rooney mara thinks equality shouldn’t be a radical thing

Starring as the titular role in Mary Magdalene, we sat down with the actress to talk forgiveness, female empowerment and the power of unconditional love.

by Tish Weinstock
14 March 2018, 11:40am

Spend 10 minutes in a room with Rooney Mara and you’ll be none the wiser as to who she is when you leave it. A beguiling combination of beauty and mystery, strength and fragility, she drinks you in with her big doe eyes, but offers little other than half smiles and furtive glances -- real deer-in-headlights vibe. You would never be able to tell, for instance, that she is the scion to a powerful American football dynasty (her mother’s family founded the Pittsburgh Steelers and her father’s family founded the New York Giants). It feels somewhat at odds with her quiet demeanour and romantic goth look. Her sister Kate is also an actress, but is much more in the public eye, whereas Rooney tends to keep a very low profile, prefering to go and save gorillas in Rwanda than grace a red carpet.

Rooney isn’t generous with her words either, but instead speaks in a very measured, precise way, trailing off most sentences with “so…” -- perhaps in the hopes you might finish them for her or maybe just stop asking questions altogether. Her impenetrability is frustrating, but it’s probably why she’s such a brilliant actress. Indeed, so chameleon-like are her abilities that we’ve seen her shapeshift seamlessly from outlawed computer hacker turned feminist icon Lisbeth Salander in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, to timid department store girl Therese Belivet who falls in love with an older woman in Carol. Though varied and complex, a common thread that runs throughout all Rooney’s characters is that they’re intensely cerebral and emotionally very demanding. They’re also quite indie.

Shifting once more, Rooney’s latest outing sees her play the titular role in Garth Davis’s Mary Magdalene, with a very dishevelled looking Joaquin Phoenix as Jesus ( a role, let’s face it, he was born to play). It’s her second film with Davis, who directed her in 2016’s Lion, and her third with Phoenix, having played his ex-girlfriend in Spike Jones’s Her as well as his current girlfriend in Gus Van Sant’s upcoming Don’t Worry He Won’t Get Far On Foot. They’re apparently dating in real life, too.

A humanistic retelling of the events that led up to Christ’s death and subsequent resurrection, the film is a revisionist attempt to emancipate the much maligned Mary Magdalene from the age-old tradition of misogynistic misconception. According to gospel, Mary was one of Christ’s key apostles, and bore witness to some of the most important events in Jesus’s life (she was the first person to see him after his resurrection) and yet for many, many years after, she was condemned by the Catholic church as a ‘fallen woman’. In Davis’s film, however, she is posited as a feminist hero -- a fiercely intelligent, headstrong and compassionate woman who, shock! Horror! rejects societal norms of marriage and children in favour of following Jesus, which leads to her entire family and backwards village elders disowning her. That crazy old Mary, she must be a whore.

“I had no idea that she had been this profound feminist figure,” says Rooney, “I just thought that it was an important story to tell that had never been told before and that it could be meaningful to a lot of people.”

Though she had a Catholic upbringing, Rooney never really felt connected to the church. “I’m a very spiritual person,” she reflects, “but I don’t consider myself a religious person.” Did that impact how she played the character? “Mary was a very religious person,” she pauses, “so I don’t know if it helped me or not, maybe it helped me have an unbiased take on it? I don’t know.” I wonder if playing arguably the most pious woman in the world had any meaningful effect on her. “I think making the film definitely had a profound effect on me,” she says. “But it’s always hard to tell this soon after what you’ve learnt from the film or how it’s affected you.”

One of the most striking things about Rooney’s portrayal of Mary is how incredibly real and relatable she feels. Was she able to draw on any of her own personal experiences in order to flesh her out? “I think you don’t really have a choice when you’re playing a character,” she says, “you always bring things from yourself into it, whether you want to or not. It was definitely very important for me to make her feel like a human and not like this religious figure. A lot of the biblical films we’ve seen, they don’t feel like real life, it doesn’t feel relatable.”

"It was definitely very important for me to make her feel like a human and not like this religious figure. A lot of the biblical films we’ve seen, they don’t feel like real life, it doesn’t feel relatable.”

Beyond merely humanising the role, Rooney is able to bring such gravitas to her performance that you can’t help but feel very inspired by her and really quite proud to be a woman -- which is what makes this two-thousand-year-old story feel incredibly timely in this #MeToo moment. Because it isn’t just about resurrecting one woman’s reputation, this is a film about female empowerment on a much wider scale. “That was very important to me,” she says. “Equality between men and women shouldn’t be a radical idea at this point. It’s like, enough already. I think what comes across beautifully is the message that we as humans, not just women, have this power of unconditional love, forgiveness and acceptance, through which we’re able to create change.”

There’s very powerful scene where Jesus approaches a group of women and asks them to follow him. “We are women,” says one of them, “ our lives are not our own.” “All spirits are equal in eyes of God,” replies Jesus. By the end of the film, Mary is shown to be leading this group of women onto -- one hopes -- a much bigger, brighter and fairer future. It’s real girl power stuff.

So, what next? “I’m actually not working on anything at the moment,” she says, sounding almost relieved. “I’ve just been waiting to find something. I don’t know what I’m looking for, though, which is maybe why I haven’t found it yet.” She shoots me another of her wide-eyed glances and shrugs. “I’ve just sort of been enjoying life, maybe I’m being a bit more picky because of that.”

Mary Magdalene is in cinemas 16 March

Rooney Mara
mary magdalene