot of the crew who are working those 14-hour-plus days, they just go from job to job. So it’s really hard to have a family and work that way.”
The communal atmosphere that Polley created paid dividends for the tight-knit cast, who found moments of levity despite the film’s challenging subject matter. In one early scene, the Mennonite women burst into laughter after a grim joke. In order to sustain the snickers for take after take, Mara brought a fart machine to the set, which she sneakily deployed mid-scene to crack up her co-stars.
“We were doing all sorts of ridiculous things, most of which I will not share,” Mara says. “I just knew that it’s so hard to fake-laugh – you can spot that from a mile away. So we had to get very inventive with how we would make each other laugh.”
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Story Credit: usatoday.com