The 26-year-old is about to go supernova having landed one of the most coveted female roles in modern movie history: Lisbeth Salander in Fincher’s adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

This time last year Rooney Mara was best known for playing the lead role in the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street, and had was starting to get strong notices for her brief but vital turn as the girl who dumped – and inspired – Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) in David Fincher’s The Social Network.

Now the 26-year-old star is about to go supernova having landed one of the most coveted female roles in modern movie history: Lisbeth Salander in Fincher’s US adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

Mara is electrifying in the role, going beyond just the requisite extreme physical transformation, to present a tough, vulnerable, smart, kick-ass character that puts the likes of Twilight’s disturbingly passive Bella Swan into harsh perspective.

Having just earned a Golden Globe nomination for the performance, and with an outside chance of getting onto the Oscar shortlist to boot, Mara spoke to in Stockholm to discuss the career-making – if not defining – role:

Q: Were you ever scared about taking on such an iconic part?

RM: Probably for a little while. I certainly had to do a lot of things that were scary, like learning to ride a motorcycle, but I don’t know if I was ever scared of actually doing the role. As soon as I was cast I just had to let all the pressure and fear go. I couldn’t think about that.

Q: Did it affect you knowing that someone else – Noomi Rapace – had played the role to great acclaim three times in the Swedish movie versions?

RM: I’d seen the first Swedish movie long before I knew I was going to be doing this part.

It affected me before I got the role for sure, because it adds pressure, and [Noomi] did an amazing job with it. But as soon as I’d read the books myself, and as soon as I’d got the part, I couldn’t think about it again. We didn’t use the Swedish movies as a reference point or discuss them on set. We just always went back to the books.

Q: Have you met Noomi?

RM: I have met her, but it was only for like 10 seconds. We’ve never spoken about the role. It didn’t feel like looking in the mirror or anything like that. We’re very different and I think our performances are probably very different.

Q: Is it true that David Fincher asked you to go out and get drunk the night before one of your many screen-tests for the role?

RM: Yeah, it was like the eighth audition. I don’t really remember it! I was in New York for another screen-test, and the casting director called me the night before, saying, ‘Rooney I really need you to go out tonight with some friends and get really drunk’. I guess they wanted me to look strung out the next day. I don’t even remember what I drank.

Q: Once you got the part, how did you approach and prepare for the part of Lisbeth?

RM: When I got the part I was thrown into things quite fast. I came to Stockholm, and there was a lot of physical work to do. I had to learn to ride a motorcycle, and I did skateboarding and kick-boxing. I read a lot of books and watched a lot of movies. I went to a school that teaches kids with Asperger Syndrome, which many characters in the books assume Lisbeth has. I went to a refuge for women who had been abused sexually. I did a lot of stuff like that. After that, I prepared by just reading the books and through conversations with David.

Q: Did you have your own ideas about how Lisbeth should look?

RM: It was the way I thought she looked in the book. Certainly she’s odd-looking, and she has a very specific look in the book. It was important to me that she look young and have an innocence about her on top of all the severity. I think that she can be mistaken for a child is very important for the character. We never wanted anything about her look to scream that this is a woman trying to draw attention to herself. A lot of people describe the character as ‘goth’ or ‘punk’. I wouldn’t ever describe her that way because I think those people are really a part of something, of a sub-culture, and she’s not a part of anything. She looks the way she looks as a way of keeping people away.

Q: Was getting her distinctive look – the shaving, the piercings – heartbreaking for you?

RM: You know, the cutting of the hair, the dying of the eyebrows, the piercings: that all helped to get into the character. The physicality of trying to be more androgynous and to lose my femininity definitely helped. It was actually quite liberating. I don’t think people’s reaction to it was as extreme as I was expecting, but there was definitely a change in the way people looked at and approached me. But it kind of had the effect that I think the character wanted: to keep people away, and also I think people’s expectations are lower when you look kind of different.

Q: Did you have to lose much weight for the role?

RM: David didn’t want me to lose any weight for the role. I didn’t feel that way: I thought she should be skinnier than I was at the start. But I don’t know how much weight I actually lost, because I don’t weight myself, and I gained a lot of muscle from training.

Q: Do you think Lisbeth is a feminist, and/or a female role model?

RM: That term ‘role model’ scares me. Certainly I think feminists see her as their heroine, but I don’t specifically think she is a feminist. I don’t think she’s a part of any group or subculture. I think she has her own moral code and she does things based on that, but I don’t think it’s for a specific cause or group.

Q: The scenes of sexual violence in the movie are gruelling to watch. Please tell me that rape scene in particular wasn’t subject to David Fincher’s famed ’40-take’ directorial process?

RM: I don’t know how many times we shot it, but we worked on it for two days. We’d been talking about it from the beginning of production. We rehearsed it a week before, and walked through the whole thing, and figured out the best way to do it. Then we sat with it for a week and made any changes we wanted to. It was very exhausting. I think the adrenaline kicked in and that pushes you through. When we were in LA we were often working 16 hours a day, so you just have to go in with that mindset.

Q: How was it working with Fincher on such an intense scale?

RM: I think David is incredibly collaborative. He’s willing to just work things out. That’s one of the great things about doing 40 takes per scene: you get to try every single way and you don’t have to stop until you’ve figured it out and found it.

Q: Are you afraid of the fame that’s going to come to you once this movie opens?

Yes. But I’m denying it. Who knows what will happen. David warned me about that the day he brought me in to offer me the part, about the fame, and about how if you do a part like this right, people will pigeon-hole you. “You will be Ginger from Gilligan’s Island”, he said to me. He talked for a long time about the negative things. He wanted me to be aware that these things were possibilities.

Q: Your older sister Kate Mara is also an actress [she starred in 127 Hours and is currently on the TV series American Horror Story]. Is there healthy competition between you, perhaps for the same roles?

RM: No. We don’t ever really audition for the same things. We’re so different. We couldn’t be more different. And she’s been acting a lot longer than I have. We’re never considered for the same parts. She always gives me advice. I don’t have a great quote that she’s given me or anything, but I always go to her for advice about this business.

Words – Declan Cashin
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is released on St Stephen’s Day, December 26th.