“Did you know there are more people with genius IQ’s living in China than there are people of any kind living in the United States?”
“That can’t possibly be true.”
“What would account for that?”
“Well, first, an awful lot of people live in China. But here’s my question: how do you distinguish yourself in a population of people who all got 1600 on their SAT’s?”
Sometimes, standing out isn’t easy.
That’s the message we get at the very beginning of David Fincher’s 2010 film The Social Network. The first scene of Aaron Sorkin’s masterful script (which you can read in its entirety on Sony’s website here) consists of eight pages of dialogue, beginning with the exchange above, and it introduces us to the future founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, and the woman who is about to dump him, Erica Albright. (Zuckerberg is a real person, of course, while Erica Albright is based on a real person but the name of the character was changed for her privacy.) Zuckerberg is portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg, and the role would propel him to new heights of stardom, including a stint as host of Saturday Night Live and an Academy Award nomination. Albright is played by a then-unheralded actress whose most prominent roles to that point had been guest spots on a handful of mediocre TV shows. Her name is Rooney Mara.
Fast-forward a year. After the whirlwind surrounding The Social Network, Fincher dives head-first into the making of his next film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Unquestionably one of the most successful novels of the last decade, the heart of Stieg Larsson’s story is its protagonist, the vulnerable, vindictive, and moral anti-hero Lisbeth Salander. It represented a truly meaty role for an actress in a business that features far too few meaty roles for women, and just about every young female star in Hollywood was interested in the job: Carey Mulligan (who auditioned for the role three times), Scarlett Johansson (who had “a great audition” according to Fincher, but “you can’t wait for her to take her clothes off,” a quality he felt wasn’t right for the role), Noomi Rapace (the star of the Swedish version of the film and its two sequels, who didn’t want to return to the role after several emotionally draining years of playing Lisbeth), Ellen Page (who personally filmed her own audition tape), and Natalie Portman (who wanted to play Lisbeth so badly that she personally tried to buy the rights to the franchise before producer Scott Rudin and Sony swooped in). But none of those actresses got the part – Rooney Mara did. How the hell did a relative unknown manage to stand out from that distinguished group?
David Fincher has a reputation for being very hard on his actors. To illustrate the point, flashback to a film that Fincher accurately describes as “a pretty good fucking movie,” The Godfather. It’s 1971, and Francis Ford Coppola is shooting the famous scene in which Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) breaks the news to Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) that his son Sonny (James Caan) has been shot and killed. As a method actor, Robert Duvall usually prefers to do only one or two takes of a scene; when you internalize the emotions that a character is feeling, it’s difficult to maintain a degree of spontaneity for many more than that. The two great actors do three takes of the scene, and Duvall feels that they’ve done a pretty good job with it. But for this emotional moment, Coppola asks them to do it one more time. Duvall acquiesces, they do the scene again, and they totally nail it. It’s this decision that Duvall credits with his being nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor a year later, his first such accolade.
For that crucial scene in one of the greatest films ever made, Coppola shot only four takes, and that was considered by the actors involved to be more than enough.
David Fincher shot 99 takes of the opening scene of The Social Network.
That wasn’t a typo. 99 takes. The crew implored him to do one more to make it an even 100, but he had gotten what he was looking for and didn’t think it was necessary.
There are a bunch of reasons why Fincher would do something so seemingly absurd. First off, the 99 takes were divided across 9 different setups. In single-camera filmmaking, most scenes are shot from several different angles, and each of these camera positions and lighting arrangements is called a setup. You might shoot a long shot that keeps all of the actors in frame (called a ‘master’), a couple of over-the-shoulder shots, close-ups, and maybe something unusual like a crane shot. 9 setups is a lot for one scene, but 99 takes is almost unheard of.
The real reason Fincher did it was to get his actors to the place he wanted them to be. Aaron Sorkin’s dialogue, so vibrantly captured in The Social Network and the early seasons of The West Wing, is witty and stylized and meant to be read fast. The opening scene of The Social Network features, as Fincher describes it, “elaborately dovetailed dialogue that had to fit together.” He needed the actors to get so used to the dialogue that they could weave it together seamlessly, without either actor having to stop and think about what they were doing. And he also wanted them to be tired; Erica is supposed to be annoyed with Mark, and Mark so dismissive of Erica that the audience completely understands why she’s breaking up with him. 99 takes will get actors to that level of frustration.
There are a lot of actors who would simply refuse to work under such conditions, but not Rooney Mara. Fincher says that her reaction to Fincher’s demanding agenda made him think of her as
“someone who just keeps trying.” That kind of determination shouldn’t be too surprising. She has it in her DNA.
Flashback again, this time to 1925. That year, a brand new franchise joined the fledgling National Football League, which had only been formed five years earlier. (If you’re wondering what the relevance of this is, bear with me for a second.) That franchise is still owned in large part by the same family that founded it back then, and it just happens to be competing in the Super Bowl this upcoming weekend. The franchise is the New York Giants, and it was founded by Tim Mara.
Several years later, in 1933, another new franchise joined the NFL, this one from the Keystone State. Originally known as the Pittsburgh Pirates, in 1940 the team was re-christened the Pittsburgh Steelers. Like the Giants, the Steelers are still largely owned by the family that first founded the team, and the man who started the franchise was named Art Rooney.
The Giants and the Steelers are two of the most successful teams in NFL history. Between them, they have won 13 NFL championships, including 9 Super Bowls. 50% of the Giants franchise is now owned by John Mara, Tim’s grandson, and his brother Chris Mara is the team’s current Vice President of Player Personnel. On the Steelers side of things, 80% of the team is currently owned by Dan Rooney, the current U.S. Ambassador to Ireland and eldest son of Art Rooney, and Dan’s four brothers. One of those brothers is Tim Rooney, named after Giants founder Tim Mara, whose daughter Kathleen is married to Chris Mara.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, Rooney Mara is Chris and Kathleen’s daughter. She was born Patricia Rooney Mara, and her name stands as a living tribute to the two extraordinary families she calls her own. (For Chris Mara, this past week was pretty good: his football team won the NFC Championship and his daughter was nominated for an Oscar. Not bad.)
While Rooney herself occasionally dismisses “the football thing,” it’s hard to imagine that growing up in a family whose entire professional life is based around competition wouldn’t have had an effect on her. When your dad makes his living watching 300-pound linemen beat the living crap out of each other, I’m sure 99 takes of a movie scene doesn’t seem so bad.
Rooney’s perseverance doesn’t end there. Aside from the physically and emotionally draining process involved in making a film like The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo, in which Lisbeth Salander is brutally raped, Rooney also did something kind of crazy to prepare for her role. You know all of the piercings that Lisbeth has in the movie? They’re all real, and Rooney Mara got them all done on the same day: lip, nose, ears, eyebrows, and nipple. Now that’s commitment.
It’s a story that would make the founders of the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers – Rooney’s great-grandparents – very, very proud. 99 takes. Countless piercings. A family history that teaches you to fight for every inch, no matter the cost. Incredible dedication to her craft.
For Rooney Mara, THAT’S how you stand out.
Re-read this whole article from Vogue Magazine about David Fincher and Rooney Mara. It’s great stuff. (And if you haven’t already noticed from how often I make references to him, yes, David Fincher is definitely one of my favorite directors.)
Visit the movie’s official tumblr page here; credit to it for a couple of the images I’ve used.
And if you read this week’s Weekly Roundup, you’ll know that I was planning on addressing the question of why movies with female leads tend to get overlooked during awards season. This article was already getting long, so I decided to split off that conversation into its own article, which I’m planning to tackle shortly. (Tackle? In an article that’s partially about football? Get it? Aww, to hell with you.)